We may never see a book club as singularly influential as the one Oprah Winfrey included as a segment on her show, particularly since the influence of nationally syndicated talk shows has diminished so drastically since Oprah put away her stickers and laid her club to rest. In subsequent years, other televised book clubs sprang up to replace the Oprah-shaped void in the publishing world, but none has the power to send patrons scampering to the hold shelf quite like their predecessor.
This caesura has sent media-driven book fads straight into the arms of Terry Gross and other NPR worthies. For other tastemakers, see also: magazines, including Oprah’s own, which revived her book club in 2012 and still has some sway on bestseller lists, thanks to a healthy web presence.
Of course, the Internet—that perennial bugbear of stodgier literary types—offers book clubs as well. Last July, amid the ousting of CEO Ellen Pao and the closure of white supremacist and fat-shaming groups, Reddit announced its first-ever official book club selection: Armada, by Ernest Cline. For publishers to expose their authors to the anarchic, oftentimes deeply offensive forums of Reddit seemed like a massive risk, or an act of desperation undertaken at a time when the venues in which to promote a new title are ever-dwindling in number. As it happens, no danger came to pass: Reddit Book Club discussions are relatively gentle, as well as strangely quiet.
This spring, Wired magazine launched a book club with fantasy writer and future Hugo Award-winner N.K. Jemesin’s The Fifth Season as its first selection. Jason Kehe, an associate editor at Wired, leads the club. He spoke with me about why he and his colleagues decided to join the fray.
So, why did Wired start a book club?
Mainly to have fun, but we did need a way to stay accountable to covering books. Movies, TV, games, music—consumption of those things can be done relatively quickly. But books take more time, require a little structure, which is probably why we cover them less. Also, it’s an exciting time for genre fiction. New voices, some controversy. We wanted to be part of that conversation. WIRED’s always looked to what’s next, so there’s more enthusiasm for sci-fi/fantasy than you might find elsewhere. We want to get good genre fiction out there.
Why’d you start with The Fifth Season?
We kept hearing that N.K. Jemisin was tearing up the genre, and one of our contributors had recently done a podcast interview with her. Some of us had dabbled in her first series, but nobody had read her new one. It seemed to have two qualities you don’t see a ton of in genre: it was literary and it was urgent. Not that every fantasy has to be those things, but we needed a book we could really talk about. (Let the record show we picked the book a week BEFORE it was nominated for a Hugo.) Plus, it was available in trade paperback and e-book, so hopefully more people could pick it up. We knew from the very first page that we’d made the right choice.
What sort of involvement have publishers had in your book selections?
No involvement, though we’ll of course go through publicists to schedule our interviews with the authors. We post weekly discussions of the book online, then host a Q&A with the author at the end of the month.