NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When Oprah Winfrey began recommending books in 1996, she turned mid-level author Jacquelyn Mitchard into a publishing sensation. Now, the TV hostess may do the same for John Steinbeck.
On Wednesday, Winfrey announced that Steinbeck's "East of Eden" is her first selection in the recently rejuvenated Oprah's Book Club. The late Nobel laureate's sales may soon be rejuvenated, too -- if the flurry of buying that took place on Amazon.com in the first post-pick hours is sustained.
Between 1996 and 2002, the Oprah imprimatur was the most important literary endorsement since Moses got God's blessing for the Ten Commandments. At her peak, Winfrey was the most powerful woman in publishing, with the ability to turn anonymous authors into celebrities.
Mitchard's book, "The Deep End of the Ocean," was the first selection in Oprah's Book Club. The novel became a blockbuster after the writer's appearance on "Oprah!"
A week after the spot aired, an initial print run of 100,000 hardcover copies was expanded to 640,000, and "The Deep End of the Ocean" scored a No. 1 rank on the major best seller lists.
After Mitchard, dozens of other books became runaway best-sellers just because Oprah said she liked them.
Last spring, however, Winfrey decided to stop the practice of recommending books on air after a widely publicized flap with Jonathan Franzen, whose work, "The Corrections," had received the thumbs-up.
Franzen publicly questioned the middle-brow nature of some of the other books on the list, implying that his own novel was more artistically important than the rest of Oprah's recommendations. Offended, Winfrey withdrew her support for Franzen and eventually decided to cancel the entire Book Club.
In February of this year, however, Winfrey reconsidered, and announced she would resume the club. This time, however, the recommendations are to be classic titles. (Presumably, a dead author is a quiet one.)
Whether Oprah's touch will have the same effect on famous old titles as it did on unknowns is still an open question. Penguin USA, a division of British media conglomerate Pearson (PSO: Research, Estimates), publishes a number of editions of "East of Eden."
"Obviously, we're very excited about it," said Maureen Donnelly, a Penguin vice president based in New York. "This is a gift."
Donnelly notes that "East of Eden" was a best seller when it was released in 1952. Classics don't generally sell as robustly, but Penguin has high hopes now.
Oprah promoted the "centennial edition" of the book, released last year in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Steinbeck's birth. Before the news, according to Donnelly, "this was not a budgeted title for 2003," meaning the publisher was not planning any kind of unusual publicity or marketing for it.
In other words, the Oprah boost is economic gravy for Pearson. How much? A lot, if very early (though unscientific) results from Amazon.com are any indication.
The Amazon sales rank measures relative sales strength of books sold at any given moment on the Web site. "East of Eden" began the day deep down on the list, with a rank below 2 million at one point.
By noon -- a few hours after the Oprah pick was announced, and before the program even aired in New York or Los Angeles -- the book's sales rank had soared to 113. By Thursday morning, it jumped to No. 2, behind only "Harry Potter."