6 of the Greatest Publicity Stunts in Publishing History

While it’s impossible to read all of the thousands of books that are released each year, it’s almost as impossible to make sure that all the good ones (or even the intriguing ones) get the attention they deserve, even though there are lots of people working behind the scenes in publishing to get books in front of eyeballs and on the tip of people’s tongues. Sure, book signings and talk show appearances are an option. But so is something really weird. Like a publicity stunt!

Hannibal, by Thomas Harris
The sequel to The Silence of the Lambs was one of the most anticipated follow-ups in publishing history. Harris had announced his intention to write the novel more than nine years earlier, and since that time The Silence of the Lambs became an Oscar-winning box-office smash (helping its already popular source novel sell even more copies). When Hannibal arrived in stores in June 1999 with a million copies, it was the largest initial print run of a novel in history. The first bookstore in the world that got to sell it was Murder One, a London shop that specialized in crime novels. The first 60 customers through the door at 12:01 a.m. on Hannibal day were served fava beans and a glass of Chianti…Hannibal Lecter’s favorite meal. Meanwhile, at a major London commuter train station, actors hired by Hannibal‘s publisher dressed up like FBI agents and passed out bacon sandwiches, alluding to the book’s psychotic meatpacker Mason Verger.

Ready Player Oneby Ernest Cline
Set in a dystopian future plagued by pollution and overpopulation, the denizens of Cline’s science-fiction hit spend their time in an online virtual society/immersive role-playing game called OASIS. When the creator of OASIS dies, his will reveals a series of clues in the virtual world guiding players to an “Easter Egg.” Whichever player finds it—helped by the possession of a great knowledge of ’80s pop culture, particularly video games—wins control of OASIS and the creator’s fortune. In a meta twist, the novel Ready Player One also is embedded with clues to a similar contest. Competitors discovered clues to a big video game competition, then had to beat a new game called Ultimate Collector: Garage Sale, and then independently had to set a world record in a classic ’80s arcade or Atari game. In August 2012, a guy named Craig Queen cracked the code, and then went on to set a new world record in Joust. His prize: a DeLorean, just like the one in Back to the Future.

Georges Simenon, a man in a box
Belgian author Simenon was one of the bestselling authors in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. He’s known for writing 75 crime novels featuring Paris police detective Jules Maigret, which have been adapted for television and movies throughout Europe. Simenon was also something of a celebrity, and wasn’t above some attention-seeking behavior. Prolific with all of his work, not just Maigret books—he wrote more than 500 in all—he accepted a challenge from a French newspaper in 1927 to write a whole book in the span of 72 hours…while suspended in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub…and people could come by and give him suggestions. Simenon stood to earn 100,000 francs from the event. What’s amazing about this publicity stunt is that it worked to raise Simenon’s profile—the lead-up to the stunt dominated the news in Europe for a week—but it never actually took place. Just before Simenon was to be enclosed in a glass box, the paper backing the stunt went bankrupt. (The author walked away with just 25,000 francs.)

The Green Mile, by Stephen King
Up until the late 19th century, novels were frequently anthologized in magazines. For incredibly popular author Charles Dickens, individual chapters of his books were printed and distributed just as soon as he could finish writing them—fan demand was so insatiable for Little Dorrit and the like that that readers couldn’t wait for him to write a whole book before devouring it. In 1996, Stephen King, perhaps the only American author of the 20th century with a popularity that could rival or surpass that of Dickens, brought back the installment plan for his prison-set supernatural novel The Green Mile. Over the course of the spring and summer of 1996, the book was released in six slim, cheap paperbacks of about 100 pages each, once a month. (A single-volume version was released once all was said and done, too.)

The Seven Year Bitch, by Jennifer Belle
After her comic novel was published in 2011 and the independent publicist hired by her publisher resulted in a sales bump of next to nothing, Belle took matters into her own hands. She put an ad in a New York theater magazine in search of actresses between the ages of 25 and 75 with an “infectious laugh.” They were instructed to sit on the subway and around major New York City landmarks, read The Seven Year Bitch with the cover prominently displayed…and laugh as hard as they could. (And they were paid eight dollars an hour for their trouble.) News of Belle’s stunt was reported on in The New York Times and powerful publisher Judith Regan talked about it on her radio show. It’s safe to say that the increased attention led to more sales for The Seven Year Bitch.

Private Vegas, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
One of about 80 books the prolific Patterson published in 2015, Private Vegas is a fast-paced, pulse-pounding crime novel in which a private detective races against the clock to expose a Sin City murder ring. In keeping with those themes of speed and impermanence, when Private Vegas was first released, only 1,000 lucky Patterson fans were selected to get access to the book. They were able to download it…and had only 24 hours to read Private Vegas before it “self destructed” and erased itself from their computers or reading devices.

What memorable publishing publicity stunts have stuck in your mind?

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