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“I Paid Them to Read My Book”: Jennifer Belle’s “The Laughter Project” Pays Dividends

By Jennifer Belle

• Author Jennifer Belle took her book publicity into her own hands by hiring actresses “to read my book on the subway and at New York City landmarks for $8/hr”

• Jennifer and her story of the publicity stunt ended up in the New York Times, the NY Post, on author blogs and on Judith Regan’s Sirius radio show.

A few weeks ago, going up in my elevator, a neighbor said to me, “I just saw someone in Washington Square Park reading your book!” She was very excited.

“I know,” I said. “I paid her to do it.”

My neighbor laughed. “No you didn’t.”

“I did,” I said. But she didn’t believe me.

Many years ago, I read an article about professional funeral wailers in China. In China, and in many countries, when a loved one died, you hired people to sit in the back and cry—sob, weep, bellow, really, really grieve the way only a stranger or someone who is being paid can—or it just wasn’t considered a good funeral. And it didn’t mean you weren’t sad yourself, it was just for reinforcement. So for years I joked with my writer friends that one day, if I got desperate enough, I would hire people to read my book on the subway and laugh.

Then, this year when the independent publicist my publisher hired to promote my new book The Seven Year Bitch got me no publicity whatsoever, I decided to do it. There is no bigger thrill for a writer than seeing someone you don’t know reading your book. I’d had this experience a few times, once watching a woman screaming at a man while wielding my first book Going Down, once in a Starbucks where I proudly went up to the poor woman and said, “I’m the author of the book you’re reading,” and once in a hotel in Amalfi. And I decided, even though it made no financial sense, to make it happen for myself.

I put an ad in Backstage requesting actresses, aged 25-75, with compelling and infectious laughs, to read my book on the subway and at New York City landmarks for $8/hr. I stated that award-winning documentary filmmaker Josh Gilbert would be making a short documentary about the project, and prayed he would come through for me. To submit the ad to Backstage, I had to list an email address for headshots and resumes to be sent electronically, give the name of a producer, and a title for the production. I gave my husband’s name as the producer and titled it The Seven Year Bitch Book Promo Project.

When I married my husband I had the fantasy that he would be Irving Mansfield to my Jacqueline Susann. I’d had a little ritual of reading Lovely Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story before the publication of each of my previous three books, and I’d learned a lot about book promotion from her. When I asked my editor at Riverhead and the publicity and marketing departments what I could do to promote my book, they all said the same thing: take out ads online at various websites. Their suggestions were vague and when I researched it myself, it felt like throwing money into the wind. When they said that the future was the internet, I felt like going back to the past. To the days when Jacqueline and Irving would drive from town to town buying their own book, bring donuts to the truck drivers delivering the books to the booksellers, and plan good old fashioned publicity stunts.

Approximately 600 actresses sent their headshots and resumes to my personal email address. They wrote cover letters describing their laughs, giving anecdotes about times they got carried away laughing, even sent links to YouTube where I could see them laughing. A few of them had read my previous books, and of course were brought to the top of the list. All but six of them were under 30, only two were over sixty.

I booked a studio at Dance New Amsterdam to hold the auditions. I made up a questionnaire that asked if they had a phone with the ability to text, what the craziest thing was that they had ever seen or done in public, if they’d ever participated in any grassroots guerilla campaigning in person or on the internet, what the last book they read was, and if they had a subway preference. I listed the days of the week and “shifts” next to each day and asked them to circle their availability. I planned to send people out on the subway Monday through Friday during rush hour, 8-10am and 5-7pm, and in parks during lunch hour.

Josh Gilbert and I auditioned 150 actresses. I had taken a whole day calling them and scheduling them in time slots throughout the day. Josh filmed and photographed and I asked questions. Then they laughed. What we thought would be a painful day of listening to forced nervous laughter, turned into a very entertaining one. The women let loose, laughing hysterically, holding my book, until time after time I started laughing myself.

“I practiced,” one of them said. She laughed and snorted. “I practiced the snort.” I laughed and wrote “snorts, excellent” next to her name in my notes.

I’d let the New York Times reporter Corey Killgannon know about it and he arrived at the audition and filmed and took notes. He said, “I love this, New Yorkers laughing. You’re going to make all of New York happy.” What began as a selfish way to promote my book was turning into a sort of bizarre public performance art piece. Almost all of the 150 actresses were great. My lawyer husband had a release form for each woman to sign that we could use any footage and a few didn’t want to sign it. A few were a little too demonic, a few were outrageously perfect.

The week I started the stunt, I sent the girls out in teams of two to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the steps of the TKTS booth in Times Square, Washington Square Park, and the 1 and L trains. I asked them to pick up a copy of my book from my doorman, meet their teammate at a particular time and place, and then take photos of each other with their phones and text the photos to me throughout their two hour shifts. They also called me when they were finished and reported that they’d had fun, that people had looked, asked about the book, ignored them, etc.

Corey Kilgannon at the New York Times wrote about it in the Metro Section in the Sunday column called Open and Shut and had a video he had taken of the actresses on the steps of the Met and some footage of me, without makeup, at the audition. Then Richard Johnson wrote about it in Page Six.

“I saw someone on the train reading your wife’s book,” a client of my husband’s told him.

“I know,” my husband said, “She paid her to do it.”

“Come on,” the client said. “She did not.”

It cost: $65 for the ad in Backstage, $50 for the studio at Dance New Amsterdam, $110 for a film editor to put together some footage of the actresses laughing at the audition, about $500 to buy my own books to give to the actresses (but as Bob Dylan once said, “I’d rather have a garage full of my own records than be considered a failure), and $320 to the actresses. I still have their headshots and resumes, ready to call them to laugh some more, but because it was reported in the papers so quickly, and I got so much out of it so fast, there wasn’t much point in continuing it.

