rebuilding trust in our trust networks

Anita Elberse once again explains why spending millions on a potential blockbuster makes sense for book publishing,* an issue that she previously explored at greater length in the Harvard Business Review.** The only way to make real money is to go after books that will sell lots of copies. In order to sell lots of copies, you have to invest even more money into marketing (e.g. paying for it to be visible in chain bookstores and Wal-Mart and be written up in newsletters: wow, this is a book we think you should read – we won’t mention the publisher paid us to say so). Interestingly, she ties this not to consumer gullibility or to clever marketing, but to the social nature of reading, which has long interested me.

Media companies’ hit-focused marketing did not emerge in a vacuum. It reflects how consumers make choices. The truth is that consumers prefer blockbusters. Because they are inherently social, people find value in reading the same books and watching the same movies that others do. This is true even in today’s markets where, thanks to the Internet, buyers have easy access to millions and millions of titles.

But, but . . . buyers also have access to loads of reader’s responses to books, thanks to the Internet.

This happens to resonate for me with a comment that popped up when a George Mason professor had students in a class on history hoaxes create their own hoax and spread it virally using the social networks made available through Web 2.0. The commentor said it violated trust networks – that people believed in the hoax not because it had been marketed to them or because it was reported in USA Today, but because historians they trusted talked about it. Their trust network, wired through Internet channels, had been breached by someone who deliberately manipulated that network and their trust for false purposes. There are pedagogical and ethical issues involved that are better discussed elsewhere – but the existence of those trust networks woven together by online connections replicates the “invisible college” or Polanyi’s Republic of Science. It’s bound together by trust and based on both expertise and disinterestedness (in John Ziman’s sense of the word).

Readers have trust networks, too. The best way people can determine what to read next is to have a trusted and well-known fellow reader make a recommendation. There are thousands and thousands of online communities that exist for this purpose. The goal isn’t to sell books, it’s to share information about really good books. A side-effect is that it leads to buying books and to satisfying reading experiences that builds an audience for books.In other words, a trustworthy and disinterested social network that promotes reading is good for business. Once it’s corrupted, it’s nearly useless.

Sadly, they are vulnerable to stealth marketing, and have been exploited that way from the birth of Web 2.0. There are countless websites, blogs, and experts explaining how to use people’s social impulses to sneak in marketing messages. To me, this is fundamentally immoral. And it totally permeates the book business, at least in US culture. I don’t see the same frantic marketing dynamic in the Scandinavian countries, where enthusiasm for books is nevertheless high. And I’ve heard British authors say it’s much worse in the US than in the UK, where a hard sell is simply boorish and unwelcome.

The only way for bookish social networks to work well is for us to draw the kind of firm line between sharing honest information about books and advertising that the best news organizations embrace. Authors, too, can be much clearer about when they are promoting their work and when they are acting as members of a reading community.

Here’s my attempt to adapt the Society of Professional Journalists’s Code of Ethics to book blogging and other social networking. I realize that journalists rank a little lower than lawyers in the public eye, but I have a strong attachment to these principles – which I have borrowed from liberally in this adaptation.

For readers (including those who happen also to be writers)

  • Seek out interesting books and write about them honestly. Don’t rely on marketing materials to make your choices. Don’t read other reviews before you form your opinion. Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of literature by seeking out the lesser-known and unusual. Shun sources that are a hybrid of information and promotion, and recognize the special obligation to speak the truth of your experience with books regardless of other people’s opinions or any potential for personal gain or harm.
  • Minimize harm. The temptation to be clever should never lead to an unfairly humiliating review. Criticize the book, not the writer or the reader of it. Pursuit of critical rigor is not license for arrogance. Balance the book’s right to a fair reading with readers’ right to know. Likewise, make sure your enthusiasm for a book you love is accompanied with concrete reasons for your enthusiasm so that other readers can make a more informed choice.
  • Act independently. Avoid conflicts of interest. Disclose any relationships that might compromise your objectivity or even the appearance of compromised objectivity. Do not review books in exchange for favors, however intangible. Don’t let the potential to grow close to a much-loved author (or to any other opportunity) influence your judgment.
  • Be accountable. Don’t get your feather’s ruffled when people disagree with you. Be open to alternative perspectives without abandoning your best judgment.

