Friday, August 31, 2012

Buy, Buy, Baby

By Russel D McLean

The big story this week has been about reviews and of course the fact that many people are paying for them. The idea has been treated with outrage by many authors, and some readers, but most people seem to be having an attitude of “so what? Doesn’t this happen all the time?”

And yes it seems that way. Advertising is nothing new. Neither is lying in the name of advertising. Do you really believe that Lenny Henry would actively choose to stay in a Premier Inn? The point isn’t whether he does or not, the point is that in the advertisement universe he would. Real adverts, proper adverts are clearly signposted as such. They carry disclaimers or they occur within a special advertising slot so that you know they are not “real” or an actual part of the program you are watching.

Product placement is a little thornier. Who can forget the crassness of I, ROBOT and its placement of Nike Shoes as sought after antiques in the future (worn, of course, by Will Smith’s Cooler-Than-Thou protagoist). But all the same these placements are clearly adverts and no one in their right mind would believe they were being told the truth about Will Smith being cooler than them because of his choice of footwear. After all it takes place in the realm of fiction, and as such is an accepted part of the illusion.

So why is everyone so up in arms about authors using “sockpuppet” accounts or buying up amounts of Amazon reviews that are generally positive in nature?

Because unlike advertising or fictional product placements, it is ultimately immoral and of course a cheat on the reader. Because these reviews purport to be from other readers and do not give any sign that they are paid for or designed to be biased. Even in local newspapers, when you see certain pieces about local business they are clearly labelled “advertising features”.

The cheat comes from the fact that readers then no longer know who to trust. Part of this is because they buy into the myth of the majority rule that has somehow slipped into our society. Reviewers - professional paid reviewers - may not always be right, but at least they offer up a sense of where they are coming from and where their preferences and biases lie. Take, for example, the Flick Filosopher, Mary Ann Johansen. I love her site. There are moments where she gets it plain wrong (her take on the Star Wars prequels or her all out all forgiving love for New Who at its worst) but generally I know where I stand with her opinion and get a sense of where we’ll agree or differ. And I know that she’s not going to change her opinion because a film company tells her to.

My girlfriend/partner/insert your preferred tag here reviews professionally for newspapers. I do not always agree with her reviews, but she is alway honest, considered and thoughtful. She would not give a good review because someone paid her, and while it will probably never come up because I think she’d turn down the gig for ethical reasons, she would even give me a poor review if she thought I deserved it. Which is as it should be.

In this world, our success or failure depends on units shifted as opposed to plaudits gained. It doesn’t matter whether people enjoy our work, it only matters how many of them buy it. Is this right? I don’t think so, not in the world of literature and entertainment, which is and should be a hugely personal thing. Cult books are cult for a reason: they appeal very strongly to a minority of individuals and tehre is nothing wrong with this. People’s opinions will always differ, so how can we write reviews and be free of accusations of bias?

For a start, reviews should not be bought. Yes, its only fair that publishers or authors try and build hype among reviewers and readers, but to deliberately and wholeheartedly mislead them is a no-no and should always be. If one has to pay for a good review, there is a chance that while one many shift a lot of copies, one may piss off a lot of readers. And its the long tail that matters, not the quick buck. Readers trust other readers. But if they cannot tell whether those other readers are genuine, then that trust evaporates. And as with critics, one tends to judge other readers opinions in line with one’s own, so it becomes disheartening to discover that you have found a fake, a shill, a deliberately worded puff piece that bears little or no relation to the product it persuaded you to buy.

Can one argue then that traditional reviews do this, too? Perhaps in a sense that not everyone agrees with the critics, but then at least you can trust where they are coming from even if you don’t agree. And anyway the job of a critic is not simply to deliver a thumbs up or thumbs down verdict, but to try and place a piece of fiction in a wider context, to talk about its aims and whether it succeeds. Sounds worthy? Maybe it is, but then our world is becoming more and more anti-intellectual, seeking to diminish talk and debate to simple black and white, yes and no answers. And this, I would argue, is wrong. Because we need to start re-engaging our brains, having proper debates without the aniomosity and self-defence that colours people’s opinions. By re-engaging with reviews and working to understand them rather than looking for the quick and easy answers, we can bring back a critical world that matters, that abhors and despises puff-pieces, that makes artists and authors work harder to win readers with their writing than with their paid-for reviews.

I want to work harder. I want to create something that engages, that provides more than escapism from the world. But as long as puff-pieces, paid for reviews and anti-debate sentiment exists, I’m not sure I or any other author will be able to.


Anonymous-9 said...

Hi Russ, thoughtful piece. My 2 cents is that while self-publishing is in it's infancy, these "shortcuts" will plague us until readers get wise and turn to other avenues for legitimate feedback. These avenues may not exist right now but they will, it's the natural evolution of any business. Self-publishers who consistently offer great books and resist the urge to release underdeveloped material will ultimately win the day and buyers. "One-hit wonders" who manipulate reviews won't make fools out of the same people twice.

Dana King said...

I've been against bought and paid for reviews since I first heard of them, but this piece solidifies my thoughts. When i first started doing reviews, someone--i wish i remembered who--told me the reason to do reviews was to tell the reader if the book passed the $25 test: was it worth spending time and money. That's why readers ultimately read reviews. Their financial and time resources are limited. They're looking for some guidance. Purchasing reviews breaks that compact.

Buying reviews is nothing like the product placement noted here. Will Smith had to wear something on his feet; they might as well be Nikes. Tony Soprano was bound to have some sodas around the house for his kids; why not Cokes? The fact that the companies paid for the placement is irrelevant.

Would I do a product placement if a company asked me to? Depends. If a main character had a favorite beer, and Foster's wanted to pay me to be that beer, sure. I wouldn't change a story or a character to squeeze it ion, though. My first-person detective won;t can't drive a Porsche; it's not true to his character.

John McFetridge said...

Dana, not even a fifteen year old Porsche he was given as payment for a job? That still runs great!

Okay, maybe you'd have to tone that down a bit...

Dave Zeltserman said...

Russel, well said!