The OF Blog: The Control of Information: Advance Reviews, "spoilers," and "embargoes" (contains quotes of likely major spoilers from the last Wheel of Time novel)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Control of Information: Advance Reviews, "spoilers," and "embargoes" (contains quotes of likely major spoilers from the last Wheel of Time novel)

One of the larger 21st century narratives (although it has its analogues in previous centuries in a less direct way) is that of information and who has access to it and who attempts to control or restrict it.  "Top secret" memorandums, industry secrets, "secret blend of eleven herbs and spices" – in each of these can be seen the perceived need to restrict who can view the information.  To some extent, such restrictions are acceptable, if not always laudable.  After all, the controllers of these bits of information do provide services based on them.

However, the restriction of information can be detrimental toward the development of an "open" society in which the speed and ease of information access is nearly equivalent to power.  Individuals, particularly those investing their money/resources into a project/product, tend to seek out as much information as possible in order to make an informed decision.  This is certainly the case with entertainment, in which consumers prefer to "get their money's worth" and often rely on advance media reviews and/or word of mouth before making a decision as to whether or not their money should be spent on something.

Yet for entertainment producers, it is often in their best interests to keep the consumers unaware of the specific content of their products up until the official release date, in hopes that those who found their previous offerings to be acceptable will splurge on their latest venture sight unseen, even if (especially if?) this new product may be subpar in quality.  Although the above seems to describe larger media such as music and cinema, occasionally something similar can be seen in (e)book publishing, as for a certain few releases (say the final four volumes of the Harry Potter series), publishers believe it is best to have a near-total "blackout" of information on the story's specifics in order to rope in as much of a crowd as possible.

There is some merit to this view.  Living the past 15-20 years in a near-instantaneous age of mass information sharing, details such as "I am your father, Luke" are not spread from movie-goer to potential movie-goer but from a few (sometimes rapidly multiplying) sources online to thousands, if not millions of consumers.  If the "advance" crowd dislikes the work, then opening sales, which frequently make up the majority of a book/film's total intake, can drop significantly, as consumers might choose to borrow later from the library/rent it from Netflix instead of spending full price on a work that they have heard is below-average in quality.  So it is no surprise that in high-risk, high-reward cases, such as a "blockbuster" film franchise or the latest installment in a bestselling fiction series, publishers may choose to request "embargoes" or to force people to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in order to receive early access to a work.

These embargoes/NDAs run counter to typical marketing practice, especially in book publishing.  Since there are tens of thousands of new releases each year vying for attention, publishers often will make available a limited number (usually under 200 copies) of soon-to-be-released works in hopes that the online/mass version of "word of mouth" can develop to the point shortly before the work's official release date that enough interest is created that consumers will buy just enough of the work to ensure that a profit is made and that future volumes (if applicable) of that work might generate more advance sales.  It is why places like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews often run short columns 1-4 months before a book is released, giving a brief review of the story's strengths/deficiencies, as these are often used in the publicity kits that accompany the second round of advance review copy disbursements.  If a dozen "trusted voices" praise a work significantly enough, a mini-butterfly effect can occur, gaining an audience for an author.  Something similar did happen a decade ago with Canadian fantasy writer Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which was released in the UK in 1999, but not until 2004 in the US.  Word of mouth on large fantasy forums reached American readers, some of whom took a chance and imported the books, and praised them enough that eventually an American publisher was found for the works.

But embargos/NDAs do away with this.  There is the premise that since there is already a large readership (usually in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions) for the author(s), that it would be more risk and less reward if information were to be "leaked" early by the very same sources that had earlier provided a useful service.  It is hard to fault them for having this attitude, as it's better to keep a "captive" audience "hungry" rather than to risk damping their desire through possible early mixed or negative reviews.  But it is an entirely different matter when it comes to those who claim to be reviewers who agree complacently to such regulations.

Now, I'm not innocent of this; on a few occasions I accepted advance review copies with the expectation of an "embargo" or, in the case of the Eoin Colfer-penned addition to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, And Another Thing..., I actually signed a NDA.  But I was uneasy when I did this in 2009-2010, as I felt like I was surrendering some of my necessary independence as a critic in order to "gain access" to something that I could as easily have spent $15-20 on Amazon to purchase a month later.  Although there was no direct pressure to write a "positive" review, there was that sense that "spoilers" would be heavily frowned upon at the very least.  This caused a problem, as I like to use quoted passages to extrapolate on a story's themes, its prose, its characterizations, and so forth.  I felt like I was engaging in self-neutering when I did this, because I was muting my voice on what I believed to be the strengths and weaknesses of a story in order that a "spoiler-free" review would be made available on that book's review date.

