How I Got on Oprah with My First Book
I had no publicist, no inside edge and no experience on television
I got the call at work.
Even now, more than 20 years later, all I can remember are snippets of that conversation: …producer at the Oprah Show…got your press release…can you be available?…we’ll let you know…
Like every author at the time, I dreamed of going on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote my book. Everyone knew that a single appearance on Oprah could change your life.
I was elated. Young and new to publishing, I was about to get the ultimate career endorsement.
It was thrilling and overwhelming all at once. My hand shook as I hung up the phone.
Inside, Cirque du Soleil was performing magnificent feats of skill and daring in the pit of my stomach. I tried to keep calm. But my mind was a veritable hamster wheel, spinning and spinning without a destination.
A colleague poked her head into my office to see if I was ok.
“Oh I’m fine,” I said, too stunned to elaborate.
I wanted to tell everyone and no one at the same time. Part of me felt an immediate sense of triumph, as if vindicated for all the snubs and criticisms of my work in the past. But another part feared I wasn’t up to the task.
What if I went on the show and said something stupid and embarrassed myself? What if I said something dull, and they cut my segment? What if I got really nervous and threw up on stage?
The journey begins
When you’re about to embark on a journey that is likely to change your life forever, there are many things to consider: How will it impact other areas of your life? Who else will be affected? What are the financial, socio-cultural and spiritual changes that will result? And most importantly, what will you wear?
That was actually the first thought that came to my mind.
Shallow? Yes. The best use of my time? Perhaps not.
Nevertheless, I became obsessed with finding clothes that would make me look authoritative, yet approachable. I had never been on television before, and naturally, I wanted to make a kickass impression.
In the weeks between getting the call and appearing on the show, I took hours-long expeditions to the mall, obsessing over what color would portray a serious-yet-entertaining image.
Even as I boarded the plane to Chicago, I fretted that the light top I’d chosen would be too light, as the producer had advised against stripes and light colors.
Nothing to fear but making a fool of myself
By the time I landed in Chicago, a new emotion had taken over my being: anxiety. More precisely: terror.
I never got a chance to enjoy the view from the Omni Hotel, the luxury of the limo ride to the studio (yes, y’all, Oprah sent a limo for all of her guests). And I definitely didn’t get a chance to check out the snacks in the green room (though I’m sure they were hella amazing).
I decided that focusing on other people would distract me and contain my apprehension, so I chatted up the hair and makeup people:
Who was your favorite guest on the show?
Because he was as warm and engaging with everyone in the studio as he was when performing.
Who was the worst guest?
Then I got serious:
Has a guest ever thrown up on the set?
What would happen if a guest did throw up on the set?
How pissed off would Oprah be if, I don’t know, say, a guest threw up on the set?
As it turned out, I did not throw up. I considered this a major victory.
My publisher had a slightly higher bar for my performance. And let’s just say I didn’t exactly measure up.
In advance of the show, a producer called me to go over the questions Oprah would ask. Since I was promoting a book, and since it was unlikely she or any of the producers had actually read the book, I’d have to provide the most interesting highlights.
I came up with about 10 questions that illustrated some of the more interesting points in the book and rehearsed my answers to the questions with the producer. I focused on providing the audience with stimulating material in short chunks. It worked. The producers were happy with what I said.
My publisher? Not so much.
That’s probably because I didn’t mention the name of the book. Not once. Like not even at the end when Oprah asked me if I had anything else to add.
I know, I know. It’s Book Publicity 101 to mention the title in every interview. What can I say? I was starstruck.
Fortunately, Oprah came to my rescue. She held up the book for the camera and advised viewers to “go get a copy now.”
Which some of them did.
But a lot of them didn’t. In fact, the Oprah appearance didn’t vault me to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Or any bestseller list for that matter. It didn’t make me an overnight sensation (or even an over-many-nights sensation). And it didn’t make me rich.
What it did do was boost my confidence and encourage me to write more books.
How I did it
Writers always want to know how I landed the gig. Most assume I knew a top publicist or had a great platform (the pre-social media term for having a loyal following). Neither was the case.
I got the spot on the show in the most basic way possible: I wrote a press release. That’s it. I wrote it myself — just one page — in a style that mirrored the style of the show. I framed the headline and every sentence of the release as if Oprah were reading it on the teleprompter at the opening of the show.
Then I did something else that virtually no one else does: I suggested other guests to round out the show.
I knew I wasn’t famous enough to carry a whole show myself. I knew the producers would have to find other guests to make a full show.
I also knew that they were busy and probably not well-versed in the subject matter (saving money). If I could offer them suggestions for other experts to complement me, that would be one less task they’d have to handle themselves. And they’d be more likely to go through with the show (it’s not uncommon for producers to abandon a show idea if it doesn’t pan out in some way).
So that’s what I did, and they appreciated it.
Life after Oprah
While my appearance on the show did not make that book a bestseller, it did help me get my next book deal. I got a better agent, a bigger advance and a little more publicity help from the publisher.
Had this happened after the advent of social media, I would have been able to make more out of the appearance, attracting more followers and all of that.
Or maybe not.
Publicity is a funny thing. When you don’t get it, you think it’s all that matters. When you do get it, you realize it may not matter at all.
Appearing on the show did something else for me: It produced enough goodwill with the staff to garner me two more TV appearances on other shows. It turns out that producers are a tight knit bunch, and they are quick to both reject or recommend guests who stand out. Simply being helpful to them put me in the second category.
I guess it’s fitting that the biggest bonus I got from the show was goodwill. I think Oprah herself would be proud of that outcome.
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