Shortly after my book Oprah: A Biography was published last April, one of Oprah Winfrey's open-minded fans wrote to her website saying she wanted to read the book. Oprah's message-board moderator hurled a thunderbolt in response: "This book is an unauthorized biography." The word unauthorized clanged on the screen like a burglar alarm. Suddenly I heard the rumble of thousands of Oprah book buyers charging out of Barnes & Noble—empty-handed.
Days before this exchange, I had felt the chill of media disdain when my publisher began booking my promotion tour. Larry King barred the door to his CNN talk show because, he said, he didn't want to offend Oprah. Barbara Walters did the same thing, proclaiming on The View that the only reason people wrote unauthorized biographies was to dig "dirt." There was no room for me at Charlie Rose's roundtable and no comfy seat next to David Letterman. The late-night comic had recently reconciled with Oprah after a 16-year rift and did not want to risk another. On my 10-city tour I made few, if any, appearances on ABC-owned-and-operated stations because most of the stations that broadcast The Oprah Winfrey Show are owned by ABC or its affiliates. No one wanted to displease the diva of daytime television. Although they had not read the book prior to publication, they assumed, given the author and the subject, that my unauthorized biography would be a blistering takedown of a beloved icon.
The reviews ranged from rocks (The New York Times) to raves (the Los Angeles Times). My publisher, Crown Books, aimed for sales from the fan base fondly known as "Opraholics" and "Winfreaks," but once Herself publicly denounced the book as "a so-called biography," the fan base dwindled, and to date the book has yet to sell 300,000 copies (a disappointing figure for an author paid to sell millions). It's true that traditional publishing is getting slammed by the Internet and can no longer guarantee commercial success to writers, even those who, as I did, hit number one on The New York Times best-seller list and on Amazon.com. Sadly, the demand for books has decreased in the last 10 years, which may or may not explain why the United States has fallen from number one to number 12 among developed nations in the percentage of college graduates.
Priced at $30, my book was too expensive to flourish in a sour economy, especially in the target audience of Oprah fans, who, demographics show, are low- and middle-income women with little disposable income. But there was more at play than economics. Even among Oprah fans there is a bit of Oprah fatigue, following 25 years of her appearing on the air five days a week. Some people feel they know all there is to know about their idol, and whatever else there may be to learn they will read in the weekly tabloids at the grocery store. Others want the myth and do not want to be disillusioned by an unauthorized biography. In today's celebrity culture, that word unauthorized carries immense freight. It signals an independent appraisal that will reveal more than floss, and some people cannot accept their idols with flaws. Instead, they need the illusions they see on the screen or the fantasies they read. To show anything less makes them feel shortchanged, even conned.
Read the rest at The American Scholar,in the Winter 2011 issue of which this article originally appeared.