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Publishing, Self-Promotion, and Amazon v. Macmillan

It's been a fabulously interesting weekend in the publishing world. The Cliff's Notes version: Amazon pulled all print and digital editions of Macmillan's books from sale when the two reached a negotiating impasse regarding the pricing of Kindle editions of Macmillan titles. Macmillan is one of the six big publishing houses, so this was a big deal; basically Amazon removed about a sixth of their stock. If you're interested in the comprehensive details, check out these analyses written by John Scalzi, Scott Westerfeld, and Charlie Stross.

A fun time was had by all. Or actually, now that I think about it, by nobody.

There is, however, a tangential issue I would like to address. I've seen a common refrain bubble up over this hullabaloo: "Soon, the entire publishing chain will collapse, and an author will be able to sell to readers directly!" Or a variant: "When the iBookstore comes, authors will be able to publish their own work and set their own book prices!"

Oh god, I think. What a nightmarish future that would be, indeed, in which every author is reduced to self-publishing. Why would anybody think such a thing is desirable, much less inevitable? Even aside from the stigma of self-publishing, let me explain just why this is a dystopian endgame.

First, as a reader, I look to the publisher as providing a sort of affidavit of quality. If I weren't interested in quality, I could buy books indiscriminately on Lulu or iUniverse. I do not do this. And if you look at the numbers... nobody else does, either. This teaches us two important lessons: First, promoting a self-published book is really hard. Second: Nobody is going out on a limb to try out cheap but potentially lousy ebooks. There's a reason people get paid to read slush, and not the other way around.

It's also no big secret that I'm trying to claw my way up the ladder into the treehouse of traditional publishing. Hopefully it won't fall out of the tree first (or at all). As a writer, if the traditional publishing model ceased to exist, if your only choice as an author were to put your work out there and promote the hell out of it your own self, you know what I'd do? I'd probably stop writing novels. 

I have a trait that is not rare among writers: I loathe promoting myself and my own work. 

In the golden world that exists only in my head, I make stuff, and then somebody else hands me cash for it. I at no point need to hustle for clients, network, chase payments, or any other pesky administrative task. In reality, these are necessary evils to keep my freelance business running. But I only need to successfully market myself to a handful of people in order to be successful as an ARG writer. Those are the creative directors, project managers, team leads, etc. at the agencies I look to work with. 

After that, the marketing muscle and know-how of wiser heads than mine combined with the quality of the experience I am designing work together to build an active and engaged audience. The people hiring me have the dollars to put up commercials, billboards and posters; the designers to make them interesting; and the savvy to know where they should go. They attract attention. My job is to keep it and build on it.

If I were completely on the hook to build that audience all by my lonesome, I'm sure I'd do a pretty miserable job. I know this because I have done a miserable job many a time before! The participation and readership numbers I get for my personal projects - this here blog, My Super First Day, what have you -- they aren't in the same ballpark as my big games, not by multiple orders of magnitude. I frankly don't think I could build an audience of several thousand or more for a book without any marketing support. And it's not because I think my work isn't pretty great. It's because self-promoting is hard, it's expensive, it takes time away from creating, and just plain isn't the talent I've spent my life honing. 

I'm curious to know where other people see the future of publishing heading, though. Think I'm wrong-headed, misguided, pessimistic? Go ahead and comment. I'd love to hear what you think.


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Campbell's, a Pro-Ana Company

Campbell's, the generally benign and beloved soup company, is running some commercials that are driving me insane. In them, women are mindlessly shambling through the frozen foods aisle of a supermarket, tossing various light and diet frozen meals into their carts. And then... they come to their senses. They  look at the nutritional information of these meals they are buying. Horrors, if only they had known! 

"310 calories?" one woman says, clearly shocked. 

"340 calories?!" another says with disgust. 

The solution: Campbell's Select Harvest Light soups, with as few as 60 calories per serving!

