Legally bookish: Reese Witherspoon and the boom in celebrity book clubs

From The Guardian:

Every novel I’ve ever read as part of a book club has involved a sprint to the finish. My latest group is no different, except for the possibility – at least as I understand it – of being publicly shamed by Reese Witherspoon. Which is why I am speed-reading the new novel by Celeste Ng, an hour before I am due to discuss it with my fellow members of Reese’s Book Club.

Already I am mentally drafting my apology to our host. “Sorry, Reese. It’s just been a really busy month” – not least because of all the celebrity book clubs. Today, more than 25 years since Oprah Winfrey launched hers, everyone is leading their own community of readers, from the Queen Consort to rapper Noname, from former NFL quarterback Andrew Luck to singer Amerie, from ex-vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar to late-night host Jimmy Fallon.

This does not mean hosting monthly sessions at their mansions, putting on a spread and leading a debate about themes. From the talkshow-discussion-and-book-jacket-sticker-endorsement format pioneered by Winfrey (and, in the UK, Richard and Judy), today’s celebrity book clubs are conducted via social media.

Each celebrity’s involvement varies massively, from merely posting a picture of the cover on their Instagram Stories, to interrogating authors about their intent, live before their millions of followers. Likewise, the expectation of “members” can be as minimal as following the discussion without having to read so much as the blurb. And yet, for all their informal organisation, these virtual reading groups led by a famous figurehead have emerged as a driving force within the publishing industry, and a factor in many of its biggest recent successes.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Witherspoon’s inaugural pick, back in 2017), Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (selected by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop club), Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (chosen for news anchor Jenna Bush Hager’s group) and Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur (spotlit by Emma Watson) have all been helped to success by famous readers and their followers. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens has now sold nearly 1m copies in the UK, according to Nielsen BookData, the majority long before this year’s film adaptation – and many due to the Witherspoon effect.

In the social media age, Witherspoon has actually overtaken Winfrey as publishing’s starriest powerbroker, having turned good taste in books into one arm of a media empire. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, Ng’s earlier novel Little Fires Everywhere and Where the Crawdads Sing were all Reese picks before being subsequently adapted by the actor for the screen. Daisy Jones & the Six is in production for Amazon Prime.

For Witherspoon, the value is obvious. She was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Strayed in 2014’s Wild, providing the seed for her Hello Sunshine production company. This August, she sold it for a reported $1bn. But, says Bea Carvalho, head of fiction at Waterstones, although the benefit of any celebrity endorsement on sales is hard to measure precisely, there is a net benefit for the publishing industry, too. “Crossover with film and media always has a positive impact,” she says, “and her conversations on social media raise that profile further. Her voice is a strong and trusted one.”

For Shannon Theumer, one of the first members of Reese’s club and founder of an unofficial Facebook group numbering around 100,000 members, Witherspoon was her “way into the book world”. Theumer started reading along with the actor in 2014, when she was a teenager in rural Germany and Witherspoon was just posting recommendations on her Instagram. “I grew up reading All Quiet on the Western Front, To Kill a Mockingbird, all these things,” says Theumer, now 25 and living in London. “It got to a point where I loved reading, but I wanted to read more about me.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian