The Oprah Effect and White Oleander
Janet Fitch's White Oleander was not necessarily the most likely of bestsellers. There are some books whose bestseller status we can predict before they even hit the market. Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Steven King to name a few. They are usually not too difficult to read, appeal to a wide audience, and are written by established authors. For the rest of the novels out there, like White Oleander, whether or not they will reach the top of the New York Times Bestseller list is like popcorn in the pan. Some books pop and some, don't. That is unless of course they are stamped with the "Oprah's book club" seal of approval. Within weeks of Oprah announcing her new book club selection, it is almost guaranteed that the book will reach bestseller status. "Since its debut in September 1996, Oprah's Book Club has been responsible for 28 consecutive best sellers. It has sold more than 20 million books and made many of its author's millionaires. It has earned the publisher's roughly $175 million dollars in revenue," (Max). When White Oleander by Janet Fitch was chosen in 1999 for the club, the book jumped from just 25, 000 copies in print, to one million. This is the kind of exposure publishers and authors alike dream of. And only Oprah seems to have the golden touch. But what is even more phenomenal is the type of books that she is giving the opportunity to reach bestseller status. These are not simply the thrillers that we are used to. The book club includes no "novels of soldiers in war or old men dealing with mortality," (Max). Winfrey's canon does not conform to the traditional top runners of a bestseller list or what the literary community of New York fashions as making a lasting impression on the literary world. "She draws from a separate sense of what an important book is," (Max). According to Oprah herself, she "wants to expose people to books that matter, books that in some way touch the self." (Max). As a result of this most of the books that she chooses are written by women and about women and pertain to gritty themes such as suffering at the hands of rape, mental, or physical abuse. This makes sense given that Oprah's viewing audience is predominantly female. But it also brings a whole new genre up to the top of the bestseller list. And White Oleander fits perfectly within that genre. The story of a young girl named Astrid who has been torn apart from her beautiful, yet dangerous mother because she was convicted of murdering her lover. The story documents Astrid's journey through the Los Angeles foster care system as she bounces from one unfit foster parent to another. But remarkably Astrid survives, learns something about herself, and eventually flourishes with art as a young adult. And this seems to be just the theme that ties each of Oprah's book club selections together. Survival. For this reason a novel by an unheard of author about a young girl's emotional quest for love and search for identity flew to the top of almost every bestseller list there was, became an international success, and was later made into a major motion picture.
White Oleander was chosen just two weeks after it was released, so it is difficult to tell exactly how it would have fared without being an Oprah book club selection. The fact that it remained on the bestseller list for quite some time even after it's month with Oprah had come and gone and also that it was extremely successful with international marketing, suggests that the novel is certainly able to stand on it's own. What Oprah did do, though, was call major attention to a novel by a little known author who most certainly did not expect this sort of recognition. But just how is an Oprah book club book chosen and how exactly did White Oleander wind up on the menu. Winfrey emphasizes on TV that she personally loves every selection. And she is actually highly involved in the process of selection. However, anyone who understands the full impact of what being Oprah means, probably also understands that she cannot be doing all of the reading alone. The actual process is highly advanced, highly secretive, but overall tends to produce a similar genre of novels time after time. According to Allison McGee who helps screen novels for the Oprah selections there are boxes of candidates that are read both by Oprah and staff members before an actual selection is made. "The books come from a number of sources: McGee and Hudson screen books, as do various producers and assistants under them," (Max). Some novels are even recommended by authors who have already been featured in the club. For instance, Wally Lamb an author previously chosen for his novel She's come undone recommended Bret Lott's Jewel. But Winfrey actually does most of the reading and the choosing herself. "Staffers give the books a rating between 1 and 10, then pass it on to Winfrey. Her vote trumps all," (Max). Because of the tremendous impact a selection can have on both sales and acclaim, many publishers seek out their novels being selected and will submit potential choices to the committee of selectors. This is in fact just how White Oleander was selected, however, the notion is widely held among publishing companies and editors that Oprah is far too important too submit to directly. Instead, "books are typically shipped to McGee -- whose name every New York book publicist knows, although few have met her. They speculate about McGee's taste. "I think she likes light-but-not-too-light novels by not-so-well-known female writers that have a happy ending," one publicist said," (Max). And even then there are rumors about what the most effective way to submit a novel is. For instance some believe that a novel has a better chance if submitted by an editor rather than the publishing company. The selection of White Oleander seemed to give some validity to this rumor. "Judy Clain, an editor at Little, Brown, sent a copy of "White Oleander" to Kate Forte, the president of Harpo Films, who read it on vacation with Winfrey. Oprah borrowed it, enjoyed it and chose it for the club," (Max). Once White Oleander was chosen, it didn't take long before it was a national and then international success. Copies in print quickly jumped to one million, and in fact this was one of the more remarkable jumps made by any of the books chosen. "Mother of Pearl," by Melinda Haynes, went instantly from 10,000 in print to 760,000. "White Oleander" jumped from 25,000 to one million. "Vinegar Hill," by A. Manette Ansay, jumped from 18,000 copies to 875,000,"(Max). White Oleander was actually one of the only novels that jumped so quickly to one million.
