Celebrity Book Clubs Are Actually Selling Books

Big, book-loving names like Reese Witherspoon and Jenna Bush Hager are following in Oprah’s footsteps with clubs that drive sales for publishers and give authors the gift of instant success.

“It’s like being hit by lightning,” author Jean Kwok told me from her home in the Netherlands over the phone in September. “It was a career-changing, life-changing event.” In June of this year, Kwok’s third novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, received the golden ticket upon its release: It was the Read With Jenna pick of the month. For a book club that only started in March — when Jenna Bush Hager was named the Today show’s new fourth-hour cohost with Hoda Kotb — Read With Jenna has proven to be a force in the world of publishing. For Kwok, Hager’s approval meant that by the end of the day, after being announced as the book club’s next pick, Sylvie Lee had moved up to No. 3 on Amazon’s list of top-selling books. It became an instant New York Times bestseller, and as of Sept. 9, the book is in its sixth printing.

While those numbers were impressive, Hager’s pick also meant that for the month of June, the avid Today show audience — which averages 4 million people and is composed of — a demographic of adults ages 25–54, would be thinking about her work. “For a book like mine, which I think has multiple entry points,” Kwok said, “you could read it just for the story, as a kind of suspense novel, but it also has a lot of layers about immigration and race.”

The community for Read With Jenna is growing exponentially on Facebook — it’s tripled from 5,000 followers in June to 15,000 followers now — and on Instagram (where it has 42,500 followers). And as the month went on, Kwok found the club to be a beautiful thing. She noticed in the Facebook community “people love reading together, and they say that they’re reading books that they never would’ve picked by themselves. There’s also a lot of people that will say they haven’t read in a very long time — if ever — and the book club has brought them back to reading.”

Hager’s approval meant that by the end of the day, after being announced as the book club’s next pick, Sylvie Lee had moved up to No. 3 on Amazon’s list of top-selling books. It became an instant New York Times bestseller.

At the end of June, Kwok appeared on Today’s Instagram Live and answered questions from readers. She was also interviewed on Today by Hager and Maria Shriver. It was a heady experience for the writer, whose family emigrated from Hong Kong to New York when she was little. “I was a poor, working-class immigrant. Our apartment didn’t even have any central heating, and I worked in a factory in Chinatown ... for most of my childhood,” Kwok said. “Then fast-forward to the Today show, where I got invited to be on the show with these incredible women. Oh my god.” Kwok noted that Hager was an especially astute interviewer with a real knowledge and love of the book: “She’s reading all these books by herself. She got my book because her sister said that she loved it, and was like, ‘You gotta read this.’”

While Hager has the legacy platform of the Today show, she’s not the only public figure whose book recommendations are influencing the bestseller lists. Delia Owens’ debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, a coming-of-age story about a “marsh girl,” Kya, who gets caught up in a murder, would not ordinarily be the sort of book to make most readers take notice: It’s by a 70-year-old unknown author, who lives a remote country life far outside the publishing hub of New York City (and whose previous life as a conservationist in Zambia has raised some concerning issues). Yet for the first half of 2019, Where the Crawdads Sing was the No. 1 bestselling US print title, outranking Michelle Obama’s blockbuster memoir, Becoming, and reaching the milestone of over a million copies in print, with the numbers exploding in e-books and audio.

So how did Crawdads become a breakout novel? Credit certainly goes to the nascent power of the celebrity book club in the age of social media: Reese Witherspoon picked Crawdads for her book club in September 2018, and it received an immediate boost in sales. As reported by Publisher’s Weekly, positive word of mouth made the book sales take off in March.

At a time when celebrity is more personal than ever, with social media enabling public figures to address their fans directly, the list of celebrities recommending books and leading book clubs online is growing. Besides big names like Oprah Winfrey, Hager, and Witherspoon, there are the participatory Instagram book clubs of figures such as Emma Roberts, recently retired Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck — known as “the librarian of the NFL” — and Chicago rapper Noname, who is the daughter of a bookstore owner. There are also influential book recommendation lists from Barack Obama and Sarah Jessica Parker (who also has her own publishing imprint, SJP for Hogarth, and led the American Library Association book club last year). Emma Watson has used her Harry Potter– and UN Women goodwill ambassador–fueled platform to start Our Shared Shelf, a feminist book club group on Goodreads, and musician Florence Welch has had a book club for seven years called Between Two Books. There’s a mutually beneficial payoff to this system — celebrities document their good taste and grow their personal brands, while books and authors get more attention.

On Sept. 17, 1996, Oprah announced the first edition of Oprah’s Book Club on her eponymous talk show: “I want to get the whole country reading again; those of you who haven’t been reading, books are important.” She raved about her pick of the month, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s novel The Deep End of the Ocean, “Y’all are going to have to buy it — I have no [financial] interest in it, but I like the book.” She told her audience that questions could be asked via a PO box address and AOL. She promised to have Mitchard on to discuss the book the following month.

