The star has deposed Oprah Winfrey as queen of the online literary discussion groups – and plenty more A-listers are getting in on the act. Our reporter dives under the covers
Trusted voice … Witherspoon’s Instagram book club has 2.5m members.
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.”
She had no idea where to start. “I remember Fifty Shades of Grey being a big thing – and I read 10 pages and dropped it. Even when I went to bookstores, I didn’t know what I was looking for.” Witherspoon’s curation of female narratives and authors “was access to literature for me”, says Theumer – as well as to a reading community.
In 2015, after a few months of reading along with Witherspoon, Theumer and a friend set up @rwbookclub pages on Instagram and Facebook to connect with others doing the same. “So many people joined, we realised that it was not just us who thought, ‘This is a great idea.’” The Instagram had grown to 100,000 followers when, in 2016, she was contacted by Witherspoon’s team about them taking it over. “I don’t think it was Reese personally,” she says. “I only talked to her representative over the phone and handed over the password.”
The handle was changed, the profile verified, and the visual brand made consistent. “As soon as Reese got involved, it became this massive thing,” says Theumer. Today 2.5 million people follow @reesesbookclub, compared with fewer than 700,000 for @oprahsbookclub, though it pushes for more active participation. “You can follow along with us on Instagram,” wheedles its FAQ, but “that’s kind of like watching someone drink a glass of wine: delightful, but not exactly the same as having your own glass.”
For the most committed members, the online shop sells “box sets” of books grouped by theme, such as self-care or beach reads, while its own line of scented candles, socks and shawls promise to enhance the experience. Proceeds go towards supporting independent booksellers, diverse writers and increasing access to literature “to pay our book joy forward”.
“Membership” is free, contingent only on downloading the official app, where Witherspoon announces each month’s selection and corrals the discussion through forums, polls and events. Tonight on Zoom, Ng is due to speak to us about Our Missing Hearts, praised by Witherspoon in a video as “deeply suspenseful” and “sublime” (that’s not, she adds, just because they’re friends). But when I log on, our host is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Ng is in conversation with author Nancy Jooyoun Kim, facilitated by an upbeat blond woman seated in front of a colour-coordinated bookshelf: a Witherspoon proxy. As members filter in from as far away as Canada and Pakistan, we are reminded of the house rules: listen “actively and attentively”; critique ideas, not people; and hang in through any wifi issues.
The 90-minute discussion is thoughtful and overwhelmingly positive, not least about the platform itself, which Jooyoun Kim calls “the best book-clubbing family in the world”. On the readers’ side, the chat box is lively throughout, with a surprising number of participants having their cameras turned on. I seem to be the only one drinking wine, but it is still early on the other side of the Atlantic. With only 150 in attendance, though, it is fair to assume the majority of members had other plans (not least our “book-lover-in-chief”) – leading me to wonder why I don’t.
While the talk is as thoughtful as any I’ve attended at a writers’ festival, and with much less agonising moderation of questions from the audience, the remote format brings back memories of the online author talks I attended during lockdown, when in-person sessions weren’t possible. That online engagement and desire for community has now become central to the reading experience, says Carvalho, whether through real-world book clubs that meet on Zoom, or the explosion of discussion on TikTok.
“You can see with the rise of #BookTok how hungry the reading public is for sincere recommendations from people they trust,” she says. “Reading and bookselling is all about word of mouth. And I think celebrity book clubs are versions of that, connecting with an audience that has a similar taste.”
There are more than 150,000 searches for book recommendations and #BookTok content on TikTok each month, leading the platform to set up its own official book club this July. The first pick was Jane Austen’s Persuasion, recognising the “community’s preference for the classics”. For celebrities, books are a way of being visible on social media and engaging with their followers without drawing any attention to their A-lister privilege.
The selection of texts, too, can signal good taste or progressive politics. Emily Ratajkowski has made literature more central to her Instagram presence as she seeks to become better known as a writer than a model. Likewise 21-year-old model Kaia Gerber’s book club, started during lockdown, has seen her recommending Plato and Camus as if to prove she is not just a pretty face.
It is easy to be cynical about the depth of some celebrities’ engagement, but it is hard to fake a genuine response to a book you haven’t read – plus, in front of millions of followers, they put themselves at risk of being caught out.
Similarly, not all books-as-brand-building is superficial. One way the Obamas eased their transition from the political sphere to the cultural one was by sharing lists of their books of the year. Singer Florence Welch and actor Emma Watson were among the first celebrities to start reading communities on social media, using them to highlight works meaningful to their writing or politics.
Compared with many of the trials of fame, talking about books you love is “probably quite nice”, suggests Carvalho. “Everyone likes being part of a book club. I think reading is so personal: it feels like a really fundamental and honest way of connecting with your audience.”
The book club boom reflects the modern-day acceptance of what might once have been derided as “selling out”. Twenty years ago, Jonathan Franzen infamously expressed misgivings about Oprah’s Book Club selection of The Corrections. At the time, her endorsement was said to shift 5m extra copies – an unthinkable number today. Today, there was no such objection to Gerber discussing Franzen’s new novel Crossroads on her Instagram.
Per the new economics of publishing, authors and even editors are expected to be more visible and engaged. Bloomsbury’s Alexandra Pringle, named Editor of the Year at this year’s British Book Awards, and author Nesrine Malik started their own virtual book club last month.
If the literary world once held itself apart from celebrity, it is now embracing the spotlight. The keynote speaker at this year’s Booker prize ceremony was pop star Dua Lipa, who spoke eloquently about the solace that reading brought her while on tour. Lipa, too, is reportedly considering a book club of her own. “She certainly cares about books,” says Gaby Wood, director of the Booker Prize Foundation.
The choice of the singer was part of the foundation’s effort to celebrate readers as much as authors – as well as to attract a little celebrity sparkle for itself. For the first time, this year’s Booker involved real-world book clubs in its decision-making, with six selected from more than 100 applications around the UK. One had been together for decades.
Regardless of which famous figure they align around, says Wood, all books clubs support the formation of community. “If people are more likely to read a book because someone they recognise recommends it, that’s to everyone’s benefit. That individual will then find something for themselves in the book way beyond the original recommendation.”
And though a celebrity might set out, with a book club, to cast themselves in a flattering literary sheen, it could be exposing in ways they haven’t anticipated. We might even find out that they are, after all, just like us. After announcing that they were starting a book club back in 2017, Kim Kardashian and Chrissy Teigen got as far as meeting once and posting a few tweets about it – and no further. “It never took off,” Kardashian later explained, “because we were lazy.” I had never related to her more.