Oprah speaks, they buy Boost: If Oprah mentions a book on her show, its sales soar. Publishing houses are eager to put their books in her hands.

September 27, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

On Sept. 17, Caroline Knapp, author of "Drinking: A Love Story," appeared on the last 10 minutes of "Oprah," a talk show famous for its ability to create best sellers.

Sure enough, the Oprah magic touched Knapp, whose memoir from Dial Press, a critical success that had been off and on the best-seller lists throughout the summer, jumped back on. On Oct. 6, the book will appear at No. 10 on the New York Times best-seller list -- its highest ranking ever.

But the bounce Knapp received seems almost puny when compared to that experienced by another writer mentioned on the same show -- Jacquelyn Mitchard, the first writer chosen for a new monthly "book club" segment on the talk show. Mitchard's novel, "The Deep End of the Ocean" (Viking), which won't even appear on the New York Times list this Sunday, will be No. 1 on Oct. 6. It is already the best-selling hardcover novel in the country, according to yesterday's USA Today.

The "Oprah effect" has long been legendary in publishing circles. Booking a writer on the Chicago-based show is seen as a major marketing coup, inspiring sales forces to push the books harder. But the new book club segment has raised the stakes even higher.

And Mitchard hasn't even had her real "Oprah" moment yet. When the segment finally airs in October, the author and her book will be featured for an entire hour -- which should generate more sales.

Viking, publisher of "Deep End," had printed an additional 145,000 copies before the Sept. 17 show, according to Publisher's Weekly, for a total of 240,000 in print. That still wasn't enough to meet demand created by Winfrey's 15 million viewers.

At local bookstores, requests for the book spiked up sharply after the Sept. 17 show. "We've had three times the sales we had since the show aired," says Sara Hill, inventory manager for Borders Books & Music in Towson.

Not surprisingly, Winfrey's new book club feature is seen as the brass ring for publicity and marketing departments at publishing houses, although details about the format are sketchy.

Deborah Johns, a publicist for the show, said only that Winfrey will select books "she's read and she's loved." The show is not actively soliciting suggestions.

That won't keep publishing houses from pitching them.

"Of course, we're marshaling our forces to figure out which books of ours would be right for her and her audience," said Jane Biern of HarperCollins in New York. "I think it's very exciting. She's finally making reading and television dovetail."

"It means a lot, we're really excited about it," said Susie Leness, a senior publicist at Vintage Books, a paperback division of Random House in New York. "We feel someone with as much influence and power as Oprah will only benefit reading and books in general, not just the books she features."

While a first for television, the broadcast book club has been tried on radio. National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" already features an on-air book club and the Washington-based "Diane Rehm Show" plans to start one next month.

But does Winfrey do more for books and authors than other media outlets? The Mitchard case would seem to indicate as much. After all, there had been no shortage of publicity for the first-time novelist, a newspaper columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel whose personal story is as compelling as her fictional tale about a family that loses a child.

Widowed three years ago, the 43-year-old mother of four drafted pages of a novel that came to her in a dream, landing a two-book contract with Viking for a reported $500,000. She then sold the movie rights -- of both the novel and her own life story -- to actress Michelle Pfeiffer.

Several television programs and magazines featured Mitchard and her story when the book was published in June. Reviews were generally good. But "The Deep End of the Ocean" peaked at No. 14 on the New York Times best- seller list, B.O. (before Oprah).

Still, "Oprah" is not a sure thing for every author.

For example, the exposure did little for Marion Winik, whose memoir of her marriage to a gay man, "First Comes Love," (Pantheon) became the basis for a show taped April 25. But instead of focusing on Winik's book (or getting her last name right when she introduced her), Winfrey made her part of a show on women with gay husbands. Or, as the scroll of letters on the screen announced: "Today we meet women who have had the experience everyone dreads, when they hear their husbands say these words: Honey, I'm gay."

A commentator for NPR, Winik used the experience for an essay, which happened to be broadcast this week on "All Things Considered."

"I begin a mental list," she wrote. "Top 10 lies Oprah told me. Lie No. 10: We are doing a show on your book. Lie No. 9: There will be delicious low-fat snacks in the green room. ... I have the terrible feeling I already know Lie No. 1: Of course we'll read your book."

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