By Letitia Coyne
Posted April 19, 2012
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In 1975, a little known singer called John Paul Young released his second single, ‘Yesterday’s Hero’ and was catapulted to [local] stardom. Ironically, the song itself was about the fleeting nature of fame. JPY was introduced on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s iconic TV series, Countdown; he was Australia’s first ‘created’ pop star.
The show’s producer, Michael Shrimpton, and talent co ordinator, Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, arranged for girls to mob JPY’s car on camera and to pull him from the stage during performances. He went on to have a few more hits with famously interchangeable lyrics on the same riff.
Now, as the fever builds worldwide for the latest synthetic boy band, I am reminded of JPY in reports of empty seats at ‘sold out’ concerts that leave weeping tweens in the streets outside the venues. We’ve seen it all before. The MO of The Beatles was dissected and regurgitated for The Monkees, The Bay City Rollers, New Edition, New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, A-ha, Bros, Big Fun, Brother Beyond, Take That, Boyzone, MN8, 911, Damage, East 17, Five, Another Level, Point Break, Westlife, No Mercy, LFO, O-Town, US5, All 4 One, 98 Degrees, Hanson, Jonas Brothers, Dream Street, A1, Blue, Busted, McFly, O-Zone, Overground, Tokio Hotel, EXILE, and Super Junior.
It doesn’t matter how many times they do it; we buy it all again and again.
It isn’t hard to fabricate mass hysteria. Advertisers know the psychology of group manipulation backwards. There are a few very basic principals which can be used on the great unwashed over and over again without being questioned. They begin with the simple creed – ‘Act as if ….’
Why does it surprise us then, when we see the same thing happen with books?
Apologies here to Stephenie Meyer who has become, among other things, a byword for the awful-made-megastar. Once again, it is too easy to use The Twilight Saga to illustrate a point. I first heard of Twilight in early 2006, in a raving blog on the website of a small Romance publisher who prided themselves on only featuring authors with ‘the most dazzling talent’.
They weren’t alone in their rave. From Wikipedia:
Initial reviews for Twilight were mostly positive, with Publishers Weekly called Meyer one of the most “promising new authors of 2005″. The Times praised the book for capturing “perfectly the teenage feeling of sexual tension and alienation”, and Amazon.com hailed the book as “[d]eeply romantic and extraordinarily suspenseful”.
Hillias J. Martin of School Library Journal stated, “Realistic, subtle, succinct, and easy to follow, Twilight will have readers dying to sink their teeth into it”, and Norah Piehl of TeenReads wrote, “Twilight is a gripping blend of romance and horror”. Publishers Weekly‘s starred review described Bella’s “infatuation with outsider Edward”, their risky relationship, and “Edward’s inner struggle” as a metaphor for sexual frustration accompanying adolescence.
Booklist wrote, “There are some flaws here–a plot that could have been tightened, an over reliance on adjectives and adverbs to bolster dialogue–but this dark romance seeps into the soul.” Christopher Middleton of The Daily Telegraph called the book a “high school drama with a bloody twist … no secret, of course, at whom this book is aimed, and no doubt, either, that it has hit its mark.
Jennifer Hawes of The Post and Courier said, “Twilight, the first book in Stephenie Meyer’s series, gripped me so fiercely that I called the nearest teenager I know and begged for her copy after I misplaced my own.” Roberta Goli of Suite101.com gave the novel a positive review, saying that while “the first half of the novel lacks action”, the writing is “fluid” and the story “interesting”. She also praised the depth of emotion shown between the main characters for pinpointing “the angst of teenage love.”
Kirkus gave a more mixed review, noting that, “[Twilight] is far from perfect: Edward’s portrayal as monstrous tragic hero is overly Byronic, and Bella’s appeal is based on magic rather than character. Nonetheless, the portrayal of dangerous lovers hits the spot; fans of dark romance will find it hard to resist.”