The best surprise was that other authors blogged about it. Elizabeth McCracken tweeted the New York Times piece. Other writers seemed to take it in the spirit it was intended and called me “their hero.” Judith Regan invited me on her Sirius radio show to talk about it, and I got calls from other shows in America, Germany, and Canada. One fan on Facebook wrote that she was very disappointed that I had to trick people into reading my book. She said she had felt special being my friend on Facebook and now she just felt sad. I noticed some writers copying me, posting photos on Facebook of people reading their books and laughing.

It’s very hard for a writer to know what to do to promote herself. You go from being a shut-in, finishing the book in total isolation, to being a hostess, giving readings and parties like crazy. You want to do what you can for the book. You want to show the publisher that you’re willing to prostitute yourself in any manner possible, all while trying to be taken seriously. Of course it’s all a waste of time and money, and what you should be doing is getting to work on your next book. But most of the writers I know, are compelled to try. Twitter and Facebook and blogging are exhausting, and I have to say I preferred being a writer before these things existed. I don’t know what Jacqueline Susann would have done today to promote herself, but I hope to continue to follow in her ancient footsteps.

My only regret was not having them all reading and laughing outside of the Jacob Javits Center during BEA. I’m really kicking myself about that.

DISCUSS: What is the best out-of-the-box book promotion you’ve heard?

READ: About Jennifer Belle’s stunt in the New York Times

READ MORE: From Jennifer Belle’s website

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24 Comments

  1. Posted August 2, 2010 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    A wonderful, imaginative idea and a delight to read.

    I wonder if I can hire actress mothers and grandmothers to read Planet Of The Dogs at the next AKC Dogshow?
    Robert

  2. Posted August 2, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    That is just fantastic!

  3. Posted August 2, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I would love access to your actresses! And your idea about BEA is so good, I’m definitely going to use it!.. Maybe in China, Frankfurt, and London too!

  4. Posted August 2, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Good work. Am so happy for you! And I do agree with you: blogs, Facebook and all that Internet stuff are a hassle. Life was so much easier before… So the fact that what you did – a good old-fashioned trick – actually made you over-reach your publicity objective is so encouraging…

  5. Posted August 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Wow… this is fantastic! What a great idea. These days, in order to be heard, marketing NEEDS to be creative. Well done!

  6. LewisM
    Posted August 2, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I think the key is to get a celebrity to walk around with your book in hand. Clothing companies have done that kind of thing for years. Posh Spice was a great endorsement for Skinny Bitch, and who can forget Obama’s mention of Netherland? What did Lindsay Lohan read in prison?

  7. Posted August 2, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Jennifer,

    I love this. Thank you. Who can be wrong by increasing happiness and laughter!

  8. Posted August 2, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I love this story…but did you make back your investment? Is there any way to know if this actually sold books? I’m asking sincerely.

  9. Posted August 3, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I love this! What fun! Thank you for sharing.

  10. Posted August 3, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    WOW! What a great idea! You go girl!!

  11. Posted August 3, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    What a perfect thing to read about on a day when my confidence in marketing my book “Quintspinner” was dwindling. Reading about your success has re-energized me. Do you have the laughter footage available for those of us outside New York (outside the USA as a matter of fact) to enjoy? Thanks for sharing your lovely idea!

  12. Posted August 4, 2010 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    What an ab fab idea! I love it. Looking forward to seeing you in the bestsellers’ list pretty soon then.

  13. Posted August 4, 2010 at 4:06 am | Permalink

    Absolutely amazing!

  14. Posted August 4, 2010 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    Fabulous idea. I wonder if I could get teenagers hang about with my book Dead Boy Talking? Shedding a tear, perhaps?. But I wonder if laughter works better!

  15. Posted August 4, 2010 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Jennifer,

    Well done you.

    I am thinking of having an enormous cook-up in Parliament Square, feeding all and sundry a dish from a meal descibed in Freya 800 AD. The story is based in Norway over a thousand years ago. So the menu could be smoked seal and beans with a wodge of unleaven bread? Fancy a spoonful?

    Jean Mead author of the historical trilogy The Widow Makers

  16. Ankur
    Posted August 6, 2010 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    Yes yes, but is it funny? For people who aren’t being paid?

  17. Posted August 11, 2010 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Neat guerrilla marketing, well done. But which is more important: getting lots of people to see your book being read and (apparently enjoyed); or to get MSM attention, which attracts attention to the stunt, rather than to the book?

  18. david
    Posted August 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    um, am I the only one who will have nightmares from that video? yikes.

  19. Lauren
    Posted August 28, 2010 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    That’s really cheap. If I ever become an author that has to stoop that low, I hope one of my friends takes me out behind the woodshed and shoots me, Old Yeller style.

  20. kiropol
    Posted December 15, 2010 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    it is just like paying someone who would praise your food in public, but is it indeed? Good idea to start with.

  21. Posted April 25, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    I would like to read your book. Please consider me when you decide on your next book. I do charge a flat fee.

    I will be honored to assist you in your world of organizing of art through words.

    Reshuas

  22. Posted May 31, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    What a fantastic idea… I may well borrow it! Laughter is so infectious and I’m always looking at what people read on the train! Keep being creative with your ideas Jennifer – love them so far.

    http://www.facebook.com/louise.gibney.writer

  23. Posted June 29, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    What this made me think is that either your publisher or publicity people should have been doing this work (i.e. being creative, and then promoting the action through media), plus you shouldn’t have had to actually buy your own books. It’s ridiculous: the publisher is going to get a percentage not only of the books you bought, but of all the sales this mkt action generated. They should at least have covered the copies you needed. No wonder so many writers are going the self-publishing route!

  24. ILE
    Posted February 15, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Unbelievable…

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