Monday, September 21, 2009

The Oprah Effect

Fall is in the air, dear readers, and I know this because I've just started coming down with my annual autumn cold. Will this stop me from delivering hot, fresh publishing news five days a week? Not a chance. I'm like the Postal Service on crack.

Since I (not unexpectedly) got a wide range of responses to my questions re: Twitter, Facebook, &c last week, I'm going to do some more research (mostly of the "how much time do I have to devote to these additional venues" variety) and get back to you.

Last update regarding Dan B... er, He Who Must Not Be Named: I finished the book late last week and was entertained, so I'm comfortable saying I liked it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Oh yeah, and if you're curious about the ending SNAPE KILLS LANGDON OMG

...in serious publishing news, Dear Leader has selected Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them for her cult book club. Remember when I said short story collections don't sell? What I meant to say was, "short story collections don't sell unless Oprah Winfrey puts her Official Seal of Approval™ on them."

Yes, Oprah could affix her coveted book club sticker to even the most asinine, worthless "book" imaginable by someone who "would never want a book's autograph" (whatever that means), and it would still become an instant bestseller. This is colloquially known as The Oprah Effect.

TOE (not to be confused with the Theory of Everything) is difficult to quantify, but it seems to be on par with (or possibly more powerful than) the Pulitzer Prize in terms of ability to generate word-of-mouth buzz and sales. Thousands of copies turn into millions. Film rights are immediately negotiated and sold. Now, this says a lot about Oprah's tremendous influence, but it says just as much about the people being influenced.

I'm not sure which way the causal chain runs—or if it's even causal at all—but the correlation between women and readers in America is pretty strong. (The same is probably true of the UK, but this is just a hunch.) Most readers in the good old US of A are women; most agents (from what I've seen) are women; most of my fellow English majors were women; most of my colleagues are women; most of the people belonging to Oprah's book club are women. In fact, most of you are probably women!

The bookosphere (hooray neologisms!) is pretty heavily slanted toward the lady folk, and so I think part of the reason Oprah holds such tremendous sway in the literary world is because there's a preexisting gargantuan overlap between her target audience and the book-reading public. That is to say, if she were to devote an entire show to her fantasy football picks, I'm sure it would have no effect on anyone else's picks whatsoever (simply because most men between 18 and 35 aren't watching her show, and that's the prime population for FF). I know I'm using broad strokes here, but that's necessary when analyzing huge populations of people.

This is all a roundabout way of asking: are you influenced by Oprah? Do you (or your loved ones) religiously (or perhaps just casually) follow her and her recommendations? Have you ever devoted a year of your life just to doing what she says? Or do you think I'm full of the proverbial bologna? This is all part of my continuing informal series on "are people reading industry blogs a good sample of the larger book-reading public?" You folks don't seem to be quite as into the Da...rk Lord as the rest of America. What about Oprah?

45 comments:

  1. I don't follow Oprah, but her new selection does interest me. I think, or at least I hope, that most people that choose to read her selections do it not because Oprah said so, but just because when she chooses a book it suddenly gets a lot more publicity.

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  2. I have to admit that when she recently made her pick, I was intrigued. What book would cause her to pick it as a book club favorite? It was worth a look, just to see what was so special about it. I didn't end up buying it, but I came close. And it was out of curiousity, not a burning desire to read everything Oprah suggests.

    (as a sidenote, my brother-in-law loves short stories and has been writing his own. He was excited that Oprah may have propelled them back into the spotlight. We'll have to see her overall effect on anthologies in the long run)

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  3. Oh, my. No disrespect to Oprah, who has achieved remarkable things and seems to be a decent person, but the only Oprah Book Club books I've read were before they were selected for the coveted stamp of approval. The pattern I piece together from books I've read that Oprah likes: There must be a moral, a message that the public should embrace, to make the world a better place, dammit!

    There is nothing wrong with that, of course. I just don't like feeling preached to while I'm trying to immerse myself in the story. Besides, there's also the inevitable "preaching to the choir" effect. People who read Oprah book club books, even those who would be attracted to them minus the Oprah sticker, already get the message loud and clear.

    But damn, the lady can sell some books. I wouldn't turn her down. I need some other validator to take the plunge into an Oprah selection at this time, though. If I start seeing the title other places or get a chance to browse it myself, I might pick it up. I like short stories.

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  4. I think I'm influenced by Oprah--not so much her book club selections, which lately have been classics I've already read...but from O magazine. If not for Oprah, I would never have read some good books: HERE WHEN YOU NEED ME, THE CAMEL BOOKMOBILE, A STROKE OF INSIGHT, and many others.

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  5. I don't watch Oprah, nor read her magazine. The only times I hear about her book club selections are when literary blogs like this talk about them. She picks the kinds of books I don't gravitate towards. (I'm a sci-fi/fantasy lover and proud of it.)

    Though my mother use to watch Oprah religiously when I was young, she doesn't now and I doubt she'd read something just because Oprah said so.

    Not that there's anything wrong with reading a book if you find it intrigues you and was recommended by a famous person.

    I just wouldn't do so unless it was recommended by say... Terry Pratchett.

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  6. Dude, we are not going to knock a lady who got millions of white suburban housewives to read Toni Morrison.

    Also, anyone who tells us we read more books because we are biologically programmed to be "more empathetic" is going to end up with our fist in their face.

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  7. I love Oprah. I think she's well-meaning, even if the books she picks aren't what I would necessarily read. For the most part, I think she tried to pick multi-cultural authors and books that are well-written, entertaining, or have some overall message. She could definitely do worse than what she chooses. I'm of the opinion that anything that sells more books is a-okay by me.

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  8. Oprah's cred. was tarnished for me after she put her stamp on the worst book ever written - Love in the Time of Cholera. I have to admit, though, that I was curious enough to open the e-mail I got from Amazon the other day promoting her newest pick to open it. As soon as I saw it was a collection of short stories, though, I closed the window.

    So in summary, my interests rank:
    1. Amazon
    2. Oprah
    10. Short Stories

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  9. I'd say I'm casually influenced. I have read a few Oprah selections, sometimes because she recommended them, and sometimes because someone else did. I have not always agreed with her opinions of them, but that can happen no matter who suggested you read a book.

    I tended to take Oprah's recommendations more seriously in the past for a number of reasons. First, it was new. Whoever heard of a talk show book club? Back then I didn't belong to a "real" book club. Also at that time I wasn't writing seriously and didn't work for a library, so I was far less overloaded with good recommendations.

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  10. Like several others who have already commented, I'm not an Oprah fan ... but I'm also not against Oprah. My stepmother and several friends are big fans, but I also have friends who think Oprah is helping to destroy civilization. I've been in conversations with people who will refuse to buy a book because it has the Oprah "seal of approval" attached to it. What can I say? Some of my friends are the worst kind of snobs. And I type that without any hint of pride; I find their attitude about the book club to be nasty. While I don't like the idea that some people buy books only because Oprah suggests them, I also don't like the idea that some people avoid books because Oprah suggests them. Seems like the same thoughtless attitude. And it's not as if the idea of a literary canon is Oprah's invention; we've always had people telling us what to read. Is it better to have a bunch of old professors at Harvard telling us or a tv personality? Or, how about both? That's what I hope is happening with the Oprah book club phenom: in a society saturated with entertainment and media choices, there's one more (influential) voice out there suggesting that there's value to reading books.

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  11. I've got a pretty eclectic taste in books (last few read were fantasy, mainstream YA, non-fiction political history, science fiction YA, a hobby-related how-to, and a biography, in order from most to least recent), but I don't think I've ever read anything with an Oprah seal on it. I'm not avoiding her seal on purpose; it's just meaningless to me.

    I like reviewers with a more consistant record of positive picks. On the one hand, sure, she promoted Toni Morrison to a bunch of people who wouldn't otherwise have read her in a million years. But on the other hand, she handed a soapbox and a megaphone to baby-killing public health threat Jenny "I Love Polio and Whooping Cough is Awesome" McCarthy.

