Culture: Scandal doesn't guarantee sales

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The Independent Culture

Julie Myerson, the author of The Lost Child, has been widely condemned in the media for supposedly "cashing in" on the drug problems of her 20-year-old son Jake. "Julie has betrayed Jake in order to further her own ambition," wrote Tim Lott in The Independent on Sunday last week. "She will, no doubt, prosper professionally as a result."

Leaving aside the issue of whether Myerson was right or wrong to publish the book, is it correct to say she will profit from this episode? Publication of The Lost Child was originally scheduled for 4 May, but it has been brought forward by Bloomsbury to capitalise on all the publicity. Will the book now go on to become a bestseller, as Myerson's critics believe? Or will the negative reaction inhibit people from buying it?

What is at issue here is whether all publicity is good publicity. The book went on sale last week, so there are no hard and fast figures yet, but my hunch is that The Lost Boy will not be a huge seller. Within the publishing industry, no one believes that all media attention, no matter how negative, has a positive impact on sales – and there's plenty of evidence to back this up.

Take Jonathan Ross's last book, Why Do I Say These Things?. Sales were quite robust until the scandal broke over his and Russell Brand's comments on Radio 2, at which point they went into sharp decline. According to Nielsen BookScan data, it suffered a week-on-week drop of 45 per cent following the scandal, and Ross's book is now considered one of the big publishing flops of last year, thanks to all the negative press comment.

"When it comes to book sales, not all publicity is good publicity," says Philip Stone, the charts editor at industry rag The Bookseller. "That old adage about weighing your publicity rather than reading it simply doesn't apply here."

Of course, it's possible that enough people will sympathise with Myerson to propel The Lost Boy to the top of the bestseller list. But that's far from guaranteed by the mere fact that it has been getting lots of attention.

'The Lost Child' is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99