During the 1980s I wrote scores of book and software reviews, both standalone and in conjunction with magazine columns. For the most part I had positive things to say about what I reviewed because the products I was reviewing were good.
Only once was one of my reviews questioned. A week after I turned in a particularly glowing review of a game from a small publisher to one of the major computer magazines. the magazine’s editor phoned to ask whether the game was really that good.
“Yes, it is.” I told her.
“Do you mean you can’t say anything bad about it? Isn’t there anything wrong with the game?”
I thought about it. Why would she be asking this? Was my praise over the top? No. I knew it wasn't.
“No" I replied. "It really is that good! The game has a great plot. The artwork is excellent. Even the manual is good.”
“You can’t think of even one bad thing about it?” she persisted.
Now I started to become suspicious. “I'm sure I can find some really minor fault, if I look for it long enough.. But it would be irrelevant. Why do you want me to do this?”
“We had a call this morning. The publisher of this game has cut advertising down to bimonthly from monthly.”
Somewhere in the dim recesses of my brain, a metaphorical light bulb switched on. “Okay, I understand. I’ll E-mail a revision tomorrow.”
And I did indeed understand. Since the software publisher had reduced advertising, the magazine would reduce support to the publisher—in the form of making the product seem as if it were not as good as it really was. The American Way, I suppose.
To satisfy the editor's request, I cited some awkward passages in the game's manual. She wasn't satisfied with it, but she was on deadline and ended up cutting much of the manuscript anyway.
Naturally it occured to me that the bestselling status of some games was being bought, rather than earned. That would explain some really crummy games getting so much press ...
Yes, I was cynical, but I was a bit surprised, too. I had heard of payola, from the record company scandals of the 1950s and 1960s, all the way back to Vaudeville in the 1920s. But not in the 1980s—surely publishing was more enlightened than that.
But it wasn’t, and isn't. I can't cite any at the moment, but there are undoubtedly magazines today in which reviews are slanted one way or the other, depending on how much a publisher advertises.
Hence, some good books aren't reviewed because their publishers don't advertise. And sometimes useless books are reviewed and validated because the publisher advertises. And, now and then, bestsellers can be bought.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks