April 22, 2005

BOOKS: "Word of Mouth" writes to Oprah

This is interesting, and somehow a little sad.

A group of female authors called "Word of Mouth" (joined by some male authors) has written an open letter to Oprah Winfrey, begging her to return to featuring contemporary authors in her TV book club.

Fiction sales, they argue, took a recent precipitous decline not because of 9/11, but because Oprah ended her Book Club. And if Oprah brings back the Book Club, focusing on contemporary authors instead of the Great Books/classics she's been doing of late, the Word of Mouth authors seem to believe that fiction sales will begin to climb again.

I'm skeptical. Yes, I suppose that if Oprah starts recommending current books again, then fiction sales will go up a bit, because all of Oprah's fans will rush out, zombie-like, to buy that book, and that's another million or so books that wouldn't have been sold otherwise.

But is there any evidence to suggest that the Oprah Book Club does anything for the sales of any books beyond the Oprah Books themselves? The new work by Oprah authors hasn't sold nearly as well as the Oprah books by those authors, though some authors -- Bohjalian, Mitchard -- have certainly increased their readership from their pre-Oprah levels.

When Oprah's followers go to the bookstore, do they buy other books, or do they simply pick up that month's assigned text and leave?

(And the stores always pile that book at the front of the store; the customers don't even have to look for it. That's silly marketing; if something will sell well, you make the customer venture deep into the store for it, increasing the chance of an impulse buy. That's why supermarkets put the milk in the back.)

If Oprah returns to contemporary fiction, then eight or nine authors will benefit each year, and that's about it. That would not, of course, be a bad thing, but it's rather depressing to see so many people bamboozled into believing that it would be the salvation of contemporary fiction. The Church of St. Oprah may be powerful, but it ain't that powerful.

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