Lisa’s Primer for Publicity

Lisa Hoffman & Charles Atkins

Published January 20, 2005

Charlie writes:

As a zebra-striped downy woodpecker taps away at the snow-covered bird feeder on Lisa’s deck, we get down to our weekly write. Today, I have book-stuff on the mind; in particular I need to think about my soon-to-be-released novel and all that goes into trying to make it sell. It’s a ripe topic for Lisa—who among her many careers was a book publicist for Prentice-Hall. It’s time to pick her brain.

"So how did you get to be a publicist?" I ask.

Dressed in powder blue, and secretly seething over last week’s ‘Bonkers’ comment, she focuses on the woodpecker and thinks back. "Through unusual circumstances," she begins. "I had just co-authored a book with best-selling author Lucy Freeman—The Ordeal of Stephen Dennison (Prentice-Hall 1970). And a young girl was assigned as our publicist; she was inexperienced and I quickly realized that because of that, the book wouldn’t make it. I had agreed with Lucy, who was camera shy, that I would handle the appearances. And this publicist was getting me onto not-terribly important programs.

"So one day, I called up the Dick Cavett Show and they said, ‘what book?’ They hadn’t heard of it, or received a review copy. So I called my publicist to have her send them one. Instead of appreciating my help, she complained to her boss, the director of publicity. Up to that point I’d had no contact with him. He’d never bothered to call or meet with me, which is important. If you do publicity for someone, you need to find out what they’re about. Anyway, that day he called and said, ‘You’re stepping on my toes. And if you’re stepping on my toes, I won’t do a damn thing for you any longer.’ I didn’t mind the ‘damn’ I minded the ‘any longer’ as he hadn’t done a thing.

"So," Lisa says with a sly grin, "I hung up and immediately called my stock broker. I told him, ‘buy me ten shares of Prentice-Hall’.

"Then, I called Prentice and asked to speak with the president, who fortunately for him was away in Europe. But I did get the Vice President. I said to him, ‘as a stock holder, I’m concerned about how your company is being run.’ And he made an appointment to meet me the next day for lunch. After that, I was given a book tour, and sent to several cities—Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles…and when I returned I found out that the publicity director had been fired. In his place was a new director. He and the vice president met with me again and explained that theirs was such a large company with so many books being published; some unfortunately fell by the wayside. They couldn’t do justice to each, as they didn’t have enough publicists."

"Carpe Diem?" I ask.

"Exactly. In my inimitable modesty, I said, ‘I have a fantastic publicist for you.’ And they asked, ‘who?’ ’Why, Lisa Hoffman,’ I replied. And by then they’d seen me in action, and they offered me work as a freelance publicist."

"So what were some of your favorite books," I ask, "and best strategies for getting them to sell?"

"First," she says, "you have to find a gimmick. And then you need an attention-grabbing press release; something to keep it from landing in the waste basket. Next, is making certain that the book gets into the right hands. Many review copies vanish with the receptionist, or in the case of one talk-show hostess—who you won’t let me name in this column, even though I have this from a reliable source—many books sent to her got sold at The Strand, the biggest second-hand book shop in New York City."

"That’s happened to me too," I comment. "I’ve been in used bookstores and found review copies of my books, clearly marked--Not For Resale--being sold."

"What I’d do next," she says, "was very unconventional. I’d schlep around the city with a big shopping bag of books and drop in on all of the radio and television stations, where I would attempt to hand-deliver them to the hosts.

"Here’s an example. I was doing publicity on a book called The Pleasures of Dog Ownership by Kurt Unkelbach, a breeder here in CT. So I contacted Nabisco, told them what I was doing, and they sent me complimentary boxes of extra-large Milk Bone dog biscuits. Then, I wrote the press release and glued a Milk Bone to the bottom of each; the final line was, ‘and thereby hangs a tail’. And off I’d go on my rounds, where I’d hand the book to secretaries, receptionists—and sometimes hosts--and say something corny like, ‘I know I don’t have an appointment, but I didn’t want you to get a crummy press release’."

"Oh…That’s bad."

"Well," she says, ignoring my groan, "They didn’t forget that, and several of them called me and asked for appearances, both for me and my authors. Among other things it got me on the game show To Tell The Truth, three times, always as an imposter. Once, I pretended to be the daughter of Thomas Mann, but we can talk about that another time. My efforts also landed me on Johnny Carson’s "Who do You Trust?" a show he had prior to The Tonight Show.

"But every book and author was different, and required a different approach. I publicized a book called Zeebongo, by Zeehandelaar—a Dutchman—who was the foremost importer of wild animals. Among other things, he was responsible for bringing the first two pandas to Washington. Unfortunately, he was better with animals than with people. So I needed a gimmick whereby I could promote the book, and keep him in the background. My strategy was to get exotic animals to make the appearances for him. For one talk show, I got the Turtle Bay Zoo to send a 275 pound tortoise—instead of the author. Another time I took Llinda Llee the Llama to channel five in a limo. It was quite the production, because at every traffic light Llinda Llee stuck her head out; we nearly caused an accident. It was very funny. New Yorkers—who’ve seen it all-- stopped and pointed, ‘What is that? Is that a Llama?’ And the chauffeur, keeping a poker face would answer, ‘Where? I don’t see a llama.’ When we made it to the station, she appeared with Soupy Sales, both of them having cocktails, as they promoted the book. I should mention that Llinda Llee was a bit of a llush. She’d often appear at parties, where if you weren’t careful, she’d steal your drink. But she was always well behaved and to her credit; she could hold her liquor."

"So how did it sell?"

"It did all right."

"Best seller?" I ask.

"No. But another one I did, Incredible Collectors, Weird Antiques and Odd Hobbies, by Bill Carmichael, did very well. I got Bill onto Johnny Carson twice. And as a token of his appreciation, he gave me a fistful of Americana--brass tokens that had been used as receipts in nineteenth century brothels. There’s a whole chapter about them in his book. As an aside, I had several of them set as a necklace, which I frequently wear. I love watching the expression on peoples’ faces when they come up wondering about this necklace, and ask, ‘are those subway tokens?’ And then when they get closer and read what’s written on them…" She chuckles.

"Did you ever publicize fiction?" I ask, knowing from experience that marketing fiction—unless you’re already a best seller—is difficult.

"No, always non fiction."

"It’s very different," I comment. "With fiction you don’t necessarily have a built-in gimmick."

"True, but for you," she says, starting to strategize, "you’re a psychiatrist and you have the Yale connection," she smiles. "And you seem to enjoy murdering people in your books. Maybe that’s the gimmick, Charles Atkins, The Killer Psychiatrist of Litchfield County. I can see it now, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs."

"But I haven’t actually killed anyone."

"That we know off," and then under her breath, but loud enough to hear, "bonkers, indeed!" And having gotten that out of her system, she adds, "I can’t over emphasize the importance of publicity and marketing, regardless of how good a writer you are. If the publishers don’t invest in advertising and let the public know about the book, it won’t do well. And in the end, it’s up to the author, including hiring your own publicist. Otherwise, all of those many hours invested in love’s labor…could be lost."