Paid Author Events: The Future of Independent Bookstores?

It was a humid Wednesday afternoon, and I was outside BookCourt with a microphone.

That morning, a New York Times story about paid author events ignited a firestorm on Twitter. Some independent bookstores, hurting for cash, were now charging admission for a reading. Sometimes it was as little as $5. Sometimes it was the price of the hardcover for an off-site event. What had once been free was now the cost of a pint at happy hour.

These developments began in April. In Colorado, Boulder Book Store announced that it would charge $5 a head to attend an event. In California, Kepler’s demanded a $10 gift card to admit two people through the new paywall.

Was this reasonable? Or was this a form of gouging? Wasn’t the purpose of an author event to give the customer a chance to sample the goods? And would such a practice, as Ann Patchett suggested, scare off those who didn’t have the clams for a hardcover?

And why had nobody talked to the customers about this?

The time had come to sweat in the sun and ask every person leaving BookCourt to take part in “a journalistic survey.” I talked to as many customers as I could before the next thunderstorm broke. Some people were skeptical. Others were kind, but in a rush. One woman ran away, calling me “one of those goddam bums.” (In my haste, I had forgotten to shave and I was wearing an old T-shirt.) But most were accommodating.

Listening to the Customers

During the afternoon of June 22, 2011, we conducted several interviews with book customers outside Bookcourt for this story. Listen to Glenn Kenny discuss his thoughts on author events with Our Correspondent. (3:27)

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Lucas, a smiling 50-year-old man who doesn’t work, told me that he doesn’t really attend author events, but that he “bumps into them.” He said he wouldn’t pay for an author event, largely because he views it as a meeting. In his view, the reader shouldn’t pay to meet people. “It’s very bizarre to go to an author meeting or gathering. Because basically you meet authors through their books. So I read their books. And I sort of dream about meeting them. But I don’t really want to meet them.”

Miriam, a 35-year-old consultant, told me she attended two to three author events a year. She likes “to learn about the work that goes behind the writing.” Asking stimulating questions and “the author’s voice” were also big draws. She said that she would pay $5 for an author event “if it was an author I liked.” The $5 fee wouldn’t make a huge difference, but she felt that “these things should be free to get the maximum number of people.” Miriam said that, if she were intrigued, she would pay for a debut or an unknown author event. But the biggest reason that Miriam went to events was knowing the author in question.

Patty Greenberg, a 60-year-old stay-at-home mom tightly gripping the leash of a rather large and very well-groomed poodle, told me that she only attended one author event a year and that she would only pay $5 if she was really interested in the author.

A 24-year-old dancer who claimed to be “Devon Alberta” (stage name or lark?) said that he doesn’t attend author events, but that he would pay money “if he liked the author.” He would even purchase the book if this was the cost to attend. Why does he attend author events? “I always like to have access to the writer and the way that they communicate outside of the text.”

Then there was an unexpected run-in with the film critic Glen Kenny, who told me that he attended five author events a year. Would he pay? “Five dollars is about reasonable if I wanted to go. And if there was seating.” Kenny confessed that he mostly goes to events if he knows the author, but he is interested in the presentation. “Just a window into his own perception of what he’s doing, I think, is often conveyed through reading.” He pointed to key differences between seeing Martin Amis at an event when he wasn’t well-known versus when he was well-known. But he did admit that an author event “doesn’t necessarily enhance my appreciation of the work.”

Brandon Pederson, a 24-year-old gentleman who identified himself as “a real-time highlighter for Major League Baseball,” said that he usually attended four author events a year. He said he would pay $5 if he “was sold on them being someone I would give $5 to” — note the way Pederson views the money as going to the author, not the bookstore. Pederson said that he often attended author events because “friends told him to.” I suggested to Pederson that surely he had free will. He then told me that he was new to the city and interested in “theory” and “fiction that pushes what fiction is.” He enjoyed hearing authors talk about books, sometimes buying them to be signed. But if Pederson was asked to pay $5 for an author he hadn’t heard of, then his criteria changed: “if the work sounded relative to what I was interested in.”

Jen, a 27-year-old teacher, told me that she probably hadn’t been to an author event at a bookstore. She was fond of going to author lectures –“usually authors that we’re reading about and stuff that we’re taking excerpts from.” Why did she avoid bookstore events? “Honestly? Probably because it’s not marketed that well. I don’t know about them.” Jen said that she would pay for an author event at a bookstore, but, like the majority of the people I spoke with, it would depend on who the author is. She would pay for favorite authors, but she wouldn’t pay for debut or unknown authors. “Not unless it was a friend I was trying to help out.”

Another 27-year-old teacher named Lynn, accompanied by a highly animated dog, was an even bigger fan of author events than Jen, in large part because she teaches English. She copped to attending 40 author events a year and she was the only person I talked with who had read the New York Times article. Why did she attend author events? “I’m bad in bars.”

While paying for an event would make her think twice, Lynn said that, despite her teacher’s salary, she would pay $5 if she had to because she loved independent bookstores and wanted to see them flourish. “There’s a reason I don’t buy used books.” But she did say that her husband would probably give her a hard time if she was forced to pay out $200/year.

Lynn told me that she had been disappointed by some author events. “I just go to go. It would have to be more of a schtick. Some do interviews. And some just read. I might be a little more thoughtful about the events that I go to.” I asked if she would want more from a reading if she was ponying up a Lincoln. “Yeah,” said Lynn. “Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Like other paid author event supporters I talked with, Lynn said that she would have to be somewhat familiar with a debut or unknown author to attend a paid author event — perhaps through a story in The New Yorker or One Story.

Will Paid Author Events Create More Demands?

“Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Listen to Lynn, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, discuss her thoughts on paid author events with Our Correspondent. (1:59)

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Doug Stone, a 40-year-old writer, said that he attended somewhere between three and four author events a year. Asked if he would pay $5 for an author event, he replied, “Well, it can’t be anybody.” Stone said that readings had a certain feel of inclusiveness that might be diminished by asking people to pay. “I’ve been to bookstores where you’re browsing and you didn’t even know there was going to be a reading. Then all of a sudden, we’re doing a reading. And you go over and you’re introduced to people.” He felt that charging money changed the spirit of the event and audience expectations. “The readings that I’ve enjoyed the most, they’re just a free event.” But Stone was not averse to someone passing the hat after an author event, if certain needs were stated. “I would put ten frigging dollars in that hat.”

* * *

What do these conversations tell us? It reveals that people like Lucas and Doug Stone often attend author events when it is random and that these happy accidents can produce potential acolytes. Nearly all of these customers see the author event as an experience to get to know the author beyond the book. Attending an event represents a perceived social experience. A $5 fee not only created the distinct possibility that debut, experimental, and unknown authors would be cut out of the loop, but it created new demands upon authors and bookstores. Would authors be required to perform? Should the authors be compensated? Would the audience demand more?

