A new world

October 22, 2009 by · 8 Comments 

Thank God for the Huffington Post (or HuffPo, for those overly enamoured of insufferable abbreviations). Just when I thought there was nothing capable of elevating me out of my Giller-induced lethargy, along comes James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times with a profile of Amy Hertz, editor of the Huffington Post’s new books section. Hertz is an Internet evangelist, a “fairly typical book geek,” and editor-at-large for Dutton Books, a division of Penguin Group.

If this were a movie, the soothing music playing in the background would now get abruptly cut off by the grating sound of a record needle skipping over vinyl.

Let me repeat that: the new editor of the Huffington Post’s books section is also an editor-at-large with a major international publisher. In terms of conflict of interest, that’s somewhat akin to Stephen Harper appointing Rob Nicholson to the Supreme Court of Canada. And what’s most interesting about Hertz’s new position is how little difference anyone (Hertz included) seems to think it makes. Rainey writes:

This sort of two-timing (and the potential for conflicts of interest) might have been big news once in the media world. But the shock waves wrought by technological change now wash over us so quickly and continuously, we scarcely stop to note them.

Indeed, Rainey claims that when he broached the subject of conflict, Hertz appeared surprised that it would even come up. “‘Am I going to be spending all of my time on Penguin Books? The answer is no,’ she said.” Oh well, then, nothing at all to worry about. I’m sure we can also assume that Penguin books won’t get treated with kid gloves by Huffington Post reviewers and critics.

Well, actually, we can assume that, because Hertz doesn’t really like reviewers, or reviews. In a post dated October 12, Hertz wrote:

This is NOT a book review section. Let me say that again, because I know about 72,000 publicists just plotzed because they have no idea what to do other than ask for a review. Huffington Post Books is not a review – there’s a reason those sections in newspapers are dropping like flies. Book reviews tend to be conversation enders, and when you’re living in the age of engagement, a time when people are looking for conversation starters, that stance gets you nowhere.

She also told the LA Times‘s Rainey that she dislikes “arcane and ponderous” essays, a strange admission from the new books editor of a website that has just made a deal to partner with the New York Review of Books.

Nor does she see a problem with asking writers to donate their content to the Huffington Post for free. She refused to engage Rainey on the issue, saying, “I’m not going to answer that question one way or another. I just don’t think it’s a useful question to ask at this point. It’s a new world.” (A colleague of mine pointed out that any time someone replies that a question is not useful to ask, its usefulness is practically guaranteed.)

So, to recap: the new books editor at the Huffington Post disdains reviews and essays about books, has a breathtaking conflict of interest in executing her duties, and sees no problem in fleecing writers for content. It’s a new world, indeed.

Comments

8 Responses to “A new world”
  1. Alex says:

    I was shocked by this as well. Not so much that it was happening (this is the way things have been trending for a while now), as how open she was about it. The whole site is envisioned, quite frankly, as nothing but an advertising platform, where authors and publicists (mainly) will write in and rave about their fave reads. No criticism, please! That’s just being snarky, or a “conversation ender.”

    I also like the part about not paying contributors. But then, if all they’re doing is posting ad-copy, shouldn’t they be paying HuffPo?

  2. Andrew S says:

    Just when I was starting to think that I was the only one who noticed that little conflict of interest … well, it’s nice to see that I’m not alone.

    And her bit about reviews being conversation enders is fairly moronic — she wants to talk about books, it seems, without actually, you know, talking about books.

  3. August says:

    Alex: The Huffington Post not paying contributors is not a Books Section thing; they’ve only ever paid a small handful of their writers (and by a small handful I mean Arianna takes her cut and hands out a few ducats to a couple established names she thinks she needs and can’t sell on the “it’ll look great in your portfolio line” that every Craigslist shyster uses) . To hear Arianna talk about it, it seems they take the attitude of it being like an unpaid internship. They get work, you get “experience”.

  4. Alex says:

    August: I realize this is SOP for HuffPo (though I thought there was some buzz a while back about how she was hiring a few “real” journalists from newspapers that had shut down — which was supposed to show how journalism could survive and flourish in the “new world”. . . but that’s another funny story). And to be even more fair, this is SOP for the internet generally, where users are expected to generate all of the content for free while the ad-men and platform builders pocket the money. See Google, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Blogger network, etc., etc.

    Anyway, my point was more that since the posts are envisioned as just being advertising (rather than “experience” or something to put in your portfolio), I thought it would make more sense for the contributors to pay HuffPo.

  5. Nic says:

    I think you’re all missing the point of HuffPo books. It’s neither meant to be a review site or an industry journal, but a place to discuss books and book publishing as a whole. An outlet for new ideas, but for the general public.
    What’s so bad about that?
    They’re attached to the NYRB for reviews (which Hertz has no clout over, so while I see the conflict of interest, I think it’s overstated in this post), and have opened up a place for book lovers to talk about their love of books.
    @Andrew S – They are conversation enders. Reviews, in print, are not open for discussion, that’s the reviewers role – to be an authoritative voice on the subject. When has a reviewer been engaging?
    @Alex – What? How is the whole blog advertising? Have you read it? I’ve read several articles and have heard mention of maybe two books. Also, I’m curious to know why you’re opposed to full disclosure? You’d rather be kept in the dark about people’s relationships?
    FYI, what you’ve just done is written free copy for this blog. Authors on HuffPo are people with strong opinions who don’t mind taking some time out to aggregate their thoughts and post them online. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be paid, but it’s an interesting way to approach a website. With real, human interactions at heart.

  6. August says:

    “They are conversation enders. Reviews, in print, are not open for discussion, that’s the reviewers role – to be an authoritative voice on the subject. When has a reviewer been engaging?”

    At the risk of sounding like a juvenile Internet meme, if this is really what you think of reviews and reviewers, then “you’re doing it wrong”. There’s ways other than responding directly to a review or a reviewer to have a conversation. Before the Internet, the idea was that you’d become engaged with the book, with your own ideas about it, and with the hopefully more professionally competent ideas of the reviewer (by which I mean the reviewer, if they were good at their job, would try to do things the casual reader normally wouldn’t, like discuss the place of the book in the author’s oeuvre, in the prevailing literary climate, discuss things the casual reader my miss, etc), and then take all that engagement and *talk about the book with their friends*. You know, real people. Human beings that you look in they eye and actually speak to using words that actually come out of your mouth. I just blew your minds, I know it.

    Of course today things are different. Today everything is posted online, and unlike with other articles, many media outlets don’t open up comments on their reviews. Clearly that means ‘the conversation’ (only the one conversation? really?) is over, right? Yeah, not so much. You can respond in your own blog (as many people, such as Mr. Beattie, myself, Dan Green, George Murray, Jessa Crispin all do), and I can tell you for a fact that folks from those media outlets sometimes take the time to respond, and so do readers like us. You can still actually close the lid on that laptop and go have a cuppa or some nice pinot noir with a flesh and blood person and talk about the review and the book, already armed with a set of ideas (in addition to your own) to argue for or against, an excellent way to keep conversations moving at dinner parties.

    Book reviews aren’t conversation enders, Nic. It’s your failure to use your imagination and creativity to find even these simple ways of engaging with them that ends ‘the conversation’ (though I prefer to think that there many conversations). As for reviewers themselves, I think that once a critic has established a name and a reputation, following the development of their aesthetic sense over time can actually be fascinating and enlightening about the books they review (see James Wood). One can also get a certain amount of Valley-Girlish pleasure when one follows a critic with opinions you find simpatico with your own (I think of it as the “I know, right?” moment), such as I often find with Mr. Beattie, and almost an even more delicious pleasure when you find a critic you violently disagree with on a regular basis (it’s the main reason I continue to read the work of Mr. Green). Again, Nic, I find the failure to engage lies mainly between your chair and your keyboard.

    As for ‘the blog being advertising, Nic, I think you might rather have missed the point that much of the work Hertz was suggesting, in her post, that she would want to solicit is from publicists. Text submitted to a site by a publicist who is being paid by a publisher or author or agent (or God forbid one of those asinine firms that ‘package’ books) to write and submit that text, is advertising. Look at the work Julie Wilson did for House of Anansi before striking out on her own. She wrote a blog, managed a Twitter account, wrote all manner of email blasts and all sorts of things (I’m not including her Seen Reading project here, which was something else). She brought personality, humanity, intelligence and wit to all those things, and it was clear that she had a passion for the industry and cared about the house she was promoting. But she was still being paid to say and write those positive things, and therefore it falls firmly into the category of advertising. What Hertz has suggested she wants for the new site is content no different from what Julie Wilson wrote for Anansi, and publishers must pay to place their advertising materials in most media outlets (though God only knows it’s sometimes difficult to see how what passes for books journalism at many traditional outlets amounts to anything more than an elaborate front for PR campaigns). Now, I like a lot of what Ms. Wilson–and folks like her–have done in their marketing positions. It certainly points towards things that publishers can and should be doing to embrace new technologies and market opportunities. I just don’t think it’s wise to mistake it for ‘the conversation’ you were lamenting the absence of earlier.

