Move over, Oprah: Hollywood stars' 'book selfies' create bestsellers now

By promoting authors' works on social media, TV and film stars including Reese Witherspoon, Lena Dunham and Emma Watson give them a valuable leg-up, just as Oprah Winfrey's book club did a generation ago

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 11:07pm

Once upon a time, it was Oprah Winfrey who told America what to read. But 20 years after Oprah launched her wildly successful book club, a new generation of celebrities is using social media to share the books they love and help create bestsellers.

Lena Dunham’s book selfie with Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies, Selfish

 

A photo posted by Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) on May 14, 2015 at 10:06am PDT

Reese Witherspoon, Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, Emma Roberts, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Kimberly Williams-Paisley are among the stars who use Instagram and Twitter to blast “book selfies” – cellphone snaps of the (usually physical) books they’re reading – accompanied by their own enthusiastic mini-reviews. (“#OpeningBelle is a smart, biting and honest peek into what it means to be a woman on Wall Street,” Witherspoon recently raved, under the hashtag #RWBookClub.)

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Witherspoon is the undisputed queen of the celebrity bookworm trend, but she’s not alone.

The actress, who earned an Oscar nomination for her starring role in the film version of Cheryl Strayed’s hit memoir Wild, has plugged books including Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling, Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Other Witherspoon recommendations, including Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty and Opening Belle by Maureen Sherry, are books she’s so wild about that she has acquired them for film or TV for her production company, Pacific Standard.

Girls star Dunham, 29, who wrote her own bestseller, Not That Kind of Girl, makes reading suggestions every “Lit Thursday” on Lenny, her online newsletter and website for young women. Lenny has become such a force that publishing giant Random House just signed Dunham and Girls executive producer Jenni Konner to create a book imprint called Lenny.

Random House editor in chief Andy Ward says Lenny “is attracting all kinds of exciting new voices”, and the book imprint aims to do the same in a “bigger format”, mostly with female writers. Dunham, he says, “is committed to quality”.

Watson, better known as Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame, launched a feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, in January through the Goodreads website. The 26-year-old’s first pick was My Life on the Road by 82-year-old feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

Stars who might otherwise covet their privacy are hopping aboard the “sharing” train when it comes to books – why?

“I’ve been a reader for years. I’ve always loved book clubs; I’ve always loved sharing books and talking about books, going into bookstores and browsing. And to me, doing it online is just a bigger way to do that,” says Williams-Paisley, 44, who is promoting her new memoir, Where the Light Gets In: Losing My Mother Only to Find Her Again, about her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.

Online culture, she says, is “a great way to connect with fans” and fellow book lovers.

“I love the comments from people that I get when I’ve posted about a book, and then I love the recommendations that say, ‘Oh, if you liked this one then you’ve got to try these five,’” says the actress, who has posted her love for such titles as Euphoria by Lily King and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Williams-Paisley also follows what other stars are reading, including Witherspoon (“I love Reese”), and says, “I’ve read Emma Watson’s recommendations, too.” And she likes posting about children’s literature because “I love reading to my children.” (She has two sons, aged 9 and 7, with her husband, country star Brad Paisley.)

Celebrities who share what’s on their reading list usually do so in an informal manner that creates an intimate online conversation. “What are y’all reading??” Reese will often ask, eliciting a barrage of fan responses.

For authors who are beneficiaries of star tweets, it’s a whole new level of attention, and often sales.

“A celebrity endorsement is a wondrous thing for any author struggling to get the word out about their work,” says Moriarty, author of the bestsellers The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies.

Witherspoon, 40, first posted a photo of Big Little Lies in August 2014, just a few days after the hardcover publication, and now she’s co-starring in and co-producing (with Nicole Kidman) an HBO adaptation of the darkly comic novel about kindergarten mums and a possible murder.

“I’ve been hugely grateful for all the times Reese has mentioned Big Little Lies on social media,” Moriarty says. “I’m not much good at social media myself, so it’s fantastic to have someone with Reese’s celebrity status mentioning the book to her legions of fans.”

Witherspoon also gave a boost last year to Luckiest Girl Alive when she posted about Jessica Knoll’s debut thriller (a “non-stop nail-biting crazy train”) and mentioned she had acquired film rights.

Richard Rhorer, associate publisher of Simon & Schuster, says buzz already was building for the book, but “when Reese posted on Instagram, it just took (pre-orders on Amazon) into the stratosphere. For a debut novel from someone that no one had really heard of yet, that’s kind of remarkable.” Luckiest Girl Alive has sold more than 450,000 copies.

Tribune News Service