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The 'Oprah Effect'


By Wally Lamb

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Regan Books

901 pp., $27.50

Wally Lamb had just come home from the funeral of one of his most-promising students when the phone rang. "I don't think I had even taken my jacket off," he says.

When he picked up the receiver, Oprah Winfrey was on the other end. She was calling to tell him she had chosen his first novel, published five years earlier, for her book club.

In publishing terms, this is like having Ed McMahon show up at your door with a check for several million dollars.

But instead of jumping for joy, Mr. Lamb, who was completely wrung out, told Oprah he had to hang up. "It was the best and worst life can be - all in the same day," Lamb says. "It was too big for me to take in."

Within weeks of being chosen, sales of Lamb's "She's Come Undone," the story of a teenager overcoming rape and self-hatred, skyrocketed. A whopping 3 million copies are now in print. Ordinarily, to get numbers like that, it helps to have "John Grisham" written on the book jacket.

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With a wave of her mike, Oprah sends thousands of books flying off store shelves each month. It's called the "Oprah Effect," and in the publishing industry, it's more powerful than El Nio.

Every month, Oprah chooses one book and does something high school teachers only dream of: get couch potatoes excited about reading. "Books have always sold by word of mouth," says Ellen Hagney, events manager at Barnes & Noble in Braintree, Mass. "It's not that Oprah has the golden touch. [But] she can get the word out to everybody." At least 15 million tune in to "The Oprah Winfrey Show" daily.

Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose "Deep End of the Ocean" kicked off Oprah's book club in 1996, says the Oprah Effect was driven home for her by a couple with a baby she saw in a Wisconsin Pizza Hut. "They were maybe 16 years old. They had all the demographic odds against them," she says. Two weeks later, the couple showed up at a mall book signing - with four copies of Ms. Mitchard's book. "They were doing their Christmas shopping, and they bought one for her mom and his mom and his sister.... And I thought,... this is what that cut-through effect is intended to be."

That's where Oprah comes in. For her fans, experts say, it's like having a friend tell them, "You've got to read this book." "If your friend recommends a book, you're going to buy it," says Ms. Hagney. "People like Oprah. They trust her opinion." And for them, her word is better than all the elegantly phrased praise The New York Times could print.

The result is that some surprising books rub elbows with Stephen King and Anne Rice on the bestseller list.

"It's a boon for women's fiction, it's a boon for serious-minded, tough fiction," says Daisy Maryles, executive editor for New York-based Publisher's Weekly magazine. "Only one or two of the authors had much of a track record before. With the others, they had good reviews, some buzz, but they were not bestsellers until Oprah discovered them."

"It's a kick for anyone who cares about books," Ms. Mitchard says. "It sort of restores books to the [central place they held] when Mark Twain was writing. It's what books are for. To have everybody get all involved with them, and fight about them, and gossip about them."

For gossiping purposes, Oprah has set up a book chat site on America Online, where readers can discuss that month's selection with the authors and other readers.

But Maryles doesn't believe publishers will begin choosing books based on whether they might be contenders for the Oprah crown. "Oprah's so much her own person in what she chooses.... I think it's sort of dangerous when publishers pick books on the basis of whether they're going to be picked [by Oprah]. Once she picks a book, you can go back and do a big printing."

This is what happened when Toni Morrison's 1977 book, "Song of Solomon," was chosen. Plume, the publisher, had to do more than 10 reprintings to meet reader demand.

Figuring out which book will be chosen isn't exactly like predicting where lightning will strike. Chances are, next month's selection won't be by Danielle Steel. "She seems to pick a certain type of book," Maryles says. "They're rather dark, they wring you out.... They deal with major issues - issues of abuse,... rape, incest."

What the Oprah Effect doesn't seem to have, Maryles says, is much of an echo effect. "We haven't seen the same crowd come back for that author's next book." For example sales of Mitchard's "The Most Wanted," which has not been chosen, haven't lived up to expectations.

It's also unclear if the book club can continue to generate such huge sales. "We're already seeing a tapering off," says Jim Berhle, events manager for Waterstone's Booksellers USA. "It mostly depends on what book she chooses. But I don't think it can get as big as it was."

Publishers think so highly of Oprah's ability to sell they print a special Oprah's Book Club logo on trade paperbacks. And national bookstores offer discounts of up to 40 percent on Oprah picks.

But are the book club readers getting hooked on reading in general, or just sticking to Oprah's reading list? Anecdotal evidence seems to support the latter. At a reading for more than 350 people that Lamb gave at Waterstone's bookstore in Boston last month, people would come up to him and say, "Before I read 'She's Come Undone,' I never read books. You've opened up a whole new world for me,' " Mr. Berhle says.

"If that's the effect that Oprah's Book Club has had, that you can give people like Wally Lamb and Kaye Gibbons access to such a wide audience, more power to it."

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