    People need to be able to think critically about what they're reading, not just blindly adore any book that someone puts a sticker on.

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  12. Oprah sells books. Whether you live each day by her guidance doesn't change that fact.

    I finished TLS yesterday morning. I thought it was an entertaining read, and I think some of the core themes raised are worth discussing.

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  13. Fascinating Oprah blog! This beats the woman who bought a pair of Oprah's old shoes so she could wear them to bring out her inner Oprah.

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  14. As time goes on, Oprah seems to get crazier and crazier. Sometimes I wonder if she chooses bad material just to prove how powerful her influence is. If it's an Oprah pick, I'm less inclined to try it than if I just saw it on the shelf. I don't want to feed her crazy.

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  15. In the past, I have watched Oprah religiously. I no longer do that.I do still read her magazine, but not everything in it. I think Oprah, like many of us, has a great deal of wisdom. I don't always agree with her. I don't choose to buy and read a book just because she says so. It worries me that people may not think for themselves and just do whatever a celebrity they admire says or does. Thanks for writing about this and posing the question.
    Karen

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  16. I don't watch Oprah, but I know who she is...he he. I admit to purchasing books in the past with Oprah's seal of approval. All were good reads. So in that respect Oprah hasn't let me down.

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  17. Funny, I recently did a post about having our own opinions in regards to literature and I mentioned Oprah and her influence.

    I'm not a huge Oprah fan, but in an effort to be open minded I have red a few of her picks and I seriously hated them all. They weren't boring, I just hated them. But then I read and write a lot of middle-grade and YA so I doubt any of that is ever going to make her list.

    I have to wonder if the people buying these books really like them, or if some maybe just nod and go along with it, because "by golly if Oprah likes it I better like it too because if I don't like it I can never be as enlightened as Oprah." And not just about books, but many, many other things. I'm not saying she's always wrong, just that it's frightening how people will follow her every move without stopping to consider how they really feel about it.

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  18. I like Oprah and sometimes I watch her when I have a day off, but I don't normally pick up her book club selections. I read a lot of different types of books, but my favorite genre is scifi.

    I don't think Oprah has picked a science fiction book. I wonder how many people would read it if she did?

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  19. I don't follow Oprah. I know her stamp of approval means you're going to sell a lot of books, but they're mostly books I don't particularly enjoy. For the record, the non-fiction she picks tends to be more interesting to me than her fiction.

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  20. (mostly of the "how much time do I have to devote to these additional venues" variety)

    This is the main reason why I stay away from those things. It's hard enough to make time for blogging and still get work done.

    Sorry to hear about your cold.

    I am not influenced by Oprah, but I do see her influence firsthand with women (women? by golly, you're right! women rule the reading world!) that I work with. One gal in particular reads ONLY what Oprah suggests. By doing so, she's missing out big time, but that's her choice. And, quite honestly, if Oprah ever recommended a novel of mine, I wouldn't mind one bit. No, sir. That would be fantabulous. Her creepy/amazing power over the female public cannot be denied.

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  21. My reading preferences tend to slant toward happier endings. One of my friends bullied me into reading HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG because it was an Oprah selection, and therefore "good."

    Newsflash: IT DID NOT END WELL.

    So, when Oprah picks a book, I feel safe crossing it off my list.

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  22. I don't watch Oprah. I don't necessarily read stuff because she recommended it, but neither will I avoid a book because she recommended it.

    However, I am someone who reads, voraciously, whether someone is on TV recommending books or not. What I appreciate Oprah for is that she has got people (okay, sure, mostly women) thinking it is okay to read books for pleasure. I'm not sure that notion would be so popular today if it weren't for her -- I mean, how many other major TV outlets carry book news regularly in North America?

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  23. Oprah. Meh. I wouldn't read a book she recommended unless it already looked like something I'd like to read. In other words, I don't read short stories so probably won't pick up this new book.

    Maybe her power isn't so much that she tells people to read a book and they automatically want to read it, but that she gives it the visibility it needs to shine on its own.

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  24. Women aren't just taking over publishing. According to my guy friends they are taking over everything. EVERYTHING!!!!

