How Reese’s Book Club Changed Hollywood for Women
Begun in 2017, Reese’s Book Club is a powerhouse literary discovery platform – and a way for the actress and producer to source worthwhile material for film and TV.
Ever since Oprah Winfrey began the “Oprah’s Book Club” segment on her chat show in 1996, celebrities have been considered important influencers in the literary world. Their endorsements can completely change the fortunes of both book and author. And while Oprah remains a tastemaker (her Book Club continues online, and recommends about four books per year, often to roaring effect on sales), these days there is another celebrity Book Club whose real-world impact reaches perhaps even further.
In the past five years, when it comes to beach reads, romance novels, memoirs and books by women in general, one woman has emerged who it is crucial to impress: Reese Witherspoon. Her Reese’s Book Club, which began in 2017 via her media company Hello Sunshine, is now one of the most influential book curation platforms in the world: on Instagram it’s followed by 2.3 million people; in the UK, books are listed on the websites of trusted retailers like Foyle’s as “Reese’s Book Club Picks”; and in large US chains like Target, selections are adorned with a sticker, so trusted is the brand.
Every month, a new book is chosen as the club’s Pick of the Month, the only necessary criteria being, according to the website, that the book is one “with a woman at the centre of the story” – otherwise, “there’s not a formula to the books we spotlight.” All of the books are read and approved as picks by Witherspoon herself, and the Book Club places an emphasis on works by authors who might not always be the expected choice, or who are being newly introduced to US audiences – picks come from all over the world. Although fiction tends to dominate, other genres and forms, like self-help or short stories, also appear.
Being chosen as a Reese’s Book Club pick has the power to raise a book’s profile and totally launch or overhaul an author’s career. In December 2021, Melissa Stapley’s novel Lucky was chosen as a pick. She told the Toronto Star at the time, “As a Canadian author, it’s not easy on the commercial stage to get your books front and centre and I’ve really battled that for my whole career, just trying hard to get my books into readers’ hands in the U.S. And this is going to make that happen.”
Indeed, last April, when it named Hello Sunshine one of the 100 Most Influential Companies in the World, TIME magazine noted that “of the 54 [book] selections to date, more than 30 have gone on to make The New York Times best-seller list”. Those are, in anyone’s book, staggering odds. What is more, in recent years, we have seen that Reese’s Book Club functions within Hello Sunshine as a way to source material, as selections are often later adapted into TV shows and films by the company, with Witherspoon herself as an executive producer.
Speaking to Variety in 2019, Sarah Harden, chief executive of Hello Sunshine, said “We don’t ever option books and sit on them. There’s nothing that makes us happier than helping an author make more money from royalties and sell their books. When we decide to option something, we put our heads down and figure out how to bring that to life.”
It has been an exceptionally successful strategy that has established Witherspoon as one of film and TV’s power players – her work with her production companies has made her Hollywood’s richest actress, and recent years have seen a number of high-profile adaptations of Reese’s Book Club picks, including Big Little Lies, and most recently Where the Crawdads Sing.
What’s most fascinating and edifying about her rise is how Witherspoon identified the appetite for stories about women with just as much interior life as their male counterparts, and to some degree, has helped to widen that field.
In the UK, US and Canada, women are responsible for 80 per cent of fiction purchases, so narratives that centre women have a guaranteed audience. The popularity of Reese’s Book Club has been part of an upwards trajectory for women in books in general. In 2016, before the Book Club formally began, 10 of the authors who topped The New York Times weekly bestseller list were women (compared with 15 men). By 2021, that figure had risen to 18 (again, compared with 15 men; two of the books in question, The Last Thing He Said to Me by Laura Dave and The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller, were Reese’s Book Club picks).
In film (and to some degree TV) however, Witherspoon – herself imbued with the type of go-getting personality that has defined many of her most beloved characters, from Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods to Election’s Tracy Flick – identified that this was long ignored. She has frequently said that she was driven to start platforming works centring women after experiencing a mid-career lull during which she felt there were no roles for actresses her age. In 2014, she told Variety that she was extremely disappointed by conversations she had with film studios. “I think it was literally one studio that had a project for a female lead over 30,” she said. “And I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get busy’.”