“Paid author events are common in Europe,” says novelist Stewart O’Nan. “In fact, a free author event would be uncommon, and even those are subsidized by the publishers and bookstores in co-op fashion, with the author being paid for each and every tour appearance. Because the author, when not writing, is being asked to be a performing artist. What other professional would be asked to travel across the country and perform their work for free? Even the lowliest dive bar has to give the band half of the door. This ain’t open mike night. The store provides the venue & the advertising & logistics, so they should definitely get a cut, but the author, being the attraction, should definitely be compensated.”

“Author events are a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, in a way,” says memoirist Alison Bechdel, who also offered an idea of authors performing foot massages for a small fee and splitting the take with the bookstore. “It’s understood that the bookstore and the author and the publisher all have a stake and a responsibility, but it’s a complex, overlapping mix in which you all depend on one another and work as hard as you can to have a successful event. All three parties want to sell the book. But there are other, less commodifiable, elements in the mix. It’s worth something to readers to have access to an author. It’s worth something to authors to have the opportunity to reach readers. It’s worth something to bookstores to get traffic and possible new customers. And when, inevitably, there’s an event that no one shows up to, the toll is not just financial — it’s depressing.

Stephanie Anderson, manager of the independent bookstore WORD Brooklyn, concludes that the author is being compensated on some level. “We’ve definitely noticed a strong correlation between how much an author and audience connect and how many books sell. I know royalties aren’t huge, but they are a good reason to want to sell a lot of your own book.”

I reached Tayari Jones by telephone as she was in the middle of a very involved indie-friendly tour for her latest novel, Silver Sparrow. Jones said that she was very grateful to the independents for their support of her book and that she wanted to do whatever she could for them. But she did express some reservations about paid author events could solve present problems.

“We need to raise awareness,” said Jones. “But I think that charging money feels punitive.”

Jones brought up a hypothetical example of a customer driving all the way from Detroit to an Ann Arbor bookstore and being turned away because she didn’t have the $5. “Can you imagine that?” Jones said that she didn’t want anybody turned away. Would this mean authors and publishers subsidizing author events for those facing financial hardship? I asked Jones if she would pay out of pocket. “$100,” said Jones. “I could front twenty people.”

Jones has adopted one strategy of informing her audience why it’s important to purchase a book at an indie — even if members of her audience have already done so. “It’s worked every time.” She notes that when such a request comes from the author (instead of the bookseller), it tends to have a less partial perception.

* * *

“My bottom line is this,” says novelist Jennifer Weiner. “I don’t think authors have any business telling readers where or when to buy their books. Would I love it if everyone bought my new hardcover the day it was published at Headhouse Books, which is my neighborhood independent in Philadelphia? Absolutely. Do I understand if they’ve got e-readers, or can find the books more cheaply at Sam’s Club or Target, or wait for the paperback, or visit the library because a hardcover isn’t in their budget? Absolutely. I’m grateful to have people reading my books, however and whenever they do it.”

Weiner hopes that struggling independent booksellers can consider the long-term customer. “Maybe the graduate student or young mom who shows up at my reading isn’t going to drop $27 on my newest hardcover, but maybe she will buy a trade paperback, and a few Judy Moodys for her kid. So the store’s making money, even if it’s not on my book. Or the putative reader won’t buy the book that day, but she’ll get it in two weeks. Or she won’t get it at all, but she’ll tell a friend, who will then buy a copy.”

Still, as former bookstore marketing manager Colleen Lindsay has observed, the author event is fraught with significant costs, including expenditures for returned books and those customers who couldn’t purchase a book that they wanted.

Off-site events, such as WORD Brooklyn’s recent ticketed event with China Mieville, have made a difference. “I think ticketing the event and having the vast majority of the books pre-purchased ended up making the event a better one overall,” says Anderson. “We and the venue were able to properly plan because we knew how many people were coming, which made setting up and transitioning from Mieville’s interview to his signing much easier (and meant he could spend more time with fans). It also meant that the act of commerce was essentially disassociated from the event, because everyone had already paid. There was no pressure to buy, because everyone had already bought. The staff could spend more time talking with people and helping out, instead of running a million credit cards. We did have some backlist titles available for sale and sold a few, but most people just got right in line with the book they had gotten when they walked in the door, and it all went very smoothly.”

Yet O’Nan suggests that shifting to a pay-for-play model generates additional problems of writers competing with celebrity writers. “Sarah Palin will sell a truckload more books and draw much bigger crowds than, say, Tom Wolfe,” says O’Nan, “who will sell a truckload more books and draw a much bigger crowd than, say, Steven Millhauser. In the end, is the idea merely to turn out the largest crowd and make the largest profit (and to sell the largest number of copies)? If so, book Sarah Palin. If it’s to enjoy the genius of a master storyteller, call Steven Millhauser. I’ll pay good money to see him.”

“There many be some evolution towards a revenue share model similar to what you see at a music venue, where they book in an act and share the door with the performer,” says Christin Evans, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco. “We’d be open to considering that type of model. We already have a similar arrangement with the performer as our monthly adult cabaret event, The Literary Clown Foolery.”

Jones, O’Nan, and Weiner all tell me that they work very hard at their author events.

“I bring an A-game regardless,” says Jones. “There could be no more additional pressure.”

“I go out and give my all every time, whether I’m being paid decent money at a big university or reading for free at a tiny library,” says O’Nan.

“My secret weapon is baked goods,” says Weiner.

But do performance elements — what the dedicated bookstore customer might call “schtick” — create new demands for authors and bookstores in the 21st century?

Glenn Kenny suggests that some of these performance elements have been there all along. “I remember going to benefit events,” says Kenny, “which combined readings with music. It was something that McSweeney’s did after 9/11 at Angel Orensanz that had Chuck Klosterman reading from Fargo Rock City and David Byrne doing a PowerPoint presentation. So those things, which are packaged like entertainment events, they make more sense to be paid events, per se. But a plain reading might not necessarily be it. But I can’t rule anything out.”

While Weiner says that she would pay considerably more than $5 to listen to author Jen Lancaster, which she compares to “attending a stand-up performance,” author events can sometimes work in reverse.

“Some authors just aren’t very good at the performance component of this job,” says Weiner. “Which doesn’t mean they’re bad writers. It just means that maybe they aren’t necessarily the ones publishers and bookstores should send on the road and make readers pay to hear. And yes, there is something a little off-putting about charging for an event and the author, and her publisher, and whoever interviewed her if it was a Q and A, not seeing a cent of the money, particularly since publishers are the ones who pay to send authors on the road. I can see that independent bookstores feel like they need to take a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to cultivating revenue streams, but maybe there’s an approach where a bookstore could say, ‘If we clear more than X dollars that night, we’ll split the cost of the author’s plane ticket and hotel stay with her publisher.’ And anyone who volunteers his or her time to interview an author should at the very least get a gift card, or a few books for their trouble.”

It remains to be seen if paid author events will become a new regular fixture at this early stage in the game. In the meantime, some authors simply hope to go on with their business.

“The road of thinking that what we do is simply quantifiable — my ‘words’ or my ‘appearance’ having some fixed value — is the path of madness,” says Jonathan Lethem. “I’m just glad that anyone cares at all to either read the work or come catch a glimpse of me, and anything a bookstore can do to go on being a bookstore is just fine with me.”

“Everything is an experiment in the book business,” says Sherman Alexie. “We are talking about writers and independent booksellers. We are not talking about economic geniuses. We are all flailing.”

(Images: Rebecca Williamson, Daniel Huggard, bitchcakesny, Steve Rhodes)

The Other Google Super Bowl Commercial: Chicago Paranoia

Google’s heartwarming Super Bowl ad, “Parisian Love,” has been viewed by more than three million people on YouTube. But were you aware of “Chicago Paranoia” — the more disturbing version of the ad?

The above video could not have been assembled without the help of CamStudio and the invaluable Lagarith Lossless Video Codec — both of which can be downloaded for free.

The Super Bowl: Madison Avenue Misogyny

It was a great game, perhaps the most gripping final NFL showdown of the past five years, with a second half opening with a daring onside kick and Garrett Hartley becoming the first placekicker to make three field goals over forty yards in any Super Bowl. Marvelous. And I might have come away from the annual experience howling in the streets for my avenged Jets, had not my viewing been sullied by an atavistic rash of misogynistic commercials.

Granted, your average redblooded spectator does not necessarily watch television sports commercials with the intent of seeing women presented as positive role models. We’ve become used to seeing women objectified, often dressed in bikinis and/or using their anatomy to sell some vacuous commercial experience. But Super Bowl XLIV’s commercials were much different. They were cruder and uglier, going well out of their way to not only objectify women, but to suggest that anyone with a vagina who asserted herself should be ridiculed.

There was the Motorola commercial featuring a naked Megan Fox in a bubble bath, referring to her phone as “this little guy” and permitting her objectified photographic form to cause a series of disruptions. But that was comparatively modest with the misogyny to come. There was the FloTV commercial in which a man suffered from an allegorical injury in which his girlfriend had removed his spine, “rendering him incapable of watching the game.” FloTV’s underlying idea, of course, was that women could not possibly enjoy football and that women are natural ballbusters who force their boyfriends to go shopping. There was the Dodge Charger Commercial, in which various men are seen, with their internal thoughts voiced by Dexter star Michael C. Hall, who announces the perfunctory domestic demands from other women: “I will eat some fruit as part of my breakfast. I will shave. I will clean the sink after I shave.”

But the real big-prick offender was probably Bud Light’s Book Club ad (which can be viewed above), which combined its misogynistic message with an anti-reading subtext. The commercial begins with a woman describing how there’s “so much passion” within the book she’s reading. A man then arrives wearing a sports T-shirt and shorts, saying, “Have a nice book club. I’ll be at the game.” He then eyes several chilled bottles of Bud Light and then sits down on a couch between two women, rudely interrupting their discussion. “So what’s the story?” he says, as some rock and roll music emerges onto the soundtrack. “We were discussing the relationship of two women…”

“Two women,” he interrupts, immediately connoting a lesbian fantasy, perhaps with the two women he is squeezed between.

“…who are thrust in by war,” continues the woman.

“Oooh,” he replies. “Thrusting.”

“A war neither of them understands,” she continues, offering a modest nod that indicates her role as either patient nurturer or someone barely able to understand the book that she’s discussing.

“Awesome,” he says. “Good times. I love Book Club!”

And in a rather sly move by the director, sealing the woman’s objectified place, the woman’s red sweater slips down her left shoulder, revealing more of her anatomy.

We cut back after a product announcement and observe an exchange between the man and another woman. The book club has degenerated into a beer drinking session.

This new woman says, “So then do you like Little Women?” (Little, get it?)

He says, “Yeah, I’m not too picky. No.” And the commercial then stops, ending on this open-ended sexual proposition.

Here then is the ad’s anti-women and anti-reading worldview: Women, no matter what their goals, aspirations, or interests, have no other role in society other than getting fucked by men. Let women have their “little” book clubs, which can be easily interrupted on a masculine whim and which women will never dare object to. They will set everything aside to give you head or to serve you beer.

And, by the way, if you’re a man, you don’t even need to read to get ahead in the world. (Indeed, one of the commercial’s curious philosophical positions is that one cannot both enjoy beer — at least the stuff better than the undrinkable swill that is being sold in this commercial — and books. Speaking as a man who enjoys beer, books, and football, and who finds intelligent women far sexier than empty-headed centerfolds, I happily refute these stereotypes through my very existence.)

Some might argue that the advertisement is not intended to be taken seriously — that it is a jocular offering to be easily disregarded. But because the Super Bowl is watched by close to 100 million people and because the Super Bowl commercials are subjected to such intense post-game scrutiny (to cite one example, as I write this essay, a message now appears at the top of YouTube: “Watch and Vote on Your Favorite Commercials from Super Bowl Sunday. Vote Now.”), it is perhaps more important for us to consider the impact that one Super Bowl commercial has on its audience. Let us assume that 1% of the Super Bowl audience (or about 1 million) take the Book Club advertisement seriously. Will they, in turn, be inspired to avoid books and break up female book clubs?

The great irony here is that these misogynist commercials were aired, including an anti-abortion Focus on the Family advocacy ad, even as CBS rejected a gay online dating commercial. And, indeed, if women are deemed so problematic by the Madison Avenue hucksters, then why shouldn’t the audience consider a man instead?

The open-ended question of whether Super Bowl commercials should be guided by some morality was indeed broached by Chicago Tribune religious reporter Manya Brachear. To this, I would respond that Super Bowl XXXVIII’s infamous Nipplegate controversy established very clear moral guidelines. Show part of a woman’s breast (adorned with nipple plate) and you will be hounded by the FCC and Christian moralists. But feel free to objectify a woman’s breast all you like. Because the need to sell more Coca-Cola outweighs human dignity.

[UPDATE: A reader correctly points out that, in this essay’s original form, I confused this year’s Teleflora ad, which involved a similar setup, with last year’s Teleflora ad. Accordingly, I have removed the following description from the piece, preserving it at the end to demonstrate another example of Madison Avenue’s commitment to Super Bowl misogyny: “Then there was the despicable Teleflora ad, in which a woman receives flowers and the flowers talk back, ‘Oh no! Look at the mug on you! Diane, you’re a trainwreck. That’s why he always sent a box of flowers. Go home to your romance novels and your fat smelly cat,’ followed by another sully: ‘Nobody wants to see you naked.’ The Teleflora commercial presented an additional punchline: a male office worker named Gary who comes up to Diane not to ask if she’s okay, but to announce, ‘I’d like to see you naked’ (surely a violation of sexual harassment law), before being cut off by the humiliated Diane.]

