Word of Mouth for Books, Courtesy of Scarlett Johansson

In Discussion by Roger Tagholm

Lee Child suggested on UK television that for book distribution his publisher could “hire Scarlett Johansson to go round and whisper it in your ear.” What if…?

By Roger Tagholm

Scarlett Johansson, as if you didn't know.

Scarlett Johansson, as if you didn’t know.

The thriller writer Lee Child suggested on BBC’s Newsnight program earlier this week – in an item on the Amazon-Hachette dispute – that he didn’t care how his book was delivered, his publisher could “hire Scarlett Johansson to go round and whisper it in your ear. That’s fine as long as you hear my story.”

But how would this work in practice? There are a number of important issues here. First off, practicality (we’ll come on to price points later). How is Johansson – who is a busy woman what with her film work and the occasional abortive advertising gig – how is she going to get around to everyone? I know she has private jets and chauffeur driven cars and stuff, but even so. Child has millions of readers – he’s a bestseller, she’ll never do it, even if she’s taken there by drone.

Also, is she going to deliver the book all in one take, or can customers call her up when they want – say when they’re just getting into bed, which is where so many of us do our reading. “Scarlett? Dave here from apartment seven. How are you fixed Friday for chapter four?”

Many people read on trains on their daily commute – but Scarlett Johansson next to you on the subway? It’s a recipe for chaos and a possible threat to public safety. Besides, does she even know how the subway works anymore? Surely she hasn’t been down there in years.

Nevertheless, despite these very real concerns, there’s a price for everything, and just as people are prepared to pay a premium for beautifully designed hardbacks, so there will be those prepared to pay top dollar for this ultimate in personal appearances.

So what kind of figure are we talking about? Well, a personal appearance by Johansson, right next to you, is going to be at least a million dollars, which obviously puts it out of the reach of ordinary folk. No one has talked about whether fixed pricing will apply here. One assumes that Amazon will want to drive this cost down, but even a discounted price is going to be too much for most of us.

Given publishers recent experience with the DoJ, they won’t want to be seen to be colluding with Johansson either – even if the image does make some sales directors’ pulses quicken.

Lower down the scale there might be a straight audio edition read by the actress. In this scenario, she’s still whispering in your ear, only you can’t feel her breath or the warmth of her lips. This won’t work for many – it will leave a gap, an Audible Chasm, you could say.

One doesn’t want to accuse Child of sexism, but what about his female readers? Do they want a woman, even one of Johansson’s stature, to be the voice of Jack Reacher? Wouldn’t they rather Brad Pitt or Christian Bale or Jake Gyllenhaal or insert your choice here?

Given the high cost of these ‘salon’ appearances it seems fair to suggest that some should be available for free, or at a greatly reduced price, via lottery. It conjures up some lovely images. “Honey, there’s a woman at the door says she’s Scarlett Johansson. Seems cute. You want me to put some pizza on?”

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).