SEROY gets author Franzen's honesty to come out in Oprah flap

By Published on .

Publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux managed to marry a literary hipster with Joe Public last year. FSG was sure it had a winner in Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections."

So sure, that the publisher budgeted $100,000 on advertising-an unusually large amount compared with the $25,000 to $30,000 spent on most literary fiction. FSG's agency, Bennett Book Advertising, New York, handled the advertising for "The Corrections," a novel about a Midwestern family and their dysfunctional relationships that reached the upper reaches of the best-seller lists almost as soon as it was published in September 2001. "The Corrections" won the National Book Award for fiction soon after.

As of last week, "The Corrections" had been on The New York Times best-seller list for 27 weeks, total sales were $12 million, and FSG had shipped 960,000 copies to traditional booksellers like Borders and Amazon as well as to mass-market stores such as Costco and Wal-Mart Stores.

Jeff Seroy, VP-director of publicity at FSG, says the novel's sales potential was evident as early as May 2001, when "The Corrections" made its prepublication debut at BookExpo in Chicago to enthusiastic reviewers and retailers. Glowing reviews followed throughout the summer.

By Labor Day, Oprah Winfrey had called Mr. Franzen to invite "The Corrections" to be in her book club. During an intense first two weeks of September, the book was reviewed and featured in publications ranging from The New York Times Sunday Magazine to Time, The Wall Street Journal and several online publications.

"What drove this book were people's responses to it," says Mr. Seroy. "Franzen was able to incorporate the techniques of post-modern fiction while making it emotionally accessible, fresh and familiar."

Ms. Winfrey's stamp of approval may have been a boon for sales, but Mr. Franzen had mixed feelings about her logo scaring off his literary readership. Think Oprah, think pop fiction and an unsophisticated, predominantly female readership; in literary high society, sales figures are often inversely proportional to genius. Mr. Franzen was quoted in the press as saying some of Ms. Winfrey's picks are "schmaltzy and one-dimensional"-and that he had reservations about her logo appearing on his book. Mr. Franzen's comments prompted Ms. Winfrey to uninvite him to appear on her show (he was allowed to stay in the book club) and prompted public ire toward Mr. Franzen from other authors who'd been featured in the Oprah club. Apologies from Mr. Franzen followed.

Mr. Seroy says Mr. Franzen, who spent seven solitary years writing "The Corrections," was unprepared for the glare of media attention and his sudden popularity. As publicity director, Mr. Seroy encouraged Mr. Franzen to speak for himself and be himself. "I was proud of the way he managed the controversy," he says. "His learning curve was steep, but his honesty and frankness-the same voice that appeared in his novel-won over the public."

Sales of "The Corrections" proved to be resilient in more ways than one. In a dire autumn season for the publishing industry the book defied gravity, Mr. Seroy says.

Most Popular
In this article: