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.
READ: About Jennifer Belle’s stunt in the New York Times
READ MORE: From Jennifer Belle’s website