I’m weeping bitterly,” says publisher Judith Regan. ”I’ve taken to my bed. Get the smelling salts. You think I’m kidding?” Regan, who edited Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, the 19th selection of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, is bemoaning publishing’s black Friday, when the club ended a six-year run that revived a hurting industry and sold countless millions of copies of literary novels. ”This is the end…,” Oprah told her aghast April 5 studio audience. ”From now on, when I come across something I feel absolutely compelled to share, I will do that, but it will not be every month….” Winfrey’s 48th and final pick, Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, rocketed to No. 10 on Amazon.com within 20 minutes of being selected.
Winfrey’s decision will reverberate in publishing houses and in bookstores (which reaped huge collateral benefits since Book Club followers would often buy other books once a Winfrey pick got them into the store). But it may be most shattering to authors, who routinely saw their sales increase by 500,000 to well over a million volumes after being selected. (Not to mention the movie sales and hefty contracts for future books that often followed.) ”Oprah did the literary equivalent of inventing penicillin,” says Scribner VP and director of publicity Pat Eisemann. ”Honestly, how many people would have read so many of these wonderful books without her?”
Winfrey’s tastes ranged from Bernhard Schlink (The Reader, appropriately) to first-time novelist Christina Schwarz (Drowning Ruth), from Joyce Carol Oates to the infamously conflicted Jonathan Franzen. ”I shared that show with some quintuplets from Chicago,” remembers Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose Deep End of the Ocean was the club’s first pick. ”When sales went bananas, people said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute!’… Nobody else in show business or the literary world has that across-the-board appeal.” Except, perhaps, for America’s sweetheart Katie Couric. A shrewd NBC jumped on Oprah’s news, announcing plans to launch a Today show book club in June. And publishers everywhere rejoiced.