With these huge changes in numbers, it would seem that the publishing companies would be under extreme duress to keep up. However due to the lengthy process of selection and the implications for the huge demands the companies seemed to have learned to keep up. Once a selection has been made, Oprah calls the author to tell them and McGee usually calls the publicist. However, strict confidentiality must be maintained before the book is revealed to the public. The publishing company must sign a confidentiality agreement and the authors are instructed as to whom they may and may not tell. Without the surprise factor in revealing a book publishers might loose the major rush to buy the book so this sort of agreement seems to be to their advantage. But once the book is selected the real wheeling and dealing begins. And the numbers can be somewhat astounding. "The publisher supplies 500 copies of the book for the studio audience and is asked to donate 10,000 more copies of the book to libraries," (Max). The publisher then solicits orders from booksellers -- but since booksellers don't even know what they are ordering, they order roughly the same amount for each book: 650,000 of a hardcover, 800,000 of a paperback. "The whole thing is surreal," says Terry Adams, Breena Clarke's editor. You're producing and shipping 600,000 copies of a book under an oath of silence,"(Max). But that also explains just how sure fire a way to the top of the charts it is to have your book chosen by Oprah. The fact that 14,000, 000 copies of a book are bought and sold simply as a starting point can pretty much single handedly substantiate the so-called Oprah effect. And for White Oleander signing for a major motion picture came shortly after. Though the process of selection within Oprah's book club is intense for both author and publisher, the companies have learned to accommodate so well because of what it can mean for them financially. Editor and chief Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown, and company, the publisher of White Oleander boasted in an interview that they were having a record year. Winfrey had chosen two other books besides White Oleander from the publishing company, "The Pilot's Wife," by Anita Shreve, and Breena Clarke's "River, Cross My Heart." "In so doing, Winfrey bestowed Little, Brown with approximately $6million in profits -- a third of the publisher's profits for the year," (Max). For what may have been only marginally popular novels, it is quite amazing that together they brought in a third of the companies profit. And given that these three novels of similar genre had such enormous popularity, Oprah also seems to be paving the road with new possibilities for this type of writer.
But once Oprah has chosen a novel, is it simply that Oprah says-this novel is great go out and get yourself a copy- that makes them so enormously popular, or is it something more? There does seem to be a certain of amount of reach that the books have simply because of the fact that Oprah is endorsing them. Oprah fans seem to have an enormous amount of loyalty, and for all of the other national campaigns that she has gotten her viewers started on, it is no surprise that they would listen to her about book selections. "For her fans, experts say, it's like having a friend tell them, "You've got to read this book." "If your friend recommends a book, you're going to buy it," says Ms. Hagney. "People like Oprah. They trust her opinion." And for them, her word is better than all the elegantly phrased praise The New York Times could print," (Zipp). However, there is more to it that just Oprah saying this is a good book. The manor in which she presents the books makes them incredibly accessible to readers and encourages people to read even if they have not picked up a novel in years. It is almost as if the talk show has created a full-proof system for introducing, discussing, and analyzing the book. And the genre of novels she has chosen, only make her method more effective. She treats the novels as "a springboard for self reflection," (Max). Max points out that there is something odd about this. "Aren't novels about stepping outside one's experience," (Max)? But Oprah seems to have stumbled upon a trick that works incredibly well for novels like White Oleander. "She focuses the discussion on the viewer's and her response. Winfrey's own reactions tend to be the most vivid," (Max). And in this way she brings home novel after novel to readers that may previously have felt distant or unapproachable.
