Bill Adler Sr., a major figure in the publishing industry, died a few weeks ago. He was 84 years old, and was a friend, mentor, and something of a hero to me. Bill owns a solid plank in the history of publishing, though many don’t know it. While I can’t claim this for a fact, I’m certain he has more titles published under his name than any other writer in America. The thing is, Bill didn’t write 98% of these books. He was a book packager who could conjure up an idea while reading the morning newspaper, hire a writer with a phone call, sell the book over lunch, and seal the deal with a couple of martinis and a handshake.
Bill’s son, Bill Adler Jr., is a friend of mine; we called them Big Bill and Little Bill, of course. Little Bill recommended me to his father for a writing job, and I went on to ghost a number of book projects under Bill’s name. Many never made it into print, but some did; I was well paid for the work and glad to get it.
Bill would call at all hours of the day and night. When the phone rang at 3 a.m., my wife would answer it and hand it to me, saying, “It’s Big Bill,” then she’d roll over and go back to sleep. There was no putting him off, so I’d get up and take notes as brilliant sparks flew off Bill’s brain. The next day I’d work on the idea. As often as not, Bill would forget he’d even assigned me the project, mixing me up with his go-to writer, Larry Kahaner, another friend, who wrote many books for him.
In the early ’80s, Bill became particularly prominent when he “wrote” a book with Thomas Chastain—a popular historical novelist. Who Killed the Robbins Family? offered $10,000 to whoever could solve the book’s murder mystery. This, I believe, was the first interactive book of its kind. It was a terrible book— badly written, poorly plotted, and blindingly confusing—but it made millions of dollars. Bill went on to milk the idea in an amazing number of sequels.
A few years ago he hired me and my writer pal Dan Stashower to pitch a new Internet version of The Robbins Family to a major publisher in New York. After that pitch went spectacularly off the rails (that’s another story), Bill just laughed and took us to lunch at the Friars Club, where, in one of the most memorable afternoons of my life, we drank Bloody Marys and Bill told us funny publishing stories.
Before The Robbins Family, he had an early hit with Kids’ Letters to President Kennedy, which he put together in the 1960s. Bill had a great raconteur’s way of speaking—imagine your garrulous old uncle smoking a cigar and telling you a story: “So what I did, Al, was I sat down and called the White House. They had a number in the phone book! Guess who answered the phone? Pierre Salinger! I asked him if I could come down and read any mail that Kennedy had received from kids, and he said, ‘Sure.’ I hopped on a train and was there the same afternoon. They set me up in the West Wing with a couple of big boxes of mail and a table. I read for hours and took notes. Pretty much everyone went home, so they told me when I was finished to just turn off the lights on my way out.” After that book was a hit, Bill followed it up with books of kids’ letters to Santa Claus, Smokey Bear, Obama, and a bunch of others. Every one of them made money.
While the Internet hit most publishers hard, to Bill it was just another tool for churning out books. He could barely figure out his cell phone and never used a computer, but all his writers had the password to his Lexis/Nexis account, which allowed them to crank out projects in weeks, if not days.
Old age hit Bill pretty hard, and his last years were vastly different from the time when he was at the height of his significant powers. They took away his cell phone, which he had never really mastered anyway, and the phone calls stopped.
I miss those middle-of-the-night calls, his inventive mind, his great stories, and his always-hopeful, indomitable spirit. The world of publishing, and the world in general, is a poorer place for this generous, brilliant man having left it.
Rest in peace, Bill.