[UPDATE 2: Survival of the Book’s Brianoffers a thoughtful response to my post, pointing out one minor point I neglected to mention — that the women were the ones who procured the Bud Lights for their own enjoyment in the commercial. This raises the possibility that they were trying to get rid of the jock so that they could enjoy their beer with their books. It’s a fair interpretation: one that I might entirely agree with, had the women not been presented as sex objects in the latter portion of the commercial. Brian’s interpretation permits the Book Club to serve as a male fantasy. But if this crude male fantasy involves sneering down at women and books, then I stand by my original assessment.]


Interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland

This morning, the Federal Trade Commission announced that its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials would be revised in relation to bloggers. The new guidelines (PDF) specified that bloggers making any representation of a product must disclose the material connections they (the presumed endorsers) share with the advertisers. What this means is that, under the new guidelines, a blogger’s positive review of a product may qualify as an “endorsement” and that keeping a product after a review may qualify as “compensation.”

These guidelines, which will be effective as of December 1, 2009, require all bloggers to disclose any tangible connections. But as someone who reviews books for both print and online, I was struck by the inherent double standard. And I wasn’t the only one. As Michael Cader remarked in this morning’s Publishers Marketplace:

The main point of essence for book publishers (and book bloggers) is the determination that “bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media.” They state that “if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an ‘endorsement,'” due to either a relationship with the “advertiser” or the receipt of free merchandise in the seeking of a review, that connection must be disclosed.

ftcIn an attempt to better understand the what and the why of the FTC’s position, I contacted Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection by telephone, who was kind enough to devote thirty minutes of his time in a civil but heated conversation. (At one point, when I tried to get him to explicate further on the double standard, he declared, “You’re obviously astute enough to understand what I mean.”)

Cleland informed me that the FTC’s main criteria is the degree of relationship between the advertiser and the blogger.

“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.

What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?

“You can return it,” said Cleland. “You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation.”

If, however, you held onto the unit, then Cleland insisted that it could serve as “compensation.” You could after all sell the product on the streets.

But what about a situation like a film blogger going to a press screening? Or a theater blogger seeing a preview? After all, the blogger doesn’t actually hold onto a material good.

“The movie is not retainable,” answered Cleland. “Obviously it’s of some value. But I guess that my only answer is the extent that it is viewed as compensation as an individual who got to see a movie.”

But what’s the difference between an individual employed at a newspaper assigned to cover a beat and an individual blogger covering a beat of her own volition?

“We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review,” said Cleland. “In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products.”

In the case of books, Cleland saw no problem with a blogger receiving a book, provided there wasn’t a linked advertisement to buy the book and that the blogger did not keep the book after he had finished reviewing it. Keeping the book would, from Cleland’s standpoint, count as “compensation” and require a disclosure.

But couldn’t the same thing be said of a newspaper critic?

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”

Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.

“I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid,” said Cleland. “His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side.”

From Cleland’s standpoint, because the reviewer is an individual, the product becomes “compensation.”

“If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review,” said Cleland, “then there should be a disclosure.”

But why shouldn’t a newspaper have to disclose about the many free books that it receives? According to Cleland, it was because a newspaper, as an institution, retains the ownership of a book. The newspaper then decides to assign the book to somebody on staff and therefore maintains the “ownership” of the book until the reviewer dispenses with it.

I presented many hypothetical scenarios in an effort to determine where Cleland stood. He didn’t see any particular problem with a book review appearing on a blog, but only if there wasn’t a corresponding Amazon Affiliates link or an advertisement for the book.

In cases where a publisher is advertising one book and the blogger is reviewing another book by the same publisher, Cleland replied, “I don’t know. I would reserve judgment on that. My initial reaction to it is that it doesn’t seem like a relationship.”

Wasn’t there a significant difference between a publisher sending a book for review and a publisher sending a book with a $50 check attached to it? Not according to Cleland. A book falls under “compensation” if it comes associated with an Amazon link or there is an advertisement for the book, or if the reviewer holds onto the book.

“You simply don’t agree, which is your right,” responded Cleland.

Disagreement was one thing. But if I failed to disclose, would I be fined by the FTC? Not exactly.

Cleland did concede that the FTC was still in the process of working out the kinks as it began to implement the guidelines.

“These are very complex situations that are going to have to looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not there is a sufficient nexus, a sufficient compensation between the seller and the blogger, and so what we have done is to provide some guidance in this area. And some examples in this area where there’s an endorsement.”

Cleland elaborated: “I think that as we get more specific examples, ultimately we hope to put out some business guidance on specific examples. From an enforcement standpoint, there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers. Our goal is to the extent that we can educate on these issues. Looking at individual bloggers is not going to be an effective enforcement model.”

Cleland indicated that he would be looking primarily at the advertisers to determine how the relationships exist.

[UPDATE: One unanswered concern that has emerged in the reactions to this interview is the degree of disclosure that the FTC would require with these guidelines. Would the FTC be happy with a blanket policy or would it require a separate disclosure for each individual post? I must stress again that Cleland informed me that enforcement wouldn’t make sense if individual bloggers were targeted. The FTC intends to direct its energies to advertisers. Nevertheless, I’ve emailed Cleland to determine precisely where he stands on disclosure. And when I hear back from him, I will update this post accordingly.]

[UPDATE 2: Cleland hasn’t returned my email. But his response in this article in relation to Twitter (“There are ways to abbreviate a disclosure that fit within 140 characters”) suggest that bloggers will be required to disclose per post/tweet.]

[UPDATE 3: A commenter has suggested: Why not return or forward all the review copies that you receive directly to Mr. Cleland?]

[UPDATE 4: In an October 8, 2009 interview with Fast Company, Cleland has backpedaled somewhat, claiming that the $11,000 fine is not true and indicating that the FTC will be “focusing on the advertisers.” The problem is that page 61 of the proposed guidelines clearly states, “Endorsers also may be liable for statements made in the course of their endorsements.” And endorsers, as we have established in this interview, include bloggers. However, Cleland is right to point out that the guidelines do not point to a specific liability figure and that it would take a blogger openly defying a Cease & Desist Order to enact penalties. The Associated Press was the first to report the $11,000 fine per violation. Did somebody at the AP misreport the penalty information? Or was it misinterpreted?

Some investigation into FTC precedents would suggest that the AP reported these concerns correctly. Here are some precedents for the up to $11,000 fine per violation: non-compliance of wedding gown label disclosure, non-compliance of contact lens sellers, and an update to the federal register. On Monday, the FTC precedents establish heavy penalties for non-compliance, the the guidelines themselves specify penalties as endorsers, and Cleland insists that bloggers who review products are “endorsers.” On Wednesday, Cleland now claims that bloggers won’t be hit by penalties. The FTC needs to be extremely specific about this on paper, if it expects to allay these concerns. (Thanks to Sarah Weinman for reporting assistance on this update.)]

Is Conan O’Brien a Corporate Shill?

