Tag Archive for publishing

Books as Christmas Gifts

Did you know that books were among the very first commercial Christmas presents? That’s right—printed books were integral in helping to invent the modern, consumer-oriented Christmas holiday. Before then it was customary to give food or, if you were wealthy, a monetary “tip” to those who were less well off financially. (The latter might come to a rich person’s door and demand the “tip,” in fact.)  The gift of a printed book changed all that, helping to defuse the class antagonism that typically rose to the surface around the winter holidays.

You can read more about the details of this fascinating history in my post from a few years ago on “How the Books Saved Christmas.”  And if you’re interested in a broader history of the role books played in the invention of contemporary consumer culture, then you should check out The Late Age of Print.  At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it makes a great gift.

 

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Out from Under the Embargo

I’m delighted to report that my essay, “Performing Scholarly Communication,” is once again freely available on the open web.  The piece appeared in the January 2012 issue of the journal Text and Performance Quarterly but hasn’t much seen the light of day since then, subject to the publisher’s 18-month post-publication embargo.  You can now read and respond to the complete piece on my other website, The Differences & Repetitions Wiki, where I host a variety of open source writing projects.

By the way, if you’re interested in scholarly communication, the history of cultural studies, or both, then you might want to check out another piece appearing on D&RW: ”Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature,” which I coauthored with Mark Hayward.  It’s set to appear in the next issue of the journal New Formations.  A version of the piece has existed on D&RW since March 2012, and in fact you can trace its development all the way through to today, when I posted the nicely-formatted, final version that Mark and I submitted for typesetting.  Always, comments are welcome and appreciated.  If you’d rather cut right to the chase, then you can download the uncorrected page proofs for the “WPCS” piece by clicking here.

Take some time to poke around D&RW, by the way.   There are a bunch of other papers and projects  there, some, but not all, having to do with the history and politics of scholarly communication.

Lastly, a note of thanks to all of you who tweeted, Facebooked, or otherwise spread the word about the final days of the free Late Age of Print download.  I truly appreciate all of your support.

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Late Age of Print – the Podcast

Welcome back and happy new year!  Okay—so 2013 is more than three weeks old at this point.  What can I say?  The semester started and I needed to hit the ground running.  In any case I’m pleased to be back and glad that you are, too.

My first post of the year is actually something of an old one, or at least it’s about new material that was produced about eighteen months ago.  Back in the summer of 2011 I keynoted the Association for Cultural Studies Summer Institute in Ghent, Belgium.  It was a blast—and not only because I got to talk about algorithmic culture and interact with a host of bright faculty and students.  I also recorded a podcast there with Janneke Adema, a Ph.D. student at Coventry University, UK whose work on the future of scholarly publishing is excellent and whose blog, Open Reflections, I recommend highly.

Janneke and I sat down in Ghent for the better part of an hour for a fairly wide-ranging conversation, much of it having to do with The Late Age of Print and my experiments in digital publishing.  It was real treat to revisit Late Age after a couple of years and to discuss some of the choices I made while I was writing it.  I’ve long thought the book was a tad quirky in its approach, and so the podcast gave me a wonderful opportunity to provide some missing explanation and backstory.  It was also great to have a chance to foreground some of the experimental digital publishing tools I’ve created, as I almost never put this aspect of my work on the same level as my written scholarship (though this is changing).

The resulting podcast, “The Late Age of Print and the Future of Cultural Studies,” is part of the journal Culture Machine’s podcast series.  Janneke and I discussed the following:

  • How have digital technologies affected my research and writing practices?
  • What advice would I, as a creator of digital scholarly tools, give to early career scholars seeking to undertake similar work?
  • Why do I experiment with modes of scholarly communication, or seek “to perform scholarly communication differently?”
  • How do I approach the history of books and reading, and how does my approach differ from more ethnographically oriented work?
  • How did I find the story amid the numerous topics I wrestle with in The Late Age of Print?

I hope you like the podcast.  Do feel welcome to share it on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever.  And speaking of social media, don’t forget—if you haven’t already, you can still download a Creative Commons-licensed PDF of The Late Age of Print.  It will only cost a tweet or a post on Facebook.  Yes, really.

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Cheaper Textbooks (So They Say)

I don’t often write about textbook publishing, but with the start of the new school year I thought it appropriate to say a few more words on the subject. I say more because I blogged about the changing student textbook market around this time last year, exploring how the rental market in particular had started to affect the ways college students acquire and think about their course texts.

Well, that was a year ago, and paper books are soooooo 2011. The big push this year (which, admittedly, has been building over the course of several years) is for electronic course texts or, in some cases, the bundling of electronic resources with traditional paper textbooks. I can’t stop hearing about the subject both on my own campus and in the periodicals I follow, including The Chronicle of Higher Education.

To wit: this week’s Chronicle included a story entitled “With ‘Access Codes,’ Textbook Pricing Gets More Complicated Than Ever.” (Apologies in advance: you’ll have to be a subscriber to read the full text.) It focuses on a business student at the University of Maine, Luke Thomas, who, last semester, needed to buy a (paper) textbook for his introductory English course. Expensive — but so far, so good. The complication occurred when Thomas discovered that the book, published by textbook giant Cenage, came bundled with a code he would need to access supplementary materials, which were only available online. He and his wife had been planning to use the course text together, effectively cutting the net cost of the overpriced book in half. But because each code was tied to one, and only one, student, they were unable to do so — that is, unless one of them was willing to forgo participation in the class’ online element and potentially jeopardize her or his grade. You can read Thomas’ great, muckraking blog post about the incident here.

I’m sure there are myriad instances of college students confronting these types of dilemmas right now, and not only the married ones. I remember friends during my undergraduate years (this was the early 1990s) routinely buying course texts that they’d then share for the semester. I’m pretty sure I did this once myself, in a Communication course my roommate and I had both enrolled in. But what I see, in the emerging age of e-publishing, is a deliberate attempt on the part of textbook publishers, suborned either by greedy or willfully ignorant faculty, to mitigate and even eliminate these types of arrangements.

What makes this situation all the more startling is the language that’s typically used to sell e-learning materials to professors and students. Over and over again we hear how e-texts are “cheaper” than their printed, paper counterparts and how supplementary online materials add real value to them. What the marketing departments won’t tell you is that that “cheaper” isn’t an absolute term and that value-added actually comes at a cost.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a student can buy a $50 e-version of a course text whose paper edition would cost $100 brand new. That’s a 50% savings, right? Well, not exactly. If two friends wanted to share the cost of the book together, that cost savings is already matched — bettered, actually, since there exists a robust used market for paper textbooks that would probably net the students at least a few dollars at the end of the term. (You generally can’t “sell back” an e-text, since you license rather than own the content.) As for the so-called value-added e-features, Thomas’ story makes abundantly clear how, in fact, this value isn’t added as much as paid for.

I don’t doubt that large textbook publishers like Cenage want to follow what they perceive to be industry and cultural (some might say generational) trends in making such an aggressive move into e-publishing. But it’s not only about that. It’s also about hammering away at the first-sale doctrine, which is the legal principle that allows the owner of copyrighted material to share it with or resell it to someone else without fear of legal reprisal. The move into e-publishing is also a way to effectively destroy the market for used textbooks, which, admittedly, has long been difficult to sustain given publishers’ efforts to issue “revised” editions of popular texts every few years.

Bottom line: if you believe in the free market, then you should be opposed many of these types of e-publishing initiatives. There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or even a cheap one, for that matter.

So with that, then, I want to bestow my first ever Late Age of Print Hero Award on Luke Thomas, for his courageous efforts to bring these important issues to public attention. Thank you, Luke.

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New Writing – Working Papers in Cultural Studies

If it wasn’t clear already, I needed a little break from blogging.  This past year has been an amazing one here on The Late Age of Print, with remarkable response to many of my posts — particularly those about my new research on algorithmic culture.  But with the school year wrapping up in early May, I decided I needed a little break; hence, the crickets around here.  I’m back now and will be blogging regularly throughout the summer, although maybe not quite as regularly as I would during the academic year.  Thanks for sticking around.

I suppose it’s not completely accurate to say the school year “wrapped up” for me in early May.  I went right from grading final papers to finishing an essay my friend and colleague Mark Hayward and I had been working on throughout the semester.  (This was also a major reason behind the falloff in my blogging.)  The piece is called “Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature,” and we’ll be presenting a version of it at the upcoming Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference in Paris.

“Working Papers” is, essentially, a retelling of the origins of British cultural studies from a materialist perspective.  It’s conventional in that it focuses on one of the key institutions where the field first coalesced: the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was founded at the University of Birmingham in 1964 under the leadership of Richard Hoggart.  It’s unconventional, however, in that the essay focuses less on the Centre’s key figures or on what they had to say in their work.  Instead it looks closely at the form of the Centre’s publications, many of which were produced in-house in a manner that was rough around the edges.

Mark and I were interested in how, physically, these materials seemed to embody an ethic of publication prevalent at the Centre, which stressed the provisionality of the research produced by faculty, students, and affiliates. The essay thus is an attempt to solve a riddle: how did the Centre manage to achieve almost mythical status, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t much in the business of producing definitive statements about the politics of contemporary culture?  Take for instance its most well known publication, Working Papers in Cultural Studies, whose very title indicates that every article appearing in the journal was on some level a draft.

I won’t give away the ending, but I will point you in the direction of the complete essay.  It’s hosted on my site for writing projects, The Differences & Repetitions Wiki (which I may well rename the Late Age of Print Wiki).  Mark and I have created an archive for “Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature,” where you’ll find not only the latest version of the essay and earlier drafts but also a bunch of materials pertaining to their production.  We wanted to channel some of the lessons we learned from Birmingham, which led us to go public with the process of our work.  (This is in keeping with another essay I published recently, “The Visible College,” a version of which you can also find over on D&RW.)

Our “Working Papers” essay is currently in open beta, which means there’s at least another round of edits to go before we could say it’s release-ready.  That’s where you come in.  We’d welcome your comments on the piece, as we’re about to embark on what will probably be the penultimate revision.  Thank you in advance, and we hope you like what you see.

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The Book Industry’s Moneyball

Some folks have asked me how I came to the idea of algorithmic culture, the subject of my next book as well as many of my blog posts of late.  I usually respond by pointing them in the direction of chapter three of The Late Age of Print, which focuses on Amazon.com, product coding, and the rise digital communications in business.

It occurs to me, though, that Amazon wasn’t exactly what inspired me to begin writing about algorithms, computational processes, and the broader application of principles of scientific reason to the book world.  My real inspiration came from someone you’ve probably never heard of before (unless, of course, you’ve read The Late Age of Print). I’m talking about Orion Howard (O. H.) Cheney, a banker and business consultant whose ideas did more to lay the groundwork for today’s book industry than perhaps anyone’s.

Cheney was born in 1869 in Bloomington, Illinois.  For much of his adult life he lived and worked in New York State, where, from 1909-1911, he served as the State Superintendent of Banks and later as a high level executive in the banking industry.  In 1932 he published what was to be the first comprehensive study of the book business in the United States, the Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931.  It almost immediately came to be known as the “Cheney Report” due to the author’s refusal to soft-peddle his criticisms of, well, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with promoting books in the United States — from authors and publishers on down to librarians and school teachers, and everyone else in between.

In essence, Cheney wanted to fundamentally rethink the game of publishing.  His notorious report was the book industry equivalent of Moneyball.

If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), you should.  It’s about how the Oakland A’s, one of the most poorly financed teams in Major League Baseball, used computer algorithms (so-called “Sabermetrics“) to build a successful franchise by identifying highly skilled yet undervalued players.  The protagonists of Moneyball, A’s General Manager Billy Bean and Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, did everything in their power to purge gut feeling from the game.  Indeed, one of the book’s central claims is that assessments of player performance have long been driven by unexamined assumptions about how ball players ought to look, move, and behave, usually to a team’s detriment.

