Online publishing feeds bewildered consumers a mass of mediocre content

...but there are flecks of gold there too.

Consumer campaigning group Which? recently published the results of a survey claiming around a fifth of consumers are regularly deceived into buying supermarket imitations of major food brands, as a result of clever mimicry in own-brand packaging design.

While I might venture to say there’s not too much difference between one tube of pressed oat lumps and another, when one is made by a supermarket chain and another by a multinational biscuit empire, the distinction between imitators and the imitