discussions genre stuff

Good Hype, Bad Hype

There’s an interesting review, and discussion of hyped books here; of the review itself, I’ll say nothing, but it’s the comments section that has, naturally – thanks to Google ego search – got me interested.

As a critic, it raises my hackles and makes me feel a responsibility to cut through it. As a reader, I find it completely alienating. Simply put, I will never read anything by Mark Charan Newton simply because of the aggression with which he hypes himself.

Those of you with long internet memories will perhaps smile at the name attached to the comment.

But it is an interesting notion, isn’t it? All this talk of hype, and the sudden accusation that it’s the author’s aggression. Which, I think, is connected to deeper issues of approving an author’s relationship to the internet. Attached to some quixotic notion of writers and Bohemian cafés in Paris, and that it is below artistes to engage so dramatically with readers.

Perhaps it is a generation thing, even, though I don’t believe it’s that way for the most part. The fact remains today that if an author doesn’t engage with the community, he or she loses out – though to what extent remains uncertain. I’ve recently participated in a panel on this very subject of writers and their relationship with social media, and we couldn’t come to a conclusion on that point.

Another problem with the above comment is that it seems to ignore the fact that some authors are fans as well – some of us love the community, and I’ll be fucked if I’m drawing a line between me being a fan and a writer. It’s not mutually exclusive. The only difference between me being a writer and a fan, is luck.

In the book trade, there are two kinds of hype.

Good hype: this has always been a bottom-up kind of talk, word-of-mouth, whispers on the underground. This is the way the book trade has worked for decades in making books a success. It’s the internet forums and blogs that have been doing the hyping, and rightly so. Decentralised hype, if you will. Power to the people and all that jazz. Readers talk – and if a book is the centre of that conversation, then it’s one lucky author. Writers can do nothing about this kind of hype, and neither can publishers. Traditionally, it has always happened to them. It’s good because it causes discussion, gets people excited and, more importantly, is not influenced by corporations.

Writers can talk about themselves, of course, and link to some good reviews and kind words people have said. Neil Gaiman has been doing this wonderfully for years, and was a role model for authors who want to help publicise themselves. Is that aggression, or is that simply managing (clinging onto) one’s career? Anyone who understands just a little of the trade will understand, wholeheartedly, it’s the latter.

Bad hype: somewhere along the lines, publisher marketing blurbs started leaking into online expectations of a novel – naturally, publishers want to get reviewers excited about their books, so letters and emails from publicists begin to raise expectations, in the hope that reviewers relate this to their readership. It’s a fairly recent innovation to the blogosphere. Publishers are trying to seduce reviewers. They want you to shout about the books. In the old days, it would mean you got invited to parties and shared some cheap wine; but now it’s the freebies and sneak previews.

It’s marketing speak. Do not believe a word of it. Read the book and decide for yourself (which, incidentally, applies to the first type of hype).

But going back to the original comment – the most ironic thing of all, however, is the notion that’s so often true: it’s better to be talked about than not talked about. If no one talks about an author, the author is dead. All that such above moaning does, in forums or comments or wherever, is continue to spread the word of the very authors they wish to constrain, and provide us with blog fodder.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

45 replies on “Good Hype, Bad Hype”

The thing about the Parisian cafes you mention is that they were examples of artists in the community. Yes Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir had a corner table but I suspect they also shared the odd cup of coffee with people who were not writers but merely ‘part of the scene’ in the sense of buying books, going to expositions and showing up at talks.

In other words, I suspect that post-War Parisian cafe society was a pretty decent analogue for institutionalised genre fandom.

I have no problem with that.

what alienates me is the sense that some authors make their way into the cafe and start acting like carnival barkers wandering from table to table and telling people they’ve got a new book out and saying “hey some guys over there are saying interesting things about MY book”.

In the context of a cafe you’d find that kind of behaviour boorish and I think that’s what has alienated me from your work.