This was the start of what has now been 23 years of reading along with Oprah. The “Oprah touch” has turned unknown writers like Anita Shreve, Edwidge Danticat, Billie Letts, and Barbara Kingsolver into bestsellers, and Jonathan Franzen from an obscure if well-reviewed literary writer into both a bestseller and a self-parody. Over 80 books — debuts, contemporary fiction and nonfiction, classics, and more — have penetrated public consciousness thanks to Oprah’s mighty footprint. On her talk show, she picked a total of 70 books until 2010; after her show ended in 2011, she rebooted Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 in 2012, with Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, as her first pick.

"There’s also a lot of people that will say they haven’t read in a very long time — if ever — and the book club has brought them back to reading.”

Wild, which was released in March 2012, was already a bestseller. But when Oprah picked it, “it was a double shot of espresso,” Strayed told me in a phone interview. In the July 2012 issue of O magazine, Oprah enthused over Wild: “I love this book. I want to shout it from the mountaintop. I want to shout it from the Web. In fact, I love this book so much and want to talk about it so much, I knew I had to reinvent my book club.” This 2.0 version of Oprah’s Book Club was revived for the internet with exclusive reading questions available online, conversations on Twitter and Facebook, and Oprah writing about her favorite passages.

Wild shot to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for the whole summer. “The influence I see with word of mouth is so strong, when readers say to each other that ‘You should read this book,’” said Strayed. “And when someone like Oprah comes along, a lot of people who wouldn’t have necessarily heard of your book get it in their hands, and then they tell their friends, and they tell their friends — it’s how a book spreads.”

Oprah’s Book Club remains a force in publishing, using Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday shows and O magazine to showcase conversations with authors whose books she picks, which have ranged from fiction like Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage to Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Her September pick is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s fiction debut, The Water Dancer. And this fall’s SuperSoul Sunday schedule has a focus on authors, including interviews with Malcolm Gladwell and Chanel Miller, author of Know My Name, the upcoming memoir based on the formerly anonymous rape victim trial statement that was first published on BuzzFeed News in 2016.

In November 2019, expect to see the Oprah Book Club “on steroids,” according to O magazine’s books editor, Leigh Haber. [Full disclosure: I used to freelance for O magazine's website.] Oprah announced a partnership with Apple TV+, and this innovation will bring back an Oprah’s Book Club that has the worldwide reach of her talk show. (The streaming service will launch in over 100 countries.) “There’s an intention to have the book club with a degree of frequency that we haven’t seen in several years,” said Haber. The next authors to be picked for Oprah’s club will be interviewed on an Apple TV+ show.

Adult fiction sales have been in a steep decline for the past decade, falling 16% from 2013 to 2017. This statistic reflects an industry and collective attention span that are both changing as bookstores compete with online options. Conversely, nonfiction books have been in a well-reported boom since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. At the same time, with the explosion of social media, book clubs have been able to move online (join the BuzzFeed Book Club!), finding a niche on Instagram and Facebook with homegrown communities like Well-Read Black Girl and Girls’ Night In.

When it comes to sales and influence in the book industry that rival Oprah’s picks, Reese Witherspoon and Jenna Bush Hager are the breakout stars. Like Oprah, Witherspoon has been a public figure for decades. Witherspoon has expanded her career beyond acting with the lifestyle brand Draper James and the media production company Hello Sunshine, which has made her a force in the publishing world. Hello Sunshine has been at the forefront of adapting women-driven stories from page to screen, from Wild to Emmy winner Big Little Lies and the in-production Hulu miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, based on Celeste Ng’s novel.

Strayed has seen both Oprah and Witherspoon in action. “What they’re doing is born out of a genuine lifelong passion for books,” Strayed said. Witherspoon had optioned Wild as a film — which she ended up starring in — before its publishing date, and it was important for Strayed to have her book developed by people who, among other characteristics, had a love of literature. She said that Witherspoon is “really a reader, such a bookworm. One of the things I’ve seen her say several times over the years, and it’s just the absolute truth, is that ‘writers are my rock stars.’ She really honors writers.”

Since producing 2014’s book-to-film adaptations Gone Girl and Wild, and enthusiastically sharing what she’s reading on Instagram, Reese made her Hello Sunshine book club official in June 2017, beginning with Gail Honeyman’s quirky Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Twenty-eight picks later, she’s been able to propel multiple debut and unknown women authors onto the bestseller list, and it often translates to over 100,000 copies sold. Witherspoon’s taste tends toward upmarket women’s fiction with a commercial bent that ranges from short stories (Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It) to a novel written as a Behind the Music–style oral history (Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six).

