Managing Expectations, Part I: Getting on the Oprah Winfrey Show

One of the unwritten aspects of my job as a book publicist is to manage my client’s expectations. And one of the expectations most authors have is of being on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Every author knows that the Oprah stamp of approval on their book will catapult it into the stratosphere. (Only one author has ever said, let’s focus on my local market first before we think of Oprah.) Oprah sells.

So what do I do when my author asks, Can you get my book on Oprah? Well, first, I take a deep breath. To most creative people, their book (or painting or whatever) is their baby. Just as I wouldn’t fool with a mother and her child, I don’t fool with my author and her book and, by extension, her dream.

After I exhale, I explain as clearly as I can how and where her dream hits the Oprah reality. The reality? Oprah picks winners and makes them into stars. Very few authors make it to the Oprah Show or get mentioned in her magazine.

They know this. I know they know this but I also want them to understand that as good as I am, I can’t wave a magic wand and get Oprah gushing about their book. I explain that with the limited amount of time I get to spend with an author, it is best spent getting other, more accessible media, local, radio, blogs, etc., interested in talking to them than concentrating on Oprah. (But I don’t ignore her either. After all, I’d love to see my author get on Oprah!) I also show her that we can use that media interest to build a platform for her book and perhaps get it a chance to get noticed by Oprah. It’s not as exciting or sexy as being on Oprah, but it’s critical.

I do something else. I ask the following questions (or some variations of) that gives me an idea how much homework my author has done:

  1. How often do you watch the Oprah Winfrey Show?
  2. How many book shows have you watched? Name 5 books that have been featured.
  3. Which of the books you just named is closest to the topic/s you deal with in your book?
  4. Why do you think your book should be on her show?
  5. Do you read the O Magazine?
  6. Have you read any of her summer picks?

And I relate this story to illustrate my point. Earlier this year, I caught the episode of the Oprah Show that comedian, Steve Harvey, first appeared on when he was promoting his book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy and Commitment. Just before she brought him on, Oprah said, and I’m paraphrasing here, she kept watching the sales of the book and when it got to some number (200,000 is in my mind but I could be wrong), she decided to bring Steve Harvey on the show. (Later, she brought him back for a follow-up show.)

Two things struck me about what she said: the first, and most important to me, is book sales. Even for Steve Harvey, Oprah watches the numbers. (Now that could be that Steve Harvey is a black and Oprah might have been thinking about how her predominantly white audience.) Whatever. But if she’s doing it for Steve, chances are, she’d doing it for other authors. So, if only your friends and family are buying your books, Oprah isn’t going to make it a bestseller.

Second, how open she was about her process. Now, I catch Oprah only occasionally but I’d never heard her mention book sales as a criteria for getting authors on her show. If anyone has, please let me know.

While I’m not going to say here that authors give up their dreams after I give them my little speech. My goal is to help them understand that just because they’ve written a book, doesn’t mean Oprah is gonna come calling.

The best thing authors can do, for themselves and for their readers, is to write the finest book they can. In the final analysis, that’s still who they’re really writing for.


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