Yes, everyone needs to earn a crust. Yes, it makes perfect sense to encourage those people who want to talk about you anyway. Yes, a lot of people seem to like it.

But I don’t. I doubt you will lose any sleep over this. I’m incredibly over-sensitive to these types of things and have a rather adolescent punkish destain for anything I feel is over-commercialised so I am in no way indicative of anything. But my feelings are what they are.

Saw that comment and my immediate thought was that surely it doesn’t matter whether something is hyped ‘aggressively’ or not, but whether it is any good. Just avoiding something because of hype seems a little short-sighted to me.

And in all honesty, compared with the rest of entertainment industry, a little social media here and there hardly counts as “aggressive hype” in the big scheme of things.

Want to see aggressive hype – I believe London was full of iPad posters and you know what?

They’ve sold lorryfulls of them and to top it all off I’m not sure that many of those purchasers want their money back?

How many of them were going to buy one anyway and how many of them thought you know what I have £500 in my pocket doing something lets buy a shiny toy.

It doesn’t take much to persuade someone to buy a book – this book is like Twilight – sold – this book has Sherlock Holmes in it – sold – this book is about an albino on a dying planet – sold.

Some people buy a book because it has a grey spine and penguin classics on it. Some people buy a book because NextRead has said it’s a good book (they might…). Some buy it because it’s in Tesco’s.Some people buy a book because of the pretty cover. Some people take hours over a book choice.

And at the end of the day you’ve spent on average £5 on book. No big deal. Really. You made the choice. If marketing influenced you and you didn’t like it blame yourself. If marketing influenced you and you loved it you’re going to thank everyone who recommended.

Take some responsibility.

I think, Jonathan, that some of the cafes are a little louder now than before. These youngsters, eh? So noisy! 🙂

But there are more niches in which to drink. If you don’t like one cafe, you can always drink in another. You’ve set up your own from time to time.

What’s most odd, though, is that you follow my Twitter account, or did before this post – if you don’t want to listen to me, don’t! No one’s asking you to drink at Newton’s Caffeine & Cakes Emporium

I have to admit that I am put off by hype. If everyone loves it, then I have a bad habit of immediatly believing that I won’t. This is for movies, games and books.

Sometimes I was right, and sometimes I was wrong. But I don’t think it was ever the author themselves that overly hyped it.

Is it the author’s fault if their publisher hypes the shit out of their product? Not at all.

Is it a bad thing if an author sends a review blog a free copy of their book to read – READ – not even requiring them review it if they really don’t want to. Of course not.

Honestly, I’m not sure what the difference is.

Just want to add, I seriously hope I have someone who says something like that about me one day.

Making enemies would make my day.

Gav – an excellent point about responsibility. Readers do have some responsibility in this, but I suspect when they part with cash, they may well expect value for that. Value, in literature, is hugely subjective…

Daniel – I don’t think we’re enemies here. All’s fair in love and comments threads.

Gav, you’re never gonna get me on-side by using the iFad as an example ;P Apple is a perfect(ly awful) example of aggressively marketed style-over-substance bullshit. It’s in your face all the time, and Apple have built up an army of drones that go around doing their PR for them through brand-name elitism (yes, Apple is just another overpriced status badge, designer handbags by another name) and peer-pressure. I’d sooner shoot myself in the face than buy an iPad.

I don’t honestly feel that there’s any literary equivalent and of that I’m glad.

Speaking of the hype game I’d be fooling myself if I wasn’t a good player at. After all my mission on twitter is raise awareness about books and authors and I do ‘fall’ for some authors more than others. I’d say it was keeping a thumb on the pulse and 2300 odd people seem to get something from my feed.

Which is probably why my head is pounding and I’m trying to take timeout more from Twitter and the constant flow of book-related info.

But I’m noticing that Twitter is getting that need to share out of my system so I can take a more relaxed look at books on my blog – no cover porn, blurbs, or link ups going on at the minute.

