Agent Bill Adler's Best-Seller Is An Endless but Rewarding Do-It-Yourself Mystery

UPDATED 10/17/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/17/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

Who Killed the Robins Family?—a mystery novel with almost as many clichés as a Chris Schenkel play-by-play—may be the first book in American publishing history designed to make its creator, its author and at least one of its readers rich. A man is murdered in a locked room. There is a second murder on the Orient Express. Somebody screams, "The butler did it!" A lady vanishes on a moving train. Etc., etc., etc. "I've tried to get in as many classic situations as I could," the book's author, Thomas Chastain, allows. He has succeeded.

But Chastain's skills aren't the major reason The Robins Family has gone into its seventh printing just six weeks after publication and is currently No. 6 on the New York Times best-seller list. The major reason is something that does not happen: None of the eight murders committed in the book is solved. Instead, each of the 160,000 copies printed so far bears a silver slash across the cover announcing: "There's a $10,000 reward for solving the crime. It could be yours!" To get the money, a reader must finger the killer of each victim, as well as the method, location, date and motive for each murder.

It was a dark and stormy night—or at least, it should have been—when Bill Adler, the man who conceived of the end-it-yourself book and, arguably, the nation's foremost packager of nonfiction, sat down at a Friars Club roast last year next to New York lawyer Leonard Franklin. Franklin had an idea. And like most of the ideas he hears, Adler thought it was a bad one. "He had this friend who was a mystery writer, and he wanted me to meet him," the most fevered mind in publishing remembers. "I was reluctant. Mystery novels can make $2,500, maybe $5,000. So I sat down in my office and started to think." What Adler thought about was Masquerade, last year's best-seller by Kit Williams, in which readers were invited to decipher a riddle that would lead them to a buried treasure worth $36,000. By the time Chastain arrived in his office, Adler had his idea.

"I almost fell out of the chair," says Chastain. "Never in a million years would I have thought of that." The jacket of the book lists Chastain as the author, but Adler gets top billing as the book's creator. Adler gave Chastain $10,000 of his own money to write the book, then sold the idea to William Morrow and Company for only $8,000—plus an agreement to put up the reward. "I've seen too many books fall through because people hold out for too much money," Adler shrugs.

Not too many of his books, however. For a quarter of a century now, Bill Adler has been a publishing phenom, packaging, agenting and mainly pushing books for movie stars, TV personalities, politicians and just plain folk whose success in life—whether meager or mega—does not rest on the coruscating quality of their prose.

Consider, for example, Kylene Barker. Four years ago she was Miss America. By this year she was a Florida housewife and small businesswoman, condemned—except for an occasional callback from obscurity to comment on beauty pageant telecasts—to the less glamorous world of the once well known. Then she met Bill Adler. Now she is the soon-to-be author of the soon-to-be-best-selling Kylene Barker's My Miss America Exercise Book (tentatively scheduled for spring '84 publication with a first printing of 100,000).

And then there's Phil Donahue, just another spectacularly successful chat-show host until Bill Adler made him a best-selling author with Donahue, which sold 300,000 hardcover copies, then clinched a $1.6 million paperback deal for Donahue and his staff.

And this is not even to mention Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Howard Cosell, Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Ralph Nader, Joan Lunden, Gary Hart, wacky Today weatherman Willard Scott and former Miss Americas Bess Myerson (I Love New York Diet) and Phyllis George (The I Love America Diet). To all of them, Adler is the Fantasy Island of publishing. "What Bill is basically is a man of ideas," says Sen. William S. Cohen, yet another of Adler's discoveries. "He can just come up with idea after idea."

Bill Adler is taking lunch. In the publishing business, like the movie game, taking lunch is an acknowledged ritual, usually accomplished in chic restaurants like the Four Seasons or the Palm, where agents and editors romance each other over talk of big deals that usually turn out to be worth a few thousand dollars—if they come off at all. Bill Adler rarely takes lunch. Today he has changed his pattern, but lunch is in a Chinese restaurant nobody ever heard of, upstairs in Manhattan's jewelry district.

