BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the great publishing phenomena of all time was a little TV talk show segment called Oprah's Book Club, launched in 1996. Every one of the 48 books discussed and recommended by the great and powerful Oprah Winfrey became a best seller. Oprah's Book Club functioned as a veritable launching pad for new fiction, which as we've just heard can have a hard time getting off the ground. But she shuttered the club last April because she said it has become harder to find books that I feel absolutely compelled to share. Recently cheers resounded throughout the publishing industry when Oprah announced that she is re-launching the series, only this time she'll be visiting the classics. Look for Dickens and Hemingway -- not Jonathan Franzen or Joyce Carol Oates or for that matter, Tawni O'Dell whose first book, Back Roads, became a best seller thanks to Oprah. Liza Dawson of Liza Dawson Associates was the literary agent on Back Roads, and she joins me now. Welcome to the show!
LIZA DAWSON: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did Oprah's Book Club change the way that people marketed their books?
LIZA DAWSON: It became a definition of a book so that there was a certain kind of fiction that 20 years ago would have been called "mid-lift" -- you know, intelligent, literary, women's fiction, and there was a period of about 10 or 15 years where most publishers weren't buying that kind of book because they didn't know how to sell it. So to be able to call a book and Oprah-type book gave publishers a handle for a book when they went into Barnes and Noble.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that was something of the impact among publishers, but what about the impact among readers?
LIZA DAWSON:Well, it was pretty exciting! I think that as a result, readers became very sensitized to the notion of a book club, and it's become quite a wonderful social phenomena out there, to be part of a book club.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well what do you think about this new series that Oprah is calling Traveling with Classics?
LIZA DAWSON:Mm-hm. I'm delighted. Because what it's going to do is send people into the bookstores, and any time you've got somebody in there going in to look for Anna Karenina, they're probably not going to just walk out with one book; they're going to be standing there at the section and they're going to be looking for Bridget Jones!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So you think that it'll still have maybe a trickle down effect on the market for new fiction, but as someone who works with new authors, aren't you loathe to see Oprah promoting the classics rather than the new works that might otherwise get no attention?
LIZA DAWSON: Well you know I don't think that Oprah has a responsibility to support the publishing industry's new write--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure she does!
LIZA DAWSON: [LAUGHS] But you know you have to remember she hasn't done this for almost a year. We didn't think she was going to be doing this at all, so-- I think from a publishing sense, you take what you can get!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do you see the publishing industry reacting to Oprah's interest in the classics?
LIZA DAWSON:Well you know if I were a business manager at any one of these mainstream houses, I'd be very excited. I mean in some ways she's spreading the wealth, because a lot of these classic books are published by six or seven houses. You know, take Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. I happen to know that five houses have it in print, so it's --one house isn't going to be able to print 700,000 copies and reap all the benefits. It's going to be spread more equitably across all lines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the used book shops that still struggle now but might actually experience a boost?
LIZA DAWSON: Ooo! I hadn't thought of that! [LAUGHTER] I like the sound of that!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As a literary agent, you're liking the sound of a boost for second hand book shops is positively heretical!
LIZA DAWSON:Again, it brings people into the bookstores. Any time bookstores become a place for community and discussion, that's great for the industry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you very much!
LIZA DAWSON: Well thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Liza Dawson is a literary agent, and she joined me on the line from her office in New York. Oprah's new book club is being called Traveling with the Classics. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, a political rivalry may change the course of deregulation at the FCC and some war stories from the inner city.