Spies, scandals, secret documents, crises in the Pentagon… and that’s before anyone’s even opened the book!

Operation Dark Heart is the Afghan War exposé by disgruntled former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Anthony A. Shaffer, which has become the centre of a controversy good enough to, well, write a book about.

It’s bigger than the Penguin book-pulping incident of April 2010 — that unfortunate typo which instructed readers to add “salt and ground black people” to their pasta. It’s bigger than Bob Ellis’ Goodbye Jerusalem, the first edition of which also got pulped after it was found to defame Tony Abbott and Peter Costello. In fact, as the controversy continues to grow, it looks like the only thing it won’t be bigger than is the cheque that will soon be heading to its author’s pocket.

The book, which the Pentagon is desperately trying to buy back and amend before it is released to the public, is believed by some defence analysts to have over 200 passages containing classified material.

According to the New York Times: “The disputed material includes the names of American intelligence officers who served with Colonel Shaffer and his accounts of clandestine operations, including N.S.A. eavesdropping operations.”

Now, with one unscreened batch just waiting to escape from its warehouse home in Virginia, the Pentagon’s intervention has, according to The Guardian, provided for Operation Dark Heart “the kind of publicity that advertising cannot buy”.

Tim Coronel, publisher of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, told Crikey, “A threatened lawsuit or injunction, a printing error discovered too late, an embarrassed publisher forced to recall a book from the shelves or pulp an entire print run in its warehouse can garner attention for the ‘wrong’ reasons, but end up making what would otherwise be an obscure book into a hit,” he said.

Jon Page, President of the Australian Booksellers Association, agrees: “Usually when a book gets pulped before publication it drives people into stores and we get a huge amount of enquiries. It creates a spike in interest.”

Page believes the controversy creates a level of public interest that easily surpasses any buzz from advertising, word of mouth and good reviews.

“It’s usually a lot bigger and it creates a bit of anxiousness in people, because if it is out there they need to get it quickly,” he told Crikey.

While this intense interest can often lead to huge sales figures, Page acknowledges that controversy only offers an initial, temporary boost in sales and not the long-term success that a good quality book will enjoy. For this reason, he doesn’t believe that publishers would intentionally print a mistake knowing that their book would have to be pulped.

“I think it would cost them too much money,” he said.

That’s not to say they don’t try something cheeky every once in a while: “They might try and push the boundaries. Controversy is very good for selling books.”