Drink the latte! Buy the book!

Oprah goes into business with Starbucks and book publishing gets another much-needed jolt of caffeine.

Published June 20, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

for the last several weeks thousands of readers have plunked down $13.95 for a book they know nothing about. Not the subject. Not the author. Not even the title. Why? Because Oprah said to.

Since she launched her book club last fall -- with a televised promise to "get the country reading" -- the queen of talk TV has proven she can sell books. Lots of them. Each month Oprah's Book Club selection outsells all of the big book clubs' main selections combined. Now Oprah's got Starbucks behind her.

In a brilliant blending of brand names, Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz announced early this month that, starting with Oprah Book Club Selection No. 8 -- Mary McGarry Morris' "Songs in Ordinary Time" -- which was announced yesterday, Oprah's Book Club selections will be for sale at all 1,200 Starbucks stores. Schulz says he plans to donate the proceeds from Oprah book sales to literacy causes and has hired a full-time staff to oversee all such disbursements.

Apparently Schultz, a mega-gazillionaire known for supporting numerous charities and PC causes, had a bit of trouble getting Oprah's attention. For weeks she didn't return his calls. Perhaps that's because anyone who has even dreamed of selling a book has called Chicago and tried to whisper sweet nothings in Oprah's ear. When Schultz finally got through, Oprah had no trouble smelling the coffee. As Adam Handlesman, the Starbucker in charge of the company's literacy project puts it, "The two major powerhouses finally came together and saw a great opportunity."

Handlesman says the Starbucks-Oprah alliance springs from Schultz's sincere interest in American literacy. Skeptics will note that it no doubt also occurred to Shultz that Oprah books would bring more people -- and more money -- into his stores.

And the opportunity for both Starbucks and Oprah is great indeed. Four million people fill their cups at Starbucks each week. The coffeehouse has long been a meeting spot for readers and writers, as is noted in the Starbucks press release announcing the Oprah-Starbucks alliance. Why not offer those 4 million latte drinkers a little something they can read as they sip?

For a dramatic insight into her prowess as a bookseller, look at the case of Oprah's very first book club selection: "The Deep End of the Ocean" by Jacquelyn Mitchard, a grim but well-reviewed first novel about the disappearance of a 3-year-old child. The book had sold a respectable 68,000 copies before Oprah announced that it would be the club's first selection. It sold an unprecedented 750,000 copies in the month between Oprah's announcement and the day her first book club feature aired. The book charged up the bestseller list, topped the chart and has proceeded to sell more than a million copies.

The next month, Oprah followed with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's 1977 classic, "Song of Solomon." Then came Jane Hamilton's novel "The Book of Ruth," the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award winner. Blam! Another million copies each, and instant No. 1 paperback bestseller status. Each successive book followed the pattern and right now those four books -- "The Heart of a Woman" by Maya Angelou, "The Rapture of Canaan" by Sheri Reynolds, "Stones from the River" by Ursula Hegi and "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb -- are all still on the bestseller lists; Angelou's latest installment of her memoirs is now No. 1 in the nonfiction paperback category.

To put these numbers in context, you need to compare Oprah to the next most popular book club -- the Book of the Month Club. The 71-year-old organization, now owned by Time Inc., is actually made up of 11 different clubs with just over 4 million members. The charter club, which has a million members, goes gaga when it's able to sell 100,000 hardbacks of its main selection, something that only happens with established names like Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Anne Rice. This is through aggressive direct marketing in a billion-dollar business that has had it's best year ever despite sagging profits by most publishers. A BOMC subsidiary, the Quality Paperback Club, has 800,000 members and tends toward literary selections that the club's editorial director, Linda Lowenthal, says correspond with San Francisco-area bestsellers. In the last year one of QPC's biggest sellers was David Denby's "Great Books," moving roughly 50,000 units. This month's selection, Robert Fogel's much-praised new translation of "The Odyssey," is enjoying a similar sales pace.

These numbers are anemic compared with Oprah's club, especially since Oprah spends zippo promoting and announcing her choices. While many in the literary community scoffed at the spectacle of the talk show queen choosing fiction titles, the conventional wisdom within the book world has been that Oprah has done a decent job, picking fairly difficult, quasi-literary titles. Through her well-oiled publicity machine, Oprah assures publishers and her viewers that she alone chooses each title, based solely on what strikes her fancy, and so far she seems impervious to hype or pub dates. There was minor grumbling when she chose Morrison because Oprah's film company owns the rights to another Morrison novel, but it's difficult to find fault with Oprah's selections.

On the other hand, Oprah's Orwellian ability to create the book of the month is terrifying. She wields so much power that she can command utter secrecy from the book selection authors and publishers; if word leaks out before Oprah announces the selection, she says she'll pull the book. So far, despite the headaches involved in getting enough books into stores to meet an instantaneously massive demand, no one has violated her secrecy rule. What's more, Oprah even dictates the price for which selections sell. No one in the book business seems willing to risk offense to one of publishing's biggest powers.

Meanwhile, the secrecy surrounding Oprah's book choices, naturally, helps build suspense -- and viewers -- for the monthly shows on which Oprah announces her selections. As do all Oprah's Book Club shows, Wednesday's program featured four Oprah viewers at dinner -- and subsequent pajama party! -- with last month's book selection author, Maya Angelou, this time around. Oprah ended the show with what she called a big announcement for a really big book; she said readers could have the rest of the summer to finish Mary Morris McGarry's 740-page tome even though she read it in less than a week herself. Then, in a moment that must have roasted Howard Shultz's beans, she announced the Starbucks deal; holding McGarry's book aloft, she urged viewers to get up the next morning, head for Starbucks, "have a latte and buy this book."

Trying to come to terms with the Oprah-Starbucks connection is something like staring at a difficult cubist painting: One sees what one wants to see. Those predisposed to seeing signs of an endless march toward a streamlined, thoughtless McCulture will be horrified, while those who believe that only corporate giants and celebrities can cure society's ills will say don't worry, be happy, have a Grande Frappuccino and Selection No. 8. The choices have already been made for you.

By Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine.

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