If Oprah Winfrey can keep it up, she'll be remembered as second only to Andrew Carnegie as the savior of reading in this country. The tycoon merely used his fortune to endow 2,500 libraries. The talk show host is getting people to buy good books in an unprecedented way -- and at an amazing rate.
Literature is all about helping people think more clearly and feel more intensely. In the marketplace, however, what counts are numbers, and the numbers for literature -- compared with, say, "Beavis and Butt-head" -- are often pitifully small.
In 1992, for instance, Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" -- by most accounts her best and most accessible novel -- sold 14,000 copies. The following year, the Nobel Prize powered it to 98,500 copies. In the book business, this is a runaway success.
Less than five weeks ago, Winfrey announced "Solomon" as the second selection in "Oprah's Book Club." Since then, Plume has published 730,000 copies, while Everyman Library sent out another 80,000 in hardcover. Knopf is readying at least 50,000 copies of a reprint of the original 1977 hardcover edition.
Put it another way: More than twice as many copies of the novel have been sold in the last month as in the previous nine years.
Put it a third way: Last week, the Barnes & Noble chain was selling an average of 678 copies of "Solomon" a day. The Oprah show with Morrison aired late Monday afternoon. Barnes & Noble sales for the day: 16,070.
That's comparable to John Grisham or Stephen King on the day a new title is released. These are sales spikes that even serious novels turned into movies have a hard time matching. "Like Water for Chocolate" sold nearly a million copies, but it took a year to do it.
"No one has ever had this kind of impact on books," publishing consultant Robert Riger said yesterday. "The only comparable thing I can think of is when Mao Zedong would say, Let's go out and do X, Y and Z,' and all of China would do it. This is another cultural revolution."
The most remarkable numbers are these: The Monday overnight television ratings for Chicago, New York and Los Angeles all showed an increase for the second half of Oprah's show, which was the book segment. L.A., for instance, went from a 6.7 to a 7.7 rating. "That's pretty shocking," Winfrey commented.
"This just started out a nice little idea," she added. "Now the pressure is . . . whoosh."
Publishers, of course, are inundating her office with possible selections. They might as well stop. "I read none of the letters or solicitations from publishers or publicists," said Winfrey, who's been making her choices from books she's already read and loved. "I want to keep it pure. The purity of it stimulates my enthusiasm, and I think people can see that."
More numbers: The first book club selection, Jacquelyn Mitchard's "The Deep End of the Ocean," a well-written heart-tugger about a kidnapped child, had sold close to 100,000 copies in hardcover when Winfrey chose it in September. It now has 800,000 copies in print, and this Sunday it is once again No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
The Morrison book segment began with a filmed bio of the author, followed by clips from a candle-lit dinner at Winfrey's apartment with the writer and four viewers -- two white and two black women -- who had been chosen from a group of applicants.
"Song of Solomon" was, one of those invited guests pointed out, a daring choice. An intensely poetic book that summarizes the black experience in America, "Solomon" is, well, deep. "I love to hear when they say this remarkable thing, I had to read every word,' " said Morrison. "And I always want to say, Yeah, I had to write every word.' "
The dinner segment for the "Deep End" show was fuzzy; there was more talk of food than books. But with Morrison, some of the big questions got tackled. "Some people used to complain that the characters in my books weren't realistic, they were bigger than life," the novelist said. "And I kept saying, No, no, life is big. They are as big as life.' We make life small, we make it tiny, and think it only is our income. Life is big."
The country's obsession with race was also touched on. One woman had written in that she was ticked off that "Solomon" had been chosen -- this woman was female, white, made a lot of money and had never been poor or abused in her life. "I don't know what you're thinking, that I would have anything to do with this," her letter said. So she was picked as one of the dinner guests and, in the best tradition of both talk shows and literature, underwent a transformation, complete with tears.
The third book to be picked, for a show that will air in early January, is Jane Hamilton's "The Book of Ruth." Published in 1988, this tale of a woman's growth to maturity got fine reviews -- this newspaper called it "passionate and adroit . . . tragic in the classical sense" -- and it won the PEN/Hemingway Award, given to the year's best first novel. Total hardcover sales were about 8,000 copies. In paperback, it has sold about 12,000 copies annually.
That was then. On the strength of Winfrey's recommendation to her 15 million viewers, Doubleday has sent a half-million copies to the bookstores. At Winfrey's request, another 10,000 will go to schools and libraries. Meanwhile, Houghton Mifflin is doing 50,000 in hardcover and expects eventually to sell even more.
People in publishing are watching "Oprah's Book Club" with their mouths agape, desperately hoping it will go on, fearing it will somehow all fizzle.
"If she started doing high-profile books by big-name authors she would just be another publicity vehicle, and that's what she's trying to avoid," said Penguin sales executive Jeanette Zwart. " . . . This would never work if she didn't have taste."
Zwart said "Song of Solomon" is now being sold in stacks at Wal-Marts and Price Clubs -- the real mass-market America, places no Nobel winner had ever been. It's possible the widely reported death of reading was due simply to poor marketing.
"We're all to blame," said Houghton Mifflin Executive Vice President Wendy Strothman. "We're not being very welcoming, we don't help by the way we package, bookstores are intimidating places. People out there are hungry for interesting intellectual ideas and literary content, but they don't know how to sort it out. If Oprah's doing the sorting, God bless her."
CAPTION: "This just started out a nice little idea," says Oprah Winfrey.