    As for the issue of full disclosure, I don’t see anyone here on Mr. Beattie’s blog suggesting that relationships should be kept secret. What they are suggesting is that certain relationships are such that, given the various hats that she must wear, Hertz is ethically–or even morally–obliged to recuse herself from one of her roles. (Assuming she has any moral or ethical sense; it’s been my experience that many people don’t. I think my favourite explanation of the difference is this: the ethical man knows it’s wrong to cheat on his wife; the moral man actually wouldn’t). By not acknowledging the conflict, Hertz (and let’s be clear, it’s Hertz at whom we ought to be directing, at the risk of once again sinking to the level of the Internet meme, our shouts of “FAIL”) is more or less declaring that she either doesn’t understand it (no ethical sense), or intends to abuse it (no moral sense). We aren’t talking rocket surgery here.

    Nic, you seemed to have missed the fundamental difference between That Shakespearian Rag (I miss the aitch) and the Huffington Post. One is the unpaid, personal writings of an industry insider who has ideas to express beyond the scope of what his job allows, and who, by the way, discloses conflicts of interest and often bows out when he feels disclosure is insufficient guarantee of negating such a conflict. The other is a business poised in deliberate, professional opposition to established outlets that, as part of its business model, solicits free labour from an often already shockingly-underpaid group of writers who, in a time of severe unemployment and even more severe under-employment, are increasingly being turned away by traditional outlets and are desperate to maintain the exposure of their bylines so they can maintain their foothold in the industry they love (to say nothing of the increasing reliance on the disgustingly class-biased internship process that often insists a person work for extended periods for little or no money for even the chance at a job interview).

    The conversation you’re looking for, Nic, is right here. Based on Hertz’s post, what you’ll find at the Huffington Post is a handful of established names devaluing the work of their peers and (if Hertz’s post is anything to go by) shilling for publicists, and keeping the fruits of that labour for themselves. An interesting way to run a website? Perhaps. An ethical way for journalists to conduct their business? Probably not.

  7. Andrew S says:

    This wasn’t about reviews in print — it was about reviews as part of HuffPo books. Seems to me that the responses to reviews on this blog, for one, disprove the notion that they’re conversation enders, doesn’t it?

  8. Alex says:

    @Nic

    FYI: (1) While it’s true commenting on a blog post can be seen as writing copy, it involves minimal effort, and certainly isn’t the kind of thing anyone would expect to be paid for (any more than one would writing a letter to an editor). More to the point: (2) This site (Steve’s) is a non-profit, non-commercial venture. It is not HuffPo, which is making money off of volunteer labour. If this were a commercial site I would not post comments on it. I do not comment on HuffPo.

    How is the whole blog envisioned as advertising? Read Ms. Hertz’s inaugural open letter. It is addressed directly to publicists and explains how they can get attention for their books, which is to “blog, blog, blog” on the HuffPo site (did any red lights go off for you when you read that, Nic?) or, better yet, use other bloggers to shill for you because “The web is all about authentic relationships, so start creating them.” A statement I find breathtaking in its cynicism. Go out there, publicists, and start “creating” authenticity!

    The letter is a how-to guide for publicists on how to sell books, how to “make noise for their titles” in the new world. That is clearly envisioned as the site’s purpose and bottom line. It also announces itself as a safe commercial environment because criticism has already been written off as futile in the new world (such a function is left to the NYRB, a publication that should have died off by now according to Ms. Hertz’s logic). Publicists are encouraged to speak “personally, authentically, and from the heart” for a simple reason: because readers “can smell an adapted press release a mile away.” This, of course, only highlights a shared awareness that what is being offered are, in fact, adapted press releases (otherwise why bother with the caution?).

    Have I read the site? Let’s see what today’s got lined up . . . Headline: “Huffington Post’s Readers’ Picks” Sub-headline: “Your Favorite Books (Photos/Poll)”. Hm. Looks like the splash page at Amazon. Oh well. First front page lede from the featured posts: “I am here at Sing Sing to to bring The Good Men Project, the anthology I’ve edited, inside the prison — physically and in spirit.” This isn’t an ad? Interesting column further down by Amy Dickinson titled “I’m in Sales”: “What I learned during my book tour is that I was dying to have people actually read my book, and if they were going to read it, I was first going to have to sell it to them.” Sounds like Ms. Hertz’s message. There also seem to be books being plugged on dieting and feminism. I say “plugged” because they are, of course, not being reviewed. They are being “discussed.” Authentically, truly, from the heart. And so on.

    In conclusion, I don’t think I’m missing the point of HuffPo at all. I think I understand the point very clearly. I think they’ve been very open about it. I just don’t find such artificial, manipluative, manufactured “discussions” very interesting.