The Oprah Lottery of Fame and Fortune is back in business.
"The first thing I said was, 'Oh my God,' " said James Frey, author of "A Million Little Pieces," when Oprah Winfrey came on the speakerphone last month to give him a heads-up that his addiction-and-rehab memoir would be her book club's next selection. "The second, third, fourth and fifth things were, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you and thank you.' "
Small wonder the man was grateful. A blessing from the Wizard of O means hundreds of thousands, at least, in additional sales. Winfrey's announcement promptly drove "A Million Little Pieces" to No. 1 at Amazon.com.
So long, William Faulkner, it's been nice knowing you.
In 2003, Winfrey began featuring the works of authors such as Faulkner, Leo Tolstoy, Alan Paton and Pearl S. Buck who are, without meaning any disrespect, dead -- and thus unavailable to talk to show-bookers and feature writers. On Thursday she announced her change of heart. Her club would go back to featuring contemporary writers. It would also be open to books from genres other than fiction, such as memoir, biography and history.
After Frey's number came up in August, everyone involved was sworn to secrecy -- and the ritual of Oprah-marketing began.
Anchor Books -- an imprint of the Knopf Publishing Group, which is in turn a division of industry giant Random House -- ordered up 600,000 trade paperback copies of Frey's 2003 book.
"Details were on a need-to-know basis," said Stuart Applebaum, Random House's executive vice president for communications, noting that "even our head of sales didn't invoke executive privilege" to discover which book had been picked.
Once the printing was scheduled, it was done "in a working day or two," Applebaum said, thanks to high-speed presses and the relative ease of binding trade paperbacks. Bookstores were informed of an upcoming Oprah selection, but had to place their orders without knowing what it was. When the cartons of "A Million Little Pieces" arrived, they were labeled "do not put on sale before Sept. 22."
Local bookstores responded with varying levels of enthusiasm, though there was nothing approaching Pottermania in the air.
Olsson's head buyer Joe Murphy said he'd ordered about a dozen copies for each of the local chain's six area stores. The Borders at 18th and L streets NW put out about 60 copies on Thursday morning. "They're on the very front table," said merchandising supervisor Jenny Olsen.
Politics and Prose, the large independent bookstore on Connecticut Avenue NW, also ordered a dozen copies. Co-owner Barbara Meade said that "in general, we're not the right market for the Oprah Book Club. We pride ourselves on selling our suggestions rather than someone else's." This week, she said, Politics and Prose has been more concerned with trying to keep Zadie Smith's new novel "On Beauty" in stock, and with preparing for this weekend's celebration of the store's 21st anniversary.
James Frey, meanwhile, was feeling both exhilarated and overwhelmed.
On the day of the announcement, he said yesterday, he was walking with a friend near his apartment in Lower Manhattan and thinking, "My God, things are going to change in an hour." He said he found himself "scared" by the thought.
He wasn't too scared, he said. The spare-no-blood-or-vomit story of his drug and alcohol addiction, told in "A Million Little Pieces," is far more frightening. In fact, he's never gone back and read it from beginning to end.
He'll still keep on with what he's planned: Writing a screenplay on the life of Hells Angels leader Sonny Barger, followed by another book. But he's branded now, and his world really has changed.
"Once you're an Oprah writer," he said, "you're an Oprah writer for life."