Oprah pick sends publisher scrambling

But with "Gap Creek" on the bestseller list, nobody's complaining.

Topics: Oprah Winfrey, Books,

Robert Morgan’s “Gap Creek” entered Harry Potter’s magical realm
this week when it made its debut at No. 4 on the href="/books/feature/1999/10/14/nytimes/index.html">New York
Times Bestseller List, Morgan’s novel, about a poor
turn-of-the-century Appalachian couple, has enjoyed some target=new
href="http://search.nytimes.com/books/search/bin/fastweb?getdoc+book-rev+bookrev-arch+25250+1+wAAA+%22gap%7Ecreek%22">flattering
reviews, but it took href="/people/bc/1999/05/04/oprah/index.html">Oprah Winfrey’s
golden touch to spring it to the top.

Three weeks ago, Winfrey chose “Gap Creek” as her book club
selection for January, a move that had a predictably electric
effect on sales. The pre-Oprah printing was 10,000. The
post-Oprah printing was 525,000 — and the publisher, Algonquin
Books of Chapel Hill, N.C., may be going back for a reprint.

“The reviewers love him, other writers love him and his small
following loves him,” Algonquin’s publisher, Elizabeth Scharlatt,
says of Morgan, an award-winning novelist who teaches at Cornell.
“Now he’s being discovered by a much larger audience, and for a
writer that’s better than winning the lottery.”

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As effervescent as Oprah’s nod may have made Morgan, though, it
saddled Algonquin with a heavy burden. The publisher got the news
Jan. 10 but had to promise to keep the choice a secret for the
next eight days, calling the book only Oprah Book No. 30 until
Jan. 18. And while Algonquin had to notify its customers about
the mystery book, its salespeople could tell their accounts only
that they had Oprah Book No. 30. Although retailers
had no idea what they were ordering, the results were astounding.
“Over a period of days, we had half a million orders,” Scharlatt
reports.

That was great — except that Algonquin also had to deliver the
product, and the extraordinarily high numbers left the publisher
scrambling, since it’s more accustomed to putting out literary
novels with small print runs (like Stacy D’Erasmo’s recent href="/books/review/2000/01/11/d_erasmo/index.html">“Tea”).
“Our eyes were wide for days,” Scharlatt recalls. “We had two
different printers and binderies working three-shift days for a
period of six days.”

And Algonquin had to get Winfrey’s people to sign off on several
crucial decisions. According to Scharlatt, “Oprah had to approve
the stencil on the box: ‘Oprah Book No. 30. Do Not Open Before
Jan. 18.’” The book club also oversees the Oprah logo that goes
on the cover: a big yellow “O” with a white center. In the case
of “Gap Creek,” the original book jacket had a moon in the upper
right-hand corner that would compete with the logo; in the end,
Scharlatt said, “We had to give up the moon.” Lunar concessions
notwithstanding, Algonquin is reaping earthly delights, including
a six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster to publish the book’s
paperback edition.

Since its
debut in September 1996, Oprah’s Book Club has been responsible for a
remarkable string of bestsellers. Now
it’s time to chalk up another one.

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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