rebuilding trust in our trust networks

January 4, 2009

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.


the tail that wags the tail

July 3, 2008

Fascinating article about the “long tail” in the Harvard Business Review that I picked up from Siva. Anita Elberse contents that the digital world actually favors the blockbuster. The reasons that people go for the hyped book, music, film – because it’s higher quality, it’s what everyone else is doing, and it’s abundant – are actually amplified in the world of digital choices.

Chris Anderson (not surprisingly) disagrees, but mostly over the methodology. Had she defined the head and tail differently, the conclusions would be closer to his – that the long tail has an advantage in a digital world.

What seems to me the two critical issues are that publishing still bets on the blockbuster. That’s where their resources go, and that’s where their profits come from. Second is that social urge to read what everyone else is reading and – failing a reliable source for ideas about what to read next – what everyone else is reading is a very common way of making a decision. If everyone’s reading it, it must be good. I can discuss it with others, and I won’t have any trouble finiding it. It’s probably at Wal-Mart, on discount.

This made me think about how I decide what to read next. When I started reading mysteries as an adult, I didn’t know people who read them, and I mostly relied on reviews in PW and the NYTBR. It was hit and miss, but better than the best seller lists, which proved absolutely useless. (The “quality” argument, above, fails, at least in my experience.) Marilyn Stasio introduced me to Dennis Lehane, and pretty soon I had a few names of writers I could count on. But I didn’t have a good method of straying outside that circle of known authors until I joined an online community of mystery readers. Now I don’t have any trouble at all  knowing what to read next, other than a slight feeling of panic that I’ll never have enough time to read them all before I die.

What one needs to take advantage of the long tail is a deep well of knowledge AND a good sense of which source of knowledge matches yours. For me, choosing a mystery is easy because I know what I like, and I know who else likes the same kinds of books, and we share our reading lists so each of ours gets bigger.

I don’t have that for other genres. I don’t have that for movies or music or restaurants, so I might fall back on buzz. (Actually, I’d ask my kids. They know.)

A problem with digital communities as wells of knowledge where you can learn about good stuff is that they can easily become polluted with BSP (blatant self promotion). Even more so, they’re polluted by subtle promotion, circles of authors who promote their buddies, circles of fans who promote their friends, and very little authentic reader response.

There are a lot of things that make my reading group – 4MA –  work, but one of them is that there is absolutely no promotional activity. None. Zero. Zip. And there is a ton of discussion about books, which oddly enough promotes books far more effectively. We have the advantages that hype supposedly provides: we know we’re getting recommendations of high-quality books, we have a social experience, and we know how to get our hands on the books we want because members have shared information about where these books can be purchased, even from abroad. In a pinch, we mail our copies to each other.

None of this works when trust goes out the window, when we aren’t sure if the recommender has ulterior motives. If the community of consumers is infiltrated by sellers. And the din of voices telling creative people they have to sell themselves is absolutely deafening.

That is the tail that wags the tail. Unless consumers can trust what they’re hearing, it won’t work. And right now, who’s wagging the long tail? It’s very hard to tell.