The A’s method for identifying talent and devising on-field strategy raised the ire of practically all baseball traditionalists.  It yielded insights that were so far afield of the conventional wisdom that its proponents were apt to seem crazy, even after they started winning big.

It’s the same story with The Cheney Report.  Consider this passage, where Cheney faults the book industry for operating on experience and intuition instead of a statistically sound “fact basis”:

Facts are the only basis for management in publishing, as they must be in any field.  In that respect, the book industry is painfully behind many others — both in facts relating to the industry as a whole and in facts of individual [publishing] houses….”Luck”; waiting for a best-seller; intuitive publishing by a “born publisher” — these must give way as the basis for the industry, for the sake of the industry and everybody in it….In too many publishing operations the theory seems to be that learning from experience means learning how to do a thing right by continuing to do it wrong (pp. 167-68).

This, more than 70 years before Moneyball!  And, like Beane and DePodesta, Cheney was raked over the coals by almost everyone in the industry he was criticizing.  They refused to listen to him, despite the fact that, in the throes of the Great Depression, most everything that had worked in the book industry didn’t seem to be working so well anymore.

Well, it’s almost the same story. Beane and DePodesta have enjoyed excellent careers in Major League Baseball, despite the heresy of their ideas.  They’ve been fortunate to have lived at a time when algorithms and computational mathematics are enough the norm that at least some can recognize the value of what they’ve brought to the game.

The Cheney Report, in contrast, had almost no immediate effect on the book industry.  The Report suffered due to its — and Cheney’s own — untimeliness.  The cybernetics revolution was still more than a decade off, and so the idea of imagining the book industry as a complexly communicative ecosystem was all but unimaginable to most.  This was true even with Cheney, who, in his insistence on ascertaining the “facts,” was fumbling around for what would later come to be known as “information.”

Today we live in O. H. Cheney’s vision for the book world, or, at least, some semblance of it.  People wonder why Amazon.com has so shaken up all facets of the industry.  It’s an aggressive competitor, to be sure, but its success is premised more on its having fundamentally rethought the game.  And for this Jeff Bezos owes a serious thank you to a grumpy old banker who, in the 1930s, wrote the first draft of what would go on to become publishing’s new playbook.

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Performing Scholarly Communication

A short piece I wrote for the journal Text and Performance Quarterly (TPQ) has just been published.  It’s called “Performing Scholarly Communication,” and it’s included in a special section on “The Performative Possibilities of New Media” edited by the wonderful Desireé Rowe and Benjamin Myers.  The section includes contributions by Michael LeVan and Marcyrose Chvasta, Jonathan M. Gray, and Craig-Gingrich Philbrook, along with an introduction by and a formal contribution from Desireé and Ben.  You can peruse the complete contents here.

My essay is a companion to another short piece I published (and blogged about) last year called “The Visible College.”  “The Visible College” focuses on how journal publications hide much of the labor that goes into their production.  It then goes on to make a case for how we might re-engineer academic serials to better account for that work.  “Performing Scholarly Communication” reflects on one specific publishing experiment I’ve run over on my project site, The Differences and Repetitions Wiki, in which I basically opened the door for anyone to co-write an essay with me.  Both pieces also talk about the history of scholarly journal publishing at some length, mostly in an effort to think through where our present-day journal publishing practices, or performances, come from.  One issue I keep coming back to here is scarcity, or rather how scholars, journal editors, and publishers operate today as if the material relations of journal production typical of the 18th and 19th centuries still straightforwardly applied.

I’ve mentioned before that Desireé and Ben host a wonderful weekly podcast called the The Critical LedeLast week’s show focused on the TPQ forum and gathered together all of the contributors to discuss it.  I draw attention to this not only because I really admire Desireé and Ben’s podcast but also because it fulfills an important scholarly function as well.  You may not know this, but the publisher of TPQ, Taylor & Francis, routinely “embargoes” work published in this and many other of its journals.  The embargo stipulates that authors are barred from making any version of their work available on a public website for 18 months from the date of publication.  I’d be less concerned about this stipulation if more libraries and institutions had access to TPQ and journals like it, but alas, they do not.  In other words, if you cannot access TPQ, at least you can get a flavor of the research published in the forum by listening to me and my fellow contributors dish about it over on The Critical Lede.

