Mystery Readers Too Dumb To Read Oprah Picks?

I paused at Quill and Quire, to read a link to an article about another piece of writing–a paper by an academic on the impact of Oprah Winfrey’s famous book club, the one that propelled brand new writers into the limelight, and garnered tons of sales for established ones. The paper titled ‘You Get a Book! Spillovers, Combative Advertising, and Celebrity Endorsements’ written by Craig L. Garthwaite at Northwestern University and NBER apparently makes the case that the club didn’t increase sales to other areas of the book world, I say apparently, because I’ve tried to read the entire paper itself, and was bored within seconds, except for a paragraph that had me seeing red, as the expression goes. But first, a synopsis of his theory:


This paper studies the economic effects of endorsements. In the publishing sector, endorsements from the Oprah Winfrey Book Club are found to be a business stealing form of advertising that raises title level sales without increasing the market size. The endorsements decrease aggregate adult fiction sales; likely as a result of the endorsed books being more difficult than those that otherwise would have been purchased. Economically meaningful sales increases are also found for non-endorsed titles by endorsed authors. These spillover demand estimates demonstrate a broad range of benefits from advertising for firms operating in a multi-product brand setting.”

In other words, her endorsements increased sales for the endorsed book, and for books by the endorsed author for a certain amount of time, but the endorsements didn’t gain new readers, nor did it increase the overall buying of a variety of titles. People who paid attention to Oprah’s favorites bought the favorite, and maybe another title by the same author–but didn’t go outside of that criteria and purchase for example, the History of the Migrating Dodo Bird, or The Economics of Owning and Operating a Flea Circus, or any of the Janet Evanovich bounty hunter series.

So how does Mr. Carthwaite come to these conclusions? With a whole bunch of mathematical equations. I may be able to buy into his theories if he hadn’t made the fatal mistake of categorizing genres via some scanning machine’s data. And if he didn’t bluntly assert that people who read mysteries, romances, and action novels need less education than those who read straight fiction. Now, them’s fightin’ words.

First, let’s tackle the so called ‘mystery’ genre. What does that consist of?  Well, if you go by this paper, it covers only bestselling mysteries, whatever they may be. Since most people have no idea what is considered a mystery, or crime fiction novel, I checked what amazon had listed for ‘bestsellers’ and laughed mirthlessly. Among the titles were books by Stephen Hunter, James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, Jonathan Kellerman, and J. D. Robb. Most of these titles have little to do with ‘mystery.’ Crime, yes, action, yes, but not a whodunit, which is what a pure ‘mystery’ is. I would consider J.D. Robb to be romantic suspense, and perhaps Jodi Picoult as well. Within these titles are suspense and action books, which Mr. Carthwaite has listed separately. That’s why so many use the term crime fiction, because it covers all the various genres within genres and doesn’t use a blanket idea of what this area consists of. If you’ve ever gone into a B&N, and looked for a certain writer of crime novels in the mystery section, and couldn’t find them, go to the regular fiction section–they’re there, because so many authors cannot be pigeonholed into one category, which is too complex for  Mr. Carthwaite’s thesis. Even if you buy into the idea of what a mystery is according to amazon and Mr. Carthwaite,  how does this evolve into mystery readers requiring less education?

His paper claims that Oprah’s selections, which according to him were mostly adult fiction and nonfiction, were longer and harder to read, than the simpler remedial type books that mysteries et al provide.(The remedial line is my take on his statement)  Here’s how he comes up with these conclusions:

“Linguistic scholars have developed several measures of the difficulty of written text. Two examples are the Gunning Fog and the Flesch-Kincaid indices, both of which attempt to quantify the United States grade level necessary for comprehension. These indices measure only the complexity of the writing and are not an analysis the intricacy of plot developments or characters. Instead, they provide a quantitative measure of one dimension affecting the amount of time required to complete a novel.”

His paper continues:

“As part of their book digitization efforts, now offers readability statistics for many books available on their website. Table 7 contains the median readability index values and word counts for several groups of books. The first column contains the values for Club endorsed books. The median endorsed book’s Gunning Fog Index predicts that the text should be understandable to someone with an 8th grade education or higher. The median endorsed novel had a Flesch-Kincaid estimated grade level of 6.5 and contained approximately 150,000 words.

The third column contains the median values for the top twenty bestselling romance novels.  The median Gunning Fog index score for this genre was more than one grade level below the median Club selection. Bestselling mystery novels had a median Gunning Fog grade level of 7. Titles in the action/adventure genre were slightly more difficult than the Club selections, but these novels were approximately 20,000 words shorter. Finally, Club endorsed titles were approximately 1.5 grade levels harder than the median overall bestseller.”

That’s right people–you who read Oprah’s books were obviously more educated than we mere mystery readers, or, you like us, only had an 7th grade education, therefore it took us far far longer to read Oprah’s complex and excessively long picks. Which–wait for it–is why the mystery, romance, action/adventure genres suffered sales loss during the book endorsements by Ms. Winfrey.

That’s right–Mr. Carthwaite’s main point is that contrary to popular belief, not only didn’t Oprah expand the reading pool, she robbed sales from the lower level readability books, because, we who can barely understand half the words in Great Expectations or Anna Karenina took forever to read them, and because of this were unable to purchase our trashy summer reads like the simple little novel  Crime and Punishment, or the lightweight romance, Wuthering Heights.

In case you think I’m misunderstand his paper–

“These statistics show that the Club selections were longer and more difficult than the bestselling titles in the genres that were popular among consumers likely to respond to the endorsement. Assuming that longer and more difficult books will take more time to read, the difference in estimated grade level combined with the genre-level sales shifts help explain the pattern of aggregate sales declines in the main results. To explore this further, I exploit variation in the genre-level difficulty amongst endorsed novels. Fiction Club endorsements were all either general fiction or classic texts. The second to last column of Table 8 contains the readability scores and word counts for classic Club selections. With a median Gunning Fog grade level of 10.93 and length of over 160,000 words, these books were considerably harder and longer than other Club selections. For comparison, the last column contains the values for the top ten books of all time according to a Time magazine survey of 125 authors. Classic club selections require a similar grade level for comprehension as the top ten books and were approximately 30,000 words longer.”

Yes, that’s it. That’s why sales in those genres fell off during the time when viewers or book store browsers bought something suggested by Winfrey. We just couldn’t finish the book in time to grab the latest Connelly or Lehane. As soon as one recommended book  was read, another popped up, and we had to begin all over again, deciphering new words and sounding out multiple syllable ones to gain understanding of plot and theme. It exhausted us, so much so, we were unable to push the button on our computer and order Laura Lippman’s Edgar nominated title. We couldn’t drag our butts into a local store to find the next title in the Denise Swanson mystery series. God, reading those big big words do take the wind out of yas.

How utterly ludicrous! How condescending, not only to readers of those genres, but to Oprah’s audience, and the followers of her book club. I hate to break it to Mr. Carthwaite, but many of the titles she choose are considered crime fiction!

Deep End of the Ocean–Jacquelyn Mitchard–kidnapping-first pick by Oprah

The Book of Ruth–Jane Hamilton–Ruby Kills May

A Lesson Before Dying–Ernest J. Gaines–set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s.  Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shoot out in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Drowning Ruth–Christina Schwarz–Psychological suspense

Back Roads–Tawni O’Dell–Mother in jail for killing father

There may be more, but I think the point is made.

Since crime fiction only requires a 7th grade education, and the above are crime fiction, that means the reader should have been able to finish the books as fast as they do the regular mysteries they read, right? So, the dip in sales in that area can’t be equated to longer time to read, can it?

The above is meant as a mock out– not a serious argument.

The real argument and answer to this thesis is an easy one, and I cannot for one minute fathom how someone could write this entire thing with equations and all, and not recognize the reality of readers lives. Most people I know are not millionaires. They tend to buy a book at a time, or at most, a couple of books. If the evidence is that the books Oprah recommended  increased sales at about 400 per cent, and other titles by the endorsed author also increased in sales, then logic would dictate these readers who may have picked up some other type of book, or genre, bought her picks instead. Instead. With no budget left for the titles they usually bought. Not because they couldn’t read quickly, not because they had a low education level, not because the books were longer and more difficult, but because a buck only stretches so far, and the reader decided at that point in time, the buck would go to something Ms. Winfrey recommended.

So, yes, probably no new readers were created because of Oprah Winfrey, and yes, the sales didn’t expand to titles outside of that small criteria, but NO, it’s not because of the sophistication of the picks, or the education level of the reader. And any assertion otherwise is downright goofy.


3 thoughts on “Mystery Readers Too Dumb To Read Oprah Picks?”

  1. For me, if Oprah picks it, that’s the kiss of death for a book. Most of them are really the same book. (Although, if the book interests me, I _will_ read it. But one can only read so many stories about women with drug problems/abusive partners/alcoholic

    parents/lost children/generally miserable existences.)

    • LOL. I have a feeling you are on the money with that description. I think I’ve read one pick, but I’d done that before she had the club. I’m infuriated by the ridiculous assumption of IQ this author makes regarding reading levels. I bet it was ‘publish or perish’ for him!

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