Commentary: Why Oprah Opens Readers' Wallets

She offers the guidance and sense of community bookstores no longer provide

How does Oprah Winfrey do it? And why does no one else -- TV pundit, critic, or retailer -- have anything like her influence among book readers? On Sept. 22, Winfrey announced that the next pick for her television book club would be James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of alcohol, drug addiction, and detoxification. Within four days, club aficionados bought 85,000 copies, reckons publisher Anchor Books. An additional 615,000 books bearing the Oprah's Book Club seal await purchasers at stores.

Winfrey's actions have inspired so many book-buying frenzies that we are no longer fazed. She has repeatedly proved herself to be the arbiter of literary taste for millions of Americans, turning classics such as John Steinbeck's East of Eden into overnight million-sellers and making sensations out of lesser-known works such as Mary McGarry Morris' Songs in Ordinary Time.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Oprah phenomenon is how outsized her power is compared with that of other market movers. Some observers suggest that Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show could be No. 2. Other proven arm-twisters include Fox News's Sean Hannity, National Public Radio's Terry Gross, radio personality Don Imus, and CBS' 60 Minutes. But no one comes close to Oprah's clout: Publishers estimate that her power to sell a book is anywhere from 20 to 100 times that of any other media personality.

Reviews can sell books, too, but they tend to be more nuanced than the broadcast media. The New York Times Book Review is generally believed to contain the most influential criticism -- there "even a bad review can sell 6,000 books," says Russell Perreault, Anchor Books publicity director. But HarperSanFrancisco Associate Publisher Claudia Riemer Boutote is quick to add that, no matter what the publication, a rave review that truly boosts sales is "few and far between." What publishers want is what Oprah invariably delivers: unconditional praise. Oprah loves to say: "Read this book!"

It all boils down to the difficulty many people have in discovering a new read. Sure, many readers find searching at online-bookseller sites, trolling the aisles at superstores, or getting recommendations from book-loving clerks at the waning number of old-fashioned independent stores to be wonderful. Yet Oprah's huge following proves that these approaches simply don't work for legions of others.

When many readers want to delve into something weightier than the latest John Grisham or Danielle Steel, they're stumped. A flood of advice is available from critics, bloggers, podcasters, and pundits. A big bookstore only adds to the confusion, with its profusion of volumes bearing blurbs from esteemed publications and brand-name cultural commissars.

Adding to the difficulty is the decline in the number of store personnel able to make worthwhile recommendations. Moreover, it's no secret that the most prominently displayed books -- piled near the front door or turned face-out on a shelf -- often score their exposure as a result of payments from publishers, not because of store managers' enthusiasm. Even if bookstore patrons aren't aware of this merchandising stratagem, they may sense the absence of the personal touch.

In the end, the browser may figure, I'll just try one -- a gamble that may cost (gulp) $30. Buyer's regret often ensues. Then the same reader happens to try an Oprah-endorsed book. Bingo: That was pretty good. Chalk up another book-club believer.

So Winfrey provides what's missing in stores and online. She also creates communities of readers, ensuring that no one need face brain benders like William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury all alone. The books often contain "something so amazing you can't wait to share it," says Rachel Bensadia of New York City, whose book club reads Winfrey's picks. "Reading is a solitary experience, but it can also be very much about creating a community." No one has been able to singlehandedly connect readers and sell books quite like Oprah has.

By Hardy Green

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.