We saw Prime Minster John Key on David Letterman’s show pushing Cinnabon while reading the Top Ten List. But what happens if you’re a world leader who appears on a late night program and you don’t even have a choice? Take Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s September 28, 2009 appearance on The Tonight Show. The production team grabbed a clip and decided to add subtitles featuring Subway products. Indeed, Conan O’Brien’s zeal for Subway is so strong that he interrupts jockey Joe Talamo, which you can see at the 0:47 mark. Does Conan just like Subway sandwiches or does he have a sponsor to appease?

This is the third video in the “corporate shill” series, which follows Jay Leno and David Letterman. In deciding whether or not Conan O’Brien fits the shilling bill, you may want to ask why O’Brien makes reference to two recent consumer events (The Gap founder dying and The Wizard of Oz DVD coming out this week) two nights in a row.

Is David Letterman a Corporate Shill?

While David Letterman isn’t as prolific as Jay Leno with his in-show hawking, Letterman does shower his opening monologues with products. Applebee’s and Hooters are frequent mentions. But very often, Letterman will name a product and speak of it in a way that is reminiscent of a commercial. Watch how Letterman names KOA at the 0:10 mark and starts talking about KOA’s electrical hookup, swimming pools, and vending machines. (Paul Shaffer is heard reinforcing this by responding, “They have everything you need.”) Later, in the same show, Letterman’s writers have embedded StairMaster into a joke. Letterman is also given the opportunity to drop a few products during the Stupid Pet Tricks segment. Presumably, the chihuahua was chosen not because of the trick, but in order for Letterman to offer the crack about the Taco Bell chihuahua.

One fishy quality on Late Show (and not even Leno does this quite so explicitly with his guests) is the way that products enter into these interviews. We’ll see a particularly offensive example of a product within an interview in a future segment of the “Corporate Shill” series which I’ll be unloading later in the week. But for the moment, observe how The Mentalist star Simon Baker drops Kmart and Mars Bar into his story. Why can’t Baker simply say that his mother worked as a security guard? And why does Baker say “Mars Bar” instead of “candy bar?” Might it have something to do with the fact that Mars Inc is a major advertiser on Letterman? [UPDATE: A commenter points out that the Mars Bar was discontinued in the States in 2000, replaced by the Snickers Almond.]

But perhaps the most astonishing moment here is Prime Minister John Key pushing Cinnabon while reading the top ten list. As we shall see, world leaders are fair game for hawking products, often without knowing it.

Is Jay Leno a Corporate Shill?

You’d think that with a whopping 20 minutes carved out of an hour for commercials, the actual television program itself would be devoid of commercials, right? Not so. Jay Leno has a considerable preoccupation with naming products on his show (and, in the video above, interviewing the Wendy’s girl). The above video, featuring moments only from the September 25, 2009 episode of The Jay Leno Show, features blatant references to Cialis, Walmart, Photoshop, Waffle House, numerous tire companies, Wendy’s, and Microsoft’s Bing, calling into question the notion that The Jay Leno Show is an entertainment program. With all of these mentions, you’d think that Jay Leno was running a glorified infomercial.

Amazon Presents The Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind since. “Bounty! The quicker picker-upper.”

“Whenever you feel like criticising any one,” he also told me, “just remember a little dab’ll do ya and all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had. Think different.”

He didn’t say any more, betcha can’t eat just one, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, please don’t squeeze the Charmin’, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. Make a run for the border. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, an army of one, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Screw yourself. IKEA. Most of the confidences were unsought — R-O-L-A-I-D-S spells relief — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that Ivory, it floats! An intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon — it’s not TV, it’s HBO — for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. American Airlines. You’re going to like us! Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I’d walk a mile for a Camel. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. Diet Pepsi. Same time tomorrow?

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Say it with flowers. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. You can be sure of Shell. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. All the news that’s fit to print. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. Reach out and touch someone. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. Fly the friendly skies. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” — it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic
readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. It’s everywhere you want to be. No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. Just do it.

(With thanks to Paul Constant for aiding and abetting. Related news here.)

Podcasting to Outperform Radio?

Some new figures released by the Radio Advertising Bureau suggest that radio is now facing problems. At both the local and national levels, radio revenue has dropped over the past year. Off-air revenue growth, meaning advertising that comes with podcasts and digital downloads, has surpassed the RAB’s expectations. It is expected to reach $2 billion by the end of 2008, almost a full year ahead of the RAB’s projected timeline.

I don’t know if these trends will result in radio people calling podcasters maggots or claiming them to be trapped within a basement in Terre Haute. But the upshot is that podcasting isn’t going away anytime soon.

The Future of Newspapers and Litblogs: A Thought Experiment

In yesterday’s Huffington Post, publicist Lissa Warren expressed her dismay in “the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs.” She complained that blogs “don’t actually review books” (emphasis in original) and that bloggers are nothing more than helpful cherry pickers ferreting out the best content.

This, of course, is poppycock. Scott Esposito continues to turn out issues of The Quarterly Conversation and is now making efforts to pay his contributors. Aside from the almost two hundred hours of podcasts available at The Bat Segundo Show, this website has featured many lengthy roundtable discussions of books, running during the week of pub date, including T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, and Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. (Powers and Baker both joined in during the final installments of their respective roundtables.) The Human Smoke discussion alone generated some 20,000 words of commentary among fifteen people, with asides on second generation Holocaust historians, World War I history, and sundry topics. This week, Talking Points Memo is featuring a lengthy discussion on Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Meanwhile, Mark Sarvas has been allowing his readers to see what goes into the writing of a review. This summer, Colleen Mondor helped to organize the Summer Blog Blast Tour (far from the first of this type), which featured a comprehensive series of helpful discussions about contemporary YA titles that even the purportedly best book review sections have not broached because of innate genre prejudices.

Do these efforts represent a replacement for book review sections? Well, if one hopes to find a facsimile of book review sections online, probably not. But it would take an exceptionally rigid and incurious mind to settle merely on a clone. If one wishes to discover forms of literary commentary that serve the same function as a book review section, it is extremely difficult not to find online exemplars in alternative forms.

Warren’s complaints about litblogs fall into the same tired explanations that have been bandied about by the likes of Sven Birkerts, Michael Dirda, and numerous other myopists who are incapable of accepting an alternative that has been carrying on for a good five years. The objections are less about function, or even the content (conveniently, examples of the litblogs’s inadequacies are never cited by the naysayers), and more about form and especially control. Impulsive thought cannot be accepted because it remains impulsive. Never mind that many newspaper book sections, because of the deadline-oriented nature of the business, remain somewhat impulsive and often fail to include numerous examples from the text when considering a book. (Consider, for example, Charles Taylor’s review of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, which appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. We are afforded a summary of Akpan’s offerings. But despite having 1,200 words of space, Taylor only cites a few sentences from the novella, “Luxurious Hearses.” Taylor prefers generalized speculation about the book, rather than the kind of rigorous dissections of text that one expects of a critic.)