I should add that the Taylor & Francis publication embargo hit close to home for me.  Almost a year and a half ago I posted a draft of “Performing Scholarly Communication” to The Differences and Repetitions Wiki and invited people to comment on it.  The response was amazing, and the work improved significantly as a result of the feedback I received there.  The problem is, I had to “disappear” the draft or pre-print version once my piece was accepted for publication in TPQ.  You can still read the commentary, which T&F does not own, but that’s almost like reading marginalia absent the text to which the notes refer!

Here’s the good news, though: if you’d like a copy of “Performing Scholarly Communication” for professional purposes, you can email me to request a free PDF copy.  And with that let me say that I do indeed appreciate how Taylor & Francis does support this type of limited distribution of one’s work, even as I wish the company would do much better in terms of supporting open access to scholarly research.

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Define “Future”

First, I hope all of my readers in the United States had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I really needed a break myself, so I took last week off from blogging in order to recharge.  Second, I want to thank everyone for the amazing response to my previous post, on e-reading and indie bookstores.  I haven’t had a post receive that much attention in a while.  All the the feedback just goes to show how urgent the situation is.

On to matters at hand: the release of the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.  I don’t know if you’ve been following the story, but in case you haven’t, the New York Times ran a solid piece about a month ago on the marketing campaign surrounding the volume’s release.  It’s quite a blitz, and not cheap.  The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, shelled out $300,000 to promote AHD5.  The volume retails for US$60, so the publisher will need to sell 5,000 copies just to cover the marketing, and I’d guess at least double that to cover production and distribution costs.

Thatsalottadictionary.

But even more interesting to me than the marketing is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to produce both physical and electronic editions of the AHD5.  At a time when we hear over and over again about how the future is digital — and the future is now! — the publisher has decided to take a hybrid approach.  It has released AHD5 in four different formats: a print volume; an e-book; a website; and an app.  The latter three are digital, admittedly, although the disproportion is probably a function of the proliferation of electronic platforms.

The AHD5 e-book is completely overpriced at $60, although I say that not having perused it to see its features, if any.  The app doesn’t come cheap, either, at $24.99, although you get it for free if you buy the print edition.  It’s intriguing to think about how different media can affect the perceived value of language.

The publisher’s decision to offer AHD5 in multiple formats was partly a pragmatic decision, no doubt.  These are transitional times for books and other forms print media, and no one can say for sure what the future will hold (unless you’re Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos).  But the decision was, from a historico-theoretical standpoint, unusually well thought-out, too.

Protracted periods of change — and the uncertainties that surround them — beget intense forms of partisanship, something’s that’s all too apparent right now in book culture.  You might call it, “format fundamentalism.”  On the one hand, we have those who believe print is the richest, most authentic and enduring medium of human expression.  At the opposite extreme are the digital denizens who see print media as a little more than a quaint holdover from late-medieval times.  There are many people who fall in between, of course, if not in theory then most definitely in practice, but in any case the compulsion to pick a side is a strong one.

The problem with format fundamentalism is that print and electronic media both have their strengths and weaknesses.  More to the point, the weaknesses of the one are often compensated for by the strengths of the other, such that we end up with a more robust media sphere when the two are encouraged to co-exist rather than pitted against one another.

So let’s return to the example of AHD5.  Print-on-paper dictionaries are cumbersome — something that’s also true, to greater and lesser degrees, of most such books.  And in this regard, apps and other types of e-editions provide welcome relief when it comes to the challenges of storing dictionaries and other weighty tomes.  And yet, there’s something to be said for the shear preponderance of physical books, to which their capacity to endure is surely related.  The same cannot quite be said of digital editions, hundreds and even thousands of which can be stuffed into a single Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, or Apple iPad.  The endurance of these books depends significantly on the longevity and goodwill of corporate custodians for whom preservation is a mandate only as long as it remains profitable.