I don’t know if that makes it a more or a less interesting place to be?

@daniel – like never paying publishers to publish your books authors should never mail books out to reviewers unless it’s more a friends sharing thing. Almost every review copy I get is direct from publishers. It’s part of the deal when you get published. They make your book available for review and assessment by booksellers and reviewers.

And most of the time the hype unless they have to make their money back on a big budget book like The Passage – and they put serious money into it – is going to surprise them as well as the author.

The book from this year that did that is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Most books are just placed out there. This one was and was then picked up by bloggers who really got the book and enjoyed it.

But I can see how hype is off-putting and once it’s on my radar I usually know if it’s a book I’d like or not – I can’t see myself being persuaded on Abercrombie any time soon as gritty realistic fantasy just isn’t me.

Mark — I follow you because I think that you have, on occasion, interesting things to say. You live in a different intellectual neighbourhood than I do but I think that both of our gardens do back onto the same common so to speak.

It would be easy for me to put up a big hedge and ignore that common but, while I do have that urge, I don’t think it’s a healthy one. More dialogue between neighbourhoods, not less. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to be quite open about your self-promotion putting me off.

I believe that there’s value in sharing common ground with people even if you don’t necessarily approve of what use they put that common ground to. This is why I follow you and this is why I shall continue to do so.

@alex c – if you use an iPhone you’ll like an iPad but I’d honestly not tell someone to shell out on an iPad if they didn’t have a use for it first. It’s a complicated decision and I’m a big Apple boy but that’s because I’ve been a PC boy too and out of the two I enjoy my Mac experience more.

@MarkCN and that’s the thing – it’s misselling that the problem – and reviews that misrepresents a book. And they’re are reviewers that are bad at throttling their enjoyment into something more realistic. Reviews should strip off the hype – cause if someone is interested in a book and online I’d hope they’d google it.

Maybe that’s the thing that needs education – once you’ve connected to the hype – find a good review of it. But how do people chose their critics wisely?

Jonathan – you’re a lot kinder than many! And it’s worth saying yes, that being open about these things is excellent. We are in an internet age where boundaries and etiquette are not fully established, so I do actually enjoy being put on the spot because it helps clarify these matters.

Ultimately, all writers have egos, let’s not deny that, and it’s all expressed in very different ways. Hemingway, perhaps one of the greatest egos, often sat quietly at a cafe table…

As far as authors go, there’s really not much of a choice. The idea is to sell the book and convince people it’s worth reading. What do you do, if not that? “Oh, here’s my book. Sorry, it’s not very good. I hope you’ll buy it because I’m humble, though.”

Reviewers, I’ve found, work on a very different wavelength than the average reader. I’m going to note right here that I am most definitely NOT saying that reviewers are any less than the average reader, since that’s got me in trouble before. Rather, reviewers perceive things differently. To the average reader, hype is a pretty person offering you a free slice of pizza. To a reviewer, hype is a smelly old man in a van offering you candy.

Though, I think in every veteran reader, the urge the popular is keenly felt. Part of it goes hand-in-hand with this idea of fantasy counterculture, thinking that if most people like it, you probably won’t because your tastes are different. Personally, I find this mindset kind of poisonous. If you go in with your mind made up, you’re not (in my opinion) enjoying the book. You’re looking for validation as to your opinion first, reading the book second.

To be honest, I don’t see this going on with you. I’ve been falling you on this blog for a bit and, eh, not much hype. But, maybe I’m immune or something.

Perhaps this is exposing just how distanced from scene/industry I am, but I can’t think of a single genre book or author (apart from the likes of Twilight, which doesn’t really count) that I feel I’ve been bombarded with in a distasteful way. I first found Mark’s blog, for instance, after reading a comment he’d made on someone else’s saying he was a fan of China Mieville which started me thinking (quite correctly as it turned out) that his own fiction might be worth checking out. It wasn’t hype of any kind, either from publishers or bloggers, that got my attention or persuaded me to buy Nights, and neither of those factors have ever persuaded me to buy any other book. I have a hard time percieving hype in SFF in the same way that I see it every day in every other form of entertainment or commercial product – to me, genre still seems fairly decorous and unspoilt.

