The Stupid Online Marketing of Stupid Books

by Adam Plunkett

Kathy Andersen, author, 'Change Your Shoes, Live Your Greatest Life.'

Kathy Andersen, author, Change Your Shoes, Live Your Greatest Life.

If you find yourself writing a book review and publishing it on the Internet, chances are that digital marketers will track down your e-mail address and mark you for public-relations campaigns. Being marketers, they’ll know to focus most of their e-mails on books you might want to review. Being digital, they’ll assume that their audience lacks all but the most basic forms of taste and intelligence and may “Care to speak with Sheila on feeling good in the bedroom (in more ways than one)” or want to follow “a wise and wild path for navigating the dating world AFTER Divorce (and in your FORTIES!).” Such is the stupid online marketing of stupid books, the literary equivalent of pop-up ads for penis enhancement and for sexy singles NEAR YOU.

“Mr. Adam Plunkett Freelance Writer,” they will write, “Can we interest you in doing a review of this inspiring and enjoyable children’s book?” This “compelling and inspiring personal story” (“with exceptional expertise”)? This “inspiring children’s book encourages big dreams and confidence.” This “new breed of an erotic novel” — “based heavily on sexting and mysterious hotel encounters” between “Ellie and Monsieur” — is “sharper, sexier, and penetrating” (for the worrisome few of us tired of dull penetration). “With a striking afterword by Jesse Ventura,” this book “will have you realizing that what the government tells you is not always what should be believed.” “The Untold Story of Scarface” will tell you “The real story of how his face was scarred” (“And much, much more!”). This author, “a highly successful Ivy League attorney from Beverly Hills, who’s [sic] book has been described as ‘Sex and the City for the next generation’ would love to discuss with you:”

• Internet dating gone wrong. Real wrong!
• Finding true love
• Etc.

In “this Emmy award winning writer’s new book… there are warm moments supplied by Lloyd Beecham’s daughter Charlotte until fate kills her one summer day.” “Five Stars!” writes “Amazon reviewer — Polly G.,” the only critic whom the book’s marketers quote.

Some of this is just lazy copywriting, like the note on behalf of “the ebook version of Fat Girl Fairy Boy,” whose “Highlights” include “two unlikely heroes … thrown into a whirlwind adventure” and “Pure adventure that will entertain readers every step of the way.” But nearly all the PR e-mails show the publicists in the dubious position of applying the logic of digital marketing, which knows that everyone’s dumb and impulsive, to a group of people occupationally devoted to refining their readers’ tastes at least enough to read books in the first place. No one goes into book reviewing for money or fame (although anyone dumb enough to do that is probably also dumb enough to read about “Famous all-nighters and their results throughout history, including … Jack Kerouac’s On the Road [and] The American Revolution”). Assuming that marketers aren’t as dumb as they pretend that everyone else is, it has to occur to them that they’re condescending to some of the snootiest people on the Internet. This realization explains the inconsistent ambitions of the trash-book public-relations email: to stir the reviewer’s sense of aesthetic or moral or newsworthy importance as you appeal to the lowest common denominator in her. It’s like selling Tolstoy with cat GIFS, if Tolstoy were written in GIFS.

“Often shocking but never gratuitous, Monsieur is, paradoxically, a coming-of-age story.” The publicist here, highbrow lowbrow, feigns tastefulness while pandering to a crude French fetish and the sales potential of Fifty Shades of Grey. (“If you can’t get enough of the page-turning erotica of ‘Fifty Shades,’” the e-mail begins.) Other books establish their importance with news you need to know, promising to “Uncover Major Government Conspiracies” or to tell you why Sammy Davis, Jr.’s “widow lied” about him. Some publicists, anxious about their books’ relevance, devote as much space to the book’s noble cause (such as a campaign against bullying) as they do to the celebrities who support it (such as Khloe Kardashian). Lest you doubt the authors’ authority, no credential goes unadvertised, however arbitrarily or awkwardly, as in the emails for the “Harvard-trained” and “Harvard-qualified” Kathy Andersen and for former corporate-banker Zack Zage, whose MBA from UNC-Chapel Hill should help you to “Get ready for a fantastical trip around the world of imagination with an ambitious boy named Zack!”

