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Cryptic Oprah Has 'Em Scratching Their Heads

July 01, 1993|PAUL D. COLFORD | Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday.

When Oprah Winfrey showcases a new book on her TV show, viewers often buy thousands of copies. Booksellers have given her credit for the enormous success of Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County" and Marianne Williamson's "A Return to Love."

So, as Winfrey's autobiography was scheduled for publication in September, retailers and her publisher, the Alfred A. Knopf division of Random House, prepared for an even bigger hit.

The signs were everywhere. At the American Booksellers Assn.'s recent convention in Miami, Winfrey was followed and applauded by admirers.

At a hot-ticket party in her honor, Random House Chairman Alberto Vitale gushed to the crowd: "It is no ordinary person that we have come to celebrate . . . someone who, for sure, does not need an introduction . . . the one, the only and the soon-to-be-best-selling--no, wait--megabest-selling OPRAH. "

Early orders were expected to prompt a first printing of 750,000 copies. The Doubleday Book Club and the Literary Guild planned to feature the book as a membership incentive in a direct mailing to 5 million homes. But then, on June 14, Winfrey stunned Random House and the rest of the industry by announcing that she was not going through with her autobiography. At least not this year.

In a prepared statement that could have been transcribed from one of her confessional TV shows, she said: "I am in the heart of the learning curve. I feel there are important discoveries yet to be made." For Random House, the pullback represents a loss of billings estimated at $20 million. But, beyond the financial fallout, even the industry's know-it-alls are struggling to figure out what happened.

The loudest buzz was speculation that Winfrey's fiance, Stedman Graham, objected to her laying out some of the more personal details of her past. One person who read a few dozen pages of the manuscript said Winfrey graphically described molestation and sexual abuse that she endured as a child.

This source and Doubleday Book Club editor-in-chief Arlene Friedman, who also read some of the planned 16 chapters, were impressed with the book. As Friedman put it: "We felt it was the book that every woman would want to read."

"I know the postponement had nothing to do with the manuscript itself," said Joy Harris, the literary agent for Winfrey's collaborator, Joan Barthel. Knopf president Sonny Mehta said in Miami that Winfrey's book was written "in a voice that is very much her own."

Comments like these bolster a second explanation--that Winfrey, who has allowed so many others to bare their souls on TV, suffered an unexpected case of cold feet on realizing that her own drama and neuroses would be exposed.

Still, if Winfrey harbored doubts two weeks earlier in Miami, she hid them well. "It has been a tremendous experience for me . . . working on a book with Joan Barthel," she said at her party.

"I believe that everybody ought to sit down and write a book about themselves at some point, whether you sell it or not. You can save yourself a huge therapy bill.

"For me, working on this book the past year and a half has been like 10 years of therapy."

She referred to Erroll McDonald, the editor who has been with the project since contacting Winfrey eight years ago, as "Doctor Erroll" because of the personal insights he was urging her to share. She added that the only reason to write a book "is to try to make some sense of your life.

"I believe that all life can be instructional. Having lived the life that I have, I think that it can be inspirational to some people, and that was how I really came up with the decision to do it--who can benefit from learning from my mistakes and my joys and my tragedies and my triumphs?"

At a second appearance in Miami, a Memorial Day book-and-author breakfast, Winfrey hinted further at her book's contents. She said there were "lots of problems with my own self-image and not feeling loved" while growing up, as well as "abuse, racism and sexism."

McDonald, who is also the executive editor of the Pantheon Books division of Random House, scoffed at published reports that Winfrey had yet to write a single page.

"That's fraudulent," he said. "I've been flying out to Chicago just about every weekend since the fall to work on the manuscript with Oprah and Joan Barthel. The work that remained to be done was the editing of the final chapters."

McDonald also dismissed the idea that Winfrey derailed the book at her fiance's urging, because, the editor said, "that suggests that Oprah is at the mercy of what others say, that she's not capable of making up her own mind."

Meanwhile, sources said Winfrey--who, in an unusual arrangement, planned to co-publish the book with Knopf--backed away with impunity, because she had not signed a contract with the company. Asked about this, McDonald said "a letter of agreement" had been signed, but he added that it was against company policy to comment on contractual arrangements with authors.

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