Actually, this is good,” my editor said when my book got panned. “It’s a long review by a well-known person. It’s on a good page. It’s even got a caricature of you.”
True, the drawing made me look like a demented chicken — a fat demented chicken — but as he explained, art meant space and space meant respect and respect meant attention. As my former husband put it, quoting Dr. Johnson as is his wont, “I would rather be attacked than unnoticed.” Even in the 18th century, it seems, there was no such thing as bad publicity.
Unless, of course, it’s your own. In the days that followed, I discovered something interesting about my writer friends. Here I had thought of them as anxious and sensitive, taking to their beds, or the phone, or both, when professional setbacks came their way. How often had I had the conversation about the culture editor with a grudge dating back to the reign of Tiberius, the clueless reviewer, the publicist who stops returning your phone calls and the publisher who suggests you consider another line of work?
But that was them. My bad review was something else again: my writer friends thought it was great. It was an opportunity, a platform, a megaphone, a lemon about to be transmuted into the most ambrosial lemonade. The very things that made it bad made it good: its frivolity displayed my depth, its confusion threw into relief my steely logic, its snark showed all too clearly who the real wit was.
“Yes, it was pretty negative, and your arms looked like tree stumps,” said one friend, helpfully. “But so what? That just means you’re a star!”
“All the review did was tell the world you have a new book out,” said another friend. “It’s attention. Just watch your Amazon numbers soar.” I reminded her that she hadn’t been so cheerful when her novel was panned by that Romanian diplomat. “Oh, that,” she explained. “That was different.” Her bad review was written by an ignorant nobody. My bad review was written by a mini-celebrity. The reviewer’s semi-fame would enhance my own. Gee, I suggested, maybe I should be sending her flowers.
Of course, like every writer, I had been obsessively monitoring the sales ranking on my Amazon.com page since well before publication, ignoring the advice of my friend the historian. (“Don’t look at Amazon, whatever you do! After they dredged up that Welsh farmer to review my book, it was like watching Enron stock implode.”) By judiciously purchasing one book an hour — something I was going to do anyway, I have free shipping and a lot of relatives — I had managed to raise my rating from 101,333 at 2:25 on June 17 to 6,679 at midnight — a staggering advance of 94,636 places at a cost of only $110.60.
Skillfully timed additional purchases — I have a lot of friends as well — kept things simmering in the 4,000’s. When I clicked on my number for the previous day, I could even see what books were selling like my own. On June 28, for example, when, inexplicably, my book had plummeted to 55,777, it was sandwiched between “Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction” and “Calligraphy Alphabets Made Easy.” Fortunately, I found an old Rolodex with the addresses of a whole bunch of people I used to know in Canada — what better way to reconnect than to send them a book!
“Mom,” my daughter said in that stern way she gets sometimes. “Stop it. Those numbers don’t mean anything.”
“Well, I don’t know the precise algorithm, nobody does, but the ratings aren’t totally meaningless.”
“No, Mom, I mean your numbers don’t mean anything. You’re raising them by buying the book yourself.”
Well, technically, yes. But nobody who visited my page knew that. They would just see that only 6,515 books were selling more copies than my own — and most of them were written by Dan Brown.
Would the bad review help my book? By 6 p.m. that Sunday it had reached 2,087 (“See?” my novelist friend e-mailed. “Just wait!” The author of a new book on crime wrote: “I’m jealous. Why can’t my book get panned?’’)
By 8 p.m. my ranking had reached a stratospheric 1,520. I basked in the knowledge that at least six people had figured out that only a truly wonderful book would get such a terrible review.
“You see?” my editor said on Monday morning. “Length, placement, caricature. Works every time.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had already drifted back down into the 3,000’s.
“Oh, well, it’s Fourth of July weekend,” said my novelist friend, consolingly. “A lot of people are away.”
Apparently there is such a thing as bad publicity, and that’s bad publicity that people don’t know about. That problem though, I could fix. I wrote up an e-mail message describing my new book, with a comical lament about my bad review and a link so people could read it for themselves, and I sent it off to my entire address book. Then, just to get the ball rolling I ordered a copy for a friend of my father’s who lives in Hawaii and one for a Legal Aid lawyer I’d met on the train. Sure enough, by the end of the day I had advanced to 1,314. If you take out Dan Brown, I was practically a best seller.
And all it took was $256.68 — and a really bad review.
Katha Pollitt is the author, most recently, of “Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time.”
© 2006 The New York Times Company