A number of the books by and about women mention breast cancer or sexual abuse with an astonishing glibness. “Topics include:”
• Leadership
• Creating Change
• Empowerment
• Child Sexual Abuse
• Youth and Community Development

No matter how unspeakable the experience of “Overcoming a cheating husband (after 12 years of marriage) and surviving breast cancer,” it’s just another reason to trust the author when it comes to “Matchmakers, psychics, fix-ups and hook-ups.” It’s just another credential, especially for “inspirational” self-help books, the marketers’ genre of choice.

This kind of self-help book, whether about the “way to unlock the brain’s creative powers” or “How to get in the mood for sex no matter how you’re feeling that day,” is written in the same overbroad, over-sold manager-speak that the marketers’ use. (This probably helps to explain why they hired the marketers.) Author credentials matter so much for this kind of book because of the old false promise the genre is predicated on: that the writer’s prestige will help you to “Achieve.” Hence the promise on behalf of Zack Zage, MBA, that his book will help your child to “• Dream It • Believe It • Work Hard For It • Achieve It,” with its reassuring rhymes from no less an authority than the moon: “Ambition’s not an awful word, wipe off that silly frown. In your own imagination, you’re supposed to reign supreme. Oh, the moon left you this message, ‘It’s OK to dream.’”

Putting aside the tots of industry, who would actually want not just to read but to review this sort of thing? What grown-up person would plausibly call up his editor and say, “Hey, do you have any interest in 1200 words on Change Your Shoes, Live Your Greatest Life? It’s by ‘international success coach, Harvard-qualified leadership and change expert, media go-to person, and award-winning author Kathy Andersen’?” This is how I imagine the talk:

Editor: Gosh, I don’t know. It sounds an awful lot like “Choose Your Story, Choose Your Life,” by “author Dean Erickson,” “Ivy League college graduate, honored athlete, former working actor and Wall Street trader, and current CEO of Bionic Capital LLC… in which he wrote about the challenges he faced growing up in a home with an alcoholic father, and how he transformed his life by choosing to focus on and tell the best version of his personal story.”

Writer: Great question. I think Dean’s a stand-up guy, and I gained clarity and focus from Act. Adapt. Achieve. But I think that Kathy’s “personal struggles” have really made her “equipped to engage readers at a deep and authentic level with ‘real life lessons’ for ‘real success.’”

Editor: But how are her struggles any different?

Writer: Sexual abuse. In her childhood, actually.

Editor: I don’t know. That makes me feel a bit icky. Child abuse is a really serious thing, and what if she’s exploiting her own trauma to sell $225 “life retreat experiences” at the Palms Hotel and Spa in Miami Beach? What kind of message does that send to other victims — that they should have some inspiring story to tell? That we’re willing to fetishize their pain and pretend to learn something profound so that we can feel better about pampering ourselves?

Writer: Yes, but she wasn’t just abused: her childhood was “filled with sexual abuse.”

Editor: Well, that’s a different story.

Writer: Epic!

Editor: Crushing it, bro.

(It has become clear to me that our protagonists are dudes.)

Editor: So. What else do you have for me?

Writer: This one’s more political. Sex, Politics and Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America.

Editor: Interesting thesis. But I don’t know if we want to run something about another one of those negative books. Does the author recommend anything?

Writer: Absolutely. His take is that we should avoid “delusional thinking” and concentrate on “critical thinking.” He says that “Only Critical Thinking Can Save Us.”

Editor: Well, that’s clearly a great idea, but is he the man for the job?

Writer: “One of the foremost critical thinking experts in the world today,” according to his press release.

Editor: Crushing it.

The whole thing is so ridiculous that I can hardly understand what the writers and marketers are thinking. But here’s an idea: the writers are drawn to the marketers because they speak the same language of personal ambition and vague, vaguely Soviet optimism, and because the writers, as good businesspersons, want to delegate their marketing to someone who can achieve real success in the Internet book world. In turn, the marketers are happy to churn out the writers’ vision of successful PR. No one is fooled (with the possible exception of the “Midwest Book Review,” which I’m halfway convinced is a sham). In the process of marketers’ cynically exploiting writers who are cynically trying to exploit their own readers, it’s hard to feel bad for any party involved. The only victims are our inboxes.

Adam Plunkett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic and the poetry editor of Design Observer.