OK, somebody tell me if I'm missing the boat here, but... since when is 340 calories a completely unacceptable amount to eat for a meal? Ignore the underlying message that all women should be on a restricted-calorie diet. That's just too big for me to tackle right now. This is a matter of degree and simple math. Note that Campbell's isn't in any way playing these ads in the light of "eat our soup for lunch so you can have that cheesecake later." I'd be a lot more OK with that, even though it still buys into the problematic social imperative for all women to restrict their food intake. But no, the message implicit in that ad is that 340 calories is simply too much to eat, ever.

Let's do a little math, here, so I can explain in more depth why I'm up in arms. Most weight-loss experts recommend that a woman eat between 1500 and 1800 calories in a day. (A man would generally need somewhat more.) If you were to eat five of those 340-calorie frozen meals in a day, you'd be at 1700 calories, which is a perfectly reasonable amount for a typical woman to eat. Not that most people are eating frozen meals every time they open their mouths, or are even eating five meals a day, which is the trendy thing to do nowadays. 

Most sources I've read say 1200 is the absolute lowest limit a dieter should go to, without risking various nutritional deficiencies or damaging your metabolism. Let's go with 1400 calories for our imaginary woman on a diet. That's 466 calories a meal for three meals. 

Or if you were splitting your food into five smaller meals, that gives you a lower limit of 280 calories per meal, assuming that you're dividing your calories equally between meals. And that's a big assumption! Want to see how the calories in a typical (recommended) dieter's day stacks up, with three meals and a couple of snacks?

Breakfast: 

1 hard-boiled egg, 70 calories

1 grapefruit w/ tsp. of sugar, 60 calories

1 piece whole wheat toast w/ 1 tbsp. peanut butter, 200 calories

TOTAL: 330 calories

Morning Snack: 1 cup lowfat yogurt, 120 calories

1 apple, 80 calories

TOTAL: 200 calories

Lunch: 1 "horrifying" frozen meal, 340 calories 

Afternoon Snack:

1 cup baby carrots, 60 calories

2 tbsp. light ranch dressing, 70 calories

TOTAL: 130 calories

Dinner: 1 garlic-mushroom chicken breast, 120 calories

1 cup egg noodles w/ 1 tsp. butter, 249 calories

1 cup steamed broccoli, 31 calories

TOTAL: 400 calories

GRAND TOTAL: 1400 calories

Now let's replace that 340-calorie frozen meal with a 60-calorie serving of Campbell's. Whoops! The total is 1120. We've gone 80 calories below the lower limit recommended by nutritionists. If you also take away half of those butter noodles, because (horrors!) we went above 340 calories for dinner, that brings us to a grand total of 995 calories for the day. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone recommending that level of calorie restriction without medical supervision.

There was a famous study about starvation conducted in Minnesota in 1945. Let's quote Wikipedia:

Among the many conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semi-starvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondriasis as measured using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a standardized test administered during the experimental period. Indeed, most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression. There were extreme reactions to the psychological effects during the experiment including self-mutilation (one subject amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe, though the subject was unsure if he had done so intentionally or accidentally). Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. Sexual interest was drastically reduced and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation. The participants reported a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgment capabilities, although the standardized tests administered showed no actual signs of diminished capacity. There were marked declines in physiological processes indicative of decreases in each subject’s basal metabolic rate (the energy required by the body in a state of rest) and reflected in reduced body temperature, respiration and heart rate. Some of the subjects exhibited edema (swelling) in the extremities, presumably due to the massive quantities of water the participants consumed attempting to fill their stomachs during the starvation period.

How much do you think those men were eating? I bet you guess too low. It was roughly 1560 calories a day. Makes you think a little harder about those extreme calorie restriction diets, huh?

Campbell's, by running these ads you are supporting -- nay, advocating -- disordered eating, even unto anorexic behavior. I call shenanigans.

Updated to add: I acquired the video for a shorter version of the ad:


It looks like when I was writing this from memory, some of the specific numbers were off, but not by much. My point stands.


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Tech Toys & Gender

I just saw my first ad for the hotly anticipated Droid, the Verizon phone based on the open-source-by-way-of-Google Android operating system. I've been interested in the progress of Android for some time, because so many respected members of the geekerati have been so very excited by it. Though admittedly I've also been skeptical; in my experience, opensourceware provides such an awful user experience that I'd rather shell out the money and avoid the sanity damage. But I'm always willing to rethink my stances, and there was always a distinct possibility that Android would wind up on my "Gimme Gimme Buy Me Buy Me" list.