    Never watch Oprah, I've accidentally read some things she recommended and most of them weren't my cuppa.

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  25. @ Anonymous 1:55

    AMEN! It took me a couple of Oprah picks to figure this trend out. I didn't pick them up because they were Oprah picks ... I picked them up because they seemed interesting based on the cover blurb. But when I realized that they both had TWO things in common (Oprah Book Club AND a miserable ending), I swore off Oprah's picks pretty much forever.

    Shame. Because otherwise, the woman has a pretty inspiring story, and I loved her in The Color Purple.

    Still, I'm glad for the authors. Someone's got to compete against juggarnauts like Dan Brown.

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  26. Oprah's picks are a lot like fashion or decor trends. I may never have looked at it, but now that it's being flashed at me from every angle, I'm likely to end up buying into it.

    Like purple. As a rule, I don't like purple. But it's everywhere. Now I find myself wondering if I should buy a purple top, you know, just to see.

    Oprah, The Gap... same thing.

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  27. I would never pick a book because it was recommended by a celebrity, unless I already knew his/her reading tastes were similar to mine. While I admire much that Oprah does and stands for, I do not consider her a book guru. (At least, not for me.) If I've read any of her picks, it was purely coincidental.

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  28. Oprah has a huge cultish following; it's creepy. I think she has drones who brainwash people. I watched her TV show in college (like 15 yrs ago). The fallout was so bad, I have to wash my mind out with soap now.

    Did she do book club reccommendations back then? I don't know. But I can tell you this: Any woman who devotes ***every single cover of her personal magazine*** to a huge fat picture of herself should be spanked. Soundly. Not even Martha Stewart (the devil's crafty apprentice) is so vain.

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  29. I've read a few of her books, but not because of her recommendations. So many of them are so similar in content that I found myself getting them confused. A few gems (she did make me like Faulkner LOL) but more often emotionally draining. In fact, I was in a reading group for awhile that had one rule: no Oprah books.
    I think her influence is out there for good and bad, I don't mind her personally and I do like some of the columnists in her magazine (not Dr. Phil though!!!). But honestly, she is getting people to read, which is a good thing. But then again, so did the Goosebumps series for kids years ago, which didn't have much lasting impact for good. I have to say many of my friends haven't read a book in years, and so if they pick up something to read, great! Her seal of approval seems silly, but I have one friend who devotes herself religiously to ANY Oprah suggestion. Weird. Some people need that push, which would be the case whether Oprah was pushing it or someone else.
    But hey! I discovered Grizzly Bear and Phoenix from a recommendation in Entertainment Weekly at the doctor's office, so publicity isn't all bad!

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  30. While I will gladly admit she is obviously a very smart business woman, I ignore all things Oprah and particularly the book cult for two reason. First, the books she seems to recommend are DEPRESSING! I read for enjoyment. And the second reason is - she was flat out rude to a romance writer friend of mine.

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  31. I'm a book plebeian and unashamed of it.

    I loved Angels and Demons, but I wasn't looking for life-altering messages so much as a few hours in someone else's life. Having said that, I try to avoid Oprah's Book Club stamped books at all costs. I admire Oprah... and any literary expansion effort is great in my mind. However... I've found the few books I've read from her list to either be boring or eager to shove a message down my throat. "Improving my mind" has always taken a backseat to entertainment for me, though. I had a friend from Iraq when I was younger who refused to read books about war because she said that she'd seen enough of it in her life without having to read about it. Books are that way for me in many ways. If it drowns me in the human plight, I'm not interested. I get enough of the human plight already. (I have two Special Needs children.)

    I read like I eat. I'll read the healthy stuff when others are around or if forced, but honestly, I'm just anxious to pull out the sugary, caffeinated stuff hidden behind the lettuce. I like the spicy stuff that might burn later. I like the bloated high-carb thrillers that should be read in moderation. There are exceptions where good, fibrous literature sneaks through and is devoured, but really... I'm just out for a buzz and quick thrill. I like to read on the run and while other things are going on. If it's good for me and needs to be read slowly in a quiet room... it doesn't have a chance.

