Frey’s Million Little Pieces, Oprah, and Success

James Frey

Given the difficulty of marketing novels these days, I keep an eye out for new and innovative ideas. Unfortunately, there aren’t any. Everything has been tried, and everything has failed — or succeeded. There’s no way to know until you give it a go yourself. Invest the time, money, energy, and hope that all that results in more book sales. Because hey, a girl has to eat.

The idea I’m going to present isn’t new,either, but bear with me for a minute, because it does have an interesting twist. You know that old chestnut: no such thing as bad publicity? One example is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that was supposed to be a memoir and turned out to be a fake, at least in part. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal, except it was Oprah he embarrassed and she decided to make an example of him on national television. If she was trying to sell more copies of his book, she couldn’t have done a better job, as described by CNN:

In January 2006, the Web site The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey’s memoir of addiction and recovery contained numerous fabrications. Frey and his publisher then acknowledged that he had made up parts of the book.

Drury noted that 93,738 copies of the book were sold in the seven months after the controversy erupted.

“Amazingly, the book remained a best seller for another 26 weeks,” the Chicago-based lawyer told Holwell. Drury said Frey had received more than $4.4 million in royalties.

Now you might be tempted to conclude that crime paid, and paid well. But this situation could not have been planned, and it’s not a strategy that will work for most of us anyway. First you have to get Oprah interested, then you have to do something to really piss her off. It was a crapshoot that paid off for Frey; it made him some serious money. But there’s a big question mark about whether or not he can sell another book. And if he does, will anybody be interested, or will all his badboy currency have played out?

And then again, he’s got $4.4 million; maybe he’s not interested in writing another book.

Back to my point. The underlying principle is solid: make your book the center of a scandal. How? One of the best ways to do this is to get parents of teenagers up in arms.

Take, for example, this mother on the warpath. Her daughter was assigned an essay in her freshman English class that offended mother and daughter both. Bad language, talk about bestiality — they were not amused, nor could the mother be satisfied when her daughter was excused from the assignment. She wanted the essay and most likely the whole book banned from the school, from the district, hell, she probably would have liked to see every copy sent off to another planet. What she did accomplish was just the opposite. Thousands more people became aware of the essay and went out to find it and read it. Did it get banned from the school? No. And good for the school and the district, too.

What’s to be learned from this? Quite simple. When your novel comes out, take in a big stack to your local high school and hand them to an English teacher. Offer to come in and speak to the class about writing and publishing. Teachers are overworked, and they appreciate help –but you have to mean it. Be prepared to go into the class and talk to the kids and answer questions about your book, about their writing, about everything.

Then wait a week, and write a letter to the editor of the local paper and ask what the heck the school was thinking, giving the students that novel to read? Ask if it isn’t wildly inappropriate to expose them to such adult experiences and ideas. Ask if we’ve lost all sense of morality.

Just ASK the questions. Don’t answer them. Let the questions stew, and then about a week later have somebody you trust write another letter to the paper, this time taking up the book’s cause. Accuse the first letter writer of censorship, and talk about other books that have been banned in the past. Tropic of Capricorn is a good bet, everybody knows that was a dirty book, and the more conservative parents will sit up and take notice. Other people will think, hmmm, Tropic of Capricorn. Maybe I better have a look at this new novel.

If things go according to plan, one or two or a whole crowd of parents will raise a ruckus. They’ll go to PTA meetings and insist on meeting with the superintendent; they’ll feed stories to the newspaper. And the topic of all that noise will be your novel. You will be gracious when they ask you questions, but unyielding in your assertion that your novel is not morally corrupt. That will get you some more sales. Maybe there’s nothing sexual in the novel at all, but that doesn’t matter. Put the idea in people’s heads and it will flourish. Imagine mothers and fathers reading your novel under cover of darkness with a flashlight, looking for the sex scenes… and wondering if they are so out of it, they don’t even get double entrendres anymore. Now nobody can admit they don’t see the problem with the novel, because that would expose them to ridicule.

Do you know of a better way to interest people in a book than to forbid them to read it?

So there you go, instant celebrity on the local level. If you work really hard, you might be able to parlay it up a notch to regional papers, and if it’s a slow newsday, who knows where it will end? You might find yourself sitting across from Oprah after all.

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