Failed Broadway actress Jacqueline Susann wrote one of the most popular, most widely-read modern novels of all time, Valley of the Dolls, published in 1966.
After years of struggling to make it as an actress, Jackie was diagnosed with breast cancer and decided to try her hand at writing, stating in her diary, “I can’t die without leaving something. Something big”.
She wanted to make a fortune as her son was autistic, and needed to have enough money to ensure he would receive the care he needed in the event of her death.
Valley of the Dolls was turned down by several publishers. Jackie portrayed actresses using drink and drugs, having sex and having lesbian relationships, all of which were taboo subjects at that time.
There were rumours that Jackie had had affairs with Hollywood and Broadway actresses and that the characters in Valley of the Dolls were based on them.
She knew how to tell a good story, which is, of course, what everyone wants. That was one of the keys to the popularity of the book. Once you picked it up, you didn’t want to put it down.
The coarse language she used reflected the way showgirls and others in the entertainment industry spoke. Susann’s earthy language and subject-matter proved to be highly popular.
Valley of the Dolls was later made into a film starring Patty Duke and Sharon Tate.
Despite her success and the glare of the media, Jackie managed to keep her cancer a secret.
Valley of the Dolls became a runaway bestseller, selling more than 30 million copies despite being slated by noted authors including Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. How did she do it?
She and her husband, publicist Irving Mansfield, drove across the U.S.A. and later travelled the world, networking with small, independent bookshops.
Jackie would make note of the birthdays of shop-owners and either send them a card or turn up to their store on the day. She treated bookstore-owners as personal friends, often sending them thank-you cards. She also linked up with the truckers who would be delivering her books, treating them like stars.
I am not sure if this formula would work as well today, as many independent bookshops have gone out of business, big chain stores proliferate, and many customers now buy their books online. But it’s certainly worth the effort to establish good relationships with your local bookshops.
The internet is not destroying literature. Check out this great blog about Twitter from Publishers' Weekly.
See also: Using Visualization for Publishing Success.