@gav – It was that “gritty fantasy” hype that made me pick up Abercrombie’s “The Blade Itself”, expecting something akin to Brent Weeks “Night Angel Trilogy”.

Was pretty dissatisfied tbh.

And I wasn’t sure who sent bloggers review copies, lol.

@Alex C – Twilight, Harry Potter, Avatar, Final Fantasy XIII are things I was bombarded with just this year.

Books, movies and games. Everywhere you look, tv, websites, radio, posters, etc.

But they sell despite their general level of individual fail.

These last few comments prove that perception is as much a part of the process as anything else.

Writing and hype are the same thing, in this case. Some people will see a book and immediately think one thing; they might be surprised, they might be disappointed or they might be ecstatic at what they find. Others might look at an author’s “hype” and draw another conclusion.

The thing is, they’re going to do that, no matter what the author does. You can’t write for anyone else but yourself and you can’t hype as anyone else but yourself.

@gav: I think you’re cheating a bit if you say a book is a decision about 5BP. Reading books costs a lot of time. Wasting that time is painful.

That’s why I personally understand every reviewer that gets offended by a bad book. If I ever meet Joe Abercrombie, China Miéville or Ian Tregillis in person, I’ll be hard pressed not to rip their heads off for wasting so much of my time (all three have this strange modernist disease of really not liking their characters, although they are good world builders; two out of three also hubris to believe that -as first time published authors- they are good enough to write a series of novels instead of a single story).

Yet, to get back to the topic of the post, I read these books (and wasted my time) because of some hype (web page, friend, boingboing in that order for the authors listed), but never because of the author’s, which I usually do not notice at all. A thing people using the internet learn pretty fast is to filter. In five years, the accusation mentioned in the post will be a non-issue, just showing that someone hasn’t mastered what even now is an essential skill for information processing.

That’s a very astute observation Sam.

I’m not only a critic, I’m also a critic who angsts about his ethics (at the moment I’m due to interview an author, don’t have her second book, angsting about asking for a free copy) so yes… hype is very much felt as a threat to my personal ethics that I need to push back against.

@danielchuter – perhaps that’s indicative of the lack of sophistication of vast swathes of readers, genre readers included. It’s the fact that dare not voice itself. But what does it matter? It’s all relative, isn’t it? Novels have become cans of beans on a supermarket shelf now. Maybe they always have been? What was that quote about never overestimating the taste of the public? of course then the ad hominem argument kicks in: ‘well who are you to say what is good and bad fiction and by what criteria?’ Well, they can be arrived at. Even under terms relating specfically to genre and sub-genres within it – and in fantasy there are so many. But, hey, it is all relative. There is no good or bad fiction. Good is what you or I like in a relative world and the Net is the ultra world of relativism. Every comment carries equal value, does it not, after all? Thus everything is meaningless in terms of comment if all comments carry equal value out here in cyberspace.

@Mark I disagree with you that the difference between the fan and the writer is luck. it isn’t. It is hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness. Any bloody fool can sit on their backside, read something and pontificate about it.I do it myself! Look at the offhand way people on Westeros dispatch writers’ entire careers. It costs them NOTHING. Opinions are like ***holes. We all have ’em. You might not wish to bite the hand that feeds you, Mark. But as I have very little chance of being fed by it the way my life is going, I will!

@Jonathan M – hadn’t you publically announced that you were giving up reading fantasy FOREVER a while back? Your original plan was surely a sound one, mate.