For writers in particular

  • Don’t see every social encounter as a chance to sell a book.
  • Don’t strategize everything you say based on what you might get out of it (good or bad).
  • Don’t join social networks to use them for marketing. That’s not what friends are for. Besides, it’s deceitful.
  • Don’t strike bargains, overt or unspoken, to cross-promote other writers’ works in exchange for their support. Disclose potential conflicts of interest.
  • Marketing isn’t half the job. Writing is the job.  Marketing is a semi-necessary evil that can do more harm than good.
  • Don’t go for the hard sell. Just don’t. It’s obnoxious.
  • Be honest. Be yourself. Act with integrity.

*Thanks to Maxine Clarke for pointing out his article and getting it on FriendFeed.

**In case anyone is wondering, I don’t read the HBR on principle. Any publication that will add to its expensive full-text licensed content in library databases a clause that it cannot be used for classes deserves to be shunned. I guess if your subject is filthy lucre, it’s a great way to write a license. It’s a lousy way to communicate research.


7 Responses to rebuilding trust in our trust networks

  1. Norm/Uriah says:

    Full of good sense Barbara and an excellent post.
    I try to avoid writing an ‘unfairly humiliating review’ but sometimes one has to tell it how it is and in two years I have probably written only four tough reviews.
    Some books are so bad that they insult the reader and possibly deserve a humiliating review.
    I read recently a professional review of a book I read last year that used the phrases ‘a near maddeningly casual investigation’ and ‘at the unfashionably ambling pace of its period’ and ‘It’s no roller coaster ride, but it is addictive.’
    I can guess that the reviewer found the book as boring as I did but was not prepared to say so.

    • Barbara says:

      It’s a balance – to be honest, brutally if necessary, but not unnecessarily mean. I was thinking more of reviews that speculate about the author’s intelligence or motivation or likelihood of having been under the influence of drugs or addled by money or dropped on his head in infancy, or which describe fans of the writer as subhuman imbeciles. I don’t think calling a boring book boring as humiliating. It’s describing the book as you experienced it.

  2. barbara: you are brilliant as usual. I love this post and am going to be forwarding it around. As I move along in my newly-published world, I’m finding that my own cloud of apprehensions, instinct and distaste closely mirrors your much more well-described one.

    I especially LOVE those ethics for writers. I have a particular horror of writers who offer to exchange positive reviews. Our work, our honor – these are our jewels; do we really mean to just give them away????

  3. Barbara says:

    Sophie, you are too kind. It’s funny how sometimes three things come at you from different directions and get all knotted up into one big ball of “arrgghh.”

    But it was interesting how easy the Journalist’s Code of Ethics was adaptable. The only thing that really didn’t work was the rule about not accepting anything free. Um, I still want my review copies please :o) Kind of hard to review a book that hasn’t yet been published otherwise.

  4. Maxine says:

    Very good post, Barbara, and thank you for your generous link. Since starting blogging 3 years or more ago, I have been struck by a dichotomy: an increase in the number of people who send me “marketing” emails persuading me to read their books; and an increase in my ability to target accurately what I am going to enjoy reading, largely via Euro Crime and a group of “like-minded” blogs eg Crime Fiction Reader’s and Norman Price’s. I now tune out the former and focus on the latter (Friend Feed helps) and am a very happy reader as a result. I think your list of reviewer guidelines is excellent. I personally do not review books if I thought them terrible – in some ways this is a cop-out I know, but I review books as a hobby and for a bit of spiritual replenishment from my day job as a “mean editor” ;-), so I am not interested in too much slagging off! (Having said that, Karen has a few of my reviews in press that are not exactly positive). I am an enthusiastic reader and in these days of “books via marketing budget” I think it is great that some of us are able to publish reviews on the Internet for anyone to read, purely based on whether we like the books – this gives authors, if not massive exposure ;-), at least some public feedback for their wonderful creativity and effort. At the same time, I was struck the other day by a lovely post on Clare Dudman’s blog about someone who emailed her praising her books, then when Clare checked out this person’s reviews, she had been quite scathing. Honesty is important in a reviewer, it is “not on” to be sychopantic to an author directly, yet not nice in a review. Here is Clare’s post, with a very interesting set of comments: Grade the reviewers, great idea!

  5. Maxine says:

    Amazon operates a reviewer grading system, come to think of it.

  6. Clare D says:

    I came here through a link Maxine provided – and I’m glad I did! Excellent post – I particularly like your adaptation of the journalist’s code.

    There is an incredible amount of corruption in the reviewing business – I have been quite astonished at the conversations (concerning mutual back-scratching) I have overheard since being published – both on-line and in-print!

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