Winfrey flexes powerful new publishing muscles

By Matthew Flamm
October 25, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Oprah Winfrey announced on her Sept. 17 show that she was starting the world’s ”biggest reading club” — a monthly segment devoted to one book — it was very good news for The Deep End of the Ocean‘s Jacquelyn Mitchard, slated to be the kickoff guest. This summer, after seeing an ad for Deep End, Winfrey sent fiancé Stedman Graham out for a copy, fell in love with it, and called the flummoxed author, who ”thought it was one of my girlfriends fooling around.” It was no joke. After Winfrey said on her show that Deep End would be showcased in the first installment on Oct. 18, the book elbowed aside the new Tom Clancy and soared to No. 1 on best-seller lists.

”Reading books is the single greatest pleasure I have,” Winfrey says of her decision to start the club. ”Wherever we go on vacation, Stedman is the activity guy, and I’m always the girl with the book under the tree.” But Winfrey isn’t just your average constant reader. Over the years, she’s turned her show into the book world’s biggest promotional tool, making household names — and best-selling authors — out of everyone from Marianne Williamson to chef Rosie Daley. The book club debut signaled publishers that Winfrey, who has long focused on nonfiction, would be turning her attention — and her formidable sales clout — to novels.

”Her effect on sales is immediate,” says Bob Miller, publisher of Hyperion. ”When bookstores hear that a book will be featured on Oprah they order more copies, which helps sales leading into the show.” Case in point: Deep End. Since its June publication, Mitchard’s novel had sold steadily — and, with 100,000 copies in print, had even grazed the bottom of a few best-seller lists. Viking, tipped off by Oprah about the book club, went on to print 650,000 more copies — and ensured that retailers were ready when Winfrey made the novel assigned reading to her 9 million daily viewers.

Winfrey acknowledges that some of her book shows plummet in the Nielsens. And, although ”the competition [to get on] is mind-boggling,” says Liz Hartman, publicity director at Pocket Books, not every author who appears on Oprah gets a sales boost — even Winfrey couldn’t help Roseanne’s last autobiography. But with her show miles ahead of its competitors, Winfrey claims ratings aren’t an issue for her. ”If it really tanks, I would just do smaller segments,” Winfrey says. But she believes it will work. ”I love books. It comes across when you do something you really love.”

Winfrey will make most of the book picks herself — in fact, she’s just tapped Toni Morrison’s 1977 Song of Solomon for next month’s show. ”It’s a tough book, but I’m excited about introducing the public to someone of her caliber,” says Winfrey, who’s a fan of the Nobel Prize-winning author. She’s also a shrewd businesswoman; Winfrey plans to star in and produce a film version of Morrison’s Beloved, and raising the author’s profile can only help. As for Winfrey’s December book, it will remain a secret, known only to her and her producers — and one writer who’s about to send book buyers off the deep end.