Well, now that's one decision I don't need to rethink. Verizon has very thoughtfully gone out of its way to tell me they aren't interested in my business. Take a look at the ad, and then I'll explain my thought process:

 

Like whoa, did you catch that? The more I think about this ad, the more angry I get. Here's the problem: The ad is assigning to the iPhone a whole slew of traits traditionally considered feminine (pretty, glitter, hearts, tiaras) and imbuing those traits with negative value (stupid, vapid, worthless). It's the same dynamic you run into in gamer culture, which is really just a subset of geek culture; if something has a feminine trait, it inherently has less value. Because girl things are always inferior to boy things, amirite?

This widely propagated message has been toxic to me, personally, and I plan to spend some time at SXSW talking about why and how. The short of it is: I spent years and years of my life denying myself access to feminine things (no matter how much I really liked them or wanted them) because I'd internalized this idea that boy things were always better. So if I enjoyed getting my nails done, or wanted a sparkly handbag, or admitted to liking flowers: Well then, I'd be just another ordinary girl, and we couldn't have that, could we? Because girls are selfish and vapid and stupid, and I wasn't like that, so I couldn't be a REAL girl. 

Shame on Verizon. I expected better, and I'm sorry I didn't get it.


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ARGs and the Economy: Part 3 of 3

Movies haven't been doing so well in recent years, but it's not because people are opting to stay at home watching their grass grow. Instead, it looks like a lot of that discretionary spending has shifted to the thriving video game market:

It's also a given that no matter how you look at it, the global games market has been absolutely booming the last several years. Between 2000 and 2001, the U.S. games industry grew from $6.6 billion to $9.4 billion. In 2007, that figure was up to a record-shattering $17.94 billion (and it doesn't even include PC game sales or online revenue).

The economy may be tanking, but you sure couldn't tell by looking at video games. It's important to recognize that games aren't just seeing success around AAA console titles. It's been a great year for indie gaming, too. There's ample evidence that even a small team of designers can put together an incredibly popular experience.

In Part 1 of this series we figured out that ARGs don't want be more like movies in order to be successful. In Part 2 we established that it's going to be lean times for the marketing ARGs, as budgets shrink and clients flee for more measurable measures. But this third cousin of ours, the video game? I do believe we've found ourselves a good role model. 

So if the ARG community wants to hit its own boomtown days, we have a couple of questions we need to answer, namely: What do video games have that movies don't, and what does that mean for ARGs? My answer is that video games are active, social, and convenient -- more on that in the next post. In short, though, these are traits already inherent to the ARG. We're much more like video games than we are like movies already.

But none of this directly tells us how the hapless ARG designer should plan to weather the bad economy. The problem is that video games already have a clear and well-trodden path to revenue, and ARGs don't, not yet. 

There have been a lot of different experiments in monetizing ARG-style immersive gameplay directly, without first pitching to a client and creating an experience tailored to that one brand's preferences (and subject to its creative veto, too). And here is our path to survival. We have to go out and do more of that, boys and girls. First we build a rich, engaging experience that people love. Preferably a lot of people. If you do that, then you're free to make money in several ways.
  • Offer subscriptions or added content for money.
  • Sell material goods for money. (Books, shirts, artwork, maps, keys, posters, plush dolls...) 
  • Tap into those marketing dollars from the other side: Get your eyeballs first, and then sell them via product placements, sponsorships, partnerships, affiliate relationships, or good old-fashioned Google AdSense. It's definitely worked before. (And now we've arrived at Brian Clark's prediction of pushing risk to the content creator, though by a different route: The content creator is taking on the risk of creating a user experience that just might flop, and if it does, it's all out of pocket for the dev team, since no sponsor has come on board.)
At the end of the day we need to recognize that our art lives in an attention economy, and the things we need to do revolve around gaining and keeping that attention. Once you have that, the ways to eke out a living are varied and plentiful. Frankly, if you have enough eyeballs looking your way, money will be banging on your door and describing exactly how to let it in. It's cheesy to say "If you build it, they will come," but it's accurate. Not the players, you have to work your tail off for that -- but attention-seekers with money.

