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What Makes a Best-seller Does Not Make a Winning Candidate

Using this bestseller-yardstick to gauge Oprah's influence on politics is a bit misguided. The thing is you don't have to sell nearly as many books as get votes in order to crown a winner.
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When Oprah Winfrey hosted a celebrity-studded fundraiser in Santa Barbara on Saturday, it was not surprising that the Obama campaign was ebullient. After all, the television star is the most influential -- not to mention the wealthiest -- African American woman in the country.

Consider the millions who watch her show, read her magazine and follow her advice. Winfrey is more than just a powerful influence. She is practically the nation's life coach.

So, if she tells people to vote for the candidate, people will vote for that candidate, right? After all, many political analysts are saying, she has done something far more difficult: On dozens of occasions, she has turned middling successful books into huge bestsellers. (Think Cormac McCarthy's The Road and James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, to name just two.)

But using this bestseller-yardstick to gauge Oprah's influence on politics is a bit misguided. The thing is you don't have to sell nearly as many books as get votes in order to crown a winner.

Since I became editor in chief of Publisher's Weekly almost three years ago, the question I am asked most is: "How many books do I need to sell to get on a bestseller list?"

The most honest answers:

1. That depends

2. Who knows?

In the United States, unlike, say, in Britain, point-of-sale figures are not readily available to the press, and all lists are made from a complicated system of weighting and wishful thinking. (No list computes the sales at absolutely every book outlet in America, and so extrapolation is unavoidable.) So, on a week not loaded with new releases of James Patterson and Khaled Hosseini novels, a debut novel can "hit the list" of national bestsellers with sales of a couple of thousand copies.

The publishing world, of course, doesn't want you to know this. Once I talked to an editor who gave me a long sob story about how publishers kept their sales figures secret out of deference to the authors' privacy. (You know those authors, they're so competitive.) Baloney, I told her. We don't release sales figures for one reason, and one reason alone: the numbers, even for the bestselling of books, are too small.

A culture used to seeing eight-figure movie grosses just wouldn't understand that a book could be a "hit" when it sold 20,000 copies in a single week. Or, as one glossy magazine editor I know said, when I told her a certain book was a huge hit because it had sold 100,000 copies in a year, "If I sold 100,000 copies, I'd get fired."

Obviously, Oprah influences a lot more than 100,000 people --or even 100,000 X 10 -- in a single day. Obviously, the pool of potential voters -- what are we at now, TK million? -- is much larger than the number of people who regularly buy books, even ones touted by Oprah. (Studies suggest that the number of "serious readers" in this country is in the woeful tens of thousands, at best.)

Whether we like to admit it or not, voting for an Oprah-fied candidate takes less time -- go to voting booth, pull lever, go to work -- than sitting down to read one of her sanctioned 300-plus-page books of prose.

It so happens that Barack Obama is already a bestselling author. His two books have long cracked the million-copy mark -- thanks in part to Oprah's help.

Whether she can do the same with his candidacy remains to be seen. After all, she only needs to win over that number -- to the 100th power.

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