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Winfrey Throws Book at Frey

January 27, 2006|Scott Collins And Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

The latest act in a high-stakes literary drama sent fear through the book industry Thursday, after Oprah Winfrey apologized to viewers for her defense of embattled author James Frey and then grilled him and the publisher of his bestselling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," on national television.

In an extraordinary live broadcast of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the top-rated talk show host admitted that she "made a mistake" in backing Frey, whose harrowing account of his drug addiction and rehabilitation has been questioned by the Smoking Gun website and others. Winfrey had told CNN's Larry King two weeks ago when Frey was a guest on his show that despite allegations that the author had fabricated portions of his account, "the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me."

On Thursday, a somber Winfrey said: "I left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that. But that is not what I believe. And to everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right."

Frey nervously sipped from a glass of water as Winfrey, normally a warm and welcoming presence, sat stone-faced and pressed him on inconsistencies in his memoir. When Frey admitted that he changed details of a suicide in the book, the audience gasped. When he couldn't give a straight answer about whether he had a root canal without Novocain, audience members booed, but Winfrey quieted them and urged him to continue.

While the talk show host repeatedly expressed her embarrassment and anger over the episode, and asked why he had lied, Frey seemed largely at a loss for words.

This latest chapter in the saga sent tremors through the $23-billion U.S. publishing business, which is dealing with weak growth prospects overall. Winfrey has unprecedented power and influence within the industry, thanks to her ability to drive customers into bookstores.

As Sara Nelson, editor in chief of the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, put it: "I don't think Oprah needs her book club nearly as much as publishers need her to have her book club."

Frey did not apologize to Winfrey or to readers but admitted lying about the book's accuracy and making mistakes in its handling. "It certainly hasn't been a great couple of weeks for me," he said, "but I think I come out of it better."

Winfrey also asked Frey's publisher, respected industry veteran Nan A. Talese, why her Doubleday imprint had not done more to verify the book's contents, arguing that the process for fact-checking memoirs "needs to change."

Talese called the incident "very sad" and said the company is delaying shipping additional copies of the book until notes advising readers of the factual liberties can be added.

Publishers have spent this month anxiously watching for signs that the controversy might sour Winfrey on championing books to her fans.

"I was terrified this would persuade her not to select living authors," said Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic. Before picking Frey's book, the talk-show host had spent several years recommending classic works by William Faulkner and others. That dismayed some publishers, because an endorsement from Winfrey can turn an unknown author into a lucrative brand name.

Entrekin applauded Winfrey for addressing the Frey scandal head-on but criticized Talese, a longtime competitor: "Frankly, I was disappointed. I don't think she did a good job of articulating why they didn't investigate this earlier."

Sandra Dijkstra, a top book agent based in San Diego, agreed with others in the industry that publishers of memoirs will probably now feel compelled to offer "some kind of author's note about procedure," especially if the author changed the sequence of real-life events or created composite characters.

But veterans agree that few nonfiction books will ever be vigorously fact-checked, because publishers' profit margins are too meager to justify the cost.

"The economics of publishing are very tough," Entrekin said.

In the wake of Thursday's telecast, Riverhead Books, the publisher of Frey's latest bestseller, a memoir titled "My Friend Leonard," said it was reevaluating its relationship with the author, including contracts for additional books.

"These are very serious issues and we are treating them that way," a Riverhead spokeswoman said. "The ground has shifted. It's under discussion."

"A Million Little Pieces" became last year's second-best-selling book, with more than 3 million copies in print, after Winfrey selected it for the club.

Initially, when the Smoking Gun concluded earlier this month that Frey had greatly exaggerated the length of his time in jail, his scuffles with law enforcement and other details, the author said the allegations concerned only a small portion of the book and that he stood by the memoir's "essential truth."

But subsequent reports cast further doubts on Frey's depiction of his stay in a treatment facility, believed to be the Hazelden center in Minnesota. On her program Thursday, Winfrey said she had persisted in defending the book for as long as she did because of an outpouring of e-mails from readers who said they had been helped by it. "I have to say that I allowed that to cloud my judgment," she said.

On Thursday afternoon, "A Million Little Pieces" was No. 5 on Amazon.com's listing, while "My Friend Leonard" was No. 16.

That led some skeptics to question whether any lessons can be derived from the controversy. "After eating his spinach on 'Oprah' today, there's no doubt that Frey -- regardless of his credibility -- is even more famous today than he was yesterday," Chicago Tribune blogger Dave Wischnowsky wrote. "I suspect Frey may have used the Queen of Daytime TV again."

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Times staff writer Michael Muskal contributed to this report.

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