Is an appearance on “Oprah” or some other major TV show really a great route to success for a book? The question arose recently after a Midwestern book club chose a title published in 1999 by a small firm to introduce to the nation on “Good Morning America,” and GMA asked them to choose again.
According to the publisher, the President of the book club explained this first by saying that GMA needed a book from a major house and then by saying they needed a book that had been out less than a year. According to GMA, it was necessary to reject the club’s initial pick because it violated a policy designed to eliminate lobbying as an influence on the selection process; clubs are not allowed to choose a book for the show if they have been directly in touch with the author and/or the publisher of that book.
Whatever the reason or reasons, GMA’s turndown sparked a discussion about the pros and cons–often, as it turns out, the cons–of primetime TV coverage. Here are some of the highlights.
– Judith Appelbaum
Be Careful What You Wish For
I have seen both sides of this issue, and I have to tell you that I am glad we did not get our author on Oprah when we almost did.
What am I, crazy? Not really. I talked with hundreds of publishers and authors early in the process of publishing my first book, How To Behave So Your Children Will, Too! I found that success stories and horror stories werw.pmout equal when I talked to them about big shows like 20/20, Today, Oprah, etc.
We tried for two years and actually had a show date on Oprah and preliminary interviews done. If we did get the author on, we would have to figure out how to get between 50,000 and 80,000 copies of the book onto the shelves of stores and into the wholesale pipeline in probably less than a week. The printing bill alone would have been between $60,000 and $100,000. We would then be at the mercy of Oprah. If the show was good to great, we would have been fine. If the show was below average or canceled, we would have been bankrupt.
When we sold our book to Viking, they did finally get a booking on Oprah for the author. The show content was way above average but the book kind of got hidden behind someone else on the show that Oprah liked. Her interview of the author was at best average.
The author did not really get a chance to shine and thus we had less of a response from the show than many have experienced.
Why am I telling you all of this? You can never predict how the show will go. Whatever books are left in the pipeline will probably come back in returns, unless the show is followed by more media. If the show does not go well, there will be less sell-through and tons of returns. If the show is a hit and the sell-through is good, the title will probably have huge success and more media like Time, Newsweek, USA Today, People, and on and on. This is an incredible long shot with huge risks.
It is my strong belief that a small to medium-sized publisher is much better off developing media on a consistent basis than shooting for the big hit. This was profitable for us for two years, and we will continue this formula on all future books.
Am I saying that you should not pitch the big shows? No, I’m not. We will still try but we will do it knowing the risks and allocate our time, resources, money, energies, and emotions accordingly.
Pride vs. Profits
Here’s our story. In 1980, I got myself on the Today show on 12/23 as “the Holiday Stress Doctor.” We had 500 copies in the B Dalton system of Kicking Your Stress Habits. Dalton told me that “with the current rate of weekly sales, we are stocked about right, and we will not order any more now.” So the book sold out everywhere in a couple of hours, and I figured out that all the effort of getting on the show was great for my mom and dad and their pride and a great story for my grandchildren (if I ever get any!) but a terrible business deal.
I never tried for that kind of exposure again. Instead, I found other ways of selling that worked better. If you can’t win with a frontal assault, sneak around the edges and the back. We ended up selling 350,000 copies of the book and only about 20,000 of those through bookstores.
Large publishers are often caught with their pants down when a book receives national publicity. The demand can vary wildly.
In my Ingram days, I was witness to a situation in which an author was on virtually every radio and TV venue and featured in many print articles, but no one cared and the book bombed. Then Deepak was on Oprah and Ingram had demand for over 100,000 copies in one day.
I point this out to show that little can be predicted about a huge national media hit. Small presses should not be immediately eliminated from contention for these spots simply because they are small. But if they are asked whether they can handle expected demand and they say no, I can understand why they might not get the coverage.
I’ve long been of the opinion that new publishers need more information about the possible pitfalls of their newly chosen profession. I’m certainly not in favor of censorship or of crushing someone’s dreams. But everyone needs to understand as completely as possible what they are getting themselves into.