We’d Be Better Off If Oprah Quit Last Friday

By Neal Comment

It wasn’t long after talk show host Oprah Winfrey‘s announcement of her intention to retire in 2011 that publishing insiders began referring to her departure as “a blow” to the industry, one from which it would be difficult if not impossible to recover. “We probably won’t see something else to match its overall potential impact on book sales in the broadcast arena any time soon,” Random House‘s Stuart Applebaum told the Wall Street Journal. “Happily she enjoys reading books and wants to persuade her viewership to enjoy them as much as she does. It’s not a characteristic shared by any other TV personalities with her persuasiveness.”

Now, we fully concede that you could shoot down just about anybody else on television by saying they don’t have “her persuasiveness,” but still, the suggestion that Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert aren’t doing their bit to put books into American readers’ hands is… well, it’s just not right. Beyond that, though, maybe it’s not outrageous to question how helpful Winfrey’s book club has really been to publishing, beyond the obvious sales boost it gave to nearly 70 books over the years.

Some of Winfrey’s impact on America’s reading culture is probably impossible to quantify, like Edwige Danticat‘s assertion (in the WSJ article) that “she makes reading seem democratic, within everyone’s reach, and also a lot of fun.” But it would be possible—if you had ready access to Nielsen Bookscan—to get some sense of her broader impact on book sales. After the summer of 2005, for example, how many people moved on to the William Faulkner books Oprah hadn’t recommended? How are the novels Cormac McCarthy wrote before The Road doing? (Granted, No Country for Old Men has had attention-grabbing opportunities of its own.) Or, take it further back: How are Oprah picks of the late 1990s, like Danticat or Chris Bohjalian, faring today—how many readers have stayed with them over the years? (That’d be an admittedly tricky question to answer, because you’d have to balance any attrition against the new readers the author might have gained over the course of his or her career, without that sticker having appeared on one book, simply by virtue of being as good as he or she is.)

What really annoys us, though, is the whiff of defeatism that clings to these public statements about “losing” Winfrey, the same way we got annoyed at “What’ll we do without Harry Potter?” chatter or “OMG, what if Dan Brown never delivers that new novel?” doomsaying. (OK, maybe we’re exaggerating the latter situation a bit.) And that’s why we say it would be better for book publishers if Oprah had simply shut down production after last Friday’s episode, forcing everybody to come up with alternative strategies right now instead of wringing their hands for two years over the impending loss of a hitmaking machine over which they never had any control in the first place.

Now, here we are exaggerating for effect, as we know plenty of marketers and publicists who are working hard every day to forge new connections because they recognize the foolishness of counting on Oprah Winfrey’s blessings. But you wouldn’t know it from the statements in the Journal—and though some of that is attributable to the Journal knowing “publishers are worried about losing Oprah” is a more dramatic story than “publishers have a job to do with or without Oprah,” it’s not like the staff had to make up any of those quotes, either.