Hi, folks. This is going to be a long post, so go get some coffee or wine or something before you read it. OK?
Oh… and before we start, there was a happy ending to the bookseller situation last week. They decided to order all my books. I was very happy. I think they were too, because we sold out. Lovely, when that happens, isn’t it? All right. Moving on now.
Persuasion is an art. It’s a delicate process, and the best practitioners know you can’t strong-arm it. Persuasion only works when the “persuader” is a trusted source. I know a little about it because I used to work in public relations before I started writing. A client – usually a corporation or interest group of some kind– would hire us to tell their side of a story. We’d take their money and try to get their message out. Not all publicists are created equal, nor do they all have the same persuasive skills. In fact, Rachel Maddow, someone I admire for telling it like it is, called Burson-Marsteller, the firm I used to work for, something like the “spawn of the devil.” But that’s another story for another time.
The key task of a publicist (and the difference between PR and advertising) is to approach a trusted source to get their client’s story out. In most cases, that source is the media. Publicists pitch a story; if the media think it’s newsworthy, they print, televise or broadcast that story. In that sense the media are (or used to be) a filter. A credible third-party. A gatekeeper. The important point is that no money exchanges hands in this transaction. The money stops with the PR firm. The gatekeepers don’t (or never used to) take money for reporting a story.
In fact, whether the client or the media involved is liberal, conservative or pink-with-purple-polka-dots, there’s no guarantee the story will be published, nor any promise that if it is, the story will feature the publicist’s client. Or that the client’s name will be mentioned. Even when everything works and the publicist hits it out of the park, the recipient of that story —You, the public— choose whether to be persuaded by it. It’s your choice. That’s the gamble every publicist takes.
Where things begin to blur is with the rise of political lobbyists, some of whom were and continue to be attached to PR firms. Over the years, increasingly large amounts of money have become involved in transactions. And the money doesn’t stop with the PR firm. Money now flows through and around a PR or lobbying firm to politicians, mostly in the form of campaign contributions.
Politicians are supposed to be OUR gatekeepers, looking out for our interests and representing us by creating laws and legislation that will make our lives smoother. Except that lobbyists have are now actually crafting legislation for those politicians— legislation that protects or enhance THEIR client’s fortunes, not ours. There is now a direct quid pro quo. The corporation pays, the lobbyist creates, the politician votes. You, the public, are not involved. You have no choice. You may not even benefit. It’s a slippery slope that blurs the distinction between persuasion and pay-to-play politics.
Enter social media.
Now we are all about “soft” promotion and marketing. Especially when it comes to books. (You were probably wondering when I’d get to books, right?) Authors are supposed to develop relationships with our constituents (in our case, readers), make them privy to information about us, make them like us. Every publisher in the world, and every self-published author as well, knows she needs to be on Facebook, Twitter, Google+. We know we’re supposed to SHARE. We are building a community of readers, book-lovers, and ideas. Engaging readers in our world.
Authors may hire publicists to help them create these soft messages. Certainly publishers do. Again, though, the money is supposed to stop with the publicist. We may have help putting ourselves and our books out into this new community. But ultimately readers see what we have to say, and either accept or reject it. Maybe they buy our book. Maybe they don’t. There may be a contest or a give-away, but those are up front and in the open.
So when money becomes directly involved, (like it has in lobbying) and especially when it goes to the “new” gatekeepers of social media, the lines blur and become potentially toxic. For me, those lines are blurring. The new gatekeepers in the book industry are book bloggers, websites, and other groups that promote our books. Most bloggers are scrupulously honest, don’t take money, and disclose when they’ve received a book from a publisher or author. Most promotional websites, too, state very clearly when and how much they charge to feature an author’s books. In fact, it’s the disclosure that counts. It helps readers make a more informed choice. It doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t buy a book if they know the promotion has been paid for. If I know an author paid to be featured on Pixel of Ink, I might buy their book anyway because I love the genre or I am taken with their sample.
It’s when I don’t know that the direct exchange of money – or something else — is involved that I feel used. Exploited. Foolish. Sucker-punched. And I’m feeling that way more and more.
It’s not just the #FridayReads hullabaloo. At least Bethanne did try to explain. And it’s not just money. It’s authors trying to game the system by having friends and family write 5-star reviews on Amazon. (we’ve all probably done it at least once); it’s authors who set up multiple Twitter accounts and follow themselves. It’s groups who announce new book awards but charge authors hundreds of dollars to be nominated. It’s companies charging authors fees and taking percentages of their royalties to help them self-publish and market books that the author can and should be doing themselves. It’s agents who have become publishers and are therefore at odds with their client’s best interests.
All of these activities weaken the fabric of social media. It makes me unsure who to trust.
Bottom line, it’s the transparency, stupid. At least for me.
What do you think?
PS Happy Holidays, everyone.