The Outrage of Marketing
This quote, from a book editor at Ecco, had some people really up in arms. Why?
Making a Comparison, Making a Statement
It seems people are taking offense that the editor tossed this particular example out as “ludicrous,” an extreme that simply couldn’t exist—even though it clearly could and does exist. Some female writers are 500 pounds. Some of them are hard to look at. A writer could be both of those things, and others are neither. So it goes with the human population—there is inevitably a seemingly infinite amount of variation in the population.
The people attacking her suggested this is akin to an “or purple” argument—“we would have paid the author the same amount if she were black, white, or purple.” Purple is ludicrous, because nobody is purple. It’s meant to suggest a sort of flippancy of that aspect—that the particular trait is not under consideration, that it would have no hand in swaying the decision. Except, in this case, 500 pounds and hard to look at isn’t as farfetched as being purple. In fact, the editor might have been better off saying, “We would have paid her the same amount of money if she were purple, it doesn’t matter.”
We Don’t Judge Authors by Their Covers
And this is the crux of the issue. The editor tried to point out—perhaps in a flawed and less than elegant way—that she and Ecco, and hopefully other editors and publishers, don’t care what their authors are like. Nor should they. The fact that your author is female or male or transgender, is black or white or, hell, even purple, or beautiful or homely, should not matter.
And all too often, it does.
Talent is arguably more important than a number of other things, such as looks or social media savvy, but the truth of the matter is we are often swayed by how someone presents themselves. We rarely allow the work to speak for itself, which is really what she wants to get at here. Rather than researching her authors to death before making the decision to sign them, she evaluates their work.
The Illusion of Talent
Now, clearly, that’s a bit of a lie. Editors look for marketability. You can have a great novel, a great work of literature, and be a great writer without having marketability. And you can have a huge, steaming pile of shit that is infinitely marketable—take a look at most Harlequin romance novels, which pander to a sixth-grade reading level. High-brow, they are not. Yet they have legions of followers, readers who keep coming back time and time again to a product that delivers precisely what they want. They do not care if it’s “trashy.”
So right off the bat, you can throw literary merit as the defining feature of a signing out the window. We’re looking to sell books and, oftentimes, the things we consider “great” literature later on down the road started out as being trashy, poppy novels. Take a look at, say, Little Women or anything by Charles Dickens. Yes, that Charles Dickens. All of his novels were written as triple-decker serial publications—the book equivalent of a soap opera. They were meant to be popular and make money, not to be high-brow literature. (And on this side of the pond, we had Nathaniel Hawthorne doing the same damn thing.)
Great literature, as is often the case, becomes great literature after the fact—not because someone has written a most innovative, engaging, and exciting work of wordsmithery. Although that helps.
So “talent” doesn’t necessarily influence a signing—it is certainly not the be-all, end-all we’d like to imagine it as.
Looking Underneath the Underneath
And yes, editors can be swayed by things like a good agent, media buzz (particularly for rights), and author presentation. We are biased creatures. If we see that an author has a huge social media following, we’re likely to give that a bit of thought—it could be another way of extending our market, connecting with people who might read this book—and some of our other publications.
So this editor’s quote—as optimistic as she wants it to be—isn’t really the truth. We are just as likely to be swayed by someone’s looks as by their talent when it comes to deciding who we’re going to dole out money to and who we’re not, who we’re going to sign and who we’re not.
That, I think, is more important to take issue with than this example. Yes, people were upset that she threw that out there as an “extreme” example, as something ludicrous. And they have a right to be. But the larger point here is that she was lying through her teeth. She can believe this all she wants, but we are easily swayed by the idea that books and authors must be marketable.
The Problem of Author Marketability
Although writers like to think they can hide behind book covers and screens—and the day of the celebrity author, a la Mark Twain, has long since passed us by—our authors need to be marketable. They need to be good at giving interviews. They need to be attractive (in at least some sense of the word) so when they show up at book signings or conventions to give talks, people are predisposed to like them. Much as books, more so than any form of media, should be about the talent over looks, the mentality of Hollywood perpetuates itself in the book world. Authors don’t appear in music videos like singers do, but the idea of marketing a product—a neat, clean package—is a mentality that proliferates through the arts.
