Inside Reese Witherspoon’s Literary Empire

“You’d be shocked by how many books have women chained in basements,” Reese Witherspoon said. “I know it happens in the world. I don’t want to read a book about it.”

Nor does she want to read an academic treatise, or a 700-page novel about a tree.

Sitting in her office in Nashville, occasionally dipping into a box of takeout nachos, Witherspoon talked about what she does like to read — and what she looks for in a selection for Reese’s Book Club, which she referred to in a crisp third person.

“It needs to be optimistic,” Witherspoon said. “It needs to be shareable. Do you close this book and say, ‘I know exactly who I want to give it to?’”

But, first and foremost, she wants books by women, with women at the center of the action who save themselves. “Because that’s what women do,” she said. “No one’s coming to save us.”

Witherspoon, 48, has now been a presence in the book world for a decade. Her productions of novels like “Big Little Lies,” “Little Fires Everywhere” and “The Last Thing He Told Me” are foundations of the binge-watching canon. Her book club picks reliably land on the best-seller list for weeks, months or, in the case of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” years. In 2023, print sales for the club’s selections outpaced those of Oprah’s Book Club and Read With Jenna, according to Circana Bookscan, adding up to 2.3 million copies sold.

So how did an actor who dropped out of college (fine, Stanford) become one of the most influential people in an industry known for being intractable and slightly tweedy?

It started with Witherspoon’s frustration over the film industry’s skimpy representation of women onscreen — especially seasoned, strong, smart, brave, mysterious, complicated and, yes, dangerous women.

“When I was about 34, I stopped reading interesting scripts,” she said.

Witherspoon had already made a name for herself with “Election,” “Legally Blonde” and “Walk the Line.” But, by 2010, Hollywood was in flux: Streaming services were gaining traction. DVDs were following VHS tapes to the land of forgotten technology.

“When there’s a big economic shift in the media business, it’s not the superhero movies or independent films we lose out on,” Witherspoon said. “It’s the middle, which is usually where women live. The family drama. The romantic comedy. So I decided to fund a company to make those kinds of movies.”

In 2012, she started the production company Pacific Standard with Bruna Papandrea. Its first projects were film adaptations of books: “Gone Girl” and “Wild,” which both opened in theaters in 2014.

Growing up in Nashville, Witherspoon knew the value of a library card. She caught the bug early, she said, from her grandmother, Dorothea Draper Witherspoon, who taught first grade and devoured Danielle Steel novels in a “big cozy lounger” while sipping iced tea from a glass “with a little paper towel wrapped around it.”

This attention to detail is a smoke signal of sorts: Witherspoon is a person of words.

When she was in high school, Witherspoon stayed after class to badger her English teacher — Margaret Renkl, now a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times — about books that weren’t part of the curriculum. When Witherspoon first moved to Los Angeles, books helped prepare her for the “chaos” of filmmaking; “The Making of the African Queen” by Katharine Hepburn was a particular favorite.

So it made sense that, as soon as Witherspoon joined Instagram, she started sharing book recommendations. Authors were tickled and readers shopped accordingly. In 2017, Witherspoon made it official: Reese’s Book Club became a part of her new company, Hello Sunshine.

The timing was fortuitous, according to Pamela Dorman, senior vice president and publisher of Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, who edited the club’s inaugural pick, “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.” “The book world needed something to help boost sales in a new way,” she said.

Reese’s Book Club was that something: “Eleanor Oliphant” spent 85 weeks on the paperback best-seller list. The club’s second pick, “The Alice Network,” spent nearly four months on the weekly best-seller lists and two months on the audio list. Its third, “The Lying Game,” spent 18 weeks on the weekly lists.

“There’s nothing better than getting that phone call,” added Dorman, who has now edited two more Reese’s Book Club selections.

Kiley Reid’s debut novel, “Such a Fun Age,” got the nod in January 2020. She said, “When I was on book tour, a lot of women would tell me, ‘I haven’t read a book in four years, but I trust Reese.’” Four years later, on tour for her second novel, “Come and Get It,” Reid met women who were reading 100 books a year.

Witherspoon tapped into a sweet spot between literary and commercial fiction, with a few essay collections and memoirs sprinkled in. She turned out to be the literary equivalent of a fit model — a reliable bellwether for readers in search of intelligent, discussion-worthy fare, hold the Proust. She wanted to help narrow down the choices for busy readers, she said, “to bring the book club out of your grandma’s living room and online.”

She added: “The unexpected piece of it all was the economic impact on these authors’ lives.”

One writer became the first person in her family to own a home. “She texted me a picture of the key,” Witherspoon said. “I burst into tears.”

