Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Role of Hype.

If you have a look at the newly introduced young adult section of the New York Times best-seller list (the children’s series section remains mixed with both YA and MG), you probably won’t see anything that really surprises you. In the top spot is “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, predominantly due to the recent movie adaptation. Following closely behind is John Green at numbers two and five, which is once again expected given his name, Printz Award and huge fan-base. Both books in Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series appear back to back, continuing their best-selling streak. No doubt they shall appear in the series list once the final book is released. Ransom Riggs, Marcus Zusak, Ellen Hopkins, James Patterson, and Olympian Gabby Douglas make up the rest of the top 10. There’s absolutely nothing on this list that makes you think “Oh, what a surprise”, although there are a few here that make me go “Ugh, really” instead.

It’s a little tougher these days to make a big impression in YA. Not only is the market still over-saturated with fad followers and ever-expanding series that suggest the continued flogging of many a dead horse, the arrival of New Adult and the increasing legitimacy of self-publishing brings with it more problems. How do you create big enough buzz for a book to truly make an impact?

In the case of Veronica Roth’s series, the stars just happened to be aligned perfectly. The book is pretty awful, in my opinion, but my opinion definitely seems to be in the minority (you can read my review here). However, consider the circumstances. “Divergent” was released post-“Mockingjay”. The hype of “The Hunger Games” was full throttle, and expected to increase with the upcoming movie. Of course, the publishing industry, as expected, is eager to replicate this success for themselves and look for similar books that can easily be marketed with buzz phrases such as “The Next Hunger Games” or “If you liked The Hunger Games, you’ll love this!” One of the most identifiable markers of “The Hunger Games” is the various Districts that make up Katniss’s world, Panem. Similarly, Roth’s Chicago divides its citizens up based on five human traits (this made absolutely no sense to me, or the world-building, but in all honesty, such things seldom matter in the grand scheme of things). Not only does this give Roth’s publisher an instant connection of sorts to a huge best-selling series, it also allows for a new advertising opportunity, one that directly appeals to readers. “Divergent” came with a very interesting online campaign involving Facebook quizzes that allowed you to discover your faction. It was a great concept, and there is something inherently appealing to readers about finding out which group you belong to. The Harry Potter series has something similar with the Hogwarts houses. All in all, it was a perfect storm of how to do publishing right, and in July 2012, sales of the two books surpassed one million copies. Of course, the film is in the works too.

“Divergent” may have played out pretty perfectly for its publishers, but this formula isn’t a guaranteed best-seller maker. There are too many dystopian YA novels to count that were released post-Hunger Games that barely made a splash, even by mid-list standards. The same thing happened in the wake of “Twilight”, something I covered extensively, and which was somewhat more successful than the dystopian equivalent. In the end, it all comes back to the same point, something I have argued for a while. True hype is organic, not artificially created by those shilling the product. Now, we are seeing this practice in play, but in a stranger way. I’ve talked about self-publishing and its connection to the traditional mould before, but I remain completely baffled as to why groups like Simon & Schuster continue to throw staggering amounts of money at self-published work in the hope of replicating its success. We saw it start out with the original million seller, Amanda Hocking, who sold two YA series, one previously published and one new, for a couple of million dollars. While her Trylle series did appear of the best-seller list, overall her numbers have been pretty low. It’s not hard to see why. People will take a risk on a 99 cent e-book. They’re far less willing to do so with a $16 hardback. Other big hype gone wrong examples include Tahereh Mafi's "Shatter Me", Josephine Angelini's "Starcrossed" series (pushed as Percy Jackson for girls) and Jessica Khoury's "Origin" (250k first printing. Did you buy it or hear anything about it? I didn't.)

The obvious exception is E.L. James, but that was already selling well before Vintage/Arrow bought it. The buzz was already there, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that lightning won’t strike twice. Other P2P purchased works, such as “Gabriel’s Inferno”, haven’t exactly lit up the best-seller charts, and are certainly selling less than when they were independent of the system. The cost has a lot to do with this. The hype stops dead if people have to pay 4 or 5 times the original price.

The advertising of these books has also been unexpectedly honest. It’s still a little hard to believe that publishing fan-fiction is the new normal here, but even “50 Shades of Grey” were a little bashful about the work previously known as “Master of the Universe”. Now, upcoming release “Beautiful Bastard” is being pushed based on its success as a “Twilight” fan-fiction, previously known as “The Office” (and the book is far better if you imagine Michael Scott as the panties tearing sex god). “Over two million views”, the blurb and NetGalley advertising proudly declares, with the obvious message being “Lots of people liked this, so you will too!”

Ultimately, all this comes down to an issue of trust. The relationship between the author and their reader is the main one, but it’s also about the relationship between the reader and the publisher, because they’re the ones in charge of how the message is presented. With self-publishing, that control is predominantly in the hands of the author. If a book is described as a “must-read” or “the book everyone’s talking about”, then it will undoubtedly grab the attention of some readers. Sometimes hype is hard to ignore. I know this as well as any reader and blogger!

Sometimes, an author quote on the cover will pique one’s interest, although I have becoming increasingly weary of these, due do the relationships between authors who are friends with each other, and those who share a publisher. The same applies to the words of other bloggers. I have those who I trust and who are familiar with my interests and biases. I tend to wildly avoid bloggers who are lacking in substantial criticism and primarily offer loud praise. If you have biases or close relationships with authors who you are reviewing, I want to know that up front, and this also applies to authors praising the work of their friends.

Just because something is shoved in our face and lauded as amazing, that doesn’t mean we’ll automatically take the bait. Au contraire, many will avoid the book as a result. Overall, I think we all play a role in the creation of hype. True hype is formed by the readers, through word-of-mouth and recommendations. It’s one of the reasons so many self-publishing books are doing so well (along with the cheap cost and prolific nature of many of these authors). However, as many self-published authors continue to flock to the traditional model, tempted by big advances and the promise of bookshop presence (who could resist that?), the necessity of hype continues. It may be even more needed as publishers put down 7 figure sums for these works. Inevitably, this model will fail. It’s just too big and too costly to sustain unless every book sells as well as “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games”. Even with the success of “50 Shades of Grey”, the sale of books continues to fall. In the end, readers will make or break a book, not hype.

So what is hype for? Does it in any way serve the consumer of the product being marketed to them? What convinces you to put down your hard earned cash to buy a book? Are there any figures that you trust when it comes to hype?