Use a Sex Angle to Flirt with the Media for Book Publicity

by | Aug 2, 2017

By Joan Stewart

Sex sells books. You already know that.

Sex also ranks right up there as one of the very best publicity hooks, even if you haven’t written erotica, a romance novel or a how-to manual for having mind-numbing sex after 70.

That’s what co-author Sharon Sultan Cutler learned last year when she started publicizing Bandstand Diaries . The full-color coffee table book offers a nostalgic look at the 1950s TV show “when rock n’ roll became the soundtrack of a generation when television was grainy black and white, and when a 45 RPM cost less than 70 cents.”

First, the background. When American Bandstand started in 1957 and became the most popular daytime television program, a group of ordinary Philadelphia high school students who loved to dance turned into a national phenomenon. Known as the Regulars, they were the first reality stars.

These 14 to 18 year olds–like Arlene and Kenny, Justine and Bob, Carole, Pat, Frani, the Jimenez sisters and more–were idolized by teens and young adults. They became just like other Hollywood celebrities.

Television viewers followed their romances and break-ups. They copied their hairstyles, fashions and dance steps. Fans bought the records the Regulars rated highly in the weekly Record Review. Millions of Americans of all ages voted for their favorites in the Bandstand dance contests.

When the Regulars turned 18, they disappeared from the public eye except for an occasional reunion. Sultan Cutler, an avid Bandstand fan, wanted to write a “where are they now?” book. Through social media, she connected with Arlene Sullivan, one of the Regulars, and Ray Smith, one of the occasional dancers on the show. Both became her co-authors.

With their help, Sultan Cutler collected the stories, interviews and rare photos. But the publicity campaign, focusing on the squeaky-clean nostalgia angle, didn’t go quite the way she had planned.

Bandstand’s Secret Revealed

Last year, during the marketing campaign that led to the launch, many Bandstand fans learned for the first time that Sultan Cutler’s co-authors, Sullivan and Smith, were gay. So were many of the other female dancers, and most of the handsome teen boys. Dick Clark, who produced the show, knew it but didn’t let the secret out because he was afraid ABC would take the show off the air.

The revelation was a small slice of the book. But it started a publicity snowball that rolled downhill fast, picking up speed.

The National Enquirer printed a story on July 5, 2014 about two of the male gay dancers. Sultan Cutler hoped that the mentions of gay Regulars on the show and in Bandstand Diaries wouldn’t sensationalize their book, published in late 2016.

In March this year, Jerry Oppenheimer, known for writing several unauthorized autobiographies of celebrities and public figures, approached Sultan Cutler about featuring Sullivan and Smith in a major New York Post story. It would concentrate exclusively on the gay angle and Sullivan’s struggles dealing with her sexuality back then.

“I initially didn’t like the direction the publicity was going,” Sultan Cutler said.

That’s when she called me and asked what she should do. I told her to not only welcome media inquiries on the sexuality angle, but to make that topic a cornerstone of the publicity and marketing campaign. She followed my advice.

Oppenheimer’s piece sparked several other print and broadcast hits, including an article headlined Gays Behind the American Bandstand in the Windy City Times, Chicago’s LGBT publication. ran an article under the headline “Tell-all Book Says Dick Clark Kept American Bandstand Dancers in the Closet.”

You can see the long list of publicity hits at the book’s website.

“Most people wanted the book because they remember running home from school and watching American Bandstand,” Sultan Cutler said. “The media wanted the story because of the gay hook.”

That gay hook has helped the authors sell about 3,000 books in less than a year, with several orders arriving daily.

Other Sex Hooks and Angles

The Bandstand Diaries story is a no-brainer for the media. But what if nostalgia or sex don’t drip from the book you’re marketing? Here are four examples of how to use a sex angle as a book hook:

  1. Take a survey and report on the results. To promote a parenting book for moms and dads of adolescents, you could take a survey on how many parents encourage their sons and daughters to use birth control. Or how many parents talk to their kids about sexually transmitted diseases. Can’t you just imagine what controversy would ignite on the social media sites?

  1. Have a cookbook on avocados? Their reputation as an aphrodisiac goes back to the Aztecs. The fruit’s high levels of Vitamin E could help keep you looking youthful and feeling more energetic and sexier. It’s a great food story for a woman’s magazine if you can also offer a researcher or other source who can comment.
  1. If your book takes place in the Middle Ages, and even if sex is mentioned only briefly, how about writing an article like this one I found on Sex in the Middle Ages: 10 Titillating Facts You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask.
  1. If your book is about pets, pitch a story about the sex lives of animals.

    Don’t forget:

    • photos
    • illustrations
    • FAQs
    • quotes
    • and anything else that will enhance the story

Those are my ideas. Now, let’s hear yours. Have you pitched a sex angle that has led to publicity? Share in the comments and link to the media hits.
Photo: Bigstock Photo. Amazon links contain affiliate code.

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  1. Barbara

    Thanks for this interesting post! I would like to find more about books on LGBT topics.
    I’ve found this website recently with thoughts on lgbt, but I would like to learn more.

  2. jen

    This article was useful as a case study. For certain kinds of books marketed to certain kinds of readers, I think this strategy could be quite useful.

    But I would think carefully before I decided to add this one to my marketing toolbox. I could see this strategy easily backfiring depending on the type of book, the genre, and readership. It could lead to you not being taken seriously as an author, could lead people to have misconceptions about your book and its content which leads them ultimately deciding not to buy it, and may make you seem desperate as the public is smart and might see right through what you’re trying to do. (Hey, we all know what tabloids use to sell themselves, and it’s sex.) Also, conversely, if you play up the sex angle and your book doesn’t, in fact, deliver that content, readers who are looking for that content are going to be annoyed and may leave bad reviews.

    • Joan

      This tool is not for every author or every book. Proceed with caution. Your point is well taken.

  3. Michael W. Perry

    Does sex sell? Maybe, maybe not. Look at the “Femail Today” sidebar to the U.S. edition of the Daily Mail.

    Do you think the celebrities, would-bes, and “do they still remember me” formers, benefit from their placement there? Yes, they’ve in the news, but where and for what reason? To quote from today’s issue: it’s for a “baby bump,” a “puffy red face,” “pristine shoes,” a “pert bust,” and so forth. That’s why the public laughs when these people try to comment on any subject of substance.

    Some things aren’t worth doing, and puffing the sex angle to sell a book is one of them. That is assuming that you have anything to say on any other topic. Then again, maybe—like those air-headed celebrities with their “bikini bods”—you don’t have anything else to sell. With wooden characters and a lousy plot, maybe you should insert a lot of hot sex.

    And quite frankly, given the low opinion many of us have of today’s journalism, the only “getting in the news” we’d find appealing is one where we’re viciously attacked for some bogus reason. That’s the greatest of compliments and an indication that we’ve achieve the only kind of fame worth having. It means we’re achieving some good in the world.

    What’s one of the best novels I’ve read in the last ten years? Anne of Green Gables. And it manages to describe a girl passing through her teens without a single allusion to sex. Lucy Maud Montgomery could write. Those who use sex to sell—like those who jack up their third-rate thrillers with violence—can’t. It really is that simple.

    • Joan

      Thanks for your comments, Michael.

      Not every marketing strategy is for everyone. Of the dozens of tools in your marketing toolbox, you have to pick and choose which ones you feel most comfortable using and how they fit in with the book you’ve written. For “Bandstand Diaries,” this hook was a natural and a success.



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