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Why Zuckerberg's book club isn't like Oprah's

Oprah Winfrey
Richard Shotwell / Today

On January 2, shortly after announcing his New Year’s resolution to read a new book every other week, Mark Zuckerberg launched “A Year of Books,” a community Facebook page where members can join Zuckerberg in his mission. They’ll read and discuss chosen titles, as well as pitch suggestions for others.

Many participants and spectators are calling this new venture a book club, yet never in his Facebook announcements does Zuckerberg himself call it that. He speaks of it as “a challenge” and “a group.” But whether he intended to or not, the 30 year-old entrepreneur has created a Facebook book club, as it were, and as one of the most influential people in the world, his literary endeavor will naturally be likened to that curated by another most influential person: Oprah Winfrey. A close look, however, shows that actually the two bear little in common.

“The [respective book clubs] are so very different,” says Jim Milliot, editorial director at Publisher’s Weekly, employed with the company for nearly 22 years and a publishing insider for over 30. “For one thing, Zuckerberg hasn’t worked with the publishers yet to help facilitate sales.”

In contrast, Winfrey worked well in advance with publishers, who were eager to know what was on her agenda. “It was a huge deal when [publishers] knew she was going to make an announcement,” adds Milliot.

And of course there was that all-important “Oprah Book Club” sticker, a badge that still holds relevance to readers. Reprinting an old book with that new badge on a massive scale was no easy task. “It was a rather elaborate production,” Milliot says.

It paid off, both for Winfrey and for the dozens of authors it spotlighted during its 15-year run. The club’s 2007 reprint of Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” originally published in 2002, has sold 710,000 copies, Nielsen reports.

Zuckerberg too has the power to sell a lot of books. His first read, “The End of Power,” by Moisés Naím, announced on January 2, sold out on Amazon almost immediately. Up until that point the title’s sales were weak. Nielsen reports that sales through Week 52, 2014 were at 1,120. Week 1, 2015 sales (through January 4) weren’t available in time for this article, but obviously, they’ll be through the roof.

Right now, Zuckerberg’s model has challenges, says Milliot, because there aren’t enough books on hand for each title to meet the demand. This was never an issue with Winfrey because she collaborated with the publishers well in advance of announcing her selection. Also, Zuckerberg is only giving people two weeks to read a book. By the time bookstores, particularly independent ones, order and receive stock, the club will already be moving on to the next book.

When you consider these factors, Zuckerberg’s venture sounds less like a book club and more like a book race. After all, it’s “A Year Of Books.” Time is already running out.

Nicole Spector is the author of “50 Shades of Dorian Gray” and a contributor The New Yorker's "Goings on About Town." Follow her on Twitter @nicolespector.