Thursday, February 22, 2024

Is All Publicity Good Publicity? by Connie Berry


P.T. Barnum, nineteenth-century showman and co-founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, is reputed to have said, “All publicity is good publicity.” That’s never been confirmed, although he did say, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” which is pretty much the same thing. He also said, “Without publicity, a terrible thing happens—nothing.”

Was Barnum right? Is being recognized and talked about the key to success? Sometimes it seems so. In the world of books, celebrities can “write” a book, regardless of merit, and expect it to make the New York Times bestseller list. But back to Barnum. 

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810 to 1891) was many things including a promoter, a philanthropist, and a passionate abolitionist. He was also the perpetrator of a series of sensational, unbelievable, and frankly cruel hoaxes.

In 1835 he claimed Joice Heth, an elderly Black woman and ex-slave, was the 161-year-old nursemaid of President George Washington. In spite of being blind and half-paralyzed, the woman worked 12 hours a day, singing hymns and telling amusing stories about “little George.” When she died, leaving Barnum without the income she brought in, he charged people 50 cents to watch her autopsy. When the doctor performing the autopsy said she was no more than 80 years old, Barnum claimed Heth was still alive and on tour in Europe. He later admitted the hoax.

Undeterred, in 1842 he introduced the “Feejee Mermaid,” a creature that proved (according to Barnum) the mermaid legends were right. What people marvelled at was a fish’s tail sewn onto the head and torso of a baby monkey and covered with papier mâché. This little mermaid was destroyed in a fire.

The next year, 1843, Barnum claimed he’d imported a herd of wild buffalo from the West, along with real-life cowboys who would hunt them for the delight of the audience. A whopping 24,000 people paid money to see this great event. What they saw was a handful of malnourished animals who became so frightened by the crowds they broke through the flimsy barriers he’d erected.

Then there was the Cardiff Giant. In 1869 well diggers in Wales claimed to have dug up the body of a 10-foot tall, 3,000-pound, petrified giant—actually a statue carved out of gypsum. Intrigued at the money-making possibilities, Barnum tried to purchase the giant from another showman for $23,000. When he was turned down, he constructed his own giant, claiming his was real and the other a fake. The first case of a hoax perpetrated on a hoax. 

There were others. Barnum justified his hoaxes by calling them “advertisements,” designed to get people to pay his entrance fees. He said, “I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.” In other words, the end justifies the means. 

So what does this have to do with the business of writing? Authors today are required to do a lot of publicity. Unless you’re the next Michael Connelly or Louise Penny, publishers expect their authors to do everything in their power to promote their books. I understand that. It’s part of the deal. After all, how will readers buy your book if they don’t know it and you exist? That’s where publicity comes in—getting your name and the name of your book out there. But is all publicity good? What are you prepared to do to become known? You wouldn’t perpetrate a hoax, but you just might fall for one. 

There are plenty of ethical publicists and marketing experts out there who are worth every penny they earn. But there are also fraudsters who claim things that aren’t possible, like getting your book into millions of hotel rooms, libraries, and bookstores—if you pay them, of course. They will include your title in mailings to their many thousands of followers. They will pitch your book to important movie executives. They will even impersonate a legitimate publisher or marketing professional to fool you. They just want your money. 

Writer beware! In fact, that’s the first place you should go: And remember, if something is too good to be true, it usually is. 

Have you ever been tempted by (or fallen for) a publicity hoax? 


  1. Fortunately, I have not succumbed to a publicity hoax, although not all my experiences with paid providers have been satisfactory. It's certainly a case of buyer beware.

  2. Never thought of the P.T. Barnum comparison, but it definitely fits in the context of publishing and promotion.

  3. Interesting information about Barnum. I'm not sure that bad publicity benefits writers. It wouldn't prompt me to read the book of someone who has received bad publicity.
    Grace Topping

  4. I guess in all times and places, there are plenty of people out there happy to take advantage. Reminds me of some of Mark Twain's writing, and that was a long time ago!

  5. I'm suspicious by nature and parsimonious by choice. I get recommendations and consult writers beware.

  6. Not publicity, but editing. Back in late pre-internet days when I wrote my first book, I immediately purchased The Writer’s Market and began flogging it to literary agents. Needless to say, there was little to no interest – and they were right. The book still lives under my bed as an object lesson. Writing is the easy part.

    One agent did respond. He referred to me an editor. Said he would be happy to offer me a contract after this particular editor gave his seal of approval. Eager and sure I was on the road to success, I sent off the book. All 900 pages of it. And a check for $5k. Yes, I shoulda known better. I was lucky. Very lucky. The “editor” was a scam, but I managed to luck on to someone who actually DID edit the book, gave me the very sage advice that it needed way more work, and suggestions to accomplish that.

    About the same time the book came back the internet had exploded and the editor and agent were prominently featured on Predators and Editors. Most people received nothing more than a cancelled check for their gullibility. I did get an edit.

  7. In this day and age, there is such a thing as bad publicity. But I think most of us would try to avoid those things because we are all decent humans.

  8. I try to go by the dictum: Trust, but verify. Double check all those offers and promotions. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.