We use beauty and sex to sell movies. We use it to sell every other product under the sun. And music, arguably the book industry’s closest cousin, also packages easy-on-the-eyes pop tarts. Unconventionally attractive people really have to have a good set of chords on them to make it in the music industry in this day and age—but even bands that thrive on a counterculture image are being manufactured for us.
Taking a (Mistaken) Cue from the Music Industry
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a fat, ugly singer? Susan Boyle springs to mind and despite her pipes, look where she is today. Look at how we mocked her, for having the audacity to stand up in front of us and be insanely talented whilst looking like that.
Adele might be plump, but she’s conventionally attractive; Adele is easy on the eyes. And yes, she can sing, but she’s not going to be asked to put a bag over her head.
And how about Aretha Franklin, legend that she is? Despite the fact that she can sing, like almost no one of us could, we mock her for being fat and old. Talk about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
And yet performers like Beyonce and Taylor Swift and Rihanna—who contribute rather little to the creation of their “work”—are praised for their creativity and vision, their talent. Meanwhile, there’s a Max Martin or a (heaven forbid) Dr. Luke or a Red One behind them. (And please note, I know Aretha Franklin is a product of a similar pop process; I am not saying any of these ladies cannot sing, but that their “talent” isn’t the be-all, end-all.) Madonna has infamously been said to have a weak voice—the girl can’t sing like Aretha or Adele. Yet she is one of the highest grossing pop performers ever.
Because she’s marketable.
And this logic, detestable as it is, works. Adele sold more records than Beyonce, but the two of them have also sold more records than, say, Susan Boyle. One begins to think that Janis Joplin wouldn’t have made the cut in today’s music industry.
Book Readers Still Have Expectations
And this is the same for books. Yes, books get away with a little more, because authors aren’t being asked to get up on stage in glittery costumes and dance around before crowds of adoring fans. But authors are still asked to be part of the marketing machine—which means social media, interacting with fans, showing up at book signings and conventions, and appearing on video. Authors must perform, then, as much as pop stars. And while book readers are generally a more forgiving bunch, we still expect authors to look and behave a particular way. We are not exempt from the usual stereotyping and biases that go along with appearances. If you look and talk like Mama June from Honey Boo Boo, most people are going to make a judgment about you based solely on that. And that’s especially true if you’re writing a book.
I mean, Mama June doesn’t sound very intelligent, does she? I don’t know as though I’d want to read a book by her. Or Kim Kardashian. Or Snooki from Jersey Shore. The difference between Snooki and Mama June? Snooki has marketability to particular demographic. Mama June might appeal to a very specific segment of the population, but a lot of people see her as a joke—not someone who should be writing a book. We accept her on TV because it’s easy to mock her as white trash on a trashy reality TV series. If she writes a book, that pushes us into a bit of an uncomfortable zone—if the book actually has literary merit, if it’s not just a joke, how do we reconcile that with how this person walks and talks?
Crafting a Persona
Let’s look at JK Rowling. Rowling is hugely successful, but also take a look at her image. Yes, a lot has changed, but Rowling presents herself to us as an educated, sophisticated, elegant British lady. She’s slim, she’s conventionally attractive with long blonde hair and blue eyes. Pleasant smile, something almost kind about her face. Her social media tells us she’s well-informed about politics and current affairs; she also likes to have fun and is witty.
Is JK Rowling actually like this? We’d sure like to think so—but this is, again, a carefully honed image, part of a marketing package. I’m not saying that this is a façade, that Rowling literally takes her human face off at the end of the night, but rather that she presents herself in a particular manner. She performs the exact same way a pop singer performs.
What this all means is that talent becomes a tiny fraction of influence in terms of making a decision—who to cast in a role, who to cast in your ad or runway show, which record to sign or, yes, which book to sign. Biedenhard’s comments are offensive for that reason. The fact that she even used the example of a woman who’s “500 pounds and hard to look at” is evidence that she lied straight to our faces. That’s why we should be outraged about comments like this: because underneath the fact that someone thinks this scenario is “ludicrous” is a well-oiled marketing machines biasing them—and every single one of us—into making particular decisions about who deem worthy enough to stand in the spotlight—talented or not.