The Future of Book Clubs is Today

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Oprah scales back, while USA Today and The Today Show announce new book clubs

The past week has seen a drastic change in the national book club scenery. On April 5, Oprah Winfrey announced that she is scaling back her television book club; on April 8, NBC News’ The Today Show declared it will debut its own monthly book club in June; and, on April 11, USA Today announced and began its new book club. The national newspaper’s first choice was the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning, Empire Falls (Knopf), by Richard Russo. "We had been talking about [starting a book club] for many years," said Carol Memmott, USA Today’s books editor. "The announcement that Oprah was scaling back made us decide that we would waste no more time and offer a club to our readers." [For more on the Pulitzer awards, click here.]

It is ironic that Winfrey’s decision to cut back on book recommendations, which initially sent a minor trauma through the publishing industry, has resulted in more book clubs and, ultimately, book club picks. But it remains to be seen whether The Today Show and USA Today book club picks carry the same weight as Winfrey’s book choices, which were routinely catapulted to national bestseller lists.

Winfrey’s book club, which started in 1996 on The Oprah Winfrey Show, has given the book business tremendous support, and the talk show host recommended many books that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Book magazine ranked Winfrey in its list of "Ten People Who Decide What America Reads," and PW NewsLine reported that in 1996 and 1997, the average number of copies sold for Oprah picks was 1.3 million, with Deep End of the Ocean (Signet), by Jacquelyn Mitchard, and She’s Come Undone (Pocket Books), by Wally Lamb, averaging about 2.5 million each.

However, the marketing clout of the recommendation may have lessened of late, as sales of Oprah book club recommendations were showing a downward trend. The average number of copies sold for Oprah picks peaked at 1.5 million in 1999, dropping to 1.3 million in 2000, and, finally, averaging 700,000 in 2001, as reported by PW NewsLine. Additionally, the number of Oprah selections was also falling -- while the club debuted with monthly selections, there were only six titles picked in 2001.

Booksellers contacted by BTW confirmed that they were seeing decreasing sales for the selections.

Erik Wilska, co-owner of the 30-year-old Bookloft in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was quick to point out that both he and his wife, Bookloft co-owner, Evelyn Wilska, were very disappointed in Winfrey’s announcement regarding her book club (so much so that his wife is writing Oprah a letter asking her to reconsider). But he also noted that sales of Oprah book club picks have declined in his store over the past year. Part of this, he explained, was because "[She] made a big mistake picking as many hard covers as she did," noting that the higher cost put some customers off. He added, too, that he believed "some of the picks were mediocre of late."

Scott Yanke, owner of Scott’s Books, in Delano, Minnesota, told BTW that in his store sales had declined because of the subject matter of the club’s picks. "The books have been too depressing, so [my customers] have stopped reading them," he explained. "The last few haven’t been selling. There used to be people lining up before when the books were announced, and now they’re not moving."

In addition to decreasing sales, some of the booksellers questioned the wording and meaning of Winfrey’s announcement. Some took her statement about it being harder to find books "that I feel absolutely compelled to share" as an insult to the book industry. Others wondered whether her statement reflected Winfrey’s belief that there was a dearth of intriguing titles, or that the demands of the club had become too much.

Susan Morgan, owner of Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, Vermont, said, "I’m assuming [she meant that] she couldn’t find the time. From all the advance copies I get, if she couldn’t get something out of that, I don’t know."

Wilska pointed out that if Oprah was having trouble finding good book club recommendations, all she needed to do was go to the source: the independent bookseller. "But I think she misspoke," he added. "Clearly, there are good books out there."

On that point all independent booksellers would agree, which is why many considered just as likely the theory that Oprah is scaling back because the book club-related shows were attracting smaller audiences.

Said Wilska: "TV is all about selling soap."

USA Today: ushering in a new book club era

So, while one era ends, or is, at least, scaled back, a new one begins with both the launch of USA Today’s new book club, and the June debut of The Today’s Show book club.

The USA Today’s book club will choose one book every six weeks. During that period, the paper will post questions on its book club message board, inviting readers to discuss the book online. At the end of the six-week period, the newspaper will announce its new book club pick, and invite the author to do an online chat with readers.

USA Today’s Memmott explained that, while Oprah’s book club recommendations were geared toward women, the newspaper’s book club picks will have a broader scope -- appealing to men and women, to those who like literary, as well as commercial fiction, and to teenagers and college students. In those terms, "Russo was a perfect pick for our first book," she said.

Presently, anyone that has already read Empire Falls can log onto, and post an answer to the USA Today’s question regarding whether high school English teachers should recommend the book to their students, considering the book’s depictions of violence and its sexual content. Russo’s online chat, as well as the next USA Today book club pick, are scheduled tentatively for May 23.

The key to the club’s success, said USA Today’s Memmott, will be promotion. The paper is planning a small promotion in its Friday, April 12, edition and USA Today plans on printing readers’ comments sometime the week of April 15. "It’s important for us to promote the club a lot to attract readers," she told BTW. "I’m going to make it my mission to make the club ever-present in the papers."

Additionally, though the USA Today book club does not give booksellers a heads up as to the new book pick prior to its announcement -- as Oprah’s Book Club did -- Memmott said she could definitely foresee doing it. "We’ll work out a way to stay in touch with booksellers," she said. "We already have a good relationship with them due to our bestseller list, and we hope to expand that relationship." Memmott pointed out that USA Today is one of the few papers in the country that has actually expanded its book coverage over the past year.

Today starts in June

On the heels of Oprah’s Friday, April 5 announcement, on Monday, April 8, NBC News’ The Today Show said it would debut its own book club in June. The monthly book club will feature notable authors presenting selected titles by little-knows writers. A month later, Today will invite members of book clubs across America to come on the show and "get up close and personal with the selected book’s author," according to a NBC News press release.

"This is a natural fit for us," Jonathan Wald, executive producer of Today, said in a prepared statement. "This program has always had a huge commitment to the literary community, and a series like this allows us to take that commitment to the next level."

Today averages more than six million-plus viewers each morning. The Oprah Winfrey Show draws seven million viewers. Plans are to have the book club air sometime after the first half hour -- at which point many male viewers have switched off -- meaning that, like Oprah’s club, Today’s book club picks will most likely be aimed at women, according to the Washington Post. -- David Grogan