The print boosters remain hostile to the idea that an online medium can not only modify the manner in which critics and readers approach a book, but generate innovative methods of expanding one’s relationship to a text. So litblogs are deemed inferior not necessarily because the content is inferior, but because there are doubts about the methods and manner in which litblogs transmit information.

I will agree that if one is looking for the online equivalent of the New York Times Book Review, it’s simply not going to be found on litblogs. And that is because most litblogs, on the whole, aren’t interested in perpetuating a form of literary journalism that, while often quite valuable, has grown tiresome and often predictable. And it is the unpredictablity and spontaneity of litblogs that offer both a literary renaissance and a threat to those who wish to uphold print’s humorless and oft passionless status quo.

On Monday, I posted a lengthy lexicon of very specific Yorkshire dialect terms used in Ross Raisin’s novel, God’s Own Country (known in the States as Out Backward). It was an effort not only to aid my own understanding of Raisin’s book, but also to assist other readers in negotiating the fascinating linguistic terrain of a novel that, according to a recent Google News search, has only been reviewed in one American news outlet: a 200 word “verdict” and “background” in the Library Journal. The book was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. This failure on the part of American print outlets to include Raisin’s novel in a timely manner suggests considerable print deficiencies.

The Raisin example also suggests that litblogs are not only covering books that are ignored by the seemingly impeccable vanguard, but that litblogs are presenting new forms of coverage that are inconceivable to Sam Tanenhaus and, yes, even a dutiful reformer like David Ulin. Unprohibited by length and unhindered by house style or crazy billionaires who don’t know how to run a newspaper empire, litblogs are in a position to change the journalistic terrain, possibly usurping freelance reviewers if a comparable revenue model can be established.

While I disagree with Kassia Krozser’s assertions about gender imbalance at the Los Angeles Times Book Review for reasons similar to Carolyn Kellogg’s (disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to the Los Angeles Times), Ms. Krozser is correct to point out that the hand-wringing about book review cuts has indeed represented a sense of entitlement. Not a single books editor, litblogger, or freelance reviewer is entitled to the lives they lead. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of generating content that will ensure that the writer can carry on writing. But if one operates on a smaller scale, then the financial obligation is seriously reduced (assuming that one wishes to make this sort of life one’s center) and the writer’s freedom to write in any fashion is greatly augmented.

So perhaps what we’re really seeing here is a situation in which the leading online voices will carry on doing what they are doing, with the unusual and passionate voices prohibited by the constant scrutiny of newspaper executives, precisely because the financial demands of supporting one individual are lesser than the costs and overhead of running a large newspaper or magazine. As Howard Junker observed yesterday, ad sales for the Atlantic have declined 11% in the last month. For Vanity Fair, the sales were considerably more severe, dropping a whopping 49%. With print advertising starting to dip, the onus now falls upon newspapers and magazines to either (a) increase advertising to support current operating costs or (b) reduce operating costs to bring the outlet in line with the reduced advertising. But if newspapers and print boosters will remain obdurate about these apparent online yahoos, the onus also falls upon litbloggers to find sustainable revenue models that will permit them to operate independently.

I should observe that the cost of a full-page advertisement in People Magazine is $250,000. I cannot speak for other bloggers, but it is safe to say that I could live off of this sum for a good five years and be relatively happy. I think it’s also safe to say that the money could also be allocated to other writers to turn in high quality freelance reviews for this site. Now imagine if a People advertiser wised up to this idea and decided to sponsor me (or another blogger) for five years. The People full-page advertisement fades away from public consciousness in a week, but the advertisement would run here for five years to a more limited, but very specific niche audience. Because there is only one sponsor, my editorial integrity would be fairly well preserved and I wouldn’t have to fear upsetting many sponsors who keep a big newspaper operation afloat. I would not need to always pander to a mass audience by reviewing the latest by a big name author. Small press and genre authors tossed out with the galleys deemed extraneous could be included with the same rigor that a newspaper grants the celebrated big names. Gender imbalances, whether genuine or perceived, could be greatly remedied.

If enough bloggers were to initiate an advertising scenario along these lines, it is safe to say that blogs could adequately replace newspaper book review sections, adopting both the form of the well-considered essay featured in book review sections as well as many alternative forms now practiced and conjured up by current litbloggers. I don’t know if the newspapers have discussed this possibility, and I don’t know how many litbloggers have truly considered this ambition. But the time has come to set a precedent. If this does occur — and it just might — then it may very well be the print contributors who begin coming around to the online venues. Let us not respond with the same snobbery and entitlement.

“Unlike a Lot of Women, I Like Beer!”

Well, who knew that there weren’t a lot of women who imbibed beer in the 1970s? That is, if we believe Michelob.

There are important questions that must be answered:

1. Who determined that “a lot of women” didn’t like beer? (And this stereotype, despite some progress, has remained a problem in recent years.)

2. How did they decide upon the seven ounce bottle? (And why seven? I mean, if these domestic women drinkers were ostensibly dainty, why not settle for four or five?)

3. Considering that the first shot is very careful to include a gesture of this woman putting down her purse, was this beer an attempt to market to the professional woman? Or the more civilized housewife trying to create a more level gender playing field? (Sentence in this commercial to support the latter rhetorical question: “And he likes it too!” So is the husband the one here making the compromise? Or is MICH VII intended to be the compromise to maintain happy marriages?)

I can find no trace of what happened to MICH VII, although several vintage mirrors seem to be available on eBay.

Andy Warhol Film as Political Campaign Commercial?

RELATED: IMDB User Comments for “Empire” “Empire has got to be considered one of the most suspenseful movies ever made. 485 minutes, with every one of them keeping you on the edge of your seat, seemingly impossible for an eight-hour movie to accomplish. The scene changes are so subtle and quick, they barely seem to happen, making you feel as if the story hasn’t changed, all setting up each individual shock. The acting is fantastic, each character so stoic and emotionless, as if they aren’t in the scenes in the first place. Warhol does a fantastic job at threading each scene together, to make it appear as if it is just one ongoing one. Absolutely ridiculous that the AFI refused to include it in its 100 thrills list. See it, and prepare to have your imagination and sense of reality warped.”

Proud Sponsors of BlogHer

I, Asshole: “I heard innumerable women redub this stuff ‘Ass Water.’ I didn’t try it, and was pretty irritated that in eighty-five degree weather my choice was to go into the hotel and drop a dolla sixty-five for a bottle of filtered water, have iced tap water from a pitcher at the back of the panel sessions, or I could have as much Ass Water as I could hold. That’s kind of backhanded for the men who were there, too. ‘Here, Man, have some Lady Water. Fatty.'”

Google: Putting the Pussy Into Pussycat Journalism?

East Bay Express: “Unfortunately, when Google withholds advertising it also withholds the accompanying revenue, cutting off money whenever Web sites publish stories it deems too violent or tragic. Regardless of how important a story may be, the company’s algorithm pulls its advertising whenever it detects too much carnage. Asked if Google would display ads next to stories about the recent Israeli massacre of Lebanese children, for example, Ghosemajumder says, ‘That’s an example of something that is very difficult to find sensitive advertising [for].’ The larger Google gets, and the more indispensable it becomes to news-related Web sites, the bigger this problem will become.”

