Telling the truth about media manipulator Ryan Holiday
When talking to Ryan Holiday, it's hard not to think he's trolling you.
Holiday is a self-professed media scammer and the marketing manger of American Apparel, who is currently promoting his new book, "Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator." The book outlines how he's fooled, duped and of course manipulated writers for large websites, and how his success at the dark arts of PR illustrate the sickness of online media.
In order to show his skills and prove what he says is the ultimate point of his book, last week he orchestrated the very timely and self-serving revelation that for several months he's been abusing the Help A Reporter Out service to pass himself off as a fake expert.
Last week he revealed that in fact he was not an insomniac, a vinyl collector, a boating expert, etc. His gambit illustrates that reporters from reputable outlets quoted someone as an expert without so much as Googling his name to learn that, wait, this guy has book coming out entitled, "Trust Me, I'm Lying."
That is an undeniably sad state of affairs.
But how effective is his message when he's manipulating the media to generate publicity for his book, all the while condemning how easy it is to manipulate the media?
That's the problem with exposing yourself as a media manipulator, liar, and publicity hound: People have trouble believing what you say.
Holiday is clearly skilled at giving the press what it wants, and on the phone he's articulate about what he sees as the problems with online media. He has a point to make, but he's like the addict warning of the dangers of drugs, all the while snorting a line and shaking his head at how bad it is.
"I wanted to show people that this is how your sausage gets made," he told me. "Do you feel comfortable eating it?"
A fair question. Here's another one: Are you interested in hearing about the sausage from the guy who keeps dropping mouse feces into the grinder?
HARO stunt and publicity
Holiday emailed me a couple of times last week to point to the Forbes story about his hoaxing ways, and to follow up and note the corrections that had flowed from his HARO work. He was feeding me information that's admittedly perfect for my beat.
When we got on the phone Thursday, I asked if the HARO stunt was cooked up to promote this book. He first positioned the stunt as a good deed that happened to hit at the right time.
"It all kind of happened at the same time," he told me.
But it was planned months ago to help the book?
"The book was already written, so this was something I stumbled on after ... and thought this was a really good example of things I was talking about [in the book]," he told me. "It was an easy, understandable way to prove my point to everyone."
Holiday told me he and his virtual assistant worked together on the plan starting about six months ago, knowing it would probably take about that long to come to fruition. Considering his book was being released last week, with a launch party in New York, the timing of the HARO reveal is a perfect feat of publicity.
"There's no question I could have unveiled this in March, but I wanted it to be associated with a larger point," he said. "I don’t hold the New York Times reporter personally responsible, they’re just doing their job as it is meant to be done in this day and age."
So it's not about a publicity stunt for his book -- it's about what's really wrong with the press. Which he details in his book. Which came out last week, the same time his HARO stunt was exposed.
Nothing wrong with promoting a book, and every author tries to dream up things to get attention. But fooling the press in order to try and teach a lesson about how easy it is to fool the press is, to put it mildly, problematic.
The 'leaked' proposal
Holiday first made news for his book late last year. GalleyCat and Gawker both published stories reporting that he'd sold his book for roughly a half-million dollars and that it would be a tell-all about clients Tucker Max and Dov Charney of American Apparel.
After that news broke, The New York Observer came out with a story that suggested those sites had been duped about the tell-all aspect. To prove it, the Observer also offered excerpts of what was supposedly Holiday's book proposal.
I followed up with Holiday to ask if that was his real book proposal or if it was a fake. I also wanted to know if it was leaked to help generate interest in his book.
"Portfolio banned me from commenting about the proposal or the advance," he replied.
It's common for a book advance to not be shared publicly, but banning an author from even saying whether a public version of his proposal was the real thing seemed a bit strange.
Or perfectly calculated to inspire curiosity.
I emailed Portfolio vice president, associate publisher, and marketing director Will Weisser and asked if Holiday was forbidden to talk about the proposal, and if so why. Can you blame me for fact checking him?, I added in the email.
