It looked like a cinch. The author had been approached by a major New York publisher to write a self-help book. The topic was timely and the editors loved the manuscript. But there was one catch: Before making the deal, he had to perform in person. "They wanted to see how well I could answer questions on the talk shows," says the writer, "so I could be taken out and sold like a piece of meat.

"I was insulted. I'd have thought they would care more about how I could write than how I looked!"

But that's the way it is in the Nielsen-eat-Arbitron world of modern publishing, where a hot date on the daytime tube can make even a modest book a best seller. No wonder financially beleaguered publishers are increasingly exercising their right of videmus corpus, and the right face can launch a thousand shippings.

Since the airborne triumph of the late Jacqueline Susann--"the grandmommy of the talk-show circuit" says one executive--the book industry has watched with deepening zeal the set-propelled takeoff of Joyce Brothers, Wayne Dyer, Nancy Friday, Gail Sheehy and dozens of others who have spent more time on your Sony than Mr. Whipple. And in the '80s, faced with slack sales and rising costs, "publishers are placing more importance on television than ever before," says Carol Schneider, publicity director at Random House. The show-and-sell syndrome has now affected every aspect of the business:

* A scheduled TV tour can double the print order on a book before it even leaves the house, and can boost a paperback printing into seven figures.

* Publishers now routinely screen their writers for mediability, coach them on TV techniques and offer producers videocassettes and audio tapes of the results. And savvy authors are contriving gab-show gimmicks before their books are even written.

* Retailers, too, are tuning in. The vast Waldenbooks chain has just created a "hot line" for publishers to call if they have booked their authors on the top TV shows. The information is sent out daily by computer to electronic cash registers at all 750 Waldenbooks stores; and when the store manager arrives at work each morning, the register prints out a list of that day's author appearances. The retailer then rearranges a special "books and authors in the media" display to lure the tube set.

* As a result, "the pressure on publicists is incredible," says Pat McMillen, senior producer of "Donahue." "People lose their jobs if they can't get authors on our show. "They call us in total panic--you can hear it in their voices."

They're all dialing for dollars: Compared with other industries, publishers are desperately dependent on free exposure to advertise their products. In the book business, a total promotion budget of $200,000--for television, travel, print ads and radio--is considered an astronomical sum, reserved for only a tiny number of blockbuster titles. Yet fabricators of potato chips or panty shields routinely pay more than that for a single minute of prime-time TV advertising on a popular show. (Thirty seconds of ad time on top-rated "60 Minutes" goes for $175,000.)

In that situation, says Simon & Schuster publicity director Julia Knickerbocker, "the whole business of the author road tour is unbelievably greater than it used to be." But the road is getting narrower, with Dick Cavett's future dubious, and Mike Douglas and John Davidson gone. "Nationally, it's more of a scramble that it's ever been," says Stuart Applebaum, publicity head at Bantam Books. And as travel budgets shrink, executives are heeding the maxim made famous by Susann's husband, Irving Mansfield: "You don't have to talk any louder to appear on national television than you do to appear on local TV."

Daytime Is the Right Time

Asked to rank the sales punch of the talk shows, publishers are unanimous. The "Today" show "used to be the holy grail in the mind of any promotion-oriented publisher," says Applebaum, "but now Valhalla is an hour with Phil Donahue" and his predominantly female audience of more than 7 million. Only one in five programs features an author, but McMillen of the "Donahue" show gets more than 100 requests a week from publishers. "We've heard that an appearance on our show was good for 10,000, or even as many as 50,000 copies," says Richard Mincer, executive producer of "Donahue," who is skeptical of the numbers. "Can we get an author on the best-seller list? Yes. But we're not responsible for every success."

Leslie Fiedler would agree. The celebrated literary critic had written a book titled "Freaks," a scholarly historical analysis of society's attitude toward the handicapped; and when "Donahue" wanted Fiedler for the show, his publisher was excited. For a while. "We put him on with two brothers who weighed about 700 pounds each, a woman who was seven feet tall, a pair of black Siamese-twin gospel singers and I think we had a dwarf," says Mincer. "I don't think Fiedler sold one book as a result of being on that program," says his former publicist.

Still, a date with the mop-headed housewives' guru is considered financial fat city. In May, Bantam will publish a hardcover called "Why Do I Think I Am Nothing Without a Man?" by Penelope Russianoff, PhD, a psychologist who played Jill Clayburgh's shrink in the film "An Unmarried Woman." Once "Donahue" booked her, says Applebaum, a giant retail chain doubled its order for the title.

But it's easier to get into Fort Knox than it is to get on "Donahue"; and even the fortunate few are scrutinized in pre-booking interviews with the producers. They can't afford not to: "When we die, we die big," says Mincer. "We have no band, and we can't just cue the next act."

