Susan Powter Books Sold $110 Million
February 11, 2012 by staff
Susan Powter Books Sold $110 Million, Arnold Schwarzenegger was her first client.
Of course, that was back in 1979, when the bulging-muscled superstar was still largely unknown outside bodybuilding circles. He’d written a book: “Bodyshaping for Women.”
And Jan Miller — then director of marketing and promotion for Dallas-based Zale Corp. Zale Corp. Latest from The Business Journals Kay Jewelers, Jared boost holiday sales 8%Zale Corp. hires new CFOZale Corp. stock goes up 23 percent on Tuesday Follow this company — pestered publisher Simon & Schuster into letting Schwarzenegger sign and sell books at its local sporting goods chain.
“Simon & Schuster said I was crazy,” Miller said. “They said you couldn’t sell books in sporting goods stores.”
But even at a New York publishing house, no rule is written in stone. On the day Schwarzenegger appeared in Dallas, he sold a couple of hundred copies at local bookstores.
At Miller’s sporting goods stores, he sold more than 3,000 books.
Schwarzenegger was so impressed he tapped Miller to handle marketing for his film, “Conan the Barbarian,” and to help promote his Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competitions.
And, when he returned to Texas in 1981 as a movie star with a second book, “Bodybuilding for Men,” Simon & Schuster hired Miller as his publicity agent.
By then, she had quit Zale to open a public relations agency, Dupree, Miller & Associates Inc. (Partner Dee Dupree eventually married and left the firm, but Miller kept the name.) And, under the guidance of Simon & Schuster’s Dan Green, Miller evolved into a full-time literary agent.
Not exactly a low-key start for the future queen of self-help tomes. But then again, there isn’t much low-key about the 5-foot-8, hyperextroverted Dallasite whose agency revenues surpassed $12 million in 1996.
Miller’s clients — ranging from Susan Powter (“Stop the Insanity!”) to Stephen Covey (“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”) — have published more than 150 books, including more than 20 best sellers.
Industry sources tout Miller as the woman who reinvented what was once considered the embarrassment of the literary world: the self-help genre.
At one point, four of the five bestsellers on The New York Times’ “advice, how-to and miscellaneous” list were Miller books. Fourteen new Miller tomes have hit stores since September, including works by Sondra Locke (“The Good, The Bad, and The Very Ugly”) and Gladys Knight (“Between Each Line of Pain and Glory”).
“She is a real maverick in the book world,” said Maureen O’Brien, senior editor at Hyperion, the adult book division of Walt Disney Co. “She can spot talent like no one else I’ve ever seen.”
At least a small part of Miller’s success must be attributed to the rising interest in self-improvement tomes.
Gary Boyd, general manager at Borders Books & Music in Plano, said self-help books are among the chain’s biggest sellers, led by narratives that focus on relationships, marriage and divorce, death, beauty, fitness and money. Covey’s self-help book, for example, sold more than seven million copies in the United States alone.
Such steady sales are like a drop of water to the parched literary market. After reaching a staggering 45% return rate on new hardcover books nationwide, many publishing houses are banking on self-help successes to recapture slipping sales.
Perhaps the most telling example of the industry’s decline is HarperCollins’ recent decision to cancel more than 100 books it had under contract — for a write-off of $270 million.
“Maybe it’s the millennium that’s causing people to decide where they want to be in the next century,” O’Brien said. “Self-help is a trend with no end in sight.”
But an agent’s reputation is only as good as her last sale. So Miller spends hours scouring newspapers, television programs and radio shows in search of the next Covey or Powter. She also maintains a “slush pile” at her Highland Park office from the 800 unsolicited ma**scripts she receives every month.
One of her most recent coups is Jinger Heath — chairwoman of the Carrollton-based direct sales company, BeautiControl Cosmetics Inc. Miller called Heath the day she read a feature about her in Texas Monthly Texas Monthly Latest from The Business Journals Wyatt Brand moves to new space on South LamarIconic ad industry leader earns Silver Medal AwardAustin food writers unite Follow this company magazine and convinced her to write a book.
It’s too early to predict sales for “Positively You!” which hit bookstores this month. But giants like Random House and Doubleday were among those battling for publishing rights, Miller said.
“Most people want to write if they are given the opportunity,” she said, noting that she retains ghostwriters like Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly to assist nervous first-timers. “It’s a great legacy because it’s something that lasts forever.”
Not to mention the lasting legacy for an agent able to sign seven-figure deals from an office outside the nation’s literary capital. Miller maintains a one-employee office in Manhattan, where she spends 35% of her time. She also zips to Los Angeles 10 times a year.
But most of her business is conducted from her five-employee headquarters in the ritzy Highland Park Village shopping center.
“In New York, you tend to get insulated and forget about the potential talent across the country,” Miller said.
She attributes her 90% sale rate of ma**scripts to publishers to her tried-and-tested gut feelings. Her formula?
A personality with celebrity potential; a marketing mechanism outside normal book channels (that could mean infomercials, seminars or consumer products); and a personal story of overcoming adversity and a life-transforming message that could be easily packaged for talk shows and advertising.
That’s beyond the call of duty for most literary agents, who generally limit their sales pitch to publishers, not consumers. But industry sources say Miller’s PR-driven knack to mix marketing with self-help, celebrity and autobiography is her real recipe for success.
“I call it a `mind map,’ ” Miller said. “The book is just one part of the package.”
Miller also hopes to expand her package approach to fictionalized works. “I would love to develop fiction talent,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a good writer.”
But she won’t stray far from what she knows best. She’ll also steer clear of formula romance novels, notorious authors like O.J. Simpson and “airy-fairy books” that describe personal encounters with aliens, angels or mystics, she said.
“We need to keep our integrity,” Miller said.
But in the end, she doesn’t hesitate when asked to name her favorite part of her booming literary business.
“I’m a broker of ideas,” Miller said. “I determine what people are thinking.”
Then she paused for a dramatic beat. “And,” she continued, “I like making people rich.”
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