Flash-forward to October 2010 and the problems I had with interpreting the informal tone of a Tor email regarding review copies of the 13th The Wheel of Time novel, Towers of Midnight.  Sure, I suppose I could wait until the first Tuesday in November to post a review and sure, I won't list detailed "spoilers" (which I learned later to my chagrin, is interpreted by certain WoT fans as including even vague impressions), but maybe in response to my jocular comments on a forum about having the book I could at least say in cryptic terms if anything was addressed?  Uhhh....nope, as I found out after the fact and after a few hotheads thought I was "classless" and that I "deserved" to be "punished" for breaking some sort of omertà by saying anything other than I was (dis)pleased.  The furor was surprising and I was irritated enough by it to swear off any more "embargoes" (or to solicit review copies from publishers; discussions with authors I know/respect or with smaller presses I treat differently due to the nature of the interactions.  NB:  I was leaning toward this before this kerfluffle; it only accelerated it).

But I also found that there was another side that was being served by my actions:  those who want "spoilers" in order to see in advance if it's really worth spending the money on the book in hardcover or to learn more and to think about the information.  Considering that right as some were trying to tear me a new 'hole for giving vague impressions there were those who got early copies from bookstores that didn't hold to the bookstore end of the "embargo," the exercise ultimately proved that what actually happened was that the reviewers, whether or not they had any intention of actually reviewing the book rather than gushing about their fan status, had abdicated their responsibility of informing those who wanted to make an early decision and that instead like-minded fans, following (for the most part) the protocol of labeling their info with "spoilers" in the header, provided at least some information for others on the fence.  Mind you, these were not reviews; there was only a sort of Q&A about what was included and a fan's perspective on if it interested them or not.  There wasn't any real evaluation of what happened; just a statement of plot events.  This focus on plot, coupled with the "embargoed" reviews all appearing on release date with "spoiler-free reviews," led to some perceived misrepresentations about the actual quality of the work.  I waited almost a week after release to write my review and I focused on the structural issues I had with the narrative and how it was unbalanced and created a situation where individual scenes were more effective than the whole, leaving the reader with the uneasy sense that several poor choices had been made in dividing the narrative into three parts.

Now that there's less than two weeks remaining until the final WoT book is being released, yet once again there are "spoilers" appearing from those who bought from those independent stores that DGAF about publisher requests.  In light of vapid, pandering "approved" "reviews" such as this one,  there will likely be little to no substantive reviews of the book at hand when January 8th rolls about.  Highly doubtful that anything directly referencing these "spoilers" that I saw posted earlier today will be made:

So, I'm gonna post spoilers from the DM spoiler board, and I'll add anything I get by PM as well. Please don't read unless you don't care about Spoilers.

The body count at the moment stands at two. And the two are...

Egwene and Birgette. Both are dead by chapter 40. Chapter 37 is the huge 79000 word chapter. Egwene's death is "fitting", and though this comes from someone who seems to like her character, take that word with a grain of salt.

Egwene actually dies IN that chapter. But the Last Battle isn't fully over 3 chapters later. Wonder what's going on...

ETA 2: The chapter is called "The Last Battle". Egwene's death was "beautiful" and a "huge contribution" to the LB. I guess previously mentioned grain of salt can be removed.

ETA 3: Okay... here's another big one folks. Remember that pesky old Foresaken Demandred? Guess where he was? Shara! I have no more details. But wow. Roedrean seems to have been a clever misdirection!

And Egwene's contribution to the LB did not have anything to do with TAR. Wow. I guess she's going to channel to the death...

ETA 4: So Demandred's name among the Sharans is "Wyld". I have some contradictory info here. It may be that this "Wyld" is their name for the DR. Or not.

The Sharan's apparently appear in the midst of the Last Battle through a humongous Gateway.

Egwene is not in TAR even once till she dies. Very very weird. Perrin is in it a lot, though.

At least by Chapter 40, the Asha'man and Aes Sedai have not joined into one organization.

From independent sources, Egwene "contributed VERY heavily" to the LB. And the Horn of Valere has a critical role.

ETA 5: Be ready people. Preliminary deathlist:

Birgitte, Gawyn, Egwene, Bryne, Siuan, Hurin, Bashere. Among the Foresaken: Demandred, Moghedien, Lanfear. Graendal is alive, but... has met an end similar to Lockhart in Harry Potter, so I'm guessing severe memory loss.

