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How Valley of the Dolls went from a reject to a 30-million best-seller

13 February 2016

From The Telegraph:

Even by the standards of a cold rejection letter, the one Jacqueline Susann received from publishers Geis Associates in 1965 was brutal.

Her novel Valley of the Dolls was dismissed as “painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish”. So how did such a poor book go on to be registered in The Guinness Book of World Records in the late Sixties as the world’s most popular novel? The success of Valley of the Dolls – to date more than 30 million copies have been sold worldwide – is a tale of one of the most tenacious and sharp-eyed publishing campaigns of all time.

The novel, which is about the sex lives and addiction problems of four Hollywood “glamour girls”, is 50 years old on February 10, 2016. The “dolls” in the title are the “uppers” and “downers” Susann’s characters swallow to cope with their soap-opera lives.

Susann, the daughter of a portrait painter and teacher, was born in Philadelphia in 1918. She was at heart a pragmatist and told friends that, as she had spent 18 months writing the book, “the least I can do is spend three months promoting it”. In fact, her campaign to publicise Valley of the Dolls lasted more than a year, and was organised like a military campaign.

Susann and her husband – a television producer and born hustler called Irving Mansfield – posted 1,500 free copies, all containing personalised notes, to journalists, actors, TV presenters, publishers, advertisers and book shops.

. . . .

“A new book is like a new brand of detergent,” she said. “You have to let the public know about it. What’s wrong with that?”

She and her husband criss-crossed America, dropping in on bookstores in every one of the 250 cities they visited. Susann would ask the head sales clerks if they had read her novel. If they hadn’t, or did not have a copy, she would give them one and autograph it. “Salesmen don’t get books free, you know,” she told Life magazine. “I tell them ‘be my guest’ and then they can recommend it honestly to their customers.”

The flattered bookshop staff would often change their window display to give a prominent slot to her novel, with its slick cover, showing coloured pills scattered against a white background. The only time she lost her cool in a shop was when she found out that the books department of the Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago was selling Valley of the Dolls under the counter, as if it were pornography.

Another factor in her favour was that she understood the power of television and made great efforts to appear on national and local stations during her PR tours. The former actress knew how to play the fame game. As the blurb on Valley of the Dolls proudly stated: “Miss Susann has been stabbed, strangled, and shot on every major dramatic show on the airwaves”. She was a canny guest star, giving around 30 televised interviews a week. “No matter what an interviewer asks, I can work the conversation back to the book,” she said.

And she wasn’t afraid of using any means possible, including her little “dolls”, to keep her energy levels up, “I took amphetamine pills when I was on tour,” she told Pageant magazine in 1967. “I felt that I owed it to people to be bright, rather than droop on television. I was suddenly awake, and could give my best.”

Link to the rest at The Telegraph

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15 Comments to “How Valley of the Dolls went from a reject to a 30-million best-seller”

  1. OMG! My aunt bought this book. Somehow we knew, can’t quite remember how we knew, that it was verboten. My cousin and I would sneak it out of her room at night and read it aloud, in the dark, under the covers, with a flashlight. Of course we were maybe ten years old. For a ten year old, it was porn. Obviously we’d never been exposed to a book like Valley of the Dolls before.

    • I’ve never read Jacqueline Susann (such a perfect name!), but I did something similar with my mother’s Jackie Collins book when I was about that age. I remember the book was called “Sinners,” and I would sneak and read it while my parents were downstairs or outside.

      I understood very little of it; mainly I kept skimming to see if anyone would do anything that would make sense to me. I ended up concluding that grown-up books are just so dull 🙂

  2. I’ve never been able to figure out why Kurt Vonnegut made this the only reading material for poor Billy Pilgrim when he was stuck in the Tralfamadorian zoo in Slaughterhouse Five. I did read this novel years ago, but nowadays all I can recall about it is Billy’s comment that “those girls sure had their ups and downs, ups and downs.”

  3. Coincidentally, my wife and I saw the movie last night (she loves the book and rereads it). It was mildly entertaining–The Best of Everything was better–but we had fun with other things:

    * The indifferent acting of Sharon Tate (who was bought a Golden Globe for her performance).

    * Patty Duke’s character and her rise and fall arc. She did a pretty good job.

    * The ways the movie tried to do glamour on the cheap. The story was supposed to go behind the scenes of television, Broadway, the movies, but Susan Hayward’s big stage number has her alone and surrounded by a Calder mobile on steroids, and the sole scene from Duke’s movie is her alone before the camera in her Western marm outfit. That was amusing.

    * Explaining to my 16-year-old son who George Jessel and Joey Bishop were, and why I laughed at Bishop’s line “Tell Frank and Sammy they’ll have to wait.” (Bishop was the beta male in the Rat Pack with them, and would never, never, have used a line like that in real life. Not and still keep his teeth.)

    * Listening to my wife describe what they changed from the book, which was a) extensive and b) far dirtier than what was allowed in movies in 1967.

    * Oh, and Tate’s nude scenes in the French art flick, which skidded as close to the censorship line as it dared.

    * Finally, marveling at watching a film shot in 1966 and seeing only in one scene, when Duke was walking drunkenly down a San Francisco street, hints of the coming wave of hippies.

    • that was a cool descriptive oversight Bill, thanks. Never read it, but knew the author a bit– and her sister. I know, I know, Im a relic. lol. I remember the book made a big tempest in some quarters.

  4. Here I was thinking I could steal her marketing techniques; well, I wouldn’t last a day with that schedule.

    She sounds like the Joe Konrath of her day.

    • Given all the warnings and hysteria about how self-publishers are destroying the market by giving away ebooks for free, I always find these kinds of stories amusing.

      She “posted 1,500 free copies, all containing personalized note….” that was in 1965. Somehow it didn’t devalue books.

      There is such a long history of authors giving away books to promote themselves, I’m still amazed people try to create drama about it. It’s just simply a good business strategy.

      And once again it proves, nobody markets a book better than the author themselves.

    • Yeah, the part where she goes and talks to people would have me running as far away as I could get. I admire her nerve and savviness, though.

      • It’s kind of ironic – I’m not afraid of speaking to people. But I rarely leave the house due to zero energy.

        She does sound like an extrovert of the major kind – I’m just an introvert old enough to be able to manage.

  5. She could count them as advertising, or as Review Copies.

    The personalized approach cost her time and money. The sales clerks probably didn’t get much attention – and loved it. Personal is always good.

  6. I started the read this book the other day, remembering that critics and high profile writers like Vidal had said it was horribly written.

    Well, I read the first chapter and thought it was better written than a lot of what is published by New York today. I’m not sure what that tells us.

  7. Having a Hollywood producer to husband and a lot of money to spend on promo — that always helps.

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