What's Missing From Oprah's Book Club 2.0

Winfrey is great at getting people to buy books, but lousy at showing her audience how to read.

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Earlier this month, Cheryl Strayed's Wild became the first book chosen for Oprah's Book Club 2.0, a techie-revamp of the old Oprah's Book Club. Strayed's memoir, about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest trail when she was 26, four years after her mother's death from lung cancer, will undoubtedly incur the same sales figures and publicity hype as other Oprah's Book Club choices. But for writers and readers other than Strayed herself, this is not necessarily a good thing—not because Winfrey chooses "schmaltzy" books, as Jonathan Franzen claimed, or because The Oprah Winfrey Show isn't on the air anymore. Rather, Winfrey is resuscitating her book club at a time when it's clear that book clubs and the publicity—even mega-publicity—that caters to them don't actually buoy literature or reading in the public at large.

Despite its ability to make an eye-popping success out of a work of fiction or creative nonfiction (or a mix of the two, like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces), Oprah's Book Club, which ran from 1996 to Oprah's final season last year, didn't actually prompt the American public to read more. According to a paper published in March by Craig Garthwaite of the Kellogg School of Management, Oprah's Book Club took its selections to the top of various bestseller lists but did not to alter Americans' reading habits overall. Garthwaite discovered that Oprah's Book Club swayed existing readers to try a new genre (known as "combative advertising) but it didn't increase total book sales by attracting new readers (known as "constructive advertising"). The same was true of the Today Show's book club and other book clubs, albeit on a smaller scale. Using data from Nielsen's BookScan panel, which represents three-quarters of all book sales, Garthwaite discovered that although Oprah's Book Club generated an increase in sales of a title by as much as 6,500 percent in the first week this boon would gradually diminish. Other titles published by an Oprah's-Book-Club author usually increased in sales as well, often for a period of several months. This "spillover effect" occurred in titles chosen for Today's book club as well. Regardless of the effect celebrity book clubs have on a particularly author, though, the overall book market did not expand. "In the publishing sector," Garthwaite writes, "endorsements are found to be a business-stealing form of advertising that raises title level sales without increasing the market sales."

But the belief that celebrity endorsements and book clubs promote reading, or at least encourage book consumption, is widely held. Publishers send electronic newsletters, email alerts, and notices through Twitter, hoping to get the attention of book club readers. They create databases of book club preferences, track online book groups, and post "reading group recommendations" and guides. Literary magazines offer book clubs via Twitter, as do so-called literary collectives, including The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and many, many more. Even the National Endowment for the Arts' "The Big Read" campaign was established under the assumption that city- and nation-wide book clubs were the way to increase literacy. Yet according to Garthwaite there's even less evidence to suggest that the NEA has done much to create new readers.

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Sarah Fay is an editorial associate at The Paris Review. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and The New Republic’s “The Book.”

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