Driving along the highways that crisscross the Philadelphia suburbs of Chester County, PW speeds by typical signs of urban sprawl. But once we leave the charmless main thoroughfares for quiet, winding country roads, the scene starts looking up. Dense forests give way to open fields on the way to Lisa Scottoline's home. She buzzes us through the gates, and as we pull up to the house—an old dairy farm complete with renovated farmhouse and riding stables—the petite blonde author comes into view, smiling as she walks toward the car, three golden retrievers barking and jumping around her.
From this idyllic place, Scottoline, who has 10 novels under her belt and an 11th—Killer Smile—due out from HarperCollins in June, has mastered the art of writing books that entertain (witness her 1995 Edgar Award and this year's Cosmopolitan magazine Fun Fearless Female Award). But Scottoline isn't content to sit back and marvel at her body of work. The savvy author knows how to use publicity, marketing and promotions to reach the widest audience possible, a skill that helped her last book, Dead Ringer, debut at number five on the New York Times bestseller list and has resulted in hefty advance sales of Killer Smile, which has a June 2 on-sale date. In the words of Scottoline, "You know what lawyers say: 'res ipsa loquitur.' 'It speaks for itself.' "
I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Novel
The truism of writing what you know solidly rings true for Scottoline. Her legal thrillers, while not a series, have featured many of the same characters, a group of lawyers who work in an all-female law firm in Philadelphia. Many are Italian-American, and all are iron-willed yet distinctly feminine. Take a look at Scottoline's bio, and it's instantly obvious how she is able to write such believable novels: the 48-year-old author, whose grandparents emigrated from Italy, says her last name rhymes with "fettucine." She grew up in South Philly, went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad and law school (where she edited the school's law review) and worked as a trial lawyer in the City of Brotherly Love for seven years. Scottoline is a determined, disciplined woman who is passionately dedicated to her family and her Italian roots, and whose mushy side shows whenever she talks about her teenage daughter or her many dogs.
As we sit down at her kitchen table to eat a lunch Scottoline has prepared, she begins to tell us about how she got into writing. In the early '90s, Scottoline was divorced and living in Philadelphia with her young daughter. As a trial lawyer, she was handling "basic standard jury trials"; in her free time, she was "reading all the time, lots of legal thrillers. I remember thinking, 'Why are there no Italians in these books?' There are Italian lawyers. And there are also Italian criminals! But I think what was lacking in a lot of legal thrillers was characterization. Really fully fleshed out, specific characters. There was [also] a lack of ethnicity. And in my case, I'm Italian, so I figured, 'Why don't I just make [my protagonist] Italian?' " Scottoline was also dismayed at the absence of humor in many legal thrillers. "The thing about lawyers," she says, "is that they're clever. Trial lawyers especially tend to think on their feet. Since they're English-oriented as opposed to math- and science-oriented, they're interested in wordplay and puns. They have huge, showy personalities. You put a group like that in a room, funny stuff—clever stuff—is going to happen."
Drawing on her undergraduate courses (she had majored in the contemporary American novel and took classes taught by Philip Roth) along with her knowledge of law and the legal world, Scottoline set out to publish a novel. She gave herself two years. In 1993, she succeeded, when HarperCollins agreed to publish Everywhere That Mary Went as a paperback original. The book told the story of Mary DiNunzio, an up-and-coming lawyer trying to make partner in her firm while warding off the advances of a mysterious stalker. It earned Scottoline an Edgar Award nomination and got her thinking about her next book, Final Appeal, which won an Edgar for Best Paperback Original. In that book, Grace Rossi takes a job as a law clerk and winds up having an affair with her boss (the chief judge). After the judge is found dead, Grace is pulled into an investigation involving bribery and judicial misconduct. Two years into her career, Scottoline had found her niche: legal thrillers that fulfill every criteria of the genre and also tell stories of the characters' personal lives.
