Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Oprah Game: Must We Play by Their Rules? Must We Play at All?

The Oprah Game: Must We Play by Their Rules? Must We Play at All?

One of my longtime favorite authors is Leora Skolkin Smith, author of Edges, O Israel, O Palestine! This year she contacted me because she was going to be on the west coast and wanted to participate in our Authors' Coalition promotional CD program and booth at the LA Times/UCLA fair.

I coach our participating authors on making the most of their appearances. That includes suggestions that they send out media releases, invitations, etc. It also includes the advice that authors make the most of their strengths. Leora happens to be mentored and edited by the venerated literary writer, Grace Paley, and published by that fine writer's own Glad Day Books. Those are definite pluses that Leora should utilize on her own behalf for it fits with her branding as a serious literary writer. Who would have guessed that such advice could get Leora into hot water? Further, who would have guessed that by doing so, the underbelly of the Oprah book selection process would be revealed? Perhaps this is part of what Jonathan Franzen objected to just before Oprah closed down her book club operation a couple of years ago.

Leora says, "Before the LA Times Festival of Books, (as everyone should and did) I sent out press releases. I used Grace Paley, my publisher and editor, on my subject line because I have Grace's COMPLETE permission to do so and because I knew Oprah and her major media hounds are ONLY impressed with big names. It [became] a distasteful and utterly degrading experience and I wish I could bring more attention to the corporation Oprah Winfrey is. Get people to recognize her falseness.

This was the horrible response I got to this press release from Amy Gross, the Editor-in-Chief of Oprah magazine.

'Was this really a message from Grace Paley? I don’t think so. I think your ploy of using that as your subject is disrespectful and off-putting.'

This hit a chord in me which played only the melody of rage, self-defense and intense despair that publishing has come to this. This all happened a few weeks before the O magazine had run a sugar-candied feature on my dearest mentor, Grace Paley, which I know Grace didn't even read because she thinks so little of them. And this timing stirred my anger more. Here she was: MY EDITOR AND PUBLISHER! I wrote them back and I cc'd their public relations department, their president and Oprah herself (who of course never bothered to respond).

I also contacted a lawyer. After all, accusing me like this is mildly slander.

Here was their final reply, not from the editor-in-chief, who owed an apology, but from O's publicty department. It seems obviously they feared that Grace Paley would be calling them herself soon.

'Dear Ms. Solkin-Smith,

Please accept our apologies for the misunderstanding regarding your email press release. We are always extremely cautious when people invoke the names of well-known personalities - as you can imagine, we are highly protective of Ms. Winfrey's name and feel the same way about our friends, including Ms. Paley. Your email did not refer to Glad Day Books until the very end, and so it was not immediately clear that you are in fact published by that company.

Best of luck at the book festivals.

Sincerely,
Alexandra Carlin
O, The Oprah Magazine
_______________________________________
Alexandra Carlin, Director of Public Relations
Hearst Magazines
300 West 57th Street, 41st Fl
NY, NY 10019
(o) 212-649-2573
(c) 646-201-6022
(f) 646-280-2573"

Leora goes on to say, "How dare they claim Grace Paley as their friend, thereby making them guilty of the very thing they were accusing me of? Shameless name-dropping and exploitation of a famous writer. Secondly, no one seems to really be able to touch them. Too rich. Unreachable. Protected by so much money one can't even blink at them."

I might add that Ms. Carlin appeared to ignore her editor's inattention to detail (caring enough to read a letter through before blasting an author?), in favor of finding a good excuse for her bad behavior.

Leora continues: "Before this, [the Oprah office] had asked for my novel THREE times, each time asking me to send it by "messenger"—a cost of no less than fifty dollars a shot. They never wrote me back and, like a fool, eager for attention and full of naiveté, I kept sending my novel and paying for the messenger.

"Should any other writer ever believe these people are sincere if asked to messenger their work, please do tell them not to fall for the Oprah game. It's a monopoly board and the only place an unknown writer finds herself is in jail. While Oprah gains more property on Boardwalk and Park Place."

This brings me to a final aspect of the Oprah Affair. Many who are active in the writing community not only seek Oprah (and her publishing empire's team's) attention. Others seek to tell them how they, too, can succeed with this process—often for a fee, sometimes a hefty one. You may be the lucky seeker of Oprah's favor, but do you want to put yourself up for this kind of abuse, this kind of inconsideration for your pocketbook and your dignity? Frankly, I hope not.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author THIS IS THE PLACE; HARKENING: A COLLECTION OF STORIES REMEMBERED; TRACINGS, a chapbook of poetry; and two how to books, THE FRUGAL BOOK PROMOTER: HOW TO DO WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WON'T; and THE FRUGAL EDITOR: PUT YOUR BEST BOOK FORWARD TO AVOID HUMILIATION AND ENSURE SUCCESS.

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