The payola effect in literature

Jana Lauxen*

Let it be known that there's much more behind a book than quality writing. Maybe your annoyance at certain authors isn't uncalled for.

"Payola" is a term that started being used in the music industry to indicate a kind of bribery, when a label pays radio and TV stations to play a track by an artist. It is only natural that the book industry and, the arts in general, would catch up and implement such measure in order to promote (and sell) their writers and artists.

You know that country singer you've never heard of, but whose music all of a sudden is featured on a TV show? You can see the guy's face on all TV channels under the sun and his record plays 24/7 on the radio. No, he's not a hot new talent that is finally getting the recognition he deserves. That's a standard case of payola.

The same happens in literature. One fine day, you learn about this new author, a true sensation in a given genre. Suddenly, everywhere you look, there is the new writing sensation: on TV, on the front page of a newspaper, on a magazine ad, on the recommended reading list of a well-known publication, in the main bookstores nationwide, with banners and dedicated shelves. In no time, it becomes a movie, a series, a short film, and the book climbs up to the top of the best-seller list.

Miracle? Luck? No. Payola.

You may be asking yourself, "Who pays for it? And why?" Payola may be paid by anyone and, in literature, it's usually publishers, agents, sponsors, or authors themselves. The former three do it for the return on their investment, of course. The more well-known a product is, the more it will be sold, and the bigger the sales, the more profit it'll bring. Now, authors pay it themselves―when they can afford it―in order to reach their literary aspirations quicker.

The matter of the fact is: Ignoring payola is ignoring the elephant in the room.

Consequently, oftentimes new authors demand of their publishers something that cannot be offered, because there's simply no budget for it. Don't think a small investment will put you in the cover of the culture section of a given publication, or even cover a quick mention on the bottom of the back of the page. Believe it or not, a thousand bucks won't give you a headline on a major newspaper or magazine.

In my opinion, payola is harmful in several ways, including the following:

  • It often promotes what's bad in detriment of what's good
  • It promotes what's good, but excludes completely what's even better
  • It promotes only those who can afford to pay, or who's got someone behind them to invest; in other words, it creates an elite by putting $ before talent
  • Those who pay dictate the rules; therefore, they can freely interfere with the work and often disrespect the author
  • it unfairly tilts the scale and distorts the free market

I'd like to add to this last item: small publishers that do whatever they can to give new authors an opportunity don't have the financial structure to compete with big publishers―which are often multinational corporations. I'm talking about heavy imprints that invest in an author twice as much as a small publisher earns in the entire year.

Of course this issue with the free market encompasses all areas of our lives. A mom-and-pop shop can't compete with a grocery store chain.

But I'd like to emphasize this subject because it isn't only about mom-and-pop shops; it reaches all (and I mean ALL) business sectors in our society. Since the beginning of time, those who scream the loudest make their voices be heard. And, in this case, it means that they have more money to invest in advertising―both blatant advertising and hidden advertising.

Have you noticed that even the Internet, which in theory is a free-for-all territory, didn't escape the power of money? Facebook is perhaps the biggest and best example. You have 5,000 friends, but your posts only get three Likes. Well... Even if you write something silly, it's unlikely that only three out of 5,000 would have liked your post.

I've heard that less than 5% of our contacts see our updates on Facebook. However, if you pay for it, 5 million people will have access to each character you are able to post.

Should we all despair? I can't say we shouldn't. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn't a train coming in our direction.

I can't talk about other markets, but in book publishing it's still possible to find your own space without an advertising agency acting behind the scenes. And, yes, I know of advertisers who work on the image of an author like they work on the image of a soap bar.

Anyway, there's still hope!

Literary blogs, for example, are a very interesting alternative. There are hundreds of them out there. Most are willing to promote new authors by posting a review on their book and talking about their work. All you need to do is google "Blog + Literature" and contact these bloggers. It's a valuable alternative, both for publishers and for independent authors.

Trying to partner with smaller media sources, such as the local ones, is also a good option. Newspapers and magazines, and even radio and TV stations that have a smaller reach are usually more open to welcome and promote new authors.

And, of course, you have to work a lot, always. For those who wish to find their place in the sun and don't have many thousand bucks to invest, it's crucial to have patience and perseverance. The mom-and-pop shop will never be able to compete with the grocery store chain, but it can get a faithful customer base and make a good living, thank you very much.

Nobody needs to panic. However, there are reasons to stay alert to what the TV, radio, and main newspapers and magazines are trying to shove down our throat.

Knowing that payola exists is already enough for us to reconsider whether we really want to read this book written by a new sensation, watch this movie made by a new sensation, or listen to this song played by a new sensation.

It's just that there may be someone behind it trying to make you want to want what you actually don't want.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The original article written in Portuguese was first posted at Homo Literatus and is reposted and translated here with the author's permission.

JANA LAUXEN is a cultural producer and author. She wrote two novels, Uma carta por Benjamin ("A Letter for Benjamin") and O túmulo do ladrão ("The Thief's Tombstone,") the novella Pela honra de meu pai ("On my Father's Honor,") and participated in over 15 anthologies. She also writes for Café Espacial and Homo Literatus and once edited the Brazilian version of British on-line magazine 3:AM. She currently works at Os Dez Melhores publisher and writes for Teia agency, which specializes in literary marketing on the web.