And the BIIIIG one: Mat isn't connected to the Horn. Someone else blows it!

ETA 6: Birgette comes back as a Hero. So she wasn't severed from the Horn after all.

ETA 7: Okay, more immense stuff coming:

Body swap between Rand and Moridin happens. Everyone except his three women think he's dead. He's last seen riding away in Moridin's body.

We don't know what happens to everyone in the future. We just see people attending Rand's "funeral".

Graendal's compuslion weave backfires on her when she's around Aviendha trying to unsuccessfully unravel a Gateway. It explodes, like Elayne's did.

Moghdein doesn't die. She gets taken as Damane.

Lan survives!

ETA 8: More insanity:

Egwene goes totally apeshit on the bad guys. Apparently its like the end of tGS times a 100. Egwene stands toe to toe with Taim. He has a special sa'angreal given to him by Demandred and is using it to fling huge amounts of Balefire around. The very fabirc of reality is threatening to unravel, and he's almost successful. Egwene "reaches down" and comes up with a weave named... The Flame of Tar Valon. Its the anti-thesis of Balefire, and she uses her sa'angreal to generate a Flame to size of a "thermonuclear warhead" that kills Taim, and also reverses all the damage done by the Balefire, thus saving the world.

The Wyld is the name of the unquestioned leader of the Sharans. Demandred somehow manages to get this title.

Now, these bits of information say nothing about whether or not the novel is good.  They are little more than that movie-goer telling an inquiring friend that Darth Vader is revealed to be Luke's father in The Empire Strikes Back.  This does not take the place of a review; it merely provides plot information for those who are eager to know if certain details are resolved.  It is, of course, much more than what I "revealed" two years ago (which in turn, ironically, is less than what Tor themselves have been releasing in their daily "Memories of Light" email releases to subscribers), but it doesn't say anything at all about whether or not it is a well-written/constructed novel or if it has a good denouement.  For those wanting to know that, they will likely have to wait much longer than January 8 to find out from others; they probably will have to read it for themselves in order to decide, as it is unlikely with "spoiler-free" reviews that much could be discussed of a book's merits.

And that's the saddest part about all this.  Those who should be most inclined to evaluate probably won't, seeing how some are more concerned about who has "access" and who doesn't that it is unlikely that anything other than a fannish encomium will be penned in the immediate aftermath.  Readers thus will have to RAFO for themselves in the meanwhile to see if it's any good.   That's the downside of having such "close" relationships between online reviewers and publishers.  The readers cannot be certain that anything truly substantive and honest will be written under such circumstances.  I know I felt like I wasn't being as honest as I could be under those strictures and I don't see how others could be straightforward, not if they are concerning themselves with securing their "early" copies.  This will be an issue that lasts far beyond the next month or so that anyone will be reading this particular book, as it will come up again elsewhere, under a slightly different guise.  Hopefully, those who want to know more information, even if it is "spoilers" that have leaked early, will not be left searching in vain.

1 comment:

Brendan Moody said...

I'm not sure the reason publishers pursue embargoes and the like is actually fear that negative advance reviews might dampen enthusiasm for the product. That credits such reviews (and reviewers) with far more influence than they actually possess. Blockbuster franchises and bestselling fiction series are not remotely "high-risk" cases, because an audience exists for which quality is largely irrelevant, and for which brand loyalty can deflect any negative review as biased or jealous or "not getting it" or whatever. In fact, I'd say that cultivating brand loyalty is one of the two real reasons you see the embargo approach: when only approved, publisher-friendly sources have information, people spend time at those sources, become part of the community there, often being enticed in the process to think of themselves as insiders-- "Watch this video of the books being printed!" "Read this interview with the editor!" People who leak non-approved spoilers then become outsiders, enemies of the community, which can lead to such overwrought responses as you yourself have received.

But that is, I think, the less significant reason for publisher use of embargoes, designed to catch the attention of the devoted fantasy audience. The greater reason is that embargoes contribute to the sense of an event, generating more publicity and making the fact of the book's release news, reported to a larger audience that might not have known about the the book and the series, but now will. Breaches of the embargo are therefore not an actual problem but a further opportunity for coverage, as when those 180 copies of A Dance with Dragons were sold by Amazon's German affiliate. Martin may have jokingly said "If we find out who is responsible, we will mount his head on a spike" and reported that his publishers were unhappy. But I imagine it was, if not a "don't throw us in that briar patch!" kind of unhappiness, certainly not a fear that readers would discover the book sucked and choose not to buy it.

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