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Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 goes digital to study Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

Oprah Winfrey launches her new book club selecti'Wild' 'Super Soul Sunday' OWN.

Oprah Winfrey launches her new book club selection "Wild" on "Super Soul Sunday" on OWN.

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Updated: August 22, 2012 6:05AM

When Oprah Winfrey, then the brightest star on daytime TV, began her book club in 1996, inexpensive e-books and e-readers seemed more futurist rumor than everyday reality.

Now, as Winfrey, co-owner of a struggling cable network, launches Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, she’s seeking a literary home on a digital landscape. Comparing today’s fragmented do-it-yourself media with the world of 1996 is like comparing Winfrey’s 42-acre estate near Santa Barbara, Calif., with her birthplace amid the rural poverty of Kosciusko, Miss.

Publishers and booksellers cheer her club’s revival, despite questions whether the new Winfrey, with a much smaller TV audience, carries the impact of the old Winfrey, who turned 70 books into best sellers.

On Sunday, Winfrey’s interview with memoirist Cheryl Strayed, the first author chosen for the new book club, will air on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s “Super Soul Sunday” and simultaneously stream on Oprah Radio and on OWN’S Facebook page.

Ratings show the audience for Winfrey’s weekly Super Soul show averaged only 114,000 viewers in the past month ­­— a sliver of her more than 5 million viewers when her daily syndicated show ended its 25-year run last year. At its peak, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” averaged 12 million viewers.

What hasn’t changed is how Winfrey, America’s favorite reader, reacts when she loves a book.

This spring, she read Strayed’s inspirational memoir, Wild, about the author’s solo 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother, the destruction of her marriage and experimentation with heroin.

Winfrey, who says she read Wild in part in hardcover and on her Kindle and iPad, writes in the July issue of O, the Oprah Magazine: “I love this book. I want to shout it from the mountaintop. I want to shout it from the Web ... I knew I had to reinvent my book club.”

On June 1, she announced an interactive and multi-platform book club that uses Twitter, Facebook, Storify and GroupMe. Readers can post questions that Winfrey and Strayed answer in videos. The print editions of Wild carry a new version of the familiar “O” book club logo.

Sales of Wild, which was well reviewed upon its release in March, shot up. Within two weeks of Winfrey’s announcement, Wild went from No. 165 on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list to No. 14. It’s currently No. 35.

Publisher Knopf reports that sales of Wild have jumped from 85,000 before Winfrey’s announcement, to 270,000 (150,000 print books, 120,000 e-books). Knopf has printed 280,000 physical copies of the book.

In the club’s heyday, before e-books took off, publishers would print more than 500,000 extra copies of any book Winfrey selected. Twenty — including her first, The Deep End of the Ocean, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s novel about the kidnapping of a child, and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s tragic 19th-century love story, in 2004— hit No. 1 on USA Today’s list. Forty-one of her other selections landed in the list’s top 10.

Barnes & Noble’s marketing chef Patricia Bostelman says comparisons are difficult “because of all the changes in the marketplace,” but says Wild is selling better than Winfrey’s final selections from her old book club, in 2010: two Charles Dickens novels, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.

Bostelman says no one drives large numbers of readers to “reasonably serious books” like Winfrey does.

Sara Nelson, books editor of O magazine before joining Amazon as editorial director of the online retailer in May, says Amazon’s sales of Wild quadrupled in June. At O magazine, she remembers Winfrey “couldn’t stop talking about the book. That’s what really drives her.”

Strayed, 43, who literally fell to the floor in shock when Winfrey called her in April, says “every author asks, ‘How will my book find its audience?’ but Oprah has such a grand effect.”

Winfrey has declined all interview requests about her new book club and hasn’t said how often she’ll pick new titles. As her syndicated show ended last year, she said she wanted to do “a show for books and authors” on cable.

Instead of a regularly scheduled book show, she’s taken her book club digital, which appeals to Kathleen Rooney, author of Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America (2005). Rooney says Winfrey is embracing print and e-books and “mixing digital platforms with face-to-face contact among people in the real world.” (One of the club’s new features helps readers form their own small book clubs and locate other participants.)

