There's no such thing as bad publicity, except your own obituary," quipped Andy Warhol. Does it follow that a scandal improves book sales? That depends on the book, as well as the scandal.
Fate has been fickle for a pair of Simon & Schuster historians accused of plagiarism in early 2002, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose (who died October 13). Goodwin admitted that she had failed to attribute quoted material in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987), while Ambrose conceded that some passages in The Wild Blue (2001) closely paralleled previously published accounts, although he maintained he was not guilty of plagiarism because the sources were footnoted at the back of the book.
Goodwin's attempt to make amends, which involved destroying copies of her book, only seemed to make things worse, according to a New York Times headline last March: "Historian's Fight for Her Reputation May Be Damaging It." In June, Goodwin resigned from the Pulitzer Prize board. Meanwhile, Ambrose kept a lower profile.
Six months later, sales of Goodwin's books are off 50%—60%, according to Sally Lindsay, v-p of merchandising and marketing at Koen. But Ambrose's sales haven't been as deeply affected, suffering only a 15%—20%, dip compared to sales prior to the scandal; his memoir, To America (S&S, Nov.), has a healthy first printing of 275,000 copies. The print run for Goodwin's upcoming Lincoln biography, which S&S expects to publish in fall 2003, hasn't yet been decided.
Last year, a third historian, Mount Holyoke College professor Joseph Ellis, admitted that he had fabricated a long and active military career. However, booksellers say that sales haven't slipped for his books, which include the Pulitzer-winning Founding Brothers and National Book Award—winning Jefferson biography, American Sphinx (both from Knopf).
Ellis's case underscores an important distinction: if a scandal doesn't cast a shadow on the validity of the author's material, the public doesn't care. "No one has before or since questioned Ellis's historical feel or his research and writing about the revolutionary period," commented Peter Sevenair, senior buyer for the Brown University Bookstore.
The saga of Martha Stewart confirms the general rule. Though the stock price of Stewart's company has fallen dramatically since it was reported in early June that she might have acted on insider information when she sold a substantial number of shares of ImClone Systems, her books on entertaining and crafts from Clarkson Potter haven't taken a hit.
"People hear about Martha Stewart and say, 'I don't care—she still has a great recipe for pumpkin pie.' If she were doing books on how to invest your money, it would be totally different," surmised Ingram lead buyer Nancy Stewart (no relation). The most recent Clarkson Potter title under the Martha Stewart Living brand, Classic Crafts and Recipes Inspired by the Songs of Christmas (Aug.), had a 76,000-copy first printing, which was in line with earlier books in the series.
If anything, Wiley's Stewart biography, Martha, Inc., has benefited from the publicity. It spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list upon publication in April. Although sales never returned to bestseller levels, Joan O'Neil, Wiley v-p and publisher, reported a second, smaller spike this summer. (There are now 200,000 hardcovers in print.)
While initial plans for the April 2003 paperback called for a first printing of 150,000, O'Neil expects that number to rise, since the paperback edition will include new material. Presumably, an NBC television movie based on the book and scheduled to air in May will increase demand further.
Following an SEC probe of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch's compensation and benefits, the paperback edition of his autobiography, Jack: Straight from the Gut (Warner, 2001), will also be expanded. Initially slated for January 2003, it will now be released in fall 2003, in order to allow Welch to incorporate recent events. The substantial lag time between hardcover and paperback should be offset by curiosity about the additional material. "Any time an author adds pertinent contemporary content, it adds value," said 800CEORead president and founder Jack Covert, "and when it comes to Welch, everybody wants to know what his spin on the deal is."
That consumers differentiate writer and subject is good news for Warner, which also published Rosie O'Donnell's Find Me in April, months before her reputation was bruised by a public brawl with Gruner + Jahr over control of the magazine Rosie. O'Donnell is currently making appearances to promote the six-month-old book, though Warner assistant director of publicity Jimmy Franco said that the delayed timing was due to the author's schedule (she no longer has her talk show and magazine, so has the time) and is not an attempt to counterbalance negative publicity.