Is Emma Roberts the new Oprah?

Previously on the blog, Oprah Winfrey – world-renowned Book Club Queen – went head-to-head with some of the most influential celebrities in the world of book recommendations. In mid-March, Oprah duelled Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft and occasional book-recommender, and in mid-May, she took on America's sweetheart Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine book club. Both times, Oprah emerged victorious, a result that was none too shocking.

For round three, we took some time to consider many potential competitors before eventually choosing teen queen Emma Roberts and the Instagram book club she founded in March of last year with her friend Karah Preiss. We wanted to know whether the millennial book buyer was more influenced by celebrity recommendations than the average follower of Oprah's Book Club, and what impact, if any, using Instagram as the primary platform for a book club has on sales. Roberts' Belletrist book club has 180k followers on Instagram and her personal account has 12 million. Oprah has slightly more at 14.8 million followers. Twitter is a different story: Emma Roberts has 3.6 million followers, the Belletrist account has a mere 2,000, while Oprah has a whopping 41.3 million.

Emma vs. Oprah: First four weeks of sales

Lucky for us, Oprah announced her latest pick just last month: Anthony Ray Hinton's The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row (9781250124715). On the same day, Roberts and Preiss announced their latest picks for the Instagram-based Belletrist book club: their first teen pick Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl (9780399553929) and Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard. Both the hardcover (9780544748064) and the paperback (9781328551306) versions of Visible Empire were published on the same day so we combined the sales for that title. All three books were published on June 5, the same day of their book club announcements.

We can see that all three titles did well right out of the gate. However, Oprah's recommendation The Sun Does Shine vastly outperformed both of Belletrist's picks. Of course, other factors come into play here, such as marketing efforts, promotion, and author recognition. Keeping this in mind, it's worth noting that both titles recommended by the Belletrist book club did significantly better than previous titles by both authors. The Sun Does Shine, meanwhile, was a debut title.

Line graph showing sales for the books chosen by Oprah and Belletrist.

When the units sold for both of Belletrist's picks are combined (noted by the purple line on the above graph), it manages to inch closer to The Sun Does Shine but Oprah's pick is still the clear winner. That being said, The Sun Does Shine sold 76% fewer copies than Oprah's previous pick, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (9781443456951) during the first week following publication. What's interesting to note about this is that both Oprah's Book Club and Belletrist selected An American Marriage as their February pick on the same day, so it's impossible to determine the possible influence of each book club on sales for this book.

Belletrist's influence on book sales

We can, however, look at past Belletrist book choices to see if we can spot a few patterns. Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo (9780571268955) was published on Sept. 26, 2017 and announced as Belletrist's May book of the month on May 1, 2018. In this case, it's slightly easier to attribute the spike in sales (noted by the red line in this graph) to Belletrist because the title wasn't released around this time. The second sales increase near the end of May happened the same week that Chibundu Onuzo took over Belletrist's Instagram account to help promote her book.

Graph showing on hand and units sold for Welcome to Lagos during May 2018.

The Ghost Notebooks by Ben Dolnick (9781101871096) was published on Feb. 13, 2018 and announced as Belletrist's March book of the month on March 6, 2018. We can see a drastic and steady increase in sales during the first week of March (noted by the red line in this graph) following Belletrist's announcement. The second (much larger) spike happened at the end of April after it was reviewed by The New York Times.

Graph showing on hand and units sold for The Ghost Notebooks during March 2018.

The verdict


Despite Belletrist's notable impact on sales, Oprah remains the clear champion — though, to be fair, she's been at it for 22 years. Belletrist is just over a year old, so maybe we'll revisit this study again in 2040 to see how they're doing. Besides, Roberts and Preiss are ahead of the curve by harnessing Instagram as a platform for hosting a book club. To learn more about how Instagram could be changing the publishing game, keep an eye out for our upcoming research series on social media and book buyers!