How The Big Celebrity Book Clubs Really Work


In the fall of 2019, I found myself wandering around Times Square in search of a billboard featuring National Book Award-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel, The Water Dancer. “I’m not sure what street it’s on, but you’ll see it,” the book’s marketer had told me that morning, so there I was, dodging tourists with my head and iPhone turned to the sky. At the time, I ran social media for Random House (Coates’s publisher). We typically celebrated a book’s publication week on the company’s Instagram account by posting a stylized photograph of the finished book, but whenever Oprah Winfrey got involved, as she did by selecting The Water Dancer for her eponymous book club, the publicity, sales, marketing, and advertising plans expanded exponentially. It’s not every day in publishing you get to see Oprah and Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation at the Apollo Theater.

In an industry that sees five hundred thousand to a million new titles published each year in the United States alone, there are very few ways to make a book stand out. In recent years, programmatic celebrity book clubs—mainly Oprah’s Book Club (Oprah Winfrey), Reese’s Book Club (Reese Witherspoon via her media empire, Hello Sunshine), and Read With Jenna (Jenna Bush Hager via the Today show)—have exercised significant influence over which books garner buzz both among readers and within publishing companies, elevating sleepy debut novels to best-seller status and making big books even bigger.

First, a disclaimer to any self-important readers expecting a fiery takedown of the celebrity-book-club format: As someone who wants to see more books in the hands of readers, I am wholeheartedly in support of famous people using their immense clout and privilege to promote books instead of the many other products they could be paid handsomely to endorse. An article built on cynicism for something so overwhelmingly positive would be disingenuous click-bait, and you will not find that here.

But just because these book clubs are a net positive doesn’t mean they’re above investigation or critique. Ever since their rise in the late 2010s, the biggest celebrity book clubs have held immense sway over which titles land on the best-seller lists, and their future has an outsize impact on the commercial publishing industry. In order to better understand how these groups operate, I spoke to the teams behind the scenes, as well as to other publishing-industry insiders.

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First, let’s address the assumption that these book clubs are just brand extensions with celebrity figureheads who don’t read the books or participate in their selection. Celebrities start book clubs for the same reasons as the rest of us: They love to read and want to discuss what they’re reading with more people. Not once in any of my reporting did I catch a whiff that Witherspoon, Hager, Winfrey, or any of the other celebrities are not die-hard readers, which is obvious when you consider how much work it would take to head up a book club in which you don’t plan to participate.

“If they wanted attention, there’s a thousand ways they can do it without reading books,” said Leigh Newman, Books Director at Oprah Daily, the online hub of Oprah’s Book Club. “Oprah is a real reader. She’s always reading. I have spoken to some of the other book clubs, and that seems to be common throughout all of them. I don’t think anyone is doing it as a PR stunt. I think they all love books and they want to talk about books; that’s why these conversations are so comfortable.” Newman even called back after we hung up to tell me she once met Jenna Bush Hager at a party and can attest that she’s a passionate and engaged reader.

Given that all of the major celebrity book clubs are fronted by women, there’s something inherently sexist in one of the most commonly asked questions about celebrity book clubs: “Do they actually read?” As actress Emma Roberts, whose online reading community Belletrist launched in 2017, noted in an interview with author Melissa Febos, “When I’m reading a book on set, some people will come up to me and ask, ‘You read?’ And I say, ‘What part of that is
 surprising? Because I’m an actress? Because I have blonde hair? What is it that literally stopped you in your tracks to be shocked that I can read and do read?’ That’s really crazy.”

Despite their clear love of reading, celebrities aren’t running their public programmatic book clubs in a vacuum. How they operate and make their selections is a subject of much speculation within the publishing industry, which is nearly as clueless as consumers. In our conversations, Hager, Newman, and Karah Preiss (cofounder of Belletrist) all described similar systems reliant on four to eight staff members outside of the named celebrity who make connections within the publishing industry while sourcing books from agents, editors, and publicists—much the same way most book-related media outlets do.

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Sarah Harden, CEO of Hello Sunshine—which was sold to a media company backed by private-equity firm Blackstone Group in 2021—told me that Reese’s Book Club doesn’t accept pitches. “We pride ourselves on really trying to be outward about it, because we don’t want to perpetuate the inequities in the industry where if you know someone, if you can get to the right person, you get a leg up,” she said. There are two full-time staffers on Harden’s team and a group of literary scouts at Baker Literary Scouting who “read for Reese to make sure that nothing slips through the net that is worthy of consideration,” she says. In any given month, 100 to 150 books make it onto their long list for consideration.

All of the book clubs claim that there is “no formula” to their selection process, and on many levels, I believe them. While their selections may be intentional, I don’t think there’s any secret contract between Reese Witherspoon and HarperCollins to explain why nine of her book club’s eighty-five non-young-adult picks through June 2024 were published by a single imprint: William Morrow. Rather, these decisions happen in all of the major book clubs in much the same way that most opportunities in the publishing industry happen: through an elusive blend of personal taste, connections, cold pitching, and good old-fashioned luck.

This randomness is reflected in the inconsistent timelines of when authors and publishers are informed about upcoming book-club picks—that can occur anywhere from a year before publication (possibly as a result of a connection) to after a book is already on sale (mostly luck). Sometimes a manuscript arrives nine months early through a shared agent at a big agency like CAA and a deal is locked—perhaps even far enough in advance to adjust the book’s publication date to better fit the book club’s schedule. Sometimes a books editor or producer thinks the celebrity will enjoy the galley from the strength of a pitch email. Other times it’s pure luck: For example, Winfrey selected The Many Lives of Mama Love after finding a random manuscript in her living room with no idea where it came from. (That sound you hear is the sound of a thousand publicists fainting.)

“It isn’t like a political game of chess at all,” said Hager. “We have found that because we have a specific mission to highlight debuts and diverse books, and because we’ve worked really hard working with every agent and publisher and editor, we’ve created a pretty efficient and incredible pipeline.”

While I fully believe that celebrities aren’t playing some nefarious game of imprint chess to benefit themselves, the pieces are still visible on the board. Of the two hundred combined books selected until June 2024 by Witherspoon since 2017, Hager since 2019, and Winfrey since 2012, thirteen were from a publisher outside of the Big Five (the five largest publishing houses: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette). More than 40 percent of those books were published by Penguin Random House alone. That doesn’t happen without a lot of people playing chess to make sure it happens, even if the people behind the book clubs aren’t intentionally participating in the game.

Every book club adamantly denies that imprints or agents are a determining factor in the book-selection process, but only a publishing rookie in an industry built on connections would take that at face value. Kelly (whose name has been changed), a book marketer who has worked on multiple celebrity-book-club campaigns, told me how much easier it was for one imprint she worked for to secure Witherspoon’s book-club seal for future books after landing its first one. “It meant we had an ‘in’ to Reese,” she explained. “We were able to get the next book directly to the person who actually makes the decision, instead of the assistant of the assistant of the assistant slowly going up the chain.” Despite their best intentions, it’s clear that celebrity book clubs are influenced by the same ouroboros of nepotism that affects the rest of the business, just like blurbs or review coverage. Even if the book club itself is imprint agonistic, you still get the same distorted result.

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Although every book-club representative I spoke to confirmed that they actively solicit and feature books from independent publishers, the outcomes speak for themselves. Around half the books picked by Oprah’s Book Club since it relaunched in 2012, arguably the most reliable New York Times best-seller maker in the industry, were published by Penguin Random House, whose authors are already miles ahead of so many others—simply because of their backing from the world’s most powerful publishing house. “I feel bad for smaller imprints who don’t work with bigger agents,” said Kelly. “That’s the beauty of what celebrity book clubs have done, right? There’s no rubric. There’s no specificity at all, so no one can be like, ‘What the fuck?’ They’re just picking books they connect with. But what does that mean?”

To be clear, it’s not Reese Witherspoon’s, Oprah Winfrey’s, or Jenna Bush Hager’s job to feature independent publishers and make sure they’re spreading their sales power more equally across imprints. That their pet projects have a tremendous influence on a complex and vital industry isn’t really their problem, but they also claim to care immensely about authors and the industry whose waters they’re playing in, so it would be worthwhile for them to pay more attention to this one element. If celebrity book clubs committed to selecting authors outside of the Big Five, it could have an enormous impact on smaller houses and their authors.

There’s a lot of speculation that the “meaning” behind all of this is a front for celebrities to source new onscreen projects. In recent years, Hello Sunshine has produced several buzzy book-to-screen adaptations, such as Where the Crawdads Sing, Big Little Lies, and Daisy Jones & the Six. Winfrey has the well-known Harpo Productions, while Hager signed a first-look production deal with Universal Studio Group and created her own production company, Thousand Voices, in 2022.

The women at the helm of these book clubs are far too smart for anyone to claim that optioning isn’t factored into their decisions, but it’s important to note that I found no formal links between book-club selections and a book’s film or television rights. As an example, Andrea Bartz confirmed that the film rights for her thriller We Were Never Here were already committed to Netflix before Witherspoon ever expressed interest. The book was still selected as a Hello Sunshine pick in August 2021. “Two or three times a year, I hope there’s going to be books that we make into films and TV shows, but we’ve always got to manage that with a really high level of integrity as well, because the minute the book club feels like we’re only picking stuff that we’re making into film and TV, we’re done,” said Harden.

“You would really cut yourself off to make a club that is solely dedicated to finding intellectual property,” explained Preiss, whose own book-club offshoot, Belletrist Productions, focuses on literary adaptations not exclusive to Belletrist’s book-club picks. “There are very specific types of books that make for good television shows, and in this TV market where limited series are not selling in the same way, most literary fiction does not make good television. When it works, that’s wonderful, but it’s not what we’re doing.”

Even if screen rights are not technically part of the book-club deal, several people I spoke to pointed out how celebrity book clubs can still play a role in the negotiations. “It is understood that it goes hand in hand with a lot of things,” said Kelly. “The author may not be getting what they want on one side of things, but they’re going to sell a shit ton of books. So it’s like, what do you want? What are you willing to give for that?”

It’s critical to understand the role that publishers, editors, and agents play in determining which books are selected for the book clubs. Publishers can’t promote every title equally, so much like deciding which authors to send on book tours or who to pitch for the national morning shows, they tend to push hardest for the books to which they gave the largest advance, in the interest of recouping their investments. “If they paid high six-figures for a commercial women’s fiction book that seems it would fit well with one of the celebrity book clubs, obviously they’re going to make a push for it in that way,” said Kathleen Schmidt, founder and CEO of Kathleen Schmidt Public Relations.

So what is the impact of these book clubs, and why do authors and publishers care so much about landing those few coveted spots? Publicist Sam Mitchell explained: “There’s really the sense with fiction, especially with a debut novelist, that you’re just running with your hand on your head if you don’t get into one of these book clubs. There’s just no way up toward whatever measure of success you want—usually the New York Times best-seller list, but really any kind of big buzz—unless you get into the sanctified hall of one of those three big book clubs. And that can be really depressing and off-putting, especially for the first-time authors.”

Desperation for recognition from celebrity book clubs is no doubt connected to the decline of books coverage at traditional media outlets. Not only do national outlets like NPR no longer pack the promotional punch they once did, but due to continued layoffs across the industry, from glossy magazines to local newspapers, there’s also simply less traditional media coverage to go around. “It’s interesting to hear even these massive names in publishing say, ‘If Reese could just pick my book, it would change things even for me,’ ” said Kelly.

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Even without access to every single book’s lifetime sales data, it’s clear that these book clubs have a major impact on reader behavior as well. Forty-eight of Hager’s sixty-eight picks have appeared on the best-seller list, as have sixty-eight of Witherspoon’s ninety-seven. All twenty-seven titles selected by Winfrey that were published on the same day they were announced as book-club picks went on to become best-sellers. I can tell you from a decade of working in the book-publishing industry that these success rates are incredibly rare.

But while Reese’s Book Club, Read With Jenna, and Oprah’s Book Club continue to offer a one-way ticket out of potential obscurity, there’s no denying that they hold less brand equity than they once did, especially among younger readers. Members of Gen Z remember their moms buying Oprah Book Club picks before they could even read, but they don’t watch morning television. Reese Witherspoon may get my heart racing as a middle-millennial who saw Legally Blonde in theaters twice, but readers a decade or two younger than me aren’t likely to care what her book club’s commercial-fiction pick is—at least not in the same way major publishers do.

“Because you now have people like Dua Lipa and Kaia Gerber doing their own book clubs, it makes the other ones look kind of stale in a way,” said Schmidt. “There just isn’t as much brand equity in book clubs as there used to be. How many people are listening to what’s being said on morning shows anymore? It’s TikTok’s world, and we live in it.”

It’s too early to know whether Dua Lipa’s Service95, Kaia Gerber’s Library Science, or even Dakota Johnson’s brand-new TeaTime Book Club will have a significant impact on book sales, but I heard anecdotally that publishers are starting to pay attention.

The viral rise of Gen Z and BookTok is something that came up in every conversation I had with publishing employees. Whereas celebrity book clubs offer a model of positioning books that are powerful and often universally appealing, the idea that a book is for everyone can actually be a turnoff. “It’s not cool anymore to have that book-club sticker on there,” Schmidt said. “It’s cooler to say, ‘I saw this on BookTok’ or ‘This is being discussed all over BookTok.’ I feel like Gen Z especially does not want the sticker on the book.”

Those on the publishing side also pointed out how many of the most popular books on TikTok are radically different from what the celebrity book clubs select. “What we’re worried about in publishing right now is ‘Do we have enough romantasy?’ That’s not their picks,” said Kelly. “Iron Flame—you couldn’t get that book off the best-seller list if you paid The New York Times to take it off. That’s not what they’re looking at. To some extent, they’re talking to an audience that makes sense for them right now, but that audience is growing older. They’re going to stop paying attention, because they’re going to get bored. And instead of adding to the audience with younger people who are reading these big TikTok books, they’re missing it.”

Preiss, whose Instagram book club is less influential than the Big Three but still holds weight within the industry, echoed this point. “Gen Z is more focused on genre, and Reese doesn’t do genre,” she said. “Romantasy and romance are really the future of books. I love literary fiction, [but] to what extent are you actually talking to readers? To what extent are you asking readers, ‘What the f*ck are you reading?’ They’re reading Taylor Jenkins Reid. People are reading Colleen Hoover.”

For years, the signals that mattered most in publishing came from the highest of highbrow sources. Anyone who worked in the industry prior to the 2010s will tell you about the glory days when a rave New York Times review and one national NPR segment led to a spot on the best-seller list. For many, it was hard to accept that Reese Witherspoon holding your book could do more for it than ten NPR interviews. Now BookTok may be the next bitter pill industry insiders need to swallow. The literary quality of the books selected by celebrity book clubs is miles above that of many of the titles amplified through BookTok—and for that matter, BookTok is even harder to predict than the media or the celebrity book clubs.

Aside from Winfrey finding a manuscript in her living room or Roberts discovering a book in an obscure literary magazine (which she does), most of these book clubs are making selections based on what publishers, agents, and editors are placing in their direct line of vision. Publishers are trying to do the same with BookTok, but their efforts to influence the algorithm are a drop in the bucket compared with the authentic power of readers on the platform. “It’s getting much harder for publishers to send that signal out, because it’s really consumers that are sending the signal now,” Schmidt said.

Whether or not the book clubs continue to carry weight for actual book sales in a rapidly changing industry remains to be seen. I, for one, see the solution to the potential (and potentially inevitable) waning power of these major celebrity book clubs as more (and more diverse) celebrity book clubs. That rising tide could lift countless boats in a struggling industry. As author and professor Clayton Childress said in a previous article on book blurbs, “There’s no middle class in publishing,” and anyone on the inside will tell you that a small group of massive best-sellers tends to fund the rest of the business. Sometimes celebrity book clubs annoyingly make a big book bigger (The Nightingale as a Reese’s Book Club pick in 2023—why?), but a lot of the time, these celebrities are creating best-sellers out of thin air, which then drive major revenue for publishers. The words “Taylor Swift Book Club” probably keep a lot of people up at night, but it’s mind-boggling to think about how much money a Taylor Swift Book Club pick would generate to fund smaller projects.

Because of the popularity of BookTok, I expect to see more Gen Z celebrities launching book clubs in the near future, and I’d appreciate it if we could skip the “Do they even read?” discourse that’s already come for a new generation. Case in point: Kelly told me the sales team at her imprint recently tied the sales spike of an extremely literary novel to Kaia Gerber’s book club, which caused shock waves throughout the room. “It was a meeting of a hundred people, and they were like, ‘I can’t believe Kaia Gerber can understand this book,’ ” she recounted. In reality, Kaia Gerber and her team have great taste in books.

We need more communities that inspire readers to pick up a new book, not fewer, and ones led by a more intersectionally diverse group of celebrities with different reading styles than what’s currently on display. The male celebrity-book-club market is practically untapped, as is the potential for a big name to build a community around a certain niche genre. In our conversation, Harden mentioned how Witherspoon typically picks lighter, easier Hello Sunshine titles in May and December because those months are busy times for moms. It’s great that Hello Sunshine is able to fulfill that need for a key demographic of readers, and it makes me ache for more celebrity book clubs that speak to specific communities and their unique reading preferences.

“What’s the problem with a bunch of people with big profiles having book clubs?” said Preiss. “I think everybody wants to find something sinister about it; they want to look for the ulterior motive. Even if there was an ulterior motive, who gives a shit? The context is key. It’s really hard to sell books, and it’s incredibly hard to compete with various forms of media. Nobody is Doctors Without Borders over here running a celebrity book club, but if you can let go of the earnestness, I do think it’s still worth doing. What’s the alternative? That celebrities don’t have book clubs?”

That’s not an alternative any of us should want to explore.

Prop styling by Miako Katoh





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