We do need to get out of the pernicious mindset that making money at all is a grubby thing to do. We're not betraying the trust of our audience if we use the gift of their attention to line our own wallets (or pay our own mortgages, as the case may be.) Why don't more grassroots games try to monetize? Why is sell-out a dirty word? The audience is sophisticated enough to recognize that we can't all build the things they love purely out of the goodness of our own hearts. You're going to want to do it in a respectful way -- for heaven's sake, don't go selling the phone numbers and email addresses you've collected to any and all comers -- but that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't profit at all.

And as for me, the freelance ARG designer? I'll be keeping my hat in the ring, of course -- I'm certainly not one to turn down marketing dollars. Less risk and less uncertainty is still a fat checkmark in the plus column as far as I'm concerned. But if it comes down to it, I've also got my eye on just laying it all on the line and making cool stuff (and ultimately hoping other people like it, too.) Making cool stuff is the whole reason I'm in this game at all. 

And hey, the United States is officially in a recessionjob losses are mounting higher every day, and venture capitalists are putting their wallets away. People are going to need cool stuff to help take their minds off it all.

This is the third part of a three-part series. Part 1. Part 2.


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ARGs and the Economy: Part 2 of 3

Like it or not, the worlds of advertising, marketing, and the ARG are tightly braided together. We've already discussed the ARG's utility in marketing movies, but that relationship also reaches to other products like automobiles, video games, TV shows, and even perfume. Many of us are actively exploring the possibilities for making a living by making ARGs with our own intellectual property; but even some of those rely on marketing dollars to succeed -- as the flip side of the ad coin: the main event content, and not just a lead-in to something else. 

So it's fair to say that the fortunes of the ARG are vulnerable to the same invisible forces that turn the tides of the ad world. But how do those fortunes do in bad times, traditionally? How have they been doing, and how are they projected to do?

Well, if we look backwards, what we get are bad news. Typically during a recession, ad and marketing budgets are the first cuts a company makes (despite the questionable wisdom of making cuts like that -- hey, a business is only as rational as the people who run it). And that's exactly what's happening right now. I won't sugar-coat this: It's ugly out there.

Or is it? It turns out this is one of those topics where experts can't seem to agree on what's going on, or how bad it is. The Economist has a fairly rosy take on the future of online advertising, considering the gloom and doom found in other industries:

This week eMarketer, a market-research firm, predicted that online-advertising spending in America, which makes up about half the global total, will increase by 8.9% in 2009, rather than the 14.5% it had forecast in August. The firm thinks search advertising will grow by 14.9% and rich-media ads by 7.5%, whereas display ads will grow by 6.6%. In short, online advertising will continue to expand in the recession—just not as quickly as previously expected.

That doesn't sound too bad at all. But let's not forget that "online-advertising spending" can cover a lot of categories that have not a whole lot to do with ARGs: banner ads, Flash microsites, search engine optimization. The Wall Street Journal digs a little deeper and tells us:

Areas like mobile, virtual worlds and widgets are expected to be hit particularly hard, as it remains unclear what kind of impact ads in these media have. These campaigns often reach a small number of people, and standard measurement systems have yet to be developed.

Ouch. That's the truth, folks, and boy, does it hurt. So what's the takeaway here for the ARG studio or the budding ARG developer (and, of course, for freelancers like me)? The studio will have to fight a little harder and talk a little louder to get a piece of marketing budgets, for one thing. As for me -- do I need to sell my house or go back to school to get my DBA certification? Is the well dry?

My answer: Don't panic. There's still hope for us in the ARG world. But it isn't going to come at the hand of juicy marketing budgets. If we want to thrive in this risky financial climate, it's clear we're going to have to forge a path for ourselves away from that comfortable marketing symbiosis. Let's look on the bright side; the golden handcuffs have broken off and we've been set free to find our rightful place in the world. Next up: Video games, another close cousin and maybe -- just maybe -- our role model for salvation.


This is the second part of a three-part series. Part 1. Part 3.


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