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Why Even A Bad Review Can Help Sell A Book


And I'm Steve Inskeep with a test of some old sayings about your public image.


People say all publicity is good publicity.

INSKEEP: People also say I don't care what the newspapers say about me, as long as they spell my name right.

GREENE: That's what people say. But is it true?

INSKEEP: Here's Keith Romer, from the NPR Planet Money team.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: Last fall, Sarah Kaufman published her first book, "The Art Of Grace." It had been out a few weeks, and she heard what every first-time author wants to hear - her book was going to be reviewed in The New York Times. But that's where the good news stopped.

SARAH KAUFMAN: It's not an overwhelmingly positive review.

ROMER: I read Kaufman a little bit of the review. It calls the book precious, pedantic, highfalutin, plotting and predictable. How does that make you feel?

KAUFMAN: Well, you know, it was disappointing.

ROMER: Disappointing but there was an upside.

KAUFMAN: More people knew about my book. It increased the book sales.

ROMER: A while back, behavioral economist Jonah Berger got curious about whether stories like Kaufman's were more the exception or the rule. So he did a study - he got sales data from hundreds of books that had been reviewed in the New York Times.

JONAH BERGER: We found that a negative review for an unknown author increased sales by around 40 percent, so it's not trivial.

ROMER: Berger says that bad press equaling good sales applies to a lot more than just books. He told me about a different study that showed how bad press even got people to sign up for health insurance.

BERGER: So in states where there were more negative messages against Obamacare, more articles being written or television ads saying oh, this is bad, you know, don't do this, enrollments of Obamacare increased.

ROMER: Another example is the website Ashley Madison, the one where you go to cheat on your spouse. Berger says people signed up like crazy after hackers leaked the names of the site's users. The market's reaction to the security breach was basically wait, there's a website that lets me cheat on my spouse? How come no one told me about that? Berger says, bad press has helped sales because there are two distinct things that happen when we read a bad review. Let's go back to the book example for this. The first thing that happens when we read that bad book review is that we become aware of the book at all. The second thing is that we learn that the reviewer thinks the book is bad. But our brains only really hang on to the first part.

BERGER: We don't always remember what we heard about a book. We may remember that we heard something, but we don't exactly remember what that something is.

ROMER: If we already know about the product or the author who's getting the bad press though, Berger says this whole awareness effect doesn't really help.

BERGER: If you're Stephen King, if you're John Grisham, you get a negative review in The New York Times, negative publicity hurts.

ROMER: Also, Berger says there are some products that bad publicity will definitely not help you solve.

BERGER: So if someone says, you know, hey, this car seat is defective or, you know, hey, eat at this restaurant and one 1 of 2 people will get a major intestinal disorder, you know, that'll be bad for you.

ROMER: But if the product isn't dangerous and it's not super expensive, the rule should hold true. Any kind of publicity, good or bad, will help an unknown brand. It happened for Berger, too. His first book, The New York Times called it derivative and cliched.

BERGER: It didn't feel very good. We just got panned in The New York Times, you know, my life is over (laughter). And then my agent actually reminded me of the silver lining when she says, you know, didn't you write a paper about this?

ROMER: Berger's got a new book coming out in June. He's hoping for good reviews. But if not, he'll take whatever he can get. Keith Romer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keith Romer has been a contributing reporter for Planet Money since 2015. He has reported stories on risk-pooling among poker players, whether it's legal to write a spin-off of the children's book Goodnight Moon and the time one man cornered the American market in onions. Sometimes on the show, he sings.
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