After reading this about Meyer’s book, I decided it had to be read. However, on the ground, among real people, I heard readers and reviewers call Twilight the worst book ever written and utterly unreadable. [I’ve read worse, but ….] But they weren’t reviewers anyone got to hear. By the time the NYT reviewer drew attention to the fact that:
“…the book suffers at times from overearnest, amateurish writing. A little more “showing” and a lot less “telling” might have been a good thing, especially some pruning to eliminate the constant references to Edward’s shattering beauty and Bella’s undying love.” Although the Daily Telegraph later listed Twilight at number 32 on its list of “100 books that defined the noughties”, it said that the novel was “Astonishing, mainly for the ineptitude of [Meyer's] prose”. Elizabeth Hand said in a review for the Washington Post, “Meyer’s prose seldom rises above the serviceable, and the plotting is leaden”.”
- Twilight had already sold 700 000 copies. And now that it is done, and the last movie has been released, don’t be surprised to find you never hear of it again except in fanfic.
When The Hunger Games hype began, my own son was among the many who instantly said, “It’s Battle Royale.” [ 1999 novel by Koushun Takami] But by that time, all those same big end reviewers listed there in the Twilight excerpt had already given a thorough thumbs up to the book and it had become a phenomenon.
I’m not suggesting books are created in the same way as boy bands, but the hype that decides who wins and who loses in the popularity stakes certainly is. No one should imagine for a moment that Twilight or The Hunger Games are the best books of the decade. What they are, are the books whose critical acclaim was positive at the crucial point of public uptake, and whose faults went conspicuously unnoticed until well after their success was assured.
Let me run you through some of the principals of the “Act as if ….” creed that assures that success.
1. Every boy band has a ‘just like you’ – they have a cute boy, a bad boy, a cool boy, an ethnic boy, a slightly-less-attractive-and-therefore-more-pullable boy. Susan Boyle also embodied the ‘every woman’ dream. Likewise, much more is made of the ‘everyday’ personal history of authors’ like JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Amanda Hocking than of Suzanne Collins or Joe Konrath, who had writing success before their big ones. So, one invaluable point in acting as if, is acting as if the author is just like the reader – as if the reader is sharing their success. We love to feel close to successful people and that is marketed to the hilt.
2. Then there is a favorite of mine – people love a crowd. The bigger the crowd, the more people you’ll see there. Acting as if EVERONE loves a book makes us want to belong to the group that loves that book. People always want to belong, except those who obstinately want to belong to the group who are known to never want to belong to a group. Consensus, real or imagined – or marketed – is a strong force for success. We don’t automatically question consensus. We are conformists by nature.
3. ‘9 out of 10 dentists recommended this toothpaste!’ Which dentists? Where? When were they asked? Authority – act as if someone with the authority to know said the product was the best. Reviewers, more especially a select group of reviewers, make or break books in the modern publishing world. The right review guarantees success in the same way that being ignored by the right people will [almost] guarantee failure. We want to be told what to think and what to believe, and all the while we choose to think we have free choice.
4. And lastly, although it seems ridiculous in some examples, the threat of scarcity is a driving force in marketing success. Act as if the reader will miss out. No one imagined, I’m sure, Apple would not supply enough of their new iPads for everyone to have a nice new gadget, but lining up to be the first has become an obsession with each update. Similarly, parents camped out with their children to be first to hold each new Harry Potter. How would poor Tarquin cope if he was the only child alive not to have his own copy of the Half Blood Prince?
Lesser mortals do market their books with ‘on sale – one week only!’ with the same intention, but it is only with the power of seriously big money that threats like that have an impact in the hundreds of thousands. For today’s boy band, selling only 4/5 of the seats for a Melbourne concert and leaving the little ones heartbroken on the streets outside pays off. Next time, and at the next venue, the little girls will pester their mother to buy the tickets sooner and at any price. Tweenage heartbreak is hard to bear.
With online fiction, there are no authoritative reviewers – yet. The marketing monster that is the Big Six has not been able to breach the wall of anarchy – yet. And there are other players now, with Amazon and Apple shouldering in, and allegations of price fixing and collusion and market monopoly. It is quite likely, as is often snarked by mainstream book reviewers, that some five star reviews of independent books are arranged, but remember, so are the reviews you will choose to read in the paperback wars.
Why not take a chance and read work that is available independently, in serial or ebook, and be brave enough to judge for yourself whether you like a book or an author. Free choices not consciously made are rarely as free as they seem.
For some more interesting thoughts on persuasion check out : Robert B Cialdini, PhD – Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion.
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