NEW YORK — Bill Adler, who pursued his goal of being the P.T. Barnum of books by conceptualizing, writing, editing, compiling, and hustling hundreds of them — prompting one magazine to anoint him “the most fevered mind” in publishing — died of abdominal cancer last Friday in Manhattan. He was 84.
Mr. Adler achieved early success by collecting and publishing letters children had written to President John F. Kennedy. He followed up with children’s letters to Smokey Bear, Santa Claus, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, and President Obama, among many others.
He helped popularize novels written by political, entertainment, and sports celebrities, supplying ghostwriters and even plots. He signed up beauty queens to write diet and exercise books.
As an agent, his clients included Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Howard Cosell, Mike Wallace, and Ralph Nader.
Mr. Adler was best known for his own titles. He wrote “What to Name Your Jewish Baby” (1966) with Arnie Kogen and “What Is a Cat? For Everyone Who Has Ever Loved a Cat” (1987). In 1969, he compiled “The Wit and Humor of Richard Nixon.” In 1995, he published “Cats’ Letters to Santa.”
One of his more famous tricks — a word he preferred to gimmicks — was the 1983 mystery novel “Who Killed the Robins Family?” which he cowrote with Thomas Chastain. On the cover was an offer of a $10,000 reward for solving a series of fictional murders.
A team of four married couples from Denver won by coming up with the answers to 39 of 40 questions posed in the book. The book reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in January 1984 and remained there for the better part of a year, selling a million copies.
“Ideas are my mistress,” Mr. Adler told United Press International in 1986, saying he used his given abilities to conceptualize books.
People magazine commented on Mr. Adler’s “fevered mind” in 1983, adding that publishing traditionalists regarded book packagers like Mr. Adler as “money-crazed barbarians with the sensibilities of turnips.”
Referring to Mr. Adler’s books, Roger W. Straus Jr., president of publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, told People: “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.”
“I consider Bill Adler unparalleled in the publishing industry — terribly, terribly original,” Cosell said.
One of Mr. Adler’s best-selling books was a collection called “The Kennedy Wit.” The president’s aides approved the project early in the administration, but Kennedy was said to have been angry about it, causing Random House to drop the idea. Mr. Adler suspected that the president had not wanted his humor emphasized so soon after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.
After 35 more publishers turned the book down, Mr. Adler finally obtained a $2,500 advance from Citadel Press, a small publisher. The book, released in 1964, after the president’s assassination, was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than six months and sold more than 1.4 million copies.
William Jay Adler was born in Brooklyn. His parents died when he was a child, and he was raised by relatives. He attended Brooklyn College for three years and was drafted into the Army, then trained as a flamethrower for the Korean War.
After finding out that flamethrowers led infantry into battle, he applied for Armed Forces Radio, saying he had experience in broadcasting, though he did not. He was a disc jockey in Tokyo until his discharge in 1953. He then worked in broadcasting, as humor editor at McCall’s magazine, and as a book editor for Playboy magazine, where he first came up with book ideas.
One idea was to ask the Kennedy White House if he could read mail sent to the president. In a time of much looser security, he was allowed to spend the day copying letters in the White House post office and told to turn out the lights when he left. “Kids Letters to President Kennedy” (1961) was his first big success.
His “Letters from Vietnam” (1967) offered a glimpse of the human side of the war. Critic Orville Prescott, writing in The Saturday Review, called it “quietly moving.”
Mr. Adler likened his role in publishing to a producer’s in the film industry: as the one who brings all the details together. He could also be an enterprising promoter: He acknowledged sending thousands of dollars to friends across the country to buy a particular book to keep it on best-seller lists.
Mr. Adler leaves his son, Bill; his daughter, Diane; and four grandchildren.