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Oprah Winfrey first launched Oprah’s Book Club on Sept. 16, 1996, 10 years into “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” one of the highest-rated daytime talk shows in television history. The effect on book sales was immediate and impressive. Before Jacquelyn Mitchard’s “The Deep End of the Ocean” became Winfrey’s first pick, the publisher, Viking, had 100,000 copies in print; two weeks later, in its Sept. 30 issue, Publishers Weekly reported that number at 640,000. Fifteen years later, Nielsen reported that since it began tracking book sales through BookScan in 2001, Oprah’s Book Club had sold 22 million copies of books it had picked. No marketing department could possibly compete with that.
Winfrey shuttered the original Book Club in December 2010, nearly half a year before “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ended its run, but it wasn’t long before a reboot was in the works. Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 named its first title on June 1, 2012; the picks were fewer and farther between but still, Oprah sold books. And when Apple announced that Winfrey would bring “Oprah’s Book Club” to Apple TV+, it meant only one thing for the publishing industry: more sales.
As it turns out, it also meant more of something that has occasionally dogged the mogul and sometimes made her gun-shy: controversy. Recent events surrounding the selection of Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt” not only signaled that her influence might be on the wane in the social-media era but it also harked back to old-media disputes of book clubs past. Below is an abbreviated history of Winfrey’s most contentious picks.
Winfrey chose Franzen’s 2001 breakout novel for her book club in September 2001, two months before it won the National Book Award for fiction. Franzen filmed an interview with Winfrey that month, but before he was due to appear on the show, he criticized her in interviews, calling a number of her past selections “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional” and worrying that male readers would avoid a book with the Oprah seal on the cover. Shortly afterward, Winfrey withdrew Franzen’s invitation to the show. A stream of public apologies from Franzen — thanking Winfrey for her “enthusiasm and advocacy” at the National Book Awards that November — as well as a more effusive private letter — didn’t help.