Amazon Author Blogs

I suppose the move was inevitable, but Amazon has started hosting author blogs. The highest profile name on the list is Meg Wolitzer, whose posts can be found here. But I can’t buy into the ethics of a retailer pushing a blog while simultaneously encouarging people to buy things. Whatever the merits of Wolitzer’s posts, however much she feels that “Anything that can get fiction on people’s radar is good,” I get the unsettling aura of Shirley Maclaine talking with the dead during an infomercial.

Even the language of Wolitzer’s posts sounds as if it’s been lifted from a sleep-inducing MBA seminar. One reads, “I feel that writers need to remind readers why they ought to read novels. Fiction writers need to put the truth about the world into their books. Actually, in some sense, they need to put the world into their books.”

If we switch “readers” with “consumers,” “writers” with “corporations” and books with “Coca-Cola,” we get the following entry: “I feel that corporations need to remind consumers why they ought to drink Coca-Cola. Corporations need to put the truth about the world into their products. Actualy, in some sense they need to put the world into their Coca-Cola.” We’re clearly leagues away from Paris Review-style insight.

Granted, it’s easy to argue that 90% of blogs are vapid. But even a lousy LiveJournal is written with a voice of integrity and authenticity, likely because the shady influence of advertising is far from the impetus.

I understand the need to market books, particularly given the oversaturated fiction market. But author websites seem to me a better way to do this. Not only do they serve as a reference point which is compatible with both buying the book (if desired) and finding out about an author, but in the case of such authors as Michelle Richmond, John Scalzi, Tayari Jones and Jennifer Weiner, they become blossoming entities which emerge from their initial purpose, leading to impassioned discussions about plagiarism, race and the stigma against chick lit. But I doubt very highly that these conversations could have developed had these respective sites been hosted by Amazon (let alone any monolithic sponsor) because the concerns of offending the boys upstairs or attracting a broad readership tainted the posts.

And here’s a question someone should ask: does Amazon “place” blogs the same way that Barnes & Noble cuts deals with publishers for placement? Is there some clickthrough rate tied into whether or not Meg Wolitzer, for example, will get placement on the main page? When the overwhelming reason to blog is to move product, surely the motivation behind the posts will be moulded to ensure presence and survival.

In the end, I think the Amazon blog is going to hurt Wolitzer more than it’s going to help her. What could have been a way for readers to elicit honest feedback from Wolitzer has turned instead into one of those Gap Kids commercials. Initially, you’re dazzled by the performance. But as the initial allure wears off, you begin cluing into the fact that it’s a commercial (in this case, the realization that Wolitzer isn’t going to rock the boat, much less provide anything even slightly subversive). My guess is that Wolitzer will be communicating with the dead, blogwise at least. Sooner than she thinks.

[UPDATE: Galleycat’s Ron Hogan challenges my assumption, suggesting, for example, that a Uzodinma Iweala essay (by comparison, a one-shot deal rather than a continuous commitment) appearing at Powell’s might be reified as “too corporate.” I should point out that, although Iweala’s essay appears on a major retailer’s site, at least Powell’s has made more of an effort to distinguish its content from its marketing, confining all marketing links in rounded yellow boxes. In other words, we have a clear separation between marketing and editorial rather than Amazon’s “anything goes” principle, with its links just under “Meg Wolitzer’s Amazon Blog” going directly to “buy this book” links. Ron is misconstruing my argument. Again, as I pointed out above, I raise no objection to the need to sell books (in fact, while I’m not a fan of advertising, I nevertheless applaud Media Bistro for placing its advertisements in clearly delineated squares so as not to mislead readers). My concern here is over the blurring of marketing and editorial and the impact this is likely to have on worthwhile content (meaning that Wolitzer’s blog is not so much about Wolitzer the author but Wolitzer the book merchant, for her books, without the pivotal distinction, are now contextualized as laundry detergent rather than as works of art). It is no less invalid an argument than the concerns raised earlier in the year over the Target-sponsored New Yorker or what’s referred to in the MeFi world as Pepsi Blue. (See also this OJR article about ethical standards in the blogosphere.)]

The Tanenhaus Ad Count

While the Brownie Watch may be on hiatus (I expect to revive it in December), I decided to analyze the ads in relation to the content. Here then is a rundown of the ads in the November 13, 2005 NYTBR issue:

PAGE 2: Full-page ad — HaperCollins.
PAGE 3: Half-page ad — Miramax Books.
PAGE 4: Half-page ad — Foucs Films.
PAGE 5: Full-page ad — Hyperion Books.
PAGE 6: Third-page ad — Norton.
PAGE 7: Full-page ad — iUniverse.
PAGE 8: Eighth-page sliver — Tor.
PAGE 9: Eighth-page sliver — Norton.
PAGE 13: Full-page ad — Bauman Rare Books.
PAGE 18: Third-page ad — Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
PAGE 19: Full-page ad — Penguin Young Readers.
PAGE 25: Full-page ad — Scholastic.
PAGE 26: Third-page ad — Random House Children’s Books.
PAGE 27: Third-page ad — Random House Children’s Books.
PAGE 29: Full-page ad — Disney Book Group.
PAGE 31: Half-page ad — Charlesbridge, Roaring Brook and Peachtree Atlanta.
PAGES 32-33: Two-page ad — HarperCollins Children’s Books.
PAGE 34: Eighth-page sliver — Minnie Dix.
PAGE 35: Eighth-page sliver — Tilly, a Deer’s Tale.
PAGE 41: Quarter-page ad — Tuxedo Blue, LLC (with a mispelling of Dr. Seuss).
PAGE 43: Half-page of column inch ads (Spirit of the Forest, Brown Barn Books, Alexie Books, Snicker Doodle, Times fillers).
PAGE 47: Eighth-page sliver — HarperCollins
PAGE 48: Full-page ad — Candlewick Press.
PAGE 53: Quarter-page ad — Nelson Current, column inches — Osprey.
PAGE 54: Half-page ad — Dr. Hisatoki Komaki.
PAGE 55: Full-page ad — The Great Courses.
PAGE 56: Quarter-page ad — Unviersity of California Press, quarter-page ad — Alyson Books, Eighth-page sliver — Bloomsbury.
PAGE 57: Full-page ad — Diabetes Danger.
PAGE 59: Half-page ad — Mysterious Press.
PAGE 61: Full-page ad — Bose.
PAGE 62: Quarter-page ad — Barnes & Noble, column inches devoted to Book Exchange.
Back Cover: Full-page ad — The Folio Society.

Now here is where things get interesting. Here are reviews that are more than a page.