Two books later (after Running from the Law—which was her hardcover debut—and Legal Tender), Scottoline teamed up with Molly Friedrich of the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency. Although Scottoline has been with HarperCollins since the beginning—a rarity she feels lucky to have experienced—she credits Friedrich and her depth of knowledge about mainstream popular fiction for helping her move to the level of sales and readership she's at today. Scottoline remembers her first official meeting with Friedrich: "I'm always a little intimidated when I'm in New York," she says, laughing. She says she told Friedrich, "I feel funny taking up so much of your time, and Molly said, 'Oh, you're leaving in 10 minutes.' " Scottoline says Friedrich is "ruthlessly honest" and "invaluable." For her part, Friedrich finds Scottoline "very ambitious," an author who works "at full tilt."
Once Scottoline signed on with Friedrich, a string of successes followed—Rough Justice, Mistaken Identity, Moment of Truth, The Vendetta Defense, Courting Trouble and Dead Ringer—which landed Scottoline on PW's bestseller list, as well as the New York Times and Los AngelesTimes lists. Scottoline's books received starred reviews from PW and Kirkus and were translated into 20 languages; she'd now cemented her place in the legal thriller arena. With each book, readers met memorable characters, like the fearless, powerful lawyer Benedetta "Bennie" Rosato and old Italian pigeon keeper Anthony Lucia, known to his South Philly neighbors as "Pigeon Tony." They got to know Mary DiNunzio better and even became acquainted with her parents, whose tiny South Philly kitchen permanently smells like garlic and is plastered with dried out palms from Palm Sundays past and yellowing mass cards. And they were introduced to some spunky non-Italians, too, like redheaded Anne Murphy, a rookie lawyer, and Judy Carrier, Mary's California colleague and best friend. Eleven years into her career, Scottoline has legions of fans and sales figures to match. Today, the house reports Scottoline has close to 7.5 million hardcovers and paperbacks in print.
Though writing a book a year, as Scottoline does, is common for bestselling authors, it does make for a grueling schedule. Of course, she attributes much of her success to her adored editor, Carolyn Marino, with whom she's been working since day one. Marino, a soft-spoken Southerner, stands in stark contrast to the gregarious, extroverted, Philly-accented Scottoline. But the two have formed an effective partnership. Marino recalls, "Her [first] manuscript came in, and I read it, and I thought, 'This woman has a voice.' " The tone Marino's referring to helps set Scottoline apart from the legions of legal thriller writers. Scottoline is often referred to as "the female John Grisham," but lines like, "Documents blanketed the conference table like a legal snowstorm, and [Mary's] compact figure had been curled into the swivel chair for so long she felt like a meatball" are evidence Scottoline is an original.
You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You
When Scottoline published her first book in 1993, Grisham had just completed The Client. The king of the legal thriller was four books into his already burgeoning career, and Scottoline appreciates his breaking the legal thriller out of the courtroom. But Scottoline expands the premise, with female protagonists, strong ethnic undercurrents and clever humor. Scottoline's readers, then, must be like her characters—female, identifying with ethnicity, and funny—right? This is only partly true. Yes, Scottoline receives loads of mail from Italian-Americans who swear she's portraying their own wooden spoon—wielding mothers and Aunt Carmellas. But surprisingly, Scottoline is certain she has more male readers than female readers. "Most of my readers are men," she insists, basing her belief on her fan mail and the attendance at her book signings. "I see a woman picking up Grisham in a bookstore, and I think, 'This is killing me!' because I know she would love my book. That's why I am optimistic about the future. More and more women are reading me."