Oprah also seems to have another trick to pull readers in. She intentionally chooses readers to discuss the novel who are almost similar to characters to the book. Or who at least already have some sort of emotional tie to the plot of the novel. By doing this she is able to pull audience members and potential readers more deeply into the book, encouraging them to read it. For instance, with White Oleander, the discussion was set up with four women whose careers or personal lives made it possible for them to easily relate to the novel. "Two guests, Nancy and Beth, grew up in troubled homes. Chris was a foster-care parent, Linda a social worker. "The lives of our guests this month seem to come right from the pages of 'White Oleander,"' Winfrey began, as if this were not her doing. She then asked the women how the book affected them." As the discussion progressed, Oprah would present quotes from the novel and ask, "How do you think that made this twelve year old feel?" or "How does she rise above this" "What were Astrid's thoughts when?" (Book discussion from Oprah's book club Sept 1-15, 1999). The questions seem to run a little like a high school test, except personal reactions are not only acceptable they are encouraged. For those viewers who have already read the book they can participate right along with the discussion. "It sort of restores books to the [central place they held] when Mark Twain was writing. It's what books are for. To have everybody get all involved with them, and fight about them, and gossip about them," (Zipp). And very people would disagree with the fact that this is a very positive effect. But it is also a great marketing tool. It goes right along with the idea that you are more likely to read a book that a friend has recommended. Not only do you trust her opinion, but also you know that you will have someone to discuss the novel with after the fact. So now even viewers at home feel they are involved in the discussion. The presentation of the novel is also pieced together with how it affected the women's personal lives. Chris, who had been foster mom to thirty children contributed. "It made me see foster children differently," Chris said. "I thought I was this great foster mom who did all the right things?But I don't think I really did, ever, until I read this book. I could have done better." The camera was in close. Chris's eyes glistened," (Max). She even seems to compare one of her newly arriving foster children to Astrid, the girl in the novel. "Thinking of Astrid's difficulties, she approached the new child differently. "The things I talked to her about, the questions I asked her, made her open up to me. I got so far in so short a time," (Max). She even goes so far as to suggest that the novel was more useful to her than all the self-help books out there, "I can't believe this book is fiction," (Max). And just like that, the novels, like most everything else on Oprah's talk show, are marketed as self-help. She helps sell these books by their focusing on their possibility for life changing revelation.
Max points out in his article that "Winfrey didn't invent the kind of fiction she promotes -- a genre Marty Asher, the editor in chief of Vintage Books, calls "accessible literary fiction." Publishers have been selling it for 15 years with some success, especially since the breakthrough of "The Color Purple," (Max). And this may be true, but she certainly did make it a lot more popular. And in a way she did actually reinvent the genre. The supposed "accessible literary fiction" for at least sixty minutes seems to become Oprah's new self-help genre. A genre of novels that can help shed light on something about ourselves, and can give us a feeling of a shared experience. They seem on one level or another to relate to us all because we can all relate to pain. In White Oleander, most any reader can find a moment where they can relate to Astrid's displacement or her isolation, or feeling that our loved ones are in some state of lunacy. What Oprah does is simply point out to us how easy it is to relate. But the question then becomes is Oprah almost taking something away from the novel's or their authors by bringing them on the show. Is she claiming what was once the author's as her own? "In some ways, she has excited less a reading revolution than a cult of personality," (Max). Jacqueline Michard author of Deep End of the Ocean, an Oprah book club selection points out that, "If you send my name to the 900,000 who bought 'Deep End of the Ocean' because of Oprah, it will mean nothing to them. There's no carryover. You learn quickly Oprah's the brand name, not you." And for this reason authors must be careful. When Fitch releases her next novel, which she is currently working on perhaps she will learn the same painful lesson, but perhaps not. In the mean time, though, Fitch is likely all too thrilled with the acclaim and profit she has received, even if it is made possible in part by the exposure with Oprah's Book Club. That is just the nature of bestsellers, anyways. Sometimes their moment is fleeting and sometimes recognition is a result of some phenomenon other than the content of the novel. But in this case Oprah seems at least to only be endorsing quality fiction that might not otherwise get a chance to shine. "It's a boon for women's fiction, it's a boon for serious-minded, tough fiction," says Daisy Maryles, executive editor for New York-based Publisher's Weekly magazine," (Zipp). Oprah is not after all bringing the latest Danielle Steele novel onto the show for discussion. Instead she is focusing on emotionally poignant novels meant to illicit a response about the characters and perhaps about ourselves. Besides, "if that's the effect that Oprah's Book Club has had, that you can give people like Wally Lamb and Kaye Gibbons access to such a wide audience, more power to it," (Zipp). And in the case of White Oleander, as usual Oprah seems to have chosen a winner.