Hi Craig. Can't blame you at all!
Advances are confidential by corporate policy, so we ask authors not to confirm or deny any rumors about what we paid for a book.
Proposals are also supposed to be confidential. Books often change a great deal from proposal to finished product, and we want them to be judged by how they turn out, not by the initial idea.
So they're "supposed to be confidential." I guess you can't blame Holiday for using the much more sexy "banned" to describe the situation.
I emailed Holiday to see if he'd leak me the real proposal so I could see what it looked like and check it against the version online.
Holiday pivoted the conversation back to his point about the low state of affairs in journalism:
... I did email the reporter at The Observer a few weeks ago to invite her to my book party. I said I thought it was shitty that she didn't even TRY to contact me for comment. Her response: she wished she had but just didn't have time.
Note that he didn't say whether or not the proposal was real. So I tried again:
But of course the natural assumption would be that you orchestrated the leak of that proposal [and its details], or fake proposal, to Gawker and GalleyCat. And then orchestrated a leak to The Observer to have them call out the other sites for falling for a fake.
I mean, that would be fair for me to think, no?
Holiday's emailed response:
Holiday told me several times that he was a fan of my blog and liked my work. Hey, that's always nice to hear. To be honest, I enjoyed talking to him. I'm sure the compliments helped.
Holiday also said in the past he'd emailed along a correction or two to me for use on my blog. That seemed to suggest he wasn't just talking to me because he saw I was a good target to help publicize his book.
Of course, I had to check and see if it was true that he'd sent along corrections, and see if they related to his clients.
I looked in my email archives and he had sent along a New York Times correction in February of last year.
That story, and correction, involved David LaChapelle. So I asked him: Has he ever worked for David LaChapelle?
"No, but that would be cool," he replied by email.
Then he added: "(not lying)"
So did that discount all of the previous emails where he hadn't made that declaration? Or is this a case of his book title in action: "Trust Me, I'm Lying."
I told Holiday my main interest in speaking to him was to figure out ways to stop people like him.
He agreed that was a good idea, and reinforced that this was why he wrote the book.
"If wanted to keep doing this I wouldn’t be giving it all away in a book," he said. "I feel like some of this stuff is all open secrets in the media and I don’t like open secrets. So I think awareness is a huge part of it and we have to insulate some of the writers and journalists from these corrupting markets forces."
Are you saying you're never going to do this kind of stuff anymore, I asked.
"I won't say I’m giving up the game but I’m tired of it and I'm trying to change the game," he said. "Marketing is always going to exist and I think marketing is important. But I feel like people who deserve attention, who've done cool things, shouldn't have to fight through all the BS and noise and deception in order to get their fair shake."
He continued: "That's how I justify what I've done for people. It's because I believe in their work. We're just playing by the rules that someone else set, and I think it's time we change those."
In his view, the larger online sites -- he often cites Gawker and Huffington Post -- are slaves to pageviews and that means anyone who can manufacture pageviews for writers can easily manipulate these sites.
But the rules he refers to disallow fakery or manipulation. So it's not really "playing by the rules that someone else set." It's exploiting weaknesses and manipulating people based on those weaknesses.
Near the end of our conversation, I made another run at the fact that everything he was doing and saying was pitch perfect to sell books.
"An obvious thought that comes to mind for me," I said, "is that you saying that, 'I don't like the way this is being done and this is the stuff I've done in the past and I want people to know about it so they see how the sausage gets made' -- having that approach is obviously a really great way to market your book."
If this was about me continuing to do the things that I do, I wouldn’t write a book where I give it all away. I would have continued to do what I do behind the curtain where it’s easiest and most efficient.
Could I still do the things I talk about in book? Sure. But does this book make them a million times harder? I think so.
Of course, the best way for the book to make these things harder is for it to generate mass awareness via tons of publicity and big sales.
Funny how that works.