oh boy do I have a deal for YOU!

Several Snarklings emailed me about "recommendations" they've gotten from Writers Digest. As I've surfed the blogosphere I've seen sites for writers that have banner ads from places like iUniverse and AuthorHouse. This leads me to the question: what, if any, responsibility do publishing professionals have about taking advertising.

When the Snarklings emailed me about the information they got from Writers Digest, they identified exactly as that: info from WD. I asked to see the exact email and it is in fact NOT from WD but from "one of our marketing partners" which is a fancy word for advertiser. Someone paid WD a chunk of change for access to their email list. PW does the same thing. Took me weeks to get off their spam list.

However, my question is this. Does WD have a responsibility to screen their advertisers before they take their money? Do they have a responsibility to not take advertisers who offer "pie in the sky" to writers?

Some say no; authors aren’t children, we can all read, let the reader make his/her own determination. After all, the services offered are neither illegal nor immoral.

Miss Snark says different. Rather than think of this as merely advertising, people would do well to think of people who rent their mailing lists or appear on their site as people renting their brand name. Remember, the Snarklings who sent me these emails clearly identified them as coming FROM WD even though the first paragraph was pretty clear about "marketing partner".

This is the same trick my bank uses to try to sell me mortgage insurance. The offer comes in an envelope with the bank's name on it.

The folks who understand the danger of this very clearly are at Consumer Reports. They don't accept advertising in their magazine at all. They say it taints their image of objectivity. Not that it DOES taint them, but that it looks like it does.

So, what's the difference between the New York Times Book Review running full page ads from Author House and WD sending emails about "great opportunities". Both are marked advertisement. You sign up to read both online.

Well, to quote Miss Snark's favorite philosopher, the Mayor in River City from the Music Man: it's the phraseology.

Here's the lead, so to speak, on the email:

FR: WritersDigest
TO: misssnark@earthlink
SENT: date
SUBJECT: Special message brought to you by Writer's Digest

It's like TV ads in the 50's and 60's: now a message from our sponsor Geritol. You'll notice they don't do that much anymore. People came to associate the product with the show and savvy product marketers realized (probably before the tv producers) that this was a double edged sword. Geritol got burned in the Quiz Show scandals, and fashion mags were quick to dump Kate Moss when pictures of her doing cocaine were on the front page of the paper in London.

But that still doesn't answer the question of responsibility. Whether something is savvy marketing is not the same as responsible.

I'm not sure of the answer. Writers are adults. They're not stupid. Most of them lead organized, productive lives. Free markets, and democracy, depend on unfettered access to information so people can make decisions with as much information as possible.

I wonder if Michael Jordan has his panties in a wad over shoe companies that advertise "for the athlete in all of us". Probably not. But then, people buying those shoes aren't sending him letters asking for tryouts for the team either.

What do you think?


Bridget Medora said...

I never trust an ad, period, because I've studied marketing and advertising and I know how marketers think, how they put their ads together and why. There is a moral and ethical way to do it, but it's such an easy system to twist. (It's also a case of slimy con men ruining it for the rest of us.) I'm a big believer in reading the fine print and looking for "the catch." There's always a catch.

The product or service may be legitimate and worth my time or dollars, but I do my own research and determine that for myself.

But the reason those ads keep showing up is because they do work. Most people don't bother to check things out for themselves or read the fine print til it's too late. If those ads stopped raking in the revenue -- or started incurring a loss -- they'd be gone like that.

This must sound incredibly cynical. But really it's more about being extremely careful. How does that old saying go -- "no one can use you without your permission."

Simon Haynes said...

I get really angry when I receive 'marketing partner' spam, especially if I made doubly sure to untick those ubiquitous opt-in-by-default checkboxes. First I mark these msgs as spam, then I fake a bounce to the sender, and then I block them on my mail server.
My take on the ads: I have articles on publishing and writing on my site, and I also have google ads in the sidebar. When I noticed vanity presses appearing in the ads I blocked a bunch of them, because I was uncomfortable with having that sort of teaser next to serious articles on how publishing works, or why you need an agent.

Ric said...

MY email said clearly "special offer from Writer's Digest"

There was no disclaimer - and it was clearly a subsidy / POD publisher.

For years, Writer's Digest and Writer's Market have always been counted on to help us distinguish between Subsidy and Legitimate.

It appears this is no longer the case. Disappointing.

Is it because there is so much moeny being made by playing to people's dreams? And not enough by actually helping them achieve them?

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I suscribe to Writer's Digest magazine. The whole magazine is littered with advertisements from POD's, vanitiy presses and self-publishing opportunities.

I ignore all of them, but they are there for a reason, they make the magazine money in advertising revenue. The downside (if the ads aren't bad enough) is that these advertisers wouldn't be buying the space if the ads didn't make them money.

P.T. Barnum said, "There's a sucker born everyday!" or was he the one that said, "A fool and his money are soon parted!" Oh, well, you get the drift.

Carter said...

By taking those ads and by allowing vanity presses to use their mailing lists, Writer's Digest is actively promoting that particular road to Hell as legitimate. That has cost them my respect and, more importantly, my subscription.

luvduvxoo said...

who cares

Indigo Black said...

Thank you for posting this. When I move my site from the free host to paying-out-of-my-own-pocket host, I was going to use advertising as a way to help defray the cost. I will definitely make sure I pick sponsors who I am willing to recommend.

C.E. Petit said...

I have held WD et al. in minimal high regard for a long time, precisely because the advertising people won't screen. Ads for Edit Ink appeared for months after indictment, and even after trial; the information necessary to determine that it was an outright fraud was in the hands of two magazines' staffs several months before the indictment, with no apparent effect. And that was not an isolated incident.

What really irks me is not the damage the WD does to its own trademark by not doing quality control on those it authorizes to use its mark; it is the poor example it sets for writers (and others) who don't know better.

Maria said...

I've entered WD contests for a few years with no problems. I even received the magazine for an entire year. This year they seem to have sold my email because I've been getting ads similar to the ones mentioned on this post as well as other ads that don't mention WD that probably originated because WD sold my email address. There was no opt-out in any of my dealings with them. Yes, I'm mad about it. No, I probably can't get the spam to stop. I can only stop dealing with WD.

Sal said...

It's a messy kettle of fish, isn't it? The magazine needs advertising to survive and thrive and continue handing out advice to writers. Those ads from vanity presses (which, obviously, are of use to someone) keep the bottom line black.

On the other hand, all the good advice in the world won't make up for the aspiring poet who gets sucked in by an advertisement from poetry.com.

Advertising within a magazine implies the magazine's stamp of approval. The naive reader thinks, "They wouldn't take advertising from crooks, would they?" The advertising department, though, would have a hard time explaining to the comptroller why they turned down advertising from a legitimate, legal business such as a vanity press.

WD, I seem to recall, has a disclaimer back in their classifieds section saying people should check out the bonafides of advertisers. Too bad they don't have a similar disclaimer on their table of contents.

Perhaps if WD were to find out that their reputation is on the line some change may happen.

Or not.

Harry Connolly said...

WD bills themselves as a resource for writers who want to learn about the craft and the business. It's bad enough that their pages are full of vanity press ads, but spam mail lists are an ugly, unwelcome development.

It's true that writers need to do their research, but there's a lot of bad information out there. It can be difficult for a newbie with few reference points to discern the good from the bad. Unfortunately, WD's business model means it has aligned itself with the bad.

TillyLost said...

I have no problem with advertising. But the wording seems designed to be deliberately deceptive, to allow others to prey on new writers. That's unethical and scummy.