The publicity team at HarperCollins is thrilled at Scottoline's wide audience. "You talk to everyone [about Scottoline]," says Maria Elena Martinez, Scottoline's in-house publicist. "Women's, mystery, general, entertainment magazines...." Indeed, Scottoline was recently featured in such diverse venues as the ABA Journal and in Primo magazine, an Italian-American publication. As far as HarperCollins's publicists are concerned, there will always be new readers for Scottoline's books. Joe Drabyak, a bookseller at Scottoline's local Chester County Book Company who has known Scottoline for more than eight years, concurs. He says the author attracts all kinds of readers—retirees, educated professionals, young people—to her signings, often drawing a crowd of 200 people to a bookstore event. "They love her," he says proudly.
How Do You Keep the Music Playing (and the Register Ringing)?
Like millions of Americans, Scottoline is on the South Beach diet. She watches her carbs, eats lots of protein and has become addicted to Splenda, the sugar substitute that doesn't taste half bad. But unlike millions of Americans, Scottoline almost certainly doesn't have to lose any weight. She's 5'2" and probably wears a size four, but she just wants to lose "a few pounds." That desire to do better—to keep improving upon success—is a hallmark of Scottoline's approach to publishing. "She has deconstructed the publishing process," says Lynn Goldberg, CEO of Goldberg McDuffie Communications, the public relations firm Scottoline hired to help her garner more press for Killer Smile. Scottoline focuses on growth, whether that means targeting specific geographic areas where her sales aren't as high as elsewhere or beefing up her already booming library sales by organizing library fund-raising events (and selling books there, too).
One of the biggest propellers of Scottoline's growth came accidentally. By early 1999, she had published five books and was getting ready to publish Mistaken Identity. CEO Jane Friedman and president and publisher Cathy Hemming had arrived at HarperCollins in late 1997 and were in the process of assessing the company's key assets. Says Susan Weinberg, current HC imprint publisher, "If you want to look at assets at a publishing company, well, look at the authors. And it was very clear to them that Lisa Scottoline was a key asset for the company." The house was gearing up for Mistaken Identity's publication when it got a call from Diet Coke. Market research had shown that Diet Coke drinkers are mostly women who read at least seven books a year. So in the spring of 1999, just months before the publication of Mistaken Identity, the Coca-Cola company chose six books—including Identity—and packed 32-page excerpts with all 12- and 24-packs of Diet Coke.
Mistaken Identity became Scottoline's first NewYork Times bestseller. The Diet Coke promotion and the book's subsequent blockbuster sales "brought Lisa to a whole new level," says Marino. Scottoline was by now an established name and was starting to become what Jane Friedman refers to as "a Harper author," getting a regular publication schedule (Scottoline releases a book almost every June), a two-page spread in the publisher's catalog, and a significant author tour and ad/promo budget. Seated at the coffee table in her midtown office, Friedman confirms, "That's a pretty major step. It's expensive." But to Friedman, it's worth it, because she knows her house's efforts aren't in vain. First of all, Friedman says that Scottoline has the ability "to entertain the masses." Second, Scottoline's extensive, in-depth Web site is perfectly in line with Harper's strategy of going "direct to consumer." Friedman cites Scottoline's Web presence as one of the driving forces behind her strong book sales. Scottoline.com launched in 1997, and features excerpts from all of Scottoline's books as well as reviews, an author bio, Scottoline's touring schedule, contests, reader comments, a newsletter, giveaways and, of course, her Web cam. And finally, Friedman knows Scottoline is behind her 100% on identifying markets for growth and pushing for increased sales.
Sitting at her kitchen table after lunch, sipping coffee and enjoying a South Beach diet— okayed ricotta cheese dessert, she offers this analogy: "You know when you're vacuuming, there are some people who will pick up their feet and let you vacuum underneath, and then there are other people who will help you vacuum? They'll say, 'Give me the vacuum.' I'm one of those 'give me the vacuum' kind of people. My name's on the book; I should be doing for myself."