"It's easier to make a deal for $100,000 than for $10,000," he says between munches of shrimp fried rice. "For $100,000, you can call up with a good idea, get somebody enthusiastic about it and make the deal right there. For $10,000 they want a proposal, they have meetings, and people find reasons to shoot it down." But when it comes to the actual advances his celebrity clients receive, Adler's silence is sarcophagal. "I won't tell what people get," he says. "I'll tell you this though, I could get $2 million today for Jackie Onassis or Pat Nixon."

Another nasty subject—literature—rears its head. "Look at the Walden-books best-seller list when The Robins Family was first published," Adler says. "No. 1 was Return of the Jedi. No. 2 was The Robins Family." Adler is openly skeptical of the "quality fiction" on the best-seller lists. "Every year there's one book that everybody talks about and buys and brings home and reads about 20 pages of and never looks at again," he says. "This year that book is The Name of the Rose."

Adler speaks of what he does as "creative," but he makes no pretense to literary greatness. "TIME created the word 'nonbook' to describe what I do," Adler says proudly. Ask him if he would represent William Faulkner and he is candid: "Before he was famous or after he was famous? If he was unknown, it would be very hard to sell one of his books today. After he was famous, on the other hand...." Visions of The Snopes Family Diet come to mind.

But, as Thomas Chastain can testify, Adler is not loath to make money for a relative unknown. "Chastain should collect half a million on this book; I will too. We're splitting it 50-50. That's assuming, of course, the book sells 300,000 in hardcover, draws a big paperback offer and becomes a movie." Adler is supposing all of those things and more. "I believe in brand-name publishing. People trust brand names. That's why there's a Superman III and a Rocky IV. We're going to start a whole Robins Family series. Three books at least."

Ten years ago, when book packagers first began to seize power in the publishing world, they were often dismissed by traditionalists as money-crazed barbarians with the sensibilities of turnips. It's a way of thinking that is not entirely dead. Roger W. Straus Jr., president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, says of Adler's books: "They're pretty chintzy, as a rule. It's like throwing a quarter in the street. If you listen attentively, you find out it ain't silver when it hits the ground."

But most book editors see Adler and his brethren as a plus. "Bill finds people who can write books," says Roger Donald, executive editor of Little, Brown and Company. "I'm not critical of what he does. I'm critical of myself and my colleagues that we don't do what he does." And Adler's authors see him as a saint. "I consider Bill Adler unparalleled in the publishing industry—terribly bright, terribly original," says Cosell. Adds Willard Scott, a man obviously not given to understatement: "In a day and age where you meet so many people who are so full of crap, he's a shining jewel of honesty."

Adler has plied his trade continually for almost 25 years. He got his start on Armed Forces Radio Service in Tokyo ("They were shooting at people in Korea; they weren't shooting at disc jockeys"), segued into New York broadcasting after his discharge, switched to advertising in the late '50s and made his literary debut with Letters From Camp in 1961. When he realized his books could make it big, he began thinking them up for others as well. He and his wife, Gloria, have been in the agenting-packaging-selling business on and off ever since. (Their two children have gone off on their own—Bill Jr., 26, is a Washington, D.C. fund raiser; Dianne, 24, is a New York City housing department official.)

For a man who hustles so prodigiously, Adler is strangely reserved in his conduct. He is not the pushy agent of Hollywood movies. But he does know how to get a book across. For the I Love New York Diet, he sent $5,000 to friends across the country to buy copies to help put the book on bestseller lists. For The Robins Family, he has taken agate-size type ads on the front page of the New York Times through Thanksgiving.

But he stoutly denies that his story of meeting Chastain by chance and coming up with the idea for the book is a publicity gimmick. "It really was a chance meeting," he insists. "Good things can happen at chance meetings." Then he falls silent and thinks for a minute. The next morning the reason for his silence becomes obvious. "I've just packaged a new book," he says. "It's called How to Profit From Chance Meetings."

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