@Sam – this is my problem with hype of all sorts. It can’t ALL be f*****g brilliant and yet another masterpiece and a new shooting star in the fantasy firmament. It’s akin to euphemisms such as ‘quantitative easing’ and ‘fiscal stimulus’. My brain vomits at the crock being spilled out. Some hype might be accurate but not all of it can be. In fact most of it can’t be.

The Internet however is the Babel of Relativism.

My usual view on this is that you can ‘hype’ all you want, but the book won’t sell (after that initial flurry of interest) if people don’t like it.

But of course it’s all relative anyway. Just because ‘Person A’ (or even ‘Reviewer A’) likes it doesn’t mean that Person/Reviewer B will.

There is luck (sometimes) and there can also be a group consensus. But out there in the wider world it usually doesn’t mean a great deal. If they’re not interested, it won’t concern them.

I don’t really care about hype. There’s too much hype about hypes. “Hey, have you heard about the new hype? What’s your opinion?”
Whether it’s a hype or not, your own experience of the work might always differ from expectations or opinions.
Granted, I don’t often care about the current megasellers and even insider tips might prove disappointing, but it’s essentially a matter of taste, and you can’t always want what the rest wants.
Perhaps it’s mostly an issue for those who think in terms of the “market situation” and the whole picture, as opposed to just deciding what to buy next.

Didn’t I hear all this back in 2007? 2008? 2009?

This discussion topic is like a bad venereal disease. Sorry, but I’m all discussed out on this topic, other than to think of STDs 😛

BTW, I didn’t mean to imply that all quality is a matter of taste, but even low quality works seem to be to somebody’s taste, and perhaps you have to accept this difference.

I almost never use reviews as guidelines because I learned early on that my opinions and tastes hardly ever match anyone else’s so completely. If I am unsure about a book, I will go and read a couple pages, and usually by then I know if I want it or not. Simple. But I also understand the need to promote your own work: I was in a band for many years and we did tons of promotion for ourselves. Otherwise, we would have never reached half of the people we did. I see no need to be offended by someone being proactive in linking to reviews, etc. But that is also not hype. Hype I hate. And most hype is generated (in the case of books) by the publishers, not the writer. Hype is purely a commercial technique, and IMO, a completely different creature than self-promotion.

First off, this blog offers a lot more discussion and engagement than anything else. Not sure where the perception of “aggressive self promotion” comes from. I don’t see it.

That said, I think this is another case where the internet gets blamed for something that’s existed long before it came along. When I wrote professional book reviews, some books came with fat shiny folders filled with raves on glossy paper. Others came with just a one page black-and-white photocopy. Some were followed up with e-mails and phone calls from publicists, requests for in-person meetings if the author would be touring or phone interviews if the other wasn’t. Others were all but ignored by their publishers. It was my job as a reviewer to rise above the hype, and let it not affect both the review itself and, even more importantly, what I chose to review. This worked both ways, giving attention to books otherwise neglected by their publishers, and not letting an overeager publicist turn me off another book. It’s hard to do though, just read the book and not bring all the preconceived notions and expectations that come along with it. As a regular reader fair enough, bring the baggage, but for a reviewer part of the job is to rise above it.

Bad hype: ‘In the old days, it would mean you got invited to parties and shared some cheap wine’ – That would buy me!

And now it’s ‘Freebies and sneak previews’? Cheapskates!

Jared – I think Gaiman is very good at publicity. Or he used to be, but perhaps things are just So Huge for his career, that he’s forced to become a newsfeed for himself. Certainly a few years ago, his was THE author blog to go to.

what pisses me off about the comment is that writers these days are bludgeoned to a moribund pulp by books, lectures, courses and, yes — hype– about self promotion. If we don’t self promote, we’re losers in a lost cause because no one is going to do it for us.
I guess they didn’t want to mention you can’t be seen doing it — that’s crass.
Man, I just want to write. The rest of this stuff is business.

@MCN: I definitely think that was a few years ago, but I think that’s more a matter of early adoption than quality. He’s become a walking Twitter feed that charges $40k speaking fees.

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