Is ‘The Daily Show’ the Home Shopping Network of Books?

[22 November 2010]

By Rick Dakan

Is this what it’s like to watch the Home Shopping Network? Somebody comes on screen and talks about a new kind of soap or a wondrously diamondesque piece of jewelry and you just can’t help yourself? Like a person possessed, you pick up the phone or the keyboard and the transaction’s complete before you know what happened. I don’t know for sure—I’ve never watched much shopping-specific television, but I do know that I keep buying the books because of pleasant, smiling people I see on television. That sounds like how HSN and QVC are supposed to work, right?

I’m a terrible impulse buyer, especially when it comes to books. In the old days, I would find it almost physically impossible to walk out of a bookstore without something, at least a magazine. For a while though, I thought I’d overcome this uncontrollable desire for the printed word. As I noted a few weeks back, I’d broken the cycle of buying thanks to switching over to e-books, mostly through Amazon’s Kindle App on my phone and various tablet devices. For me, coming away with some downloaded free samples scratched that itch for new words.

But I recently looked at my list of actual e-book purchases and found that I’d become subject to a new source of temptation—the teasing, seductive power of a five-minute interview with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. I’ve long been impressed by the fact that authors make up such a large percentage of the guests on both shows. Not only are they authors, but they’re not usually particularly famous ones. Instead, Stewart and Colbert highlight books that are either new and relevant to the news of the day or just plain fascinating in some way. The short, humorous conversations key in on the most interesting elements of the books, and the authors usually have just enough time to make their case and whet my appetite for more. Sometimes I download the sample, just like in the store, but there’s a special power seeing the author live has over me. If I feel a connection, I want to support them, I want to buy the book.

This happened just recently with All The Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera. I saw the authors on The Daily Show, and could sense their anger. I’d just finished reading and reviewing Matt Taibbi’s book, Griftopia. Early this year I read Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short. I already know a fair bit about the intricate evils of the financial crisis, but their expression of anger fired my own desire for more ammunition to justify my righteous indignation. I bought it there and then. But the smiling experts and Stewart’s easy patter and the special bonus, full interview only on-line all conspired like shopping network salespeople to get my Amazon one-click whispersynch delivery on.

C-Span on the other hand, has the exact opposite effect on me. It’s more like watching a PBS documentary which is brought to you buy a book. I watch more Book TV on C-Span than most people (as my former room mate once said, “It’s exactly as exciting as being there live”), and for me these hour-long sessions with the author is usually all I need to get what I want out of a non-fiction book. I really do feel guilty about this, but that’s just the way it seems to work. In order to trigger that almost uncontrollable need to buy a book, the level of exposure needs to fall into a Goldilocks zone of just enough but not too much information.

I think this ability to impulse buy books from my couch is a tremendous potential boon to authors everywhere. Only music shares this ability to instantly gratify a customer’s need at the moment when hype and desire are at their zenith. Movie promotion focuses on the theatrical release date, television on the broadcast time, and most video games are only available in stores when they’re first released. But music last mere minutes, while a book can entertain for days, and even when I’m not reading it, there’s that pleasure of knowing it’s there, waiting for you—what I think of as the “library effect” (more on this phenomenon another week).

Given how many times Daily Show guests have had their books end up in my Kindle library, there’s some irony to the fact that there isn’t an e-book version of Earth (The Book) and so it’s out of the running for my impulse dollars. I was just lamenting this fact the other night, but by the time I got to the store a few days later, my interest had waned. Of course Earth (The Book) is the kind of tome that works best on real, glossy paper, so I don’t begrudge them the decision. I’d be surprised if they made the same decision for their next book.

This Daily Show effect makes me wonder what other ways authors can reach out to their audiences and tap into the impulse buyers. I’m sure Oprah watchers experience similar effects. I can imagine chefs guest-judging on Top Chef hawking their cookbooks or instructional apps. Whatever forms it takes, I think it’s great that books are becoming so available any time, anywhere, for almost any reason.

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