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The highs and lows of TV talk shows // OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB

Oprah's Book Club, a new monthly segment offered by the popular TV talk-show host, is catapulting literary authors onto the bestseller list faster than Ernest Hemingway knocked back whiskey.

In October, mega-bestseller Tom Clancy conceded his No.

1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list to Oprah's first book-club choice, a novel by a virtually unknown writer from Wisconsin. Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean, about the disappearance of a 3-year-old boy, is still on the list after 11 weeks, holding its own against such veteran bestselling authors as Stephen King, Scott Turow and Mary Higgins Clark.

The next month, Oprah's selection was Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, about a black man's search for his roots. Published in 1977, the book had been selling barely 50,000 copies a year. Overnight, 500,000 copies were sold. The 19-year-old novel landed for the first time on the bestseller list, where it has remained for six weeks.

And this month? For a brief while, a Florida writer expected to be Oprah's December selection. Connie May Fowler even had begun to picture her name on a bestseller list. But talk shows, she learned, are as unpredictable as the publishing industry. Or as historian Daniel Boorstin once lamented: "Nothing is real unless it happens on television."

Connie May Fowler never set out to be the next Danielle Steel. Her lyrically written novels, set in Florida where she was born and now lives, are the kind that win prestigious prizes, not spots on the bestseller list.

Not the easy reads found on supermarket racks, Fowler's stories are wrenched from her hardscrabble childhood in what she describes as "your typical, dysfunctional Cracker family."

So when Oprah Winfrey called Fowler at her home to discuss making a made-for-TV movie of her latest novel, Before Women Had Wings, it is not surprising that the novelist was not immediately swept up by the lure of fame.

Not that Oprah wasn't enthusiastic about Before Women Had Wings. "I shivered after reading the first paragraph," Fowler said the talk-show host told her. "I immediately related to Bird," added the effusive Oprah, referring to Fowler's main character, an abused white child named Bird Jackson.

"Can you believe it? She shivered," Fowler said, shaking her long blonde hair across her face. She was surprised, not because her book had touched Oprah Winfrey, but because her words had made anyone shiver. Resigned to loyal but small followings, literary authors such as Fowler are genuinely appreciative when they get positive feedback from any reader.

Even when directors and producers from Harpo Films, Oprah's production company, began to call her, begging her to write the screenplay for the made-for-TV movie that would include a role for Oprah herself, Fowler remained doubtful that commercial success was headed her way.

Movie deals with fiction writers _ especially good fiction writers _ are, after all, precarious affairs. Her first novel, Sugar Cage, about women surviving men, had been optioned by Columbia and nothing ever had come of it. Besides, even when books are made into movies, it doesn't always translate into sales.

When Fowler found out that Oprah was considering Before Women Had Wings to be the December selection for her on-air book club, she finally braced herself for her 15 minutes of fame.

Then she got the call.

Oprah had changed the December selection. Viewers had complained that Oprah's first book selection was an expensive hardcover. How did Oprah expect her avid followers to participate in the discussions if they had to shell out $20 every month? Before Women Had Wings would have to wait until it came out in paperback before it could qualify for the book club.

Fowler stepped back from the edge of greatness.

"I was really peeved about it at first," she admits. "But a lot of Oprah's viewers want to read every work she recommends, and some can't afford a $20 book. I respect Oprah for being sensitive to that." Besides, Fowler was assured, her book was postponed, not canceled. "I'm told it's definitely happening," she says.

The movie version of the novel is also happening. Fowler, who finally agreed to write the screenplay, already has submitted preliminary drafts. Oprah is slated to play Miss Zora, the old black neighbor who befriends the confused and lonely Bird. Filming, which will take place at the Travelers Motel in Tampa, should begin in the spring. The movie is scheduled to appear on ABC during sweeps week in November, perhaps just in time for Fowler's debut on Oprah's Book Club.

Will Oprah be able to keep up her monthly success until then? Some predict interest in the book club will peter out. Perhaps Oprah's Midas touch in the world of books will be as sporadic as the "Imus factor" proved to be.

Earlier this year New York radio personality Don Imus gave a gushing endorsement for a book that his wife had fallen in love with, I Am Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn. The slim volume soared onto the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for months. The publishing world began to discuss the implications of the Imus factor in book sales. Bestseller wanna-bes flooded the radio station with the next Amelia Earhart, but Imus has yet to launch another nation-wide winner.

Of course, Oprah's audience of 9-million daily viewers, mostly female, never can be discounted. For years, publishers have vied for spots on her show, well aware of her power to sell non-fiction. Witness the success of her chef Rosie Daley's cookbook, which became the fastest-selling cookbook in history (some say the fastest-selling book in the world, period). Now Oprah is proving she can promote fiction as well.

If anyone has any doubts, just check this Sunday's New York Times paperback bestseller list. The book that was substituted for Fowler's book as Oprah's December book-club selection, the paperback version of Jane Hamilton's Book of Ruth, debuts at No. 2. It is followed by Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon at No. 3.

Eat your heart out, Robert Ludlum.

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