Second in the publisher's cloutstakes is "Today," followed by the "Tonight" show with Johnny Carson, "Good Morning America," "20-20," "60 Minutes" and CBS' "Morning News" (which does relatively few authors). After that, in no particular order, are "Hour Magazine," "P.M. Magazine," "Entertainment Tonight," Merv Griffin and just about anybody else with a sofa and a suntan. (So many emanate from California that, even in an era of publishing-industry cutbacks, Random House has just added a West Coast publicity office.)

"Today," with an audience around 5 million, gets about 200 requests a week for about a dozen author spots, says book coordinator Emily Boxer ("I read a lot of first and last chapters"), whose staff monitors about 10,000 titles a year. The NBC morning format, with its multiple short segments, is more flexible than "Donahue." Authors who threaten to be ponderous can be taped and edited into brisk appeal; and sluggish live interviews can be squashed by a "cut signal" to the floor manager.

Facing the Nation

"Physical appearance really does not play an enormous part," in an author's video prospects, says Boxer. Most producers are looking for the tele-troika of articulate spontaneity, visible energy and succinctness. So are publishers, and few authors now hit the TV trail without careful prompting. Some publishing houses make Henry Higgins look like a dilettante. Random House offers talk-show rookies a five-page compilation of tips ranging from what to wear to how to handle a host who hasn't read the book. Publicists advise authors on body language and mannerisms; warn them of potentially embarrassing questions (Bantam's Applebaum helped thriller-mogul Robert Ludlum find a discreet way to dodge the subject of money); and get them to practice on small shows before hitting the big time. Applebaum is taking Russianoff the psychologist to Detroit before her major media exposure, "the same way you take a Broadway show out of town to try out."

Some are low-key. When Gail Godwin was scheduled to do the "Today" show for her new best seller, "A Mother and Two Daughters," Viking's publicity director Victoria Meyer gave her a downbeat prep-talk. For serious novelists, "it helps to lower their expectations," Meyer says, to explain that "there will be no probing questions about their literary intent."

Godwin, who had never appeared on television before, was going to go at it "like preparing for PhD comprehensives," but soon found that less was more. First Boxer called her at home, "and said, 'You have to sell yourself to me over the phone.' My first impulse was to say that I'm not going to sell myself to anybody!," but after 45 minutes of questions like, "What's so special about your book," in which Godwin proved herself "quick on the uptake," she knew she had "passed." Boxer's final advice: "She said, 'You don't want to think--there isn't time.' So I was sort of absolved of responsibility." Viking provided some practical pointers: Don't put your hand in front of your face; avoid clothing with solid black, solid white or bold design.

Finally, at the moment of video truth, "it didn't seem real." And Godwin skated through Jane Pauley's tepid questions about her happy ending ("the characters deserved it") and whether the title sounded like a "women's book" ("When 'Fathers and Sons' came out, nobody said it was a men's book"). Four minutes later it was over. "That was enough," says Godwin.

But for many scribes, once is not enough. Dr. Robert ("Diet Revolution") Atkins "bought himself a TV and radio ratings book" to plan his promotions, says Applebaum, who worked with another author who "wanted me to schedule radio interviews he could do on the phone even while he was sitting in the green room waiting to go on a TV show." And some writers go to the pros. Before Gail Sheehy went out to promote her current best seller, "Pathfinders," she took a number of sessions with the celebrated video-interview coach Dorothy Sarnoff. "She said, 'You remind me of Alexander Haig.' I said, 'Thanks a lot.' " But when you're facing a week of appearances on "Good Morning America," it literally pays to know, as Sheehy discovered, that "a literary flourish like 'palpable magnetism' comes out like a bowl of mashed potatoes on TV. So instead you say something like, 'I could feel that he had a lot of energy.' "

Sometimes, however, the author is literally out of the picture. In 1979, St. Martin's published "Nurse," written by a journalist and based on the experiences of a Philadelphia nurse, who was supposed to promote the book ("no one wanted the journalist," says Sally Richardson of St. Martin's). But when she had to cancel, the house hired a soap-opera actress who had once been a nurse. "We toured her as a spokesperson," says Richardson, "and she was very successful." But for some titles, professional credentials are essential; and McMillen of "Donahue" says that if an author with an intriguing subject lacks the proper bona fides, there are publishers willing to pay thousands of dollars for a tag-along specialist to make a credible package.

There are even publishing houses dedicated to the concept of the video author. Bruce Lansky heads Meadowbook Press in Minnesota, which invents the idea for a book--"Like Pillsbury or General Mills, we use consumer research to find out what people want to know"--gets a staff to write it "blind," and then goes looking for a TV-worthy "author" to promote it. "We differentiate between the author and the writer," says Lansky, and "we actually do research to find out what kind of a person the author should be."

