NEW YORK – While Oprah's now-defunct book club had millions of people reading her literary picks, some of the clubs filling her void are decidedly anti-O.
Kelly Ripa, co-host of ABC's LIVE with Regis and Kelly, USA Today, and NBC's Today have all unabashedly jumped on the book club bandwagon.
Today's club, which launches in June, will feature well-known authors picking books by relatively unknown scribes. USA Today's book editor chose an acclaimed inaugural pick, but the club's online discussions are based on simplistic weekly questions.
And Ripa gushes about her selection on air while Regis labels it "beach trash." Among her stated rules: "Said book shall haveth no message, no-so-ever. It shalleth be fun, frivolous, fast and fiction. Any hint of life-affirming message will automatically lead to dismissal."
Laura Miller, editor of Salon.com's book coverage, admits she sometimes reads such "beach trash," but said, "When I want to read mindless entertainment I'd rather have somebody smart pick the book out for me. I have an impression that she is kind of a dingbat. But maybe that's her appeal and there are people who think she's really great."
Kate White, author of Ripa's first choice, If Looks Could Kill, is surely a fan. Her book flew off shelves as soon as Ripa announced her pick, jumping from No. 7,000 on Amazon.com to No. 2 within one day. The title is currently No. 15 on The New York Times best sellers list — practically unheard of for a first-time mystery writer.
Ripheads (as they have been deemed) are buying in increasingly Oprah-like numbers, but the success of other clubs is yet to be seen.
Legions watched Oprah because they related to her. But will Today viewers read what authors recommend?
"I don't think an author coming on and saying, 'I like this book' is going to have the same impact," said Bill McGarvey, managing editor of Book magazine. "(Oprah) is like a trusted friend saying 'you gotta check this out!'"
USA Today may lack a glossy figurehead, but Miller pointed out they have one advantage — people reading the paper are already readers.
Ripa is targeting lowbrow readers who want to be entertained and probably wouldn't tearfully interpret a Toni Morrison novel, like the guests on Oprah's book episodes, Miller said.
Ripa's online message board is telling: "I'm so proud of myself that I actually read a book from beginning to end," one person with user name Pilatesfan, wrote.
"Haven't read a book in 10 years and I couldn't put this down," adnorm212 proclaimed.
And the online chat with Kate White and Ripa didn't exactly focus on story structure or symbolism. Questions posed from viewers ranged from "Do you have a crush on Regis?" to "Kelly, do you get to keep the clothes you wear on the show?"
The differences in clubs are mainly the differences between the women who host them, McGarvey said. While Oprah treasures Maya Angelou, Ripa is proud to say that for years her favorite genre was horror and her current favorites are mysteries and unauthorized biographies.
But that's not all bad for people in the book biz.
"From a publishing perspective it's a really good thing," said Charlotte Abbott, book news editor at Publisher's Weekly. "The kinds of books she's looking at, mysteries, romantic women's novels, often don't get a lot of favorable attention in the media."
USA Today's online community is full of comments about the first pick, Empire Falls by Richard Russo. It's a Pulitzer Prize winner but the discussions may make some literati cringe. One week, readers opined about who should play characters in the upcoming HBO production of the book. Another week they discussed: "Would you like to live in a small town like Empire Falls?"
But being selected for a club that appreciates titillation more than Tolstoy doesn't faze White. "What is so wonderful is someone acknowledging that fun, mysterious or trashy books are worthwhile," she said during the online chat.
But not every writer will be as thrilled. "Authors who write this sort of commercial entertainment fiction often resent being labeled that way ... They think they do have a message," said Miller. "It's pretty safe to say Ripa will (eventually) pick someone who'll be offended by being picked."