Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Aaron vs. Circulation

So every now and then, I look at my profile to see how many hits I’ve had. That gives me an estimation (or affirmation) that there’s somebody out there actually reading this web log, my pre-emptive memoir. Aside from the fact that these numbers jump quite erratically (so much so that I’m convinced there’s some ballot stuffing going on), this miniature obsession has gotten me enough fuel for this week’s rant: the lengths (and breadths) to which printed works will go to increase their readership numbers.

The most obvious offender is The New York Post, which in addition to having more abrasive and in-your-face street salesmen than any of the other publications put together (these people worked double shifts during last week’s City Council elections), now manages to sell copies of its magazine by offering cash incentives. That’s right, the Post, which costs a quarter, is essentially a readable lottery ticket (one in which none of the profits have to go towards that silly thing called ‘education’).

The first incentive was a $10,000 “Grand Master” Su Doku tournament: the cash prize (publicized on the front page) boosted sales of the Monday and Sunday issues and got foolish logicians hopelessly enmeshed in this “wordless crossword.” (Will Shortz said it, not me.) After this five-week festival, the equivalent of passing out cheap samples of crack cocaine, the Post started raking in cash from publishing a Su Doku book (along with hundreds of other great marketers) – a very cheap enterprise, considering that the author is a computer program. It’s only a matter of time before the algorithm for puzzle construction becomes freeware, at which point we can generate our own infinite Su Doku’s for private publication and use. The Post (although publishers of stupid and integrity-less articles) has a smart editorial staff, and they moved ahead to phase two.

This next incentive was a scratch-off ticket to be enclosed one day, with the instructions on how to scratch it off following in each consecutive day. To find out if you’d won you’d have to follow the instructions, and this meant buying a copy every day (multiple copies even, if you wanted to increase your chances). There’s no better way to increase your readership than by offering them free gifts and cash rewards for buying into the war of the presses: I think it’s only a matter of time before we see Frequent Flier miles awarded to subscribers and/or at certain legalized distribution centers. Oh, and by the way, I’m told the individual pages make great rolling paper for marijuana, though of course, they by no means will publicly endorse that.

Online sites don’t stray too far from this type of thinking either: they offer constant pop-ups to win prizes, and the most successful sites are usually the most glamorous, which is a shame, because when it comes to the printed word, less is usually more. Now, I’ve been trying for the last three months to put together a book of short stories for publication, and I’ve learned a thing or two (about a thing or two) about making something viable for mass consumption. And unless I adapt strong measures like offering a piece of my soul to whoever finds the golden ticket hidden in one of my books, I don’t think there’s any way I can compete with the myriad other competitors. And again, that’s a shame, since there’s some work in this book that I think is actually pretty promising.

I made the allusion early on that there was a connection between the marketing force for a news publication and a political campaign, and I meant it. The two were almost synonymous on the actual voting day, both being pitched and sold in the same way. Campaigns offered the less appealing gifts: handshakes from a well-oiled hand, plastic buttons and bumper stickers with pictures of use only to political stalkers, and the occasional thank you (time permitting). Is it any surprise that voting itself often doesn’t turn out the numbers that certain other, far less important, activities do?

Circulation has run rampant, and I’ve got no real solution on curing it – and let’s face it, my own readership numbers are nowhere near high enough to do anything about it, even from a grassroots perspective. But it’s something to think about, like most of my ill-tempered rants against society, so stick around and let’s grow legitimately. (Those who act now will receive a limited edition thingamajig, so call now while supplies still last!)

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