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Oprah's Book Club Turns Over A New Page

Dec 12, 2012
Originally published on December 12, 2012 5:58 am

Oprah Winfrey became a publishing powerhouse when she started her book club in 1996. Her picks went to the top of best-seller lists — and stayed there for weeks. But when Winfrey's daily talkfest went off the air, the book club ended as well.

Now she is reviving it: Winfrey has just announced her second pick for the Book Club 2.0: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, a novel by first-time author Ayana Mathis about the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the rural South.

The original book club, Winfrey says, wasn't her idea. Alice McGee, a producer on her show, first suggested it. The two women loved to read, and sometimes they would call up the authors of their favorite books.

"I remember calling up Wally Lamb, and he said he was putting clothes in the laundry, and I was like, 'Oh my God. You're an author and you do laundry,'" Winfrey tells NPR's Lynn Neary. "And so we were doing it just because we wanted to talk to authors after the books just to ask them questions that the two of us had.

"And then Alice said, 'Well, maybe more than two of us would be interested.' And that's how it all started."

Winfrey seemed to have a knack for turning unknown authors into household names. This new version of the book club seems to be having the same effect: The first pick for the Book Club 2.0, Cheryl Strayed's memoir, Wild, is a best-seller.

Yet the new book club is different. Winfrey doesn't have a daily talk show, and her cable network, OWN, has struggled in the ratings. So the book club is going multiplatform: from OWN to Winfrey's magazine, O, to her website, Facebook and Twitter.

"It really was a way of saying, we're changing it because a lot of people are reading books online now," she says. "I am one of those people, who was dragged kicking and screaming to the ebook, and I actually do both equally."

Winfrey says the new platforms allow people to have the immediacy of the book.

"The excitement of being able to do that in an online version seemed like the way to update the book club," she says, "and to not minimize, but at least change the expectations for what the Oprah show, the power of the Oprah show, had become for books. Because it's a different platform."

Winfrey tells NPR's Neary that she revived the book club after reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden for the first time, and having no one to talk about it. She says it's important to make books part of the national conversation.

"If you're reading a book and you tell two friends, it's better if 10 friends are reading it," she says. "And if you can get 10,000, even better."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When she started her book club in the late '90s, TV talk show queen Oprah Winfrey became a powerhouse in publishing. Oprah's picks went to the top of best seller lists and stayed there for weeks. But when her daily talk show went off the air, the book club ended as well. Now she's reviving it. Yesterday on MORNING EDITION she spoke with NPR's Lynn Neary along with the author of her latest pick, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie".

Today we conclude that discussion with Oprah Winfrey's thoughts on why it's so important to make books part of the national conversation.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: The book club, Oprah says, wasn't her idea. Alice McGee, a producer on her show, first suggested it. The two women loved to read and sometimes they'd call up the authors of their favorite books.

OPRAH WINFREY: I remember calling up Wally Lamb, and he said he was putting clothes in the laundry. And I was like, oh my God, you're an author and you do laundry. And so we were doing it just because we wanted to talk to authors after the books just to ask them questions that the two of us had. And then Alice said, well, maybe more than two of us would be interested. And that's how it all started.

NEARY: Oprah had a knack for turning unknown authors into household names. And this new version of the book club seems to be having the same effect. The first pick for the Book Club 2.0, Cheryl Strayed's memoir, "Wild," is a best seller. But this book club is different. Oprah doesn't have a daily talk show, and her cable network, OWN, has been struggling in the ratings. So the book club is going multiplatform: from OWN to her magazine, O, to her website, Facebook and Twitter.

WINFREY: We knew that we no longer had the platform - meaning the reach - of millions of people around the world to make that announcement at one time. And so I didn't want to have to be held to the same standard of, oh, she didn't reach that many people.

So it really was a way of saying that we're changing it because a lot of people are reading books online now - I am one of those people, who I was dragged kicking and screaming to the ebook, and I actually do both - equally, I will say - and the idea of getting people who would be able to have the immediacy of the book.

And so the excitement of being able to do that in an online version seemed like a way to update the book club and to not minimize, but at least change the expectations for what the "Oprah" show, the power of the "Oprah" show, had become for books. Because it's a different platform.

NEARY: What is it about this idea of the book club that is so important to you? Why do you want to keep having this conversation about books?

WINFREY: The reason I revived it is because I was sitting at my house in California during a summer break after I had just ended it, the book club, and I was reading "East of Eden" for the first time. And I had nobody to talk to about it. And that's why I revived it. I was like, who am I going to talk to about it? And even when I finished reading "Twelve Tribes of Hattie," I don't have anybody to talk to about it.

So I'm now calling up the editors at Knopf to have a conversation with them about the book. Because I just believe everything's better when you share it. That's the full answer. If you're reading a book and you tell two friends, it's better if 10 friends are reading it. And if you can get 10,000, even better.

NEARY: Oprah Winfrey, keeping the conversation going. The latest novel under discussion in her Book Club 2.0 is "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" by Ayana Mathis. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.