In 2001, Scottoline and her assistant, Laura Leonard, organized a promotion that gave a free canvas tote bag to readers who bought two hardcovers at any of Scottoline's signings. A "gift with purchase," as Scottoline calls it, the tote bag promotion was a way for her to reward her readers for buying her books and for her to advertise through word-of-mouth. Harper does not fund this promotion (which is still going strong); it is strictly Scottoline's doing. The author also runs ads in the New York Times Book Review the month before she publishes a new book, telling readers if they order her book before publication, she'll send them a free paperback of their choice from her backlist (Dead Ringer will be published in paper in May, a month before Killer Smile's release). Scottoline pays for shipping and handling.
"Very significant percentages of my income go to marketing, big time," Scottoline asserts. Of the tote bag promotion, she says, "I don't know that it's economic, but it says to the people who read me, 'Thank you.' Also, I have this thing—maybe it's because I'm Italian—but I hate going to someone empty-handed. I go [to a signing], I'm asking these people to buy my book, and I'm not giving them anything. I hate that." So she gives them tote bags if they buy two books, and she gives everyone who comes to her readings a taste of a Philadelphia-area specialty—Tastykakes snacks—which she has shipped to all her events across the country.
Her Shining Hour
When Scottoline's father died, he left her her grandparents' alien registration cards. Scottoline had no idea that her grandparents, Giuseppe and Maria Scottoline, who emigrated to Philadelphia in the early 1900s, were forced to register as aliens in 1942. While their son (Scottoline's father, Frank) was serving in the United States Air Force, the U.S. government was confiscating radios and flashlights from East Coast Italian-Americans, believing those items could be used to signal enemy submarines and warships. Some 600,000 Italian-Americans were required to register as "enemy aliens" because they weren't citizens; more than 10,000 of them were evacuated from their homes and places of business and sent to internment camps around the country. Although Scottoline's own grandparents were not interned, she was nonetheless riveted at her discovery of their alien registration cards.
Scottoline set out to write a novel about this turbulent—and little-known—chapter in American history, drawing on her grandparents' papers, copious research, visits to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and even a journey to Fort Missoula, Mont., where many of the internees were sent. Killer Smile is an important book for her. "This book was very tied in with ghosts, and my father, and the history of a culture," she reflects. It also deals with a timely subject, since the topic of WWII internment bears striking resemblance to today's racial profiling issues. Scottoline acknowledges that in wartime or times of conflict, "we get scared. We're human beings." Writing the book allowed her to examine the idea of "discrimination based just on who you are... that a government can lawfully put you somewhere, take your business and take your money." It got her thinking: what is it to be a citizen? "I know I sound like a big sentimental jerk," Scottoline laughs, but underneath, she knows the emotions behind that sappiness are what got her to tackle such a huge, personal subject.
And Scottoline is going "full court press" for this personal book, hiring top PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. "I love all my books," she says, "but this one I knew was a little bit different because of the historical stuff, and because of the personal stuff." CEO Goldberg says her firm turns down many projects, and that she won't take on a work of fiction she doesn't "feel personally passionate about. And there's something special about this book." HarperCollins has high hopes for the book, too, with a 300,000-copy first printing and a 15-city tour for Scottoline in June.
Nice Work If You Can Get It
It seems things are lining up nicely for Scottoline. In February, Cosmopolitan named her one of its "Fun Fearless Females" of 2004, honoring her for being "the type who can wear the pants even in a miniskirt, has the guts to go after what she wants, and never forgets that having fun is as important as making her mark on the world." She's broken new ground with Killer Smile, bringing a bold and powerful nonfiction angle to her typically law- and humor-driven novels. And she's teamed up with the publishing biz's most influential PR firm, to achieve high sales of a book that promises not only to entertain, as all Scottoline's books do, but to inform.
Above all, the author says, Killer Smile is "the most serious and heartfelt book I've ever written." While accolades and sales are going her way, she's still placing more of her energy on the craft of writing: "You're trying to write something real. It has to ring true." For Scottoline, nothing could be more sincere than bringing her grandparents' traumatic experiences to light, by way of her own trademark wit, spirit and pride.