The magic of Reese’s Book Club comes from the approach. It isn’t just that Witherspoon is an enthusiastic reader; it’s that if she supports a book, she has a 360-degree plan, said Kristen McLean, a publishing industry analyst with NPD BookScan, whose job it is to understand consumers’ choices and trends within the industry. “Her book club moves and impacts the bestseller list consistently,” McLean said. “Her operation is very well-designed. First she picks really great books, the authors are all women, and more than half are debuts. She has a strong track record of being interested in [Hollywood] projects that are based on books, and she looks to books as resources.” This genuine interest in literature creates a “virtuous circle where she’s bringing these authors to the attention of the public and working with the publishers to create momentum for the authors. Then when projects come out, in whatever form they come out, they will have huge awareness in the mind of potential viewers, and then the books will become bestsellers once again. It’s very smart.” So far, Little Fires Everywhere, Eleanor Oliphant, and Daisy Jones have all been optioned.

By BookScans’ measurements, a pick from Witherspoon means that a book’s sales will overperform by 700% compared to the rest of the fiction market. You can see that effect in action in BookScan’s numbers for the second week of June. Since its paperback release on May 7, Sarah Haywood’s romance The Cactus had sold 354 copies. Once Witherspoon made it her June 2019 pick, it sold 6,219 copies in a week.

Hager’s Today book club has only been up and running for six months; but, with the vast platform of NBC’s morning show and its long-established role in US life, Hager is emerging as, perhaps, the next real tastemaker in the world of publishing. It’s not the first time that Today has had a book club: There was a short-lived one in 2003, which was revived and rebranded 10 years later as an “Oprah-like” Today Book Club in 2013. But the 2013 edition of the Today Book Club also proved to have a limited lifespan. In a New York Times article from 2013, reporter Julie Bosman wrote that the book club was missing a crucial ingredient: “the passionate endorsement of a single person as beloved as Ms. Winfrey, one of the factors that publishers have cited as a key component to the success of Oprah’s Book Club.”

Read With Jenna’s success can be attributed to the enthusiasm of Hager. As the daughter of a librarian, and as a journalist who has been a public figure since her father was president in the ’00s, she understands how to project warmth and interest for the cameras. Her choices have been debut works by diverse writers presented in idiosyncratic packages, discussing such hot-button topics as immigration, queerness, and racism.

By BookScans’ measurements, a pick from Witherspoon means that a book’s sales will overperform by 700% compared to the rest of the fiction market.

Hager’s August selection, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy, is about a queer Jamaican woman who moves to New York, leaving her 5-year-old daughter in the hopes of finding love with her oldest friend. “It was very surreal. I screamed when I saw my book on the TV,” said Dennis-Benn on the phone. “I was humbled and touched to present my book to a wider audience. It was one of the best experiences, so far, of my career.” She continued, “Like every writer, we write for ourselves first — or at least I do, hoping to connect with someone who hasn’t seen their experiences on the page, especially coming from Jamaica and as a woman with a queer identity.” Dennis-Benn calls Hager a great, open reader. “It means so much that she picked Patsy, and was open to having a Patsy in her book club, knowing certain reactions. My work as an author was done, and I’m doing the right thing. Readers can see these issues from up close.” When it was announced as the August pick, Patsy temporarily sold out on Amazon.

I once attended a lecture by the former editor of a big-name literary magazine whose prestige likely outstrips its reach. He said that the reason publishing is in trouble — fiction in particular — is because people used to read newspapers, and the books section in newspapers, and that was how they’d know what books mattered. These days, he continued, people simply don’t know what to read anymore, and they don’t actively seek out books when there are options like television and the internet.

His words seemed to hit a certain truth that I heard echoed by book industry analyst McLean. “I think more people are reading nonfiction because they’re having a hard time settling into a long story. They’re caught up in short-term news, the news cycle where they just cannot look away. Or they’re more engaged and reading more nonfiction, either of the variety of political nonfiction — which had a banner year last year — or stuff like Marie Kondo, where they’re trying to make themselves feel better, so self-help, cooking, leadership, housekeeping.”

In the US, if the country unites around one book-related, cross-cultural phenomenon, it tends to be after the book has been adapted for television (Game of Thrones) or a movie (Gone Girl). But it’s hard to imagine the country uniting around one work of written fiction in the manner that bookish folks fantasize about.

The publishing industry is filled with Eeyores who act as if the sky is falling because major chains are dying, because grifters get too much money for novelty books, because e-books are grabbing a specific market; and with all that doom and gloom, book clubs feel like a singular joy because they shine attention to books that have something of value about them.

It’s a bonus that the heavy hitters, known by just one name to club participants — Reese, Jenna, Oprah — are also driving sales for publishers. These clubs give authors the gift of instant success in a finicky industry, allowing authors to build a career on that freedom, even if some are already famous. Perhaps most importantly, book clubs create a community — and in a fractured world, it’s exciting to see people unite around a work of art.●

Elisabeth Donnelly is a journalist and screenwriter. She has written about books, culture, and other passions for numerous places from Oprah to Topic Magazine to New York City Ballet. You can find her writing at elisabethdonnelly.com. She’s currently working on a nonfiction book about wellness.

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