Friday, February 15, 2013

Guest Post: Is There Such A Thing as "Bad" Publicity?

Today we have a wonderful guest post from Janet (J. L.) Greger, a fellow Oak Tree Press author who in this essay explores publicity a bit. I'm eager to see what all of you have to say. After all, my dad used to quote P. T. Barnum, who said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity." Or was that Mae West? (Sources disagree.)

At any rate, I have seen bad publicity boost book sales and spur on the popularity of some of the bad boys of television and film, so I keep an open mind about these things. Let's hear from you in the comments!


Can Publicity be Bad?
by J. L. Greger

Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Was he right?

Is publicity just for the ego?

Writers want publicity for an obvious reason: to increase sales. Consider the plethora of books which are written or at least 80% written by ghostwriters, but “authored” by celebrities. The publishers know the celebrity’s name and the attendant publicity (past and present) help sales. Ghostwriters happily take the money to the bank, and everyone wins.

Scientists aren’t much different from writers. In 2009, universities in the U.S. spent $55 billion on research and development; the federal government provided 59% and state and local government provided 7% of these funds (NSF/ Division of Science Resource Statistics. Survey of Research and Development at Universities and Colleges, FY 2009 In other words, scientists depend on public opinion for financial support of their research.

How does publicity shape our behavior?
Dempsey and Mitchell (Journal of Consumer Research [Dec 4, 2010] Vol. 37) found advertising sold products not by providing factual information but by surrounding the product with other things shoppers liked, thus creating positive attitudes about the product.

Does that really work for more abstract products than toothpaste and cereal?
Maybe. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of doctorates earned in the sciences grew by nearly 40% (Nature [April 20, 2011] 472:276-279) even though the job market was not that good for newly minted PhD scientists. During that time period, scientists became “cool” in mainstream TV shows and movies. The 2011 movie Contagion grossed $130 million in theatres. Two popular network TV shows ("CSI" and "Bones") became hits.

Was that the only factor affecting the choices of students? Of course not, but it made me think.

Could I sell more of my novels if I publicized them with something pleasant? That’s hard to do when you write realistic thrillers. I guess I made a poor choice when I focused my first novel (Coming Flu) on a flu epidemic. Maybe I did a better job when I titled my second novel Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight. The heroine Linda Almquist in the book loses ten pounds in fifteen days when she investigates a “diet doctor” for two murders. I even show you how she does it without consciously dieting. That’s something positive.

What if you goof and get bad publicity? Is bad publicity really bad?

It depends.

Lots of people complained about Dan Brown’s literary style and his use of historical information in The Da Vinci Code. All the attendant publicity probably helped sales. The “tell-alls” of disgraced celebrities sell better than well-written memoirs of less famous, but often heroic, people.

On the other hand, scientists found guilty of scientific misconduct are often barred from being a principal investigator on federal research grants for several years. However, some quietly resume their careers afterwards.

Bottom line?

Oscar Wilde was probably right, most of the time. Maybe that’s why so many authors, scientists, educators, etc. are writing blogs. The next questions are:

Do blogs generate publicity for novels or other creative endeavors?
Are they worth reading?
When they give you a positive feeling, do you read more?
Do you care to comment?

I believe the research, so I’ve attached positive images: my dog Bug when he’s trying to ignore me and when he’s trying to please me.

By the way, Bug is the only non-fictional character in both my novels.

JL Greger

JL Greger has been a scientist, professor, textbook writer (Nutrition for Living), and university administrator. Now she is a writer of fiction who inserts glimpses of scientific breakthroughs and tidbits about universities into her medical mystery/suspense novels.

In Coming Flu, a new, mysterious flu strain kills more than two hundred in less than a week in the small walled community near the Rio Grande. The rest face a bleak future under quarantine. One of the residents Sara Almquist, as a medical epidemiologist, pries into every aspect of her neighbors’ lives looking for ways to stop the spread of the flu. She finds promising clues – maybe one too many? Not all her neighbors are what they appear to be.

Be the first in your neighborhood to read MURDER: A NEW WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT (Oak Tree Press is publishing it in March 2013). Someone in this southwestern medical school doesn’t like women. Two have been murdered already. At first, Linda Almquist suspects the deaths are related to her investigation of Dr. Richard Varegos, a “diet doctor.” He is alleged to be recklessly endangering the lives of his obese research subjects. Maybe she’s wrong. The murders might be related to something in the past – something involving her boss the Dean. While Linda fears for her job, the police fear for her life.


Thanks, Janet! Bug is a cutie pie!

Let's see whether anyone takes on the challenge of discussing publicity. The public seems to still adore bread and circuses, so any writer who can create a circus around himself and his book will be more successful in terms of initial sales than those of us who are more restrained. However, should we try to pull a stunt in order to get attention focused on our work? Would that be a good or bad idea long-term? Discuss. (20 points) (LOL)


  1. Something I find amusing is that my children (pre-teen and teen) are influenced by commercials, but only by what the commercial says the product will accomplish. They still believe the mascara ad that says your lashes will be six inches longer or the spray that will clean your bathtub with no scrubbing and want me to buy the products. I think it's as we get older and realize most commercials lie that we allow ourselves to be influenced by some of the other factors, such as the cute puppy in the fabric softener commercial or the gorgeous husband with the rock hard abs (with no shirt on, of course) drinking that brand of coffee with his wife at the kitchen table as the sun rises in the commercial.

    I think publicity for book writers is almost always good, even when it's bad. I remember in high school hearing about Anton LaVey and his Satanic Bible. I went to an all-girl's Catholic high school (common in New Orleans) and a bunch of us wanted to get our hands on that book to see what the hoopla was about. One of the girls even bought it, out of morbid curiosity, and let us all have a look at it. Turned out to be crap, but the satanist writer got a sale out of it from someone he probably never would have thought would have bought it.

    Some people will buy the current rage just because it's the current rage. It's figuring out how to publicize, the angle that will make your product the rage, good or bad, that's the tricky part.

  2. Thanks to Denise Weeks and Shalanna for posting my guest blog.

    Holli makes a good comment - many advertisers seem to think American consumers are gullible. But the research and sales suggest that associating positive things with products works. Now how do we as writers turn it to our advantage?
    JL Greger