Rooney, who teaches English at DePaul University in Chicago, says that’s in keeping with the theory of “convergence,” that “new media do not overthrow and replace old ones, but operate in tandem with them.”

If so, the success of Oprah’s new book club may not be measured merely by her TV audience or impact on best-seller lists.

Her new club may be smaller, but “it’s going to be a community that she will capture a larger share of the attention of, and that she’s going to know a lot more about,” Rooney says. That’s valuable to advertisers. “It’s the social media model: You don’t have to get everyone to watch you, provided you know extremely well who does watch you and what their habits are.”

In 1996, Winfrey’s idea was to “call it a book club and then maybe some actual book clubs in the actual world would read the books along with her — which they did,” Rooney says. “But instead of really being one big book club, it was a nexus of individual readers and book clubs that wanted to sail in Oprah’s armada. Now it stands to be more like an actual book club.”

Jackie Blem, blog coordinator at Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstores, says “Facebook and its like have conditioned us to regard digital conversations as the social norm, so a digital book club fits right in. OBC 2.0 feels more involving — there are interactive ways to participate in real time and fantastic extras that can enhance the read.”

Winfrey’s old book club had an active website. In 2008, she led 10 weeks of “web seminars” with Ekhart Tolle, author of the self-help book A New Earth, No. 1 on USA Today’s list for 11 consecutive weeks.

But the added digital emphasis prompts Blem to ask if the new club will attract a “mostly e-reader crowd?” Data collected for USA Todays’s list show the e-version of Wild outsold the hardcover only the first week after Winfrey’s announcement. Paul Bogaards of publisher Knopf attributes that to the availability of the print books. “Oprah opens channels of distribution — places like Target or Wal-Mart come on board when she does.”

Blum says that “like many things related to e-books,” booksellers are watching “with great interest and slightly bated breath. But, in the long run, a recommendation from Oprah is a good thing ... and booksellers know how to run with it.”

Carol Fitzgerald, founder of the Book Report Network of websites for book discussions, agrees that Winfrey’s concept is interesting, but says the club’s early online engagement is disappointing for a “personality of Oprah’s stature.” As of Wednesday, the book club’s Facebook page had 2,151 “likes.” Its Twitter account had 138,040 followers — compared to Winfrey’s 12 million followers.

“Creating an online community is very different from working in traditional media,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s not as easy as saying, ‘If I build it, they will come.’ A lot is built organically.”

A study, released in April, challenges the conventional wisdom that Winfrey’s old book club boosted all of publishing.

Craig Garthwaite, a Northwestern University economist, studied book sales data from 2001 to 2011 and found overall sales declined slightly whenever Winfrey chose a title. Readers, he concludes, spent more time on Winfrey’s challenging selections, such as Toni Morrison novels, rather than with “traditional beach book fare.” In other words, the quality of the books went up, but the number sold went down.

“I’m not saying she didn’t do a good thing,” Garthwaite says, “but the data indicate she didn’t convert a lot of non-readers into readers. She said she wanted to ‘get America reading.’ That’s a very difficult thing to do, even for someone as influential as Oprah.”

After reading Garthwaite’s study, Matthew Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., questioned his own assumption that Winfrey gave the book world a huge lift. “What really may have been happening is that instead of grabbing the trashy novel, customers were buying the quality paperback of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” he says.

Norcross adds, “I admire anyone who is able to raise the cultural bar, especially in our reality-TV-obsessed world.” But he says that not only has Winfrey “lost some of her impact, but perhaps it was always overblown.”

He has no doubt “she can make a title move up the best-seller list, and that has incredible value, but I don’t know how much longer she’ll have that ability,” given her smaller TV audience.

Still, he’s hearing customers once again asking about “the new Oprah book.” Norcross suggests the club’s success is important to Winfrey “because it is part of her image. If she isn’t seen as the country’s best bookseller, then it is just one more jewel in her crown that isn’t sparkling like it used to.”

Gannett News Service

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