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Join the Club

Oprah’s Book Club may be out of print, but volumes of sequels have sprung up to plug the gap–and the product.

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On April 5, Today Show executive producer Jonathan Wald learned that Oprah Winfrey was canceling the six-year-old book club that energized the fiction-publishing business and created dozens of best-sellers. ”I thought, wow, that’s a great opportunity for us to pick up the ball she’s putting down,” says Wald. ”We make no bones about seizing the opportunity.” Nor, apparently, does Live With Regis and Kelly, Good Morning America, or even the newspaper USA Today — each of which immediately leaped into the vacuum she created. Suddenly, it seems that every Matt, Diane, and Kelly has a specific interest in American reading habits. But are they churning out flashy sequels or long-running series?

”If history has taught us one thing,” says Knopf vice president Paul Bogaards, ”it’s that the box sells books.” He would know. Two of Knopf’s hyped summer titles, Stephen L. Carter’s legal thriller The Emperor of Ocean Park and Ann Packer’s love story The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, were chosen as inaugural morning-show picks. In a culture of instant gratification, who can argue against authors receiving more ink and airtime? ”It’s not The New York Review of Books,” says one top editor, who like others who wished to remain nameless did not want any skepticism to hurt his books’ chances of winning the club spotlight. ”But it brings a level of attention to pretty good books that’s heartening.”

So far, Today, GMA, and USA Today have gravitated toward critically acclaimed fiction with buzz and ad budgets. Carter and Packer both earned coveted covers of The New York Times Book Review before they made their TV debuts. Richard Russo’s Empire Falls won the Pulitzer three days before USA Today made it the club’s first pick, and the paper’s second selection, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, had already been a 30-week fixture on the New York Times best-seller list in hardcover.

The surprise book fairy, the one who’s plucked obscure novels out of the ether and changed authors’ lives a la Oprah, is Kelly Ripa. Reading With Ripa gleefully seeks out trash and judges books on how easy they are to read. ”It’s the equivalent of sharing a chocolate dish,” says one editor. ”It’s almost refreshing — there’s an eat-your-vegetables feel to the morning shows.”

”We’re not surprising people,” Regis and Kelly exec producer Michael Gelman says of the lowbrow embrace. ”We’re not recommending some book that they’re reading going ‘Oh, I thought this was going to be War and Peace.”’ Ripa’s recent selection, Carly Phillips’ The Bachelor, is a $5.99 paperback original.

Another pick, Adele Lang’s Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber, was a first novel with 8,000 copies in print. It’s since gone back to press for another 170,000 copies and popped onto the New York Times best-seller list. ”Kelly Ripa will certainly get a mention in my next book,” says Lang. ”This sort of break will hopefully enable me to actually get an offer by a publisher next time without having to slog my guts out.”

If Ripa is a sales wizard, the other clubs are working magic. ”What the GMA Read This! selection did,” says Knopf’s Bogaards, ”was take the literary cachet of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier and put the broadest possible stamp of approval on it.” Now you can buy Packer’s book at warehouse stores like Costco and Target, which didn’t carry the novel before it was featured on Read This! But at independent shops like Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., there’s been less customer demand: ”The book-club thing is just becoming so diffuse,” says purchasing manager Gerry Donaghy. Oprah was ”a subgenre. People would just come in and say ‘Oh, do you have a place where you keep all your Oprah books?’ Now I think bookstores have to pick their battles. ‘Okay, which book club are we going to hitch our wagon with?”’

Readers trusted Winfrey, but this new crop of clubs isn’t yet guaranteed a similar loyalty. ”It’s interesting to watch these people challenge their readership,” says Donaghy. ”But I’m afraid that if people get turned off after paying $20 to $30 for Stephen Carter because of John Grisham’s advice, the next pick might not carry as much weight.” ”No one in publishing could have predicted the success and longevity of Oprah’s Book Club,” says one publicity director. ”So I think it’s a little premature to pass judgment. Will it be a challenge? Absolutely.”

Will the book-club bandwagon roll on? ”They are really hard-nosed on television,” says an exec editor. ”If their ratings begin to sag on the day they do the book clubs: gone.” It was widely speculated that Oprah canceled her club because of viewer tune-out. ”This isn’t about ratings for us,” protests Today’s Wald. Promises GMA’s Lisa Finkel: ”We’re in it for the long haul.” So if the ultimate goal really isn’t to boost the Nielsens, maybe this is about creating a nation of readers. ”Anything that encourages anybody to read, whether it’s lightweight or not, is a good thing,” says Adele Lang. ”Better that than TV.”

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