After winning a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk the Linein 2006, she was not nominated again for any Academy Awards for acting until 2015 for her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed in an adaptation of Strayed’s memoir Wild – a book Witherspoon herself won the film rights to and produced.
It seems that Witherspoon took the roadmap she established with projects like Wild – that is, one of optioning a book, and deciding to produce (and star) in the film version – and formalised it via Hello Sunshine. The company’s model has created a Book-Club-pick-to-prestige-media-property pipeline that has already produced impressive results. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, the September 2017 pick, became a series for US streamer Hulu starring Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, while upcoming are the TV adaptations of memoir From Scratch by Tembi Locke for Netflix (a Book Club pick in May 2019), and Taylor Jenkins-Reid’s rock oral history Daisy Jones and the Six (March 2019’s pick) starring Riley Keough as the titular Stevie Nicks-alike.
For film, Hello Sunshine has optioned the film adaptation of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, the first-ever Reese’s Book Club pick, while tomorrow sees the release of the literary thriller Where the Crawdads Sing, based on the book by Delia Owens. The novel was a Reese’s Book Club pick for September 2018, and the film stars Normal People actress Daisy Edgar-Jones. Witherspoon served as a producer and Hello Sunshine was one of the two production companies that made it.
Where the Crawdads Sing, in fact, is a jaw-dropping case study in terms of just what a Reese’s Book Club endorsement can do for a book. A 2019 Publisher’s Weekly analysis mentioned that the novel sold 189,000 copies in the US between its August 2018 release and December of the same year. But its inclusion in Reese’s Book Club in September had an impact the following year: it managed to sell more than one million copies and gained rapid word-of-mouth momentum.
Even before the advent of Reese’s Book Club, however, Witherspoon saw the potential screen value in a number of adaptations of books by women. She was a producer on 2014’s David Fincher-directed Gone Girl, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s wildly popular 2012 novel, while Hello Sunshine was also one of the production companies involved in the making of the 2017 HBO series Big Little Lies. The show was adapted from the 2014 novel of the same title by Liane Moriarty, and starred Witherspoon herself, alongside Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern – all three won Emmy awards for their roles.
Witherspoon has become known for her ability to select a hit, and her choices, both for the Book Club and the projects she chooses to produce, tend to resonate hard with audiences: the stories she chooses tend to be meaty, and the characters complex, which in turn makes them desirable for actors, too. Even Meryl Streep, who joined the cast of Big Little Lies for its second season, called the show, which follows the complicated relationships between a group of mothers in Monterey, California, “the greatest thing on television”, and didn’t even read the script before accepting her role.
Although the Book Club’s selection criteria is wide open, some Book Club adaptations like Little Fires Everywhere, Big Little Lies, and Where the Crawdads Sing, share an atmospheric similarity – family, women with secrets, a strong, palpable sense of natural environment – that almost imply a level of authorship on Witherspoon’s part, as the common denominator between the projects.
Happily, she will soon branch out further. The adaptations of From Scratch, a memoir, and Daisy Jones and The Six, a sprawling epic about a rock band, both feel new in tone for Witherspoon’s oeuvre of Book Club adaptations, and are expected to premiere later this year; she currently has projects in production with most of the major streamers, including Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon. Hello Sunshine also has options on other Book Club picks – including Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It (chosen for the Book Club in May 2018) – whose adaptations will surely be forthcoming.
Even more encouraging is how widely Witherspoon’s influence can be seen across the TV and film industry, where commissioners have followed her example in understanding that audiences want to hear from women of all ages: some of the most popular series of the last year include Yellowjackets, Hacks, and Witherspoon’s own The Morning Show (for which she is currently in contention for the Best Actress in a Drama Series Emmy award).
It’s Reese Witherspoon’s Hollywood, then – and this is without mentioning the projects in which she’s due to star, including a new Legally Blonde film. She has already proven there is room and demand in Hollywood for narratives with women at their core: her reign may only be beginning.
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