Witherspoon considers a handful of books each month. Submissions from publishers are culled by a small group that includes Sarah Harden, chief executive of Hello Sunshine; Gretchen Schreiber, manager of books (her original title was “bookworm”); and Jon Baker, whose team at Baker Literary Scouting scours the market for promising manuscripts.

Not only is Witherspoon focused on stories by women — “the Bechdel test writ large,” Baker said — but also, “Nothing makes her happier than getting something out in the world that you might not see otherwise.”

When transgender rights were in the headlines in 2018, the club chose “This Is How It Always Is,” Laurie Frankel’s novel about a family grappling with related issues in the petri dish of their own home. “We track the long tail of our book club picks and this one, without fail, continues to sell,” Baker said.

Witherspoon’s early readers look for a balance of voices, backgrounds and experiences. They also pay attention to the calendar. “Everyone knows December and May are the busiest months for women,” Harden said, referring to the mad rush of the holidays and the end of the school year. “You don’t want to read a literary doorstop then. What do you want to read on summer break? What do you want to read in January?”

Occasionally the group chooses a book that isn’t brand-new, as with the club’s April pick, “The Most Fun We Ever Had,” from 2019. When Claire Lombardo learned that her almost-five-year-old novel had been anointed, she thought there had been a mistake; after all, her new book, “Same As it Ever Was,” is coming out next month. “It’s wild,” Lombardo said. “It’s not something that I was expecting.”

Sales of “The Most Fun We Ever Had” increased by 10,000 percent after the announcement, according to Doubleday. Within the first two weeks, 27,000 copies were sold. The book has been optioned by Hello Sunshine.

Witherspoon preferred not to elaborate on a few subjects: competition with other top-shelf book clubs (“We try not to pick the same books”); the lone author who declined to be part of hers (“I have a lot of respect for her clarity”); and the 2025 book she’s already called dibs on (“You can’t imagine that Edith Wharton or Graham Greene didn’t write it”).

But she was eager to set the record straight on two fronts. Her team doesn’t get the rights to every book — “It’s just how the cookie crumbles,” she said — and, Reese’s Book Club doesn’t make money off sales of its picks. Earnings come from brand collaborations and affiliate revenue.

This is true of all celebrity book clubs. An endorsement from one of them is a free shot of publicity, but one might argue that Reese’s Book Club does a bit more for its books and authors than most. Not only does it promote each book from hardcover to paperback, it supports authors in subsequent phases of their careers.

Take Reid, for instance. More than three years after Reese’s Book Club picked her first novel, it hosted a cover reveal for “Come and Get It,” which came out in January. This isn’t the same as a yellow seal on the cover, but it’s still a spotlight with the potential to be seen by the club’s 2.9 million Instagram followers.

“I definitely felt like I was joining a very large community,” Reid said.

“Alum” writers tend to stay connected with one another via social media, swapping woot woots and advice. They’re also invited to participate in Hello Sunshine events and Lit Up, a mentorship program for underrepresented writers. Participants get editing and coaching from Reese’s Book Club authors, plus a marketing commitment from the club when their manuscripts are submitted to agents and editors.

“I describe publishing and where we sit in terms of being on a river,” Schreiber said. “We’re downstream; we’re looking at what they’re picking. Lit Up gave us the ability to look upstream and say, ‘We’d like to make a change here.’”

The first Lit Up-incubated novel, “Time and Time Again” by Chatham Greenfield, is coming out from Bloomsbury YA in July. Five more fellows have announced the sales of their books.

As Reese’s Book Club approaches a milestone — the 100th pick, to be announced in September — it continues to adapt to changes in the market. Print sales for club selections peaked at five million in 2020, and they’ve softened since then, according to Circana Bookscan. In 2021, Candle Media, a Blackstone-backed media company, bought Hello Sunshine for $900 million. Witherspoon is a member of Candle Media’s board. She is currently co-producing a “Legally Blonde” prequel series for Amazon Prime Video.

This month, Reese’s Book Club will unveil an exclusive audio partnership with Apple, allowing readers to find all the picks in one place on the Apple Books app. “I want people to stop saying, ‘I didn’t really read it, I just listened,’” Witherspoon said. “Stop that. If you listened, you read it. There’s no right way to absorb a book.”

She feels that Hollywood has changed over the years: “Consumers are more discerning about wanting to hear stories that are generated by a woman.”

Even as she’s looking forward, Witherspoon remembers her grandmother, the one who set her on this path.

“Somebody came up to me at the gym the other day and he said” — here she put on a gentle Southern drawl — “‘I’m going to tell you something I bet you didn’t hear today.’ And he goes, ‘Your grandma taught me how to read.’”

Another smoke signal, and a reminder of what lives on.

Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.

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