Move Over, Oprah

Joy Jacobson

Within hours of Oprah Winfrey's announcement on April 5 that she'd made her last monthly book club selection—her 46th since the club was launched in 1996—the talk-show host's Web site registered dozens of postings from disbelieving club members. "I feel like something in me just died," wrote one. "I am so afraid that without this book club I will slide into reading Nora Roberts and Barbara Delinsky," wrote another. But Winfrey's disciples weren't the only ones in shock. Writers, publishers, and bookstore owners who have profited a great deal from the success of Oprah's Book Club reeled from the news as well, for nothing else could elevate a book to the status of best-seller quite like it.

"Choosing a book on a regular basis was beginning to feel to me like an obligation instead of a pure joy," said Winfrey of her decision. Several other national venues, it turned out, were all too ready to assume the burden. On April 8 NBC's Today show announced its plan for a monthly book-club segment, followed by announcements on April 11 by USA Today and on April 25 by Live With Regis and Kelly.

Today had been awaiting this opportunity for some time. "As soon as we heard Oprah was stepping out, we made our decision," said Allison Gollust, a spokesperson for the show. "It's always seemed like a good fit for our morning program, but we just didn't think there was room for two national monthly book clubs." Indeed, it's likely that many of The Oprah Winfrey Show's 7 million daily viewers wake up to Today, which has 6 million daily viewers. Launched in June and slotted for 8:30 A.M., a time when Today's audience is mostly female, the club invites a best-selling author to introduce a book of fiction or nonfiction written by a relative unknown. A month later the author joins readers for an on-air discussion moderated by Katie Couric or Matt Lauer.

USA Today book critic Bob Minzesheimer, in an article introducing the daily newspaper's book club, countered Winfrey's claim that she had found it "harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share." Minzesheimer wrote, "With respect to Winfrey, we disagree." USA Today's inaugural book-club selection was Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Empire Falls. "Oprah's books were all about Oprah and her reading interest," said USA Today book editor Carol Memmott. "We hope to have a much broader appeal." Travelers represent a good percentage of the national newspaper's readers—businesspeople as well as vacationers—and Memmott sees the club as a way "to help people, men and women, decide what they like to read." The club features monthly online chats with authors and weekly questions in the newspaper's "Life" section to which readers can respond on the Web. The club also calls for written book critiques from readers, which are then considered for publication.

Reading With Ripa, led by Live With Regis and Kelly cohost Kelly Ripa, debuted on May 21 with a 10-minute discussion of Cosmopolitan editor Kate White's murder mystery If Looks Could Kill, which Ripa had proudly christened "beach trash." Sales of the book soared within days of Ripa's announcement that it was to be featured—from number 7,000 on to number 1—attesting to the zeal of the show's 3.5 million daily viewers. (Book-club members are known as "Ripheads.")

While it seems the concept of the national book club will outlast Winfrey, there is a less publicized casualty of her club's demise: the American Library Association. Winfrey had arranged for publishers to donate 10,000 copies of each of her selections to the association's member libraries, which in turn sponsored book-club discussions. The association is attempting to secure similar deals with the new book clubs, said spokesperson Gerald Hodges, but none was confirmed as of this writing.

So what's next? Diane Sawyer chatting up Harold Bloom on the merits of Middlemarch? It's not likely. ABC's Good Morning America has no immediate plans to launch its own book club, though it will continue to report on existing book clubs around the country, said spokesperson Lisa Finkel. And time will tell whether Winfrey's decision marked "a sad day for the literary world," as one fan put it, or whether it opened new doors for readers, and thus for writers.

Joy Jacobson is a poet and editor who lives in Brooklyn.