At the end of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, in a not too distant future, a promoter is secretly hired to pay his most influential friends to pretend to be really excited about an upcoming slide guitar concert.
Our headline that this plot point is coming true might be misleading: Penguin UK is not going to pay influential people to disseminate a good word about the British novelist Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, but it will offer them a free copy of his book. What this really amounts to is a redefinition of who gets to be influential. From PaidContent:
In what the publisher is calling an industry first, Penguin today is launching a campaign to tap “influencers” on Peer Index to read and spread the word about a new book—Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. The idea behind the campaign is this: PeerIndex uses an algorithm that identifies people who are influential on particular topics. In this case, the topics, says PeerIndex, will be philosophy, science, politics, music, activism, India, America and science fiction. Those targeted people are invited to visit a microsite, where they are offered free copies of the book, with the ability to introduce friends to buy a copy, too.
Naturally our first reaction is one of terror—what if the algorithms tell the publishers that the staff of The New York Observer is not influential? The mountains of advance reading copies that regularly threaten to topple and engulf entire intern classes would cease, and we would have nothing to read!
Mr. Kunzru, who lives in New York (along with Zadie Smith and Martin Amis and god knows how many of the other major producers of British contemporary fiction), confirms our fears on his blog, where he writes:
Peer Index have used their technology (based on eigenvectors, which also form the basis of Google PageRank) to identify a group of influential people who have some connection either to me, or to the themes and ideas in the book. The first list, unsurprisingly, had rather too many fiction writers and book journalists on it, so we weeded it and added some other names. As I say, this is an experiment. It’s a way of testing a hunch about social media, and acknowledging that professional literary journalists (excellent as many of them are) shouldn’t be the only gatekeepers when it comes to literary fiction.
May the eigenvectors reveal the truly influential!
P.S. Today The Paris Review has a post on “Jennifer Egan fever.” Is anybody else feeling a touch of Jennifer Egan fatigue? (And, by the way, we paid for that book, at our local indie bookstore no less.)