Chapter not closed completely

April 10, 2002|By Renee Tawa | Renee Tawa,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was bad enough for the book industry that Oprah Winfrey announced on Friday that she would not continue her star-making book club in its current form. But in the eyes of some, the reason Winfrey gave - after championing the book world for so long - smarts.

"It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share," Win- frey said in a statement about why she was ending Oprah's Book Club.

Nora Rawlinson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, said she found Winfrey's comment "very disappointing, and I think publishers will, and should, take offense at that."

Winfrey began her book club in September 1996, personally reading and selecting each book that gets a featured spot on her TV show. Each of her selections has become best sellers. Her choices have included books written by famous names including Toni Morrison and Isabel Allende.

She also has singled out unknowns including first-time novelists Christina Schwarz for Drowning Ruth and Janet Fitch for White Oleander.

"For every book she picked," Rawlinson noted, "it was a guaranteed sale of 600,000 to 800,000 copies on top of what the books already sold. That's a significant number in publishing."

Winfrey's influence is such that when one of the authors she recently chose for her book club reacted with ambivalence - some would say, a highbrow disdain - a huge to-do ensued. Last year, Winfrey named The Corrections, a novel by literary hotshot Jonathan Franzen, as one of her selections. But Franzen complained, for which he later apologized, that he wasn't happy about having the Oprah Book Club sticker on his book, and that some of Winfrey's choices have been "schmaltzy."

As a result, Winfrey canceled his appearance on her show.

According to a New York Times story in October 2001, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published 90,000 copies of The Corrections, and printed 680,000 more after it made Oprah's list, 500,000 of which could be attributed to the endorsement. At a retail price of $26 each, then, the endorsement has meant about $13 million in gross sales.

Although Winfrey no longer will make regular picks - her book club selections had been less frequent, even before Friday's announcement - she will consider featuring books that she feels strongly about, a spokeswoman said.

The fact Winfrey has not closed the door is good news, said Patricia Johnson, vice president of Knopf Publishing. "We are clearly all very saddened," Johnson said. "Oprah did an absolutely amazing job of bringing really good books to a breadth of audience that many of these books would not have reached."

Renee Tawa is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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