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Why you should be wary of aggressively marketed books

 Woman taking book from library bookshelf. (Courtesy/iStockphoto)

Let me make a self-disclosure at the very outset. I am a published author of a few books. From the reviews that I do receive from time to time, it is clear that my books have reached all corners of the globe. I have never gone all out to market them.

I will not tell you the platforms where you can find them. When you finally need them, and take personal initiative to look for them, you will definitely find them. I also know of good books that have been aggressively marketed, but that was an exception rather than the norm.

My experience in the scholarly spaces is that most useful books are not marketed with zeal; ultimately, the market gets to discover them by itself. Some time in December 2017, I was at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. I honestly can’t remember why I was at that airport at the commencement of that year’s winter. While there, I saw a grey haired man, serious looking, with a little stoop, intensely reading a huge newspaper. I think it was the New York Times or something like that.

Ooh, my God, it was Noam Chomsky. I wish you could see the excitement on my face upon encountering the iconic intellectual. For the uninitiated, Prof Noam Chomsky is regarded as the “Father of Modern Linguistics” and the most prolific public scholar alive. With more than 413,000 Google Scholar Citations, Chomsky is by most accounts the most cited scholar in history. After completing his PhD in 1955 at the age of 27, he joined MIT as a Professor and remained there for 62 years. When I met him at O’Hare, he had just retired from MIT and taken up a new job at the University of Arizona.

This intellectual icon is the author of the must read text “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media “ On that day, I quickly ran to the nearest bookshop at the airport and secured a copy of the book, which he gladly autographed. To this day, I guard the book like a soldier guards his/her firearm. Manufacturing Consent is one of the most acclaimed books in the areas of public administration, politics, journalism, marketing and all other fields that shape public opinion. When I asked him about his strategy for getting some of the powerful ideas that he churns out to reach the wider public, Noam Chomsky told me that those who must read a book will always read it, somehow.

That speaks to the quality of information in a book. People will always search for great ideas wherever they are hidden. Great ideas make great societies. Commonplace ideas hidden in great marketing and publicity hurt society. Yes, it is important to read, but people should read books that help to stimulate their intellect, not a collection of opinions bandied around as truths. People are as good as what they read.

It is a natural human tendency to document for wide readership only those events that portray one in a positive light, and rarely do people delve much into their weaknesses in books that they author. In the circumstances, readers are given only one-sided stories. Unwittingly, the authors leave the readers confused and unable to make an intellectual sense of the stories. The effect is that the mind is denied an opportunity to develop. The mind develops when it is made to think of solutions, and not when it is presented with unverifiable facts for uncritical consumption.

An example is when authors claim they were brought up in poor households and had to spend most of their time after school looking after cattle, milking and physically chasing birds away from their mature grain fields. Surely, a household that owns cattle and grainfields cannot be considered poor unless one uses the refracted Western Spectacles.

Some of the authors have even told us that they went to school barefoot as a way of inviting the reader to visualize the extent of poverty in their families. What they never tell readers is that up to early 1990s, most rural primary schools in Kenya banned wearing shoes within the school compound so as to create an equal environment for all pupils, including those whose parents could not afford to buy them shoes.

Until such a background is provided, a wrong impression is created that going to school without shoes was synonymous with poverty. Unfortunately, the world is full of authors and readers who evaluate the value of books on the basis of returns on investments in marketing and publicity.

At this rate, literacy levels around the world will keep falling despite huge investments in the school system. The situation is more dire in Africa where access to critical knowledge is more urgent in order for the continent to jolt up her material condition.

Critical knowledge has become such a powerful factor in societal transformation that societies that perpetually lag behind in its production and consumption will certainly not claim their rightful places at the table of advancement.

Until Africa abandons her preoccupation with generation of commonplace knowledge, the fortunes will continue to be mixed.

Be careful what you read. One of the key red flags of what not to read is aggressive marketing and publicity. Most such books rarely live up to their value proposition. It is generally settled that if it is good, it will certainly be read. Most of the books that are aggressively marketed are “nonsense upon stilts.” They are aggressively marketed for things other than critical content. Be afraid; run like an antelope that has spotted a lion. Sadly, once a bad book is sold, the reader has no option of returning it to the mischievous author.You will thank me later.

Professor Ongore teaches at the Technical University of Kenya


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