Lansky's initial success came with his wife Vicki's child-nutrition books. For the first, "Feed Me, I'm Yours," Lansky, facing some initial resistance from "Donahue," says he "figured out the angle," cooking up a debate between Vicki Lansky and the president of a baby-food company. She did "Donahue" again for "The Taming of the C.A.N.D.Y. Monster," which soon topped the trade-paperback best-seller lists. Bantam will reprint it this year. Since then, Meadowbrook--which grosses some $2 million on a dozen titles a year--has branched into diet books and medicine. "I'm looking for mediagenic doctors," says Lansky. "I have this sort of moxie-meter in my head."

Giving Good Weight

On TV, nothing succeeds like nonfiction. Novelists, unless they are proven troupers in their own write (camera-ready perennials such as Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley Jr.), have controversial non-fiction aspects to their work (Andrew Greeley, Arnaud DeBorchgrave) or are simply monstrously popular (Robert Ludlum), present problems.

"What is there to talk about?" says "Donahue's" McMillen. "You'd be doing book reviews on the air." "Today" takes more fiction than any other show, but "it's very hard to talk about characters," says Boxer, "when nobody has seen the book yet." Sometimes that can be an advantage. When Jerzy Kosinski's new novel was ready for publication, says Applebaum, Bantam suspected that the critics would be hostile. "So we decided that the first reviews of 'Pinball' should come from Kosinski himself," and booked him on "Today" and the Cavett show "ahead of the reviews."

One cynical industry veteran offers another reason for the anti-fiction bias: "To interview a novelist," the host "has to have actually read the book!" Most interviewers, of course, have not, and work from a set of questions devised for them by researchers.

But for nonfiction titles, tour commitments are now routinely written into contracts. "Nobody would come up with a good deal of money for a nonfiction book if the author weren't going to promote it hard," says Rollene Saal, former head of the Literary Guild and now a publishing adviser and agent in New York.

That includes Hollywood heavies. "Whenever a house is offered a movie-star book," says Applebaum, "the author's willingness to go out and promote it is a major factor in the acquisition decision." Screen fame does not necessarily sell books: Recent Morrow memoirs by Doris Day and Sophia Loren were sagging badly until the authors took to the air; and Charlton Heston's book "didn't respond after he stopped touring," says Lois Shapiro of Dutton, who is counting on contractually stipulated TV exposure to move upcoming books by Lana Turner and Michael Sellers, son of the late actor Peter Sellers.

Conversely, celebrity book projects are often created with TV promotion in mind. "In most instances when it's a celebrity known for something other than books," says one veteran network official, "there's a very good chance the deal was made because somebody said, 'God, we can do a 40-city tour.' And very often they don't write their own books."

Among noncelebrity authors, the broadcast bonanza has led to a desperate quest for gimmicks and a certain thespian flair. "I've got an author," says agent Rodney Pelter, "who's gonna make Robert Ringer and Wayne Dyer look like bashful recluses." His contribution to Western culture: "The Dachman Program for Permanent Weight Loss." Ken Dachman weighed 420 pounds at age 23, says Pelter. Now at 6-feet-1-inch he tips the Toledos at 175 and "he's a bombshell." Morrow's editors had read only an outline of the book when they asked to see the author. A dozen executives convened in a conference room, and "this kid walked in carrying a pair of jeans he used to wear--with a 65-inch waist!" says Pelter. "In five minutes, he had them all in his hip pocket." The result: a first printing of 35,000 copies and a guaranteed promotion budget of $35,000. "I have no doubt that this kid is going to get on every show in the country," says Pelter. Will "Today" take him? "Of course," says Boxer, "provided that the book is not awful."

But Is It Art?

Not everyone is enraptured with the manifest video destiny of modern publishing. Saal views the trend "with a bit of sadness. Can you imagine Faulkner, so painfully withdrawn, or Somerset Maugham, with his terrible stammer, on today's talk shows? They just wouldn't do."

Conversely, "a sometimes unfortunate consequence" of tube syndrome, says Alan Kellock, vice president/marketing at Waldenbooks, "is that TV exposure tends to sell authors rather than books." And it is likely that the talk shows, with their bias toward practical female and family topics, have contributed to the best-seller-list glut of former fatties, calisthenic banshees, marital handymen, cosmetic queens and ruby-throated self-helpers. "That's certainly true to a certain degree," says Schneider of Random House, "but the Updikes and Cheevers and Doctorows are going to continue to sell."

Godwin, despite her "Today" success, feels "ambivalent" about the video phenomenon. Any author wants the exposure and sales, but "when I was growing up, my favorite American authors were invisible to me, and there's a certain charm in that. The author's face and personality don't get in the way of the book." She recalls that television spoiled her enjoyment of one of her favorite writers, "a serious philosopher." He was so glib on TV, she says, "that he came across like a rug salesman."