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Seeing book sales drop, authors make a plea to Oprah

Three years after daytime TV queen Oprah Winfrey discontinued the original model of Oprah's Book Club -- recommending one contemporary American novel per month -- a group of 160 authors have sent her a letter, begging her to bring it back.

The letter was written by some of the founders of Word of Mouth, an online association of women writers (the entire text is on www.wordofmouthwriters.org), but many of the signatories are men.

''She was a significant presence in American letters," said novelist Roxana Robinson, who helped draft the letter. ''She made reading enticing, and introduced new work to a huge number of people. We wanted her to get some recognition. Why not ask her to reconsider? Even if she didn't, it would give us a chance to express our thanks."

Oprah's Book Club remains a feature of the Oprah Winfrey Show, but since June 2003, it has touted classic works of fiction, such as John Steinbeck's ''East of Eden," Alan Paton's ''Cry, the Beloved Country," and Leo Tolstoy's ''Anna Karenina."

From 1996 to 2002, when she suspended the feature, Winfrey picked dozens of books by current writers, including Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Mary McGarry Morris, Andre Dubus 3d, and Anita Shreve.

The authors appeared on the show and were profiled, and the books became instant bestsellers, with sales sometimes exceeding 1 million copies.

Pointing to the slump in sales of new fiction in the past three years, the letter disputed a common view that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were the cause. ''When you stopped featuring contemporary authors on your program," the authors wrote, ''Book Club members stopped buying new fiction, and this has changed the face of American publishing."

The letter continued, ''We'd like to ask that you consider focusing, once again, on contemporary writers. . . . The American literary landscape is in distress. Sales of contemporary fiction are still falling. . . . Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'd like. They, the readers, need you. And we, the writers, need you."

The Winfrey show issued a statement saying: ''There are no plans to change the focus of the book club selections at this time."

The signatories constitute a who's who of current writers, including Mary Gordon, Kathryn Harrison, Lily Tuck, Jane Smiley, Sara Peretsky, Lee Smith, James Alan McPherson, Cynthia Ozick, Amy Tan, Maxine Kumin, Philip Lopate, Oscar Hijuelos, Marita Golden, John Dufresne, and Ann Beattie.

''She brought books to millions of people, and that is a good thing," said novelist Josephine Humphreys, one of the signers. ''People like to be given a reading list, just like in the eighth grade. They don't just like to read alone; they like to be in a network of readers.

''Oprah provided that," Humphreys said. ''She is a reader and a book lover, and what she did was wonderful." For the statement that fiction sales crashed after the book club stopped anointing new books, the letter cited research by novelist M.J. Rose.

Speaking by telephone yesterday, Rose said: ''People buy books if they are exposed to information about them. When Oprah picked a book, sometimes a million people bought it.

''When a million books a month don't sell," Rose said, ''that is a significant drop in readership. If you look at buying patterns, when a person goes into a store to buy a book, she is open to all the other books in the store, and most people buy more than one."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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