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Oprah turns a new page by opening book club to new authors

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Sep. 24--Oprah Winfrey is welcoming contemporary writers back to her popular book club and that's good news for the authors and their publishers.

Still, even Oprah probably can't do enough to significantly boost the flat sales of the book publishing industry, analysts say.

The popular talk show host said this week that after three years of picking only classic works, she is once again including contemporary writers. Her first pick: "A Million Little Pieces," a memoir of alcohol and drug addiction.

If the past is predictive, the book's author, James Frey, could become a household name. "She has a lot of clout," said stock analyst Donald Trott of Jefferies & Co. in New York.

Indeed, publishers welcomed the return to the book club's original format.

"I'm very grateful she's continuing the book club," said Kathryn Court, president and publisher of Penguin Books, which had two books chosen in the first incarnation of Oprah's Book Club from 1996-2002. "People trust her and if she recommends something they will definitely try it."

The increased marketing of Oprah's picks has already begun. Online bookseller Friday was using Oprah's Book Club and Frey's book as a leading promotional item.

In her book club's first go-round, Winfrey often chose "mid-list'" books by contemporary fiction writers, said Kathleen Rooney, author of "Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America." Mid-list refers to books that were doing OK sales wise.

But after Winfrey picked them--books like Anita Shreve's "The Pilot's Wife" and Bernard Schlink's "The Reader"--the titles became best sellers, said Rooney, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University.

Jim Milliot, business and news director at industry magazine Publishers Weekly, said that a "respectable" new fiction release should sell about 40,000 books annually.

If Oprah chooses a book, sales will easily jump well into the six figures and sometimes past 1 million, he said. "They do phenomenally well."

Winfrey stopped picking contemporary works not long after author Jonathan Franzen said her choices were unsophisticated and appealed too much to women. In September 2001, his book, "The Corrections," had been an Oprah book club pick. After the remarks, Winfrey canceled his scheduled appearance on her show.

Winfrey has said the Franzen flap had nothing do with moving to classics. Rooney, author of the book on Oprah's book club, said she believes Franzen's criticism stung the talk show host, but that it likely wasn't the only reason for the change.

Under the classics format, the Oprah magic continued. James Steinbeck's "East of Eden" saw its sales rise 35-fold in 2003 after being an Oprah pick, Milliot said.

Even sales of William Faulkner's books--dense reads for most--jumped this year after becoming an Oprah pick. Still, the Faulkner sales bump wasn't as much as expected, Rooney said.

And overall, the classics format seemed to be losing steam, she said. "The classics weren't generating widespread enthusiasm. They were no longer interesting television."

Noting that Faulkner does not need help anymore, Martin Littlefield, vice president of Vantage Press in New York, called Oprah's switch "a wonderful thing for current authors."

Vantage has not had one of its books chosen by Winfrey, and Littlefield hopes the talk show host looks beyond the large publishing houses for titles. Knopf Publishing Group at Random House Inc., for example, has published more than a third of the 58 books selected.

Authors and small publishing houses will benefit the most from Winfrey's decision.

Barnes & Noble and other large booksellers probably won't see much of an effect. Jefferies analyst Trott said Barnes & Noble gets only about 4 percent of its sales from best sellers, and that's essentially the area where Winfrey is relevant, he said.

The book industry is a mature business that has grown from about one percent to three percent annually in recent years.

Oprah's decision won't likely have an industry-wide effect, said Barrie Rappaport, chief analyst and manager at Ipsos BookTrends in Chicago. "Will that move the needle on a macro level, not necessarily," she said.

To do that, booksellers have to broaden their audience by attracting people who normally don't buy books and by selling more titles to current customers through better marketing, Rappaport said.

Still, Oprah tends to get more people reading, and "anything that promotes reading is, in my opinion, good," she said.

Staff reporter Ameet Sachdev contributed to this story.


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