Oprah Winfrey, patron saint of the publishing world, delivered a blow to publishers Friday by suspending her monthly book club.
The talk show host told her TV audience that Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel, “Sula,” will be the last monthly selection of the club.
“It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share,” Winfrey said in a statement. “I will continue featuring books on The Oprah Winfrey Show when I feel they merit my heartfelt recommendation.”
Although a spokesperson told Daily Variety the book club has not ended, but rather will be suspended as a monthly event, publishers were in a somber mood Friday.
“As an industry, we’ll have to move on,” said Random spokesman Stuart Applebaum. “Bless Oprah for having done it this long. Would that she were doing it forever. We may never see its like again in the influence it had on book sales, its impact on booksellers, publishers, and on a lucky author’s bottom line.”
When she founded the book club in 1996, Winfrey gave a huge booster shot to trade publishers at a time when sales of literary fiction — Winfrey’s favorite genre — had hit a plateau.
A book’s selection — the publishing equivalent of winning the lottery — often meant a sales increase by a million copies or more.
Joyce Carol Oates’ “We Were the Mulveneys,” an Oprah book club pick last year, sold 1.5 million copies in trade paperback. Alice Hoffman, Wally Lamb and Jacquelyn Mitchard are among the dozens of authors who’ve received Winfrey’s seal of approval.
Oprah picks were always veiled in secrecy, forcing publishers to devise a mechanism for instantly, and secretly, reprinting books in huge numbers.
Indeed, Winfrey is so powerful a voice in American culture, that she’s widely credited with having expanded the boundaries of American bookselling, by driving into bookstores masses of people who wouldn’t otherwise buy books.
She also drove book sales into new venues. In 1998, Starbucks began selling Oprah pics.
Publishers say sales of book club selections have begun to diminish in recent years, from one million copies to roughly 700,000 copies. And while certain types of books — personal narratives of hardship, poverty and family dysfunction — were especially popular with Winfrey, publishers could never count on a selection.
“The real impact,” said one publishing exec, “will be at the store level. Booksellers have grown used to throngs of people coming stores once every six weeks” looking for the latest book to receive Winfrey’s blessing.