    Hey... don't judge me. I'm a plebeian and unashamed.

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  32. Oprah has no effect whatsoever on what books I choose to read. If I read a book based on recommendations, it's going to be by someone I actually know and has similar reading tastes to mine.

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  33. Some of her picks make it into our book club reads. What WAS J.Franzen thinking?????

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  34. HA! Snape kills Langdon. LOVE that. And yes, Oprah influences my book choices. In a negative way. If I see the Oprah sticker/seal of approval, I automatically take that book off of my internal to-read list. Sad but true.

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  35. Oprah does not influence me, but then as a male, age 18-35, living in Thailand -- and a massive consumer of jazz-induced anime, kung-fu cartoons, and graphic novels about airships -- I think I'm about as far outside of her demographic as one can be.

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  36. I don't watch Oprah, but I don't watch TV in general. Though I did look up her Cormac McCarthy interview on Youtube.

    She was terrible; he was great.

    I have noticed all the ladies. *Smooths eyebrows.*

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  37. I think I've read one book Oprah ever picked and it was incidental. I'm far more influenced by story than a celebrity endorsement. (I do however listen to the endorsements of the writers around me. If they say something is well written, I'll read it.)

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  38. Anon 1:55 here...I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels her book selections tend to lean towards depressing (or "wrist slitters," as a friend of mine would say). I think it's great that so many people are trying books they might not otherwise touch, and I think it's great for the lucky authors whose books she selects. But I just can't handle the emotional onslaught of most of her selections.

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  39. I'm also in the indifferent to Oprah club. I'm not much of a consumer of popular culture in general and what she's selling (self-help and empowerment?) I prefer to get in solitude. I will say that I'm glad of anything that keeps people reading, and I'm always happy to see people who have lots of money helping those who need it. But yeah, otherwise I'm not a huge fan.

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  40. I like that for the past two years or so, Oprah has focused on the classics or what might qualify as 'literature'(thankfully she seems to have gotten away from her I'm a woman, I'm a victim' book of the month club criteria). If her book club inspires people to read genres and books outside their regular fare, then I say it's all good.

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  41. I have to say, saying Oprah sells books is a bit insulting to all booksellers out there. Recommending books is something we do EVERYDAY, and, I feel like we have a better pulse for what people like to read than the mighty queen. I've tried not to be cynical about Oprah's book picks, but as many people have stated above, many of them are depressing and/or try to shove a moral down the reader's throat. I don't mind depressing books or books with a moral tale, but what I don't like are the acolytes that blindly follow her advice as if it were given from on high.
    People should read books because their love of the written word, not because some T.V. personality (and not just Oprah) tells them too.

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  42. I'm a bookseller too, and I don't resent Oprah's influence. There are so many media competing with books these days, how can we resent someone who inspires others to read? It's still up to the individual whether to enjoy the book or not.

    I read A Fine Balance and The Poisonwood Bible and they were fanTAStic, so I would trust her again if the subject interests me.

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  43. I am constitutionally averse to all forms of television watching, and have never seen an Oprah show, except for that one Tom Cruise clip where he says all these crazy scientologist things. BUT I did once buy a novel (Map of the World) solely because it had an Oprah sticker on it, and I figured therefore it was probably worth reading. Strange but true. And I was also pushed over the edge to read Cormack McCarthy's The Road, even though I was afraid it would be so depressing as to endanger my mental health for years, by noticing that it was also an Oprah pick. I am very glad to have been pushed over the edge, too, because it was a fantastic read ... but I was glad to have assurances that her millions of devoted followers hadn't been driven to suicide by reading it and therefore it was safe for me to dive into.

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  44. Oprah is sort of like nitrogen - I know she's out there but I don't really have to know what she's doing to survive.

    I agree that she's done a lot for, well, the world in general...but I am also one of those people that finds that her books are just not shelved in my section of the library. I'm glad it's not just me.

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  45. Oprah is Great TV Programs, she makes many people feeling more to others. She makes the grief into joy. Give a new breath to those who lost hope.

    Cheers,
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