Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann’s magnificently juicy 1966 novel, was released 50 years ago this week. In The Telegraph, Martin Chilton relays the story of the book’s promotion—essentially how Susann made it into a record-breaking best seller through sheer force of will (and savvy). “A new book is like a new brand of detergent,” Susann famously 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.”