I could go on, but these are issues I address at length in the preface to the paperback edition of Late Age.  The point is, it’s more useful to think about print and electronic media not as contrary but as complementary, in fact we need to begin developing policies and legislation to create a media sphere balanced around this principle.

But until then, hat’s off to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing an excellent model for how to proceed.

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The Visible College

After having spent the last five weeks blogging about about algorithmic culture, I figured both you and I deserved a change of pace.  I’d like to share some new research of mine that was just published in a free, Open Access periodical called The International Journal of Communication

My piece is called “The Visible College.”  It addresses the many ways in which the form of scholarly publications — especially that of journal articles — obscures the density of the collaboration typical of academic authorship in the humanities.  Here’s the first line: “Authorship may have died at the hands of a French philosopher drunk on Balzac, but it returned a few months later, by accident, when an American social psychologist turned people’s attention skyward.”  Intrigued?

My essay appears as part of a featured section on the politics of academic labor in the discipline of communication.  The forum is edited by my good friend and colleague, Jonathan Sterne.  His introductory essay is a must-read for anyone in the field — and, for that matter, anyone who receives a paycheck for performing academic labor.  (Well, maybe not my colleagues in the Business School….)  Indeed it’s a wonderful, programmatic piece outlining how people in universities can make substantive change there, both individually and collectively.  The section includes contributions from: Thomas A. Discenna; Toby Miller; Michael Griffin; Victor Pickard; Carol Stabile; Fernando P. Delgado; Amy Pason; Kathleen F. McConnell; Sarah Banet-Weiser and Alexandra Juhasz; Ira Wagman and Michael Z. Newman; Mark Hayward; Jayson Harsin; Kembrew McLeod; Joel Saxe; Michelle Rodino-Colocino; and two anonymous authors.  Most of the essays are on the short side, so you can enjoy the forum in tasty, snack-sized chunks.

My own piece presented me with a paradox.  Here I was, writing about how academic journal articles do a lousy job of representing all the labor that goes into them — in the form of an academic journal article!  (At least it’s a Creative Commons-licensed, Open Access one.)  Needless to say, I couldn’t leave it at that.  I decided to create a dossier of materials relating to the production of the essay, which I’ve archived on another of my websites, The Differences and Repetitions Wiki (D&RW).  The dossier includes all of my email exchanges with Jonathan Sterne, along with several early drafts of the piece.  It’s astonishing to see just how much “The Visible College” changed as a result of my dialogue with Jonathan.  It’s also astonishing to see, then, just how much of the story of academic production gets left out of that slim sliver of “thank-yous” we call the acknowledgments.

“The Visible College Dossier” is still a fairly crude instrument, admittedly.  It’s an experiment — one among several others hosted on D&RW in which I try to tinker with the form and content of scholarly writing.  I’d welcome your feedback on this or any other of my experiments, not to mention “The Visible College.”

Enjoy — and happy Halloween!  Speaking of which, if you’re looking for something book related and Halloween-y, check out my blog post from a few years ago on the topic of anthropodermic bibliopegy.

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It’s Official: It’s Franzen

There’s been speculation going on all week that Oprah Winfrey would choose Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, as the inaugural selection for the final season of her talk show/book club.  Well, it’s official: Freedom it is, as you can see from this email that just landed in my inbox:

I’m not surprised at all by Winfrey’s decision.  As you can see below, on Monday I Tweeted about this possibility, days before speculation about the selection broke out in earnest.

How did I know this would happen? Because I know The Oprah Winfrey Show, and even more so I know Oprah’s Book Club.  Both are about redemption, forgiveness, magnanimity, and healing (see Chapter 4 of The Late Age of Print).  What better way to bring closure to one of the most notorious episodes in the history of the Book Club than by giving the author who’d snubbed Winfrey the opportunity, finally, to set things right during this, her final season on the air?

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