The Power of O

The 17 months between February 2015 and August 2016 gave us many things: a newly elected Prime Minister, #DeadRaccoonTO, the rise of the sushi burrito, and the rebirth of J.K. Rowling's beloved Harry Potter series, to name a few. But what we didn't have was a new Oprah's Book Club pick after Cynthia Bond's Ruby was announced in February of 2015 – that is, until Aug. 2 of this year, when we were all dropped into the revitalized world of Oprah's Book Club 2.0.

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad became Oprah's first book club pick of 2016, followed by Glennon Doyle Melton's Love Warrior: A Memoir a mere four weeks later. As the publishing world rejoices, many continue to wonder if The Oprah Effect, Oprah's extraordinary ability to boost sales and publicity in all that she endorses, is still going strong in 2016.

This time around, Oprah's revitalized book club has an updated marketing strategy: by partnering with entities such as Amazon, Goodreads, and The New York Times, who posted a review for The Underground Railroad the day it was announced as a pick, Oprah's Book Club 2.0 is using all corners of the digital landscape. This decision to launch publicity at multiple levels is combined with her tried-and-true methods, like secret launches and video announcements. 

So is Oprah powerful? Without a doubt. In a move previously unobserved in the publishing industry, Oprah's decision to select The Underground Railroad managed to get it published the day it was announced as an Oprah pick, an entire month earlier than its originally scheduled pub date. Her tweets announcing her latest two book club picks have garnered an average of 2.4K likes. But the real question is: does this power translate into sales?

"Yes" seems to be an understatement. The redacted graph below shows units sold in Canada over the first eight weeks after publication for Colson Whitehead's last three books: The Underground Railroad (2016), Zone One (2011), and Sag Harbour (2009). In the eight-week period observed, The Underground Railroad sold almost 10 times as many copies as Zone One and Sag Harbour combined. After the first week of sales, it had already outsold eight weeks of sales for Zone One and Sag Harbour. 

What about non-fiction? The redacted graph below indicates units sold in Canada for the first eight weeks after publication for Glennon Doyle Melton's two books: Love Warrior: A Memoir (2016) and Carry On, Warrior (2013). As Love Warrior: A Memoir was recently published on Sept. 6, 2016, we only have three weeks of data for this title. That said, the first three weeks of sales for this Oprah pick are approximately 11 times higher than the first three weeks of sales for her previous book.

Evidently, Oprah can still sell books. But to thoroughly dissect her historical ability to translate endorsements into sky-high sales figures, we dove back into the golden days of the original Oprah's Book Club.

The redacted graph below compares the first eight weeks of sales for titles selected for Oprah's Book Club vs. Oprah's Book Club 2.0. The blue lines represent sales from Oprah's most recent picks, while the yellow ones are Oprah's picks from 2007 to 2009. It must be noted that all five titles selected from the original Oprah's Book Club were published in trade paperback formats, while the 2.0 picks, The Underground Railroad and Love Warrior: A Memoir, were both released in hardcover. The difference in price may have had an influence on sales of the original picks, as paperback formats tend to sell more units–but to the degrees observed? Doubtful. The five original Oprah's Book Club picks sold on average more than 16 times the units of The Underground Railroad in the first eight weeks of sales. 

So is the Oprah Effect relevant? If it's a boost in sales that you're looking for, then the answer is a resounding yes. Fiction or non-fiction, Oprah's picks have been plucked off the shelves in greater volumes than previously published editions or previous publications by the same author. But if by relevant you mean whether or not Oprah's endorsements have the same selling power that they had in the past, when you could tune into The Oprah Winfrey Show every day and scream along with the cruise trip-winning audience, then the answer, unfortunately, seems to be no.