PAGES 10-11: Two-page review devoted to Norton title The Rise of American Democracy. (Norton ad can be found on Page 6.)
PAGES 14-15: 1 – 1/3 page review devoted to Random House title The Lost Painting. (Random House ads can be found on Pages 26-27.)
PAGES 30-31: Page and a half review of FSG book The Baby on the Way and G.P. Putnam book Show Way. (No advertising conflict.)

So essentially if you’re a publisher that’s advertised in the NYTBR, you have a 66% chance of getting a review that lasts more than a page (at least this week). Of course, I’m sure that this is all just pure coincidence. The fact that a small publisher can’t get that kind of coverage, I’m sure, means nothing at all.

Overall, the NYTBR‘s advertising doesn’t profile any specific titles that have been reviewed in its pages. However, there is one egregious spot where editorial and advertising merge. Gordon Wood’s review of The Rise of American Democracy is more of a summary than a response to the book’s scholarship. It is uncritical in the extreme, declares the work “monumental” and it is in every sense a puff piece. Interestingly enough, an ad for the book can be found on Page 6. The first blurb underneath the book? William Grimes of The New York Times. Quid pro quo? You make the call.

“Love Me Two Times and I’ll Buy You a Clearblue Kit Just to Make Sure” Not Likely to Happen Anytime Soon

Los Angeles Times: “Offers keep coming in, such as the $15 million dangled by Cadillac last year to lease the song ‘Break On Through (to the Other Side)’ to hawk its luxury SUVs. To the surprise of the corporation and the chagrin of his former bandmates, [drummer John] Densmore vetoed the idea. He said he did the same when Apple Computer called with a $4-million offer, and every time “some deodorant company wants to use ‘Light My Fire.’ ”

An Announcement from Apple

Apple Computer is preparing to make an important announcement next week. This announcement will be bigger than all other announcements. It is very important that you pay attention and that you clear your front page and social obligations that day. You must not live even obliquely, because this is Apple talking. Not some johnny come lately, but FUCKING APPLE, if you catch the drift.

It is very likely that this announcement will be the biggest announcement in the history of Apple, if not the whole of human history. This announcement is so enormous and so earth-shattering that we will see an instant continental shift and a substantial change in average global temperature within a week of the announcement being unfurled. When the first words come from Steve Jobs’ mouth, at least six hundred humans will die of cardiac arrest at the shock and import of what Apple has to say. Yes, it is that huge.

This announcement is critical to Apple’s future. It is critical to your future. If this announcement is somehow halted or postponed, if it is not allowed to go forth as planned next week, then several people will be disappointed. Heads will roll. Humanity’s ability to function will be compromised. If the announcement does not go down, several small and cute animals will die. All because some marketing bozo wanted to perpetuate more suspense.

So let’s be absolutely clear about this. This is an important announcement. We’re not pussy-footing around here. This is fucking huge. It is not a stunt. It is not hype. It is A MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT, perhaps on par with the Human Genome Project or the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We therefore ask you to stay nervous until such time that the announcement has been made.

Thank you for your cooperation.

How Not to Promote Your Company

While I am sure the following story is not reflective of this company as a whole (and I refuse to link to this specific advertising agency, lest they be encouraged), I offer this parable of how not to promote your company.

The whole thing started some weeks ago — on August 12, to be precise. I received an email from Valerie Leclercq of The Night Agency, a small advertising company. Valerie apparently had confused my address with “” and she was pitching me on an advertising method that involved displaying a large banner along the side of a building. As regular readers know, I am about as much a fan of advertising as I am of lima beans. In short, the most effective way to get on my bad side is to bombard me with unwanted advertising, just as the unthinking Valerie, who wasn’t even professional enough to double-check her recepient address, managed to do.

Neverthless, I sent back the following response, ccing Steve Hall (the intended recepient) over at


Thank you for the link to a product from your company, but I’ll have to pass. Advertising that defaces a building, whether obtrusive or less so, is still advertising. Why does the building even have to have advertising at all? What of the people behind that poster who won’t be able to see out into the street during the period that the banner is up? I don’t understand how making advertising more deceptive is somehow better, nor do I understand why you think my site, which has criticized rampant advertising on several occasions, would be interested in this sort of thing.

Perhaps you intended to contact adrants instead of edrants. My site deals predominantly with literary issues and is, in fact, quite against defacing the world we live in.

Nevertheless, I’m forwarding your email onto my more advertising-happy colleague in the blogosphere.

All best,


I didn’t receive a response back, although the good Mr. Hall did offer me a hearty one-line snicker.

And then yesterday, Valerie deigned to contact me again, reproducing the same sin that . She sent me an email with the subject line “hello there champion” that included a file with a virus in it (which my two antivirus programs immediately deleted). It read as follows:

Hi Edward,

Just curious what you’re going to say about this. No need to forward to Steve Hall. He got it awright

Think of all the people you could iss off with just one ost (ooops must have dropped the P again…)

[URL deleted]

hey, no bad feelings


[file with virus attached]

It seemed clear to me that “dropping the pee,” so to speak, meant trying to infect my computer. This was indeed the ultimate in viral advertising!

Of course, Ms. Leclercq made an unfortunate mistake. She didn’t know that she was dealing with a very methodical man who follows up.

I managed to track down Scott Cohn, one of the main people behind the Night Agency, and gave him a phone call this morning. I told him who I was and asked him if Valerie was in his employ. He said that she was. I then told him that Ms. Leclercq had sent me an email with a virus in it and whether this was the kind of impression that his company liked to convey. Cohn told me that Ms. Leclercq was “more of a snail-mail person,” that she wasn’t particularly tech-savvy and that she often got “a bit excited” about promoting her work. This kind of behavior wasn’t like her at all. That may be the case, I said, but all of this email was unwanted and possibly vituperative. And was this really the way he wanted to promote his company? To Cohn’s great credit, he apologized and offered to look into the email in question. And because of this, I give Cohn and the Night Agency the benefit of the doubt.

This still, however, does not undermine the following:

1. Unwanted emails were sent to the wrong people, thus creating a very bad impression in my mind.
2. Despite a clear response from me expressing my lack of interest, Ms. Leclercq, on company policy, again sent unwanted emails to the wrong person, possibly with a virus.
3. Person who received unwanted email, fueled by a sense of justice, then publicly wrote about the incident.

Now let’s say Ms. Leclercq had done something as simple as, oh say, visiting “,” unearthing the obvious fact that it’s a literary blog, not an advertising blog. Let’s say that Ms. Leclercq had asked around the office, “Can you confirm the name of that advertising blog for me?” Let’s say that she would have written an email apologizing for the email. Would any of this have happened? Probably not. I certainly wouldn’t have written about it here. But whether through hubris or ignorance (or a little of both), Ms. Leclercq couldn’t even perform the basics of professionalism and the Night Agency, which appears to be doing something a bit different in the advertising world, would not have created such a bad impression.

Everyone makes mistakes. But I have to ask: If the Night Agency is willing to employ such airheads at their office, what kind of dunces do you think they’d employ for your client?