Oprah: Good for reading, terrible for book sales

at 09:56 AM ET, 03/01/2012

Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club lasted for 15 years and endorsed 70 books, which sold millions. But what effect did it have on the broader market? Did it get people reading more, or less? Via Tyler Cowen, economist Craig Garthwaite suggests that Oprah might’ve actually hurt overall book sales.


(STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP)
There’s no question that Oprah’s blessing was good for individual titles. According to Garthwaite’s research, overall sales of an Oprah book shot up 400 percent in the weeks after the endorsement and stayed high for awhile. What’s more, people also rushed out to buy other books by Oprah-endorsed authors. (Garthwaite notes that the effect here was similar to the boost an author gets from a positive review in the New York Times.) But, oddly enough, aggregate sales of all books tended to decline in the period after an Oprah endorsement.

Why is that? Garthwaite has a theory: “Endorsed titles are harder or longer on average than books that would have been purchased in the endorsement’s absence.” He notes that, by and large, Oprah’s choices tended to displace romance, mystery and action titles — books that tend to be a little easier and quicker to read. When Oprah told people to go read books like “Anna Karenina” or “Love in the Time of Cholera,” romance and mystery sales plummeted. People were too busy marching through 862 pages of Tolstoy to breeze through their usual summer reading.

“Contrary to popular perception,” Garthwaite says, “the Club’s heavily publicized effort to ‘get America reading again’ did little to increase the total number of books purchased.” In her defense, Oprah could argue that she got America reading more difficult and more rewarding titles, if somewhat fewer books overall. Of course, that’s assuming people were actually making their way all the way through “Anna Karenina”...

 
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