When they write the book on book publishing, they’ll cover the giants of the industry: Gutenberg. Scribner. And, of course, Oprah. At least, if this year was any indication. For 1996 saw Oprah Winfrey, the Chicago-based chat-show host, the onetime pioneer of confessional TV, become the most powerful force in the business of literature. First, she proved once again that her name on a book jacket was gold. Make the Connection, the photo-packed hardcover she coauthored with her personal trainer, Bob Greene, muscled up to No. 1 — a spot also held in 1994 by In the Kitchen With Rosie, by Winfrey’s chef, Rosie Daley. ”The publishers are approaching everyone, including my laundress,” says Winfrey, 42. But even more impressive was her ability to move any darn book she liked onto the best-seller list simply by plugging it on her eponymous syndicated pulpit. If Oprah’s monthly Book Club, which made its debut in September, featured a textbook on aardvarks, you can bet it would fly off the shelves.
So far, the chosen tomes (Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Jane Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth) have seen their print runs increase to over 2.3 million copies, more than three times their pre-Oprah figures. ”The best thing about it is the thousands of letters from people who hadn’t picked up a book in 20 years,” says Winfrey. ”Some literally made me weep.”
Leave it to Winfrey, the highest-paid entertainer in the world (snagging a reported $97 million this year), to turn literary yackety-yack into riveting TV. The Book Club combines an author interview and clips from a dinner with four fans (sometimes we even get a Martha Stewart-style peek at the risotto). The discussion wouldn’t be mistaken for a Princeton grad-student seminar; the approach is more girlfriend to girlfriend, laced with the occasional this-book-changed-my-life tale.
Still, it is about books. And as such, it’s the latest brilliant example of how Winfrey has reinvigorated her show by swearing off trash TV. ”All the program managers around the country were saying ‘What are you talking about, the high road?”’ remembers Winfrey, whose shows now have themes like ”Are We Too Rude?” and ”Happy Anniversary.” ”But Stedman [Graham, her leading man for 10 years] kept saying to me, ‘It will pay off.”’ And it did: After an initial dip, the ratings this year rose, almost doubling those of her nearest competitor, Live With Regis and Kathie Lee.
Not coincidentally, this was also the year Winfrey landed enough A-list celeb interviews to make Barbara Walters bawl. Take a glance at her roster: John F. Kennedy Jr. (”I remember sitting in my chair and telling myself, Just keep breathing,” says Winfrey), Barbra Streisand (”I didn’t want it to be just one of those kvelling interviews….I wanted to give her her propers first, then we could go on”), the surprisingly engaging Artist Formerly Known as Prince (”Now I call him His Highness”), and Fergie (”It was like talking to myself — I would have been kicked out of the palace too”).
Indeed. Nobody knows royalty better than Oprah.