By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009
A mysterious cardboard box arrived Thursday morning at D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose. It was labeled: "Oprah's Book Club Selection #63. Do not open until September 18." Politics and Prose co-owner Carla Cohen had no idea what #63 would turn out to be, but she had ordered 40 copies anyway. It was Oprah, after all.
The book turns out to be Uwem Akpan's "Say You're One of Them," according to information unintentionally leaked Thursday from a book distribution company. The 2008 short-story collection, recently released in paperback by Little, Brown, is the first book from Akpan, a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest who teaches in Zimbabwe. And it's the first time Oprah Winfrey has selected a volume of short fiction.
Winfrey's picks are hush-hush in a big-time, spy-level way. Execs at book companies sign affidavits affirming they won't breathe a word about the chosen title, and publishing companies send off the books in discreet boxes tagged with fake ISBN numbers.
When a secrecy-shrouded book arrives at Politics and Prose, the management resists the urge to pry, Cohen says. They didn't put out Dan Brown's latest early, and they didn't start selling Edward M. Kennedy's book early. And Winfrey's new shipment was kept sealed, Cohen said.
Bloggers and the like had begin putting their money on "Say You're One of Them" after Winfrey dropped her fans a clue in late August, tweeting: "Tune in Friday, September 18 to find out what my new book club pick is -- never made a selection like 'this.' "
After Thursday's leak, Angela DePaul, a spokeswoman for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," simply said: "We don't comment on advance speculation. Oprah announces her book club selections on her show and shares her reasons for choosing the books at that time."
So we won't know the reason behind the choice till Friday at tea time (the talk show airs locally on WJLA at 4). And perhaps we'll never know whether the resurrection of the book club was ratings-driven (Winfrey's Nielsen ratings dropped 7 percent last season).
But we do know that this is the first Oprah's Book Club pick in a while; it has been nearly a year to the day since Winfrey chose David Wroblewski's "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," a first novel that achieved instantaneous success after the announcement.
Ever since Oprah's Book Club kicked off in 1996 with Jacqueline Mitchard's novel "The Deep End of the Ocean," the seal of Oprah-approval has virtually guaranteed overnight renown for authors such as Wally Lamb, Wroblewski and James Frey, whom Winfrey famously confronted on-air after his supposed memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," turned out to be more fictional than not.
While not familiar with "Say You're One of Them," Cohen was immediately enthused about its selection. "I think anything that calls attention to a book is a good thing!"
She estimates that sales for Akpan's book, which received the 2009 PEN/Beyond Margins Award, will double almost immediately. "Say You're One of Them" has been selling about five copies a month at Politics and Prose -- pretty good stats for a short-story collection, she says.
"Say You're One of Them" features five stories set in different African countries, each focusing on a different set of children, each in a different (often violent, often scary) situation. In The Post, Susan Straight described Akpan's stories as being suffused with "compassion and art." The New York Times' Janet Maslin praised Akpan's deft handling of detail and dialect, and the Guardian called the book "brave" and "terrifying."
Mitchard credits Winfrey with the fact that she's able to make a living as a writer, saying she went from "total obscurity to being a sort of well-known writer in a couple of weeks."
Mitchard recalls that Winfrey called in 1996 simply to say that she'd enjoyed her book, but that she wouldn't mention it on the show, since fiction was bad for ratings. Two weeks later, Mitchard says, the show decided to give the book club a whirl and picked Mitchard.
The day the show aired, there were 4,000 hold requests for the book at the New York Public Library, says Mitchard, who released her 15th novel this week.
Author and teacher Lamb is one of the few authors to have two books chosen -- "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True." He recalls getting a late-night call in 1997 to say that "She's Come Undone" had been selected. Lamb had just returned from the funeral of a former student and explained to Winfrey that he couldn't quite handle the news.
"And she was very sympathetic," Lamb says. But before getting off the phone, Winfrey quietly suggested that Lamb get in touch with his publishers. "She said . . . 'If this thing goes the way it's been going . . . they're going to have to start printing copies this weekend,' " he recalls.
A former high school English teacher, Lamb says he admires the variety of books that Winfrey has chosen (the picks also include more canonical works by authors such as Tolstoy, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison). And Lamb reiterates that a single nod from Winfrey can guarantee an entire career for a struggling writer.
"My first novel came out in 1992, and occasionally I would walk through the mall with my kids," Lamb says, "and I would say, 'Kids, go into the bookstore, and I'll give 50 cents to the first one who finds my novel on the shelf.' And it was kind of demoralizing because they'd be in there for about 20 minutes and they wouldn't find it, and they'd run out and say, 'Dad? We can't find it. Can we have the money?' That was before Oprah."