Friday, April 30, 2010


The latest buzz for marketing books is “the vertical” which in other contexts is roughly like “siloing.” Or maybe not. The idea is to market books from a website that aggregates resources (books, vids, movies, websites, art, whatzits) specifically for a certain demographic as sorted by a computer algorithm: age, gender, employment, hobbies, income, politics, region, etc. The producer buys access to the vertical website, which then pitches -- or at least connects to -- that particular audience on the assumption that the percentage of buyers will be higher.

It’s like pitching all the other commercial objects: this is what pre-teen girls are wearing, this is what cool guys are driving, and so on. Books end up here because books are objects. Esp. books with dust jackets that announce image, affiliation, loyalty, Who-I-Am. One of the main examples is an outfit called “Verso.” If you Google that you can see what it looks like. I notice the spam that is showing up on my gmail account lately is more likely to be about selling “sorted lists” of internet addresses than it is to be about Viagra. (I think it’s maybe dawning on some people that a “stiffie” will not get them love. Or maybe they realized that half their audience was lost right of the, um, "bat.")

One of the reasons I withdrew from the ministry was that the national denomination began to say, “These are the demographics you should pursue. Because market research shows that these are the kinds of people who are most likely to join us." (The intelligent, the educated, the wealthy!!) “Good” congregations, “good” ministers, are defined by big memberships of wealthy people and the “Christians” are getting ahead.

I felt the same about market research even before reading Adam Curtis’ theories about how this practice came out of psychoanalysis, propaganda, and advertising, but after reading his ideas and watching his videos I feel MUCH more radically about it. Not least because it is a form of manipulation that works through the unconscious use of images. The best example I can think of right now -- because I passed one of the billboards yesterday -- is the campaign against meth in Montana. Simply big photos of meth users in the last stages of addiction: skin in shreds, teeth gone, hair falling out, skin over bones. No one is lying. That IS what it does -- and more -- but beginners never “see” that. It has been very effective. Human brains form visual associations quickly and are guided by them.

The opposite is a little harder, but not much: the newspaper today reports a study that kids who watch R rated movies tend to be heavier drinkers than kids who don’t. (It was corrected for general family policies other than movies.) Presumably it’s because all those glamourous people go through the plot with elegant glassware in hand, making a big point about what they drink. Even I make the association, though I’m more interested in the crystal stemware and decanters than in the “Stolchi.” (You can always tell the favorite drink of the person who wrote the script.) For a while I fell into the advertising trap of believing I was only a $35 appliance away from health and happiness (electric tooth brusher, shoe polisher, clothes steamer, CD player). Smart people read this -- successful people wear that.

Cass Sunstein has raised the question of whether everyone getting sorted out by demographic, especially politically, doesn’t tend to pull the country apart, simply confirming prejudices. In periods of high immigration there have always been programs to try to get everyone onto the same page, the same idea about what the country is supposed to stand for and how it works. Lately it seems as though we need that kind of program for the people born here. Anyway, demographics doesn’t find me. Going by demographics will tell you I’m a good cook and housekeeper, that all my friends are female, that I read Christian romances, and that I like diamond jewelry. Wrong. Who would predict that I was co-writing with a scandalous younger man in Paris whom I have never met? I reserve the right to be totally unexpected.

We want our people in categories. We constantly ask Indians what tribe they belong to. But some NA individuals belong to three or more tribes. The census people created a furor over THEIR categories. Why are they “racial”? What use are they? Won’t they mean stigmatizing whole groups of people? Of course. But we’re allotting them funds according to how stigmatized (poor, excluded, disadvantaged) they are so, hey, get with the program! As a Bibfeltian ( defender of the Both/And) I object to having to choose only one of anything.

Why I can’t I say I’m genetically white but in sympathy with the Blackfeet? This is true and what’s more insidious is that it’s a marketing opportunity. If you get everyone separated into groups, then one group can develop an image of another without that group ever having a chance to correct it. Consider that many of the successful books about NA’s (“Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee,” “Laughing Boy,” Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, “Stay Away, Joe”) were written BY whites FOR whites. Vine Deloria, Jr. (Sioux and assimilated) said he asked his publisher how many copies of his new book would be sold on the reservations. “None,” came the answer. “Indians don’t read books.” Hard to get past that. But what does it mean that people won’t read books about themselves, esp. if they are written by themselves? Isn’t that about as vertical as you can get?

“Identifying” my education won’t tell anyone anything. I completely scuttled a lawyer’s strategy when he got me onto a jury thinking I was religious, therefore conservative. (He didn’t know religious people could be liberal.) None of the Verso categories appeal to me at all. They are far too “algorithm” dominated. That is, formulaic -- and those FORMULAS were thought up by cubicle dwellers in Manhattan who know nothing about my worlds. (note: plural) Those guys are not vertical, they are space aliens. Lately there have been jokes in the funnies about “others,” that pretend it is a defining category. The category that would fit me is “eclectic.” I drive Netflix nuts because I watch all kinds of movies EXCEPT the ones they predict I will like.

I do subscribe to some “vertical” listservs: the Humanities series that all start with H-. I belong to ones about the environment, animals, stories, American Indians, the American West, literature of the American West. What makes these work (more or less) is that subscribers are for the most part university graduates. There ARE major differences in what we think, but people have enough manners and reasoning ability not to disintegrate into name calling. At least not overtly. It’s part of what it means to be educated.

Algorithms put the emphasis on aggregation, accumulating items that are assumed to be similar. The problem in this age of computers is that there is soon a HUGE tsunami of lists and the problem of sorting is right back again. Then the problem is “curation,” which is specific description and some kind of indicator of usefulness. But that’s another post.

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