- Commit Murder.
There are some very bad ways to sell a book. Committing murder is one of them. I strain to find a good example of pure fiction written by a murderer whose sales benefited from the notoriety, but almost all confessions by deranged criminals seem to contain an element of fiction. So if you have no other option, killing people is one way to sell your books.
- Commit Other Crimes.
David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, wrote an autobiography detailing his serial killing spree and it did not sit well with a lot of people. In the 1980’s following the best selling success of of his book, several US states enacted “Son of Sam laws” which authorized the state to seize all loyalties from book profits based on criminal activity. But a few years later, Sydney Biddle Barrows, aka The Mayflower Madam, who was caught running a high-class call-girl operation for the rich and famous, published the story of her life as a high-society madam. Her lawyer argued that the Son of Sam law did not apply to her book because her crimes did not physically harm anybody. Although some people did not agree on how much harm prostitution actually delivers, the judge ruled in her favor and she kept her money. Her story was even made into a TV movie starring Candice Bergen.
- Write in Prison.
Of course books like Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Letters from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr, and Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela were written in jail. Where else would they be? But most of us are not even aware that Don Quixote, Travels of Marco Polo, and The Short Stories of O. Henry were written in prisons. I do not know what kind of writing environment they have in prisons, but a good number of high quality books have come out of them.
But a best selling book from a prison is usually associated with violent crime. My favorite is In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbot. Abbot first entered reform school at 16, and then was in and out of various prisons, mostly in, for all of his adult life, largely for the violent crimes he committed on other inmates after he was incarcerated. He started corresponding with Norman Mailer who recognized his literary talent and campaigned for his parole. He was a darling of the Manhattan literary scene for a brief time until he killed a man in a compulsive manslaughter and went on the lam. In spite of support from Jerzy Kosinsky and Susan Sarandon, he was sent back to prison where he eventually committed suicide. (This belongs in a long line of ill-fated people and lost causes endorsed with good intentions by Susan Sarandon. Getting her endorsement is evidently bad for your survival.)
But he is far from the worst case of celebrity endorsed parolees. Jack Unterweger, aka the Vienna Strangler, was an Austrian serial killer whose modus operandi involved strangling women with their own brassieres after sexually assaulting them. He published short stories, poems, plays, and an autobiography from prison which caught the attention of the literary scene, and luminaries like Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass campaigned for his release. Unterwerger’s books were taught in schools and broadcast on radio, he was released and worked as a journalist and hosted his own TV program, but he immediately started killing more women. He even travelled to Los Angeles for a ride-along with the LA police. Three women were killed by his modus operandi during his stay. He eventually committed suicide in prison, but due to the timing of his death, he is technically still innocent, which is a cost effective way to avoid a guilty verdict and a very convoluted way to promote your books.
- Get Killed.
Wikipedia actually has an entry for a list of murdered writers. Being murdered can not only promote your book, it can immortalize it. But there is one exception. Joy Adamson, author of Born Free, wrote about a lioness which she raised in captivity and grew attached to but had to release into the wild. Her friendship with the lion is depicted beautifully and her love of African nature is clearly genuine. Her book was adapted into a movie and inspired a television series. That is why when it was reported that she died due to an attack by a lion, along with much I-told-you-so derision, she was hailed by some people as a martyr for wildlife conservation. It was something of a letdown when it was later found that she was actually murdered by a mere human being. The trick seems to be to get killed by the right killer.
- Get Your Book Banned.
The list of books banned by government authorities run the alphabetical gamut from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Zhuan Falun. There is actually such a thing called Banned Books Week, which means that if your book is banned by just one obscure and insignificant Bible Belt education board, it will ensure that your book will get attention. It should go without saying that not all banned books are worthy of the animosity they inspire. What is the point in banning The Fault in Our Stars from middle school libraries when the PG-13 movie version is available on Netflix? Lady Chatterley’s Lover this is not.
However, if you can manage to get your book banned by the proper authorities, you will be in good company.
- Get Marked for Death.
The fatwa on Salmon Rushdie for publishing Satanic Verses succeeded in sending the writer into hiding, but spectacularly backfired in terms of suppressing the book. Even though the book was banned from sales in several countries, what otherwise would have remained a favorite of cafe intellectuals and salon book clubs turned into an international best seller.
But getting yourself marked for death is a surprisingly inefficient marketing strategy. Censors threaten writers for a reason: It works. When somebody threatens to bomb bookstores unless an unknown writer’s work is taken off the shelves, most bookstores just quietly comply.
Besides, it is so easy to get your life threatened that one more threatened writer is hardly ever noticed. A female writer in India was threatened with rape, acid attacks, attack on her child, and physical violence for writing about eating beef.
In some parts of the world, writers getting death threats for writing the wrong thing is so common, traffic jams and rains storms get bigger news coverage. And thanks to the internet, you do not even have to travel to such places to get some angry radical to target you.
Quick, name a targeted writer who is not Salmon Rushdie. I bet you can’t.
- Attack the Critic.
Writing guru James Scott Bell says that one of 7 things that will doom your novel is to “keep a chip on your shoulder”, that is to say, to narcissisticly believe yourself to be so good that anyone who rejects your work is an idiot and deserve to be treated as such. Some people have insulted esteemed editors by name as revenge for rejected manuscripts and the word got around to other editors, ruining their prospects. Turning against an editor or a critic is almost always bad for a writer’s career. This is not to say that there have never been some bitter and colorful feuds between writers and their critics. In fact, if you can get in a very interesting feud with a really famous person, it might be the best press you will ever get.
There is a caveat though. Your work needs to be actually good, and your enemy should not be an 18-year-old amateur reviewer, and you definitely should not bludgeon her with wine a bottle. Although that action did gain the book some undeserved press, and may even have helped a little with the sales, an embarrassing book only becomes a bigger laughing stock when more people reads it.
The bottom line? I do not know. Does controversy really sell books? A book that offends or disagrees with some people might cause a commotion that gains attention, but it may also turn off readers. There is a reason blockbuster movies today sometimes bend over backwards trying to be politically correct. Salmon Rushdie’s book survived because it was a masterpiece worth saving. Norman Mailer could get away with physically attacking Gore Vidal because they actually had writings to feud about. Nobody ever says that the feud between Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev was a publicity stunt.
They say that it’s not what they say about you, but that they talk about you. The skeptic in me calls bullshit. The criticisms I read about Hemingway did not deter me from reading his books, reviews of Stephenie Meyer’s books did. If Meyer had a public feud with E. L. James, it may have made an interesting tabloid article, but I doubt it would have inspired me to read these authors.
(I had to add these last paragraphs because some people seemed to be thinking I was actually proposing murder as a marketing tactic. First of April, idiots. But then again, this is more tongue in cheek than an outright April fool’s joke.)
April, 1, 2016.