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Comment from the book world in April 2005

April 2005

'Dear Oprah Winfrey'

25 April 2005

We writers want to say thank you.

When you established The Oprah Winfrey Book Club in 1996, you did something very bold, something that no one else has done. You declared that every person -- anyone who could turn on a TV set -- could be part of the literary world and enjoy it. You declared that anyone could like good books...

Your Book Club brought contemporary novels to eager readers, and your show gave the audience a way to look at the issues that literature addresses. You led many people to read fiction who might not have done so otherwise. You expanded people's sense of what they dared to read, and you added depth and diversity to America's reading list. You encouraged people to tackle difficult contemporary novels, like The Reader

New website launched by magazine for readers which provides readers' reviews, mostly of classics, and reading rooms for online discussions.

, and Song of Solomon and Breath, Eyes, Memory. Throughout the country, people from all walks of life came together to talk about books, thus finding their way into the long and distinguished tradition of literary discussion.

Sales figures, in the context of the literary market, do not merely reflect profits; they are an indicator of literacy as well. A country in which ordinary people flock to bookstores to buy the latest talked-about work of fiction is a vibrantly literate country. Every month your show sent hundreds of thousands of people (mostly women, who are the largest group of literary fiction readers) into bookstores. The contemporary books you chose sold between 650,000 and 1,200,000 copies apiece. Each Oprah selection gave readers a title to investigate and a subject to explore. Importantly, your Book Club also gave readers a chance to see these authors on the air and to hear their words. Not only books but the writers themselves became accessible to everyone, inviting all readers into the community of literature.

Few people have taken advantage of the extravagant scope and power of television to do good. But you have. From the start, you used your role in the media to encourage literacy, thought and intellectual curiosity. You made yourself a champion of contemporary fiction. You tempted publishers to take chances on new writers, for whom you became a beacon of hope. First novelists and literary authors felt emboldened to write because of the outside chance that an editor would see their work as potential Book Club material. You dared to take contemporary literary fiction seriously, and your daring enabled a new generation of writers to appear...

We'd also like to make a request: We'd like to ask that you consider focusing, once again, on contemporary writers in your Book Club.

The American literary landscape is in distress. Sales of contemporary fiction are still falling, and so are the numbers of people who are reading. Readers complain that, although daunting numbers of new books are published, too few of them are brought to the public's attention in a meaningful way. Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like. They, the readers, need you. And we, the writers, need you. America needs a strong voice that addresses everyone who can read, a voice that will say, "Let's explore the books that are coming out today. Let's see what moves us, what delights us, what speaks to us in a way that only fiction does."

Oprah Winfrey, we wish you'd come back.'

Extracted from a letter from Word of Mouth, An Association of Women Authors

'An aura of publishedness'

18 April 2005

'Being an unpublished author is a bit like being an asylum seeker. You know this is where you belong - your Promised Land - but the gate is guarded. You're desperate to get in, but you don't know the rules. You try everything - different fonts, different noms de plume. You take out all the adverbs, then put them all back in again. You spend ours refining your synopsis. You know it must be possible, because you see the Published Ones walking around on the other side of the frontier, bathed in an aura of publishedness...'

Marina Lewycka, whose first novel is A Short History of Tractors, in the Observer

Children who hate reading

11 April 2005

'I am concerned that in a constant search for things to test, we're forgetting the true purpose, the true nature, of reading and writing; and in forcing these things to happen in a way that divorces them from pleasure, we are creating a generation of children who might be able to make the right noises when they see print, but who hate reading and feel nothing but hostility for literature.'

Philip Pullman, writing in the Guardian

Agents as editors and marketers

4 April 2005

'Literary agents once functioned primarily as salespeople. Today, they're taking on the additional roles of editor and marketer. The shift reflects the consolidation of the once-clubby publishing world into an industry dominated by global media companies. With fewer editors forced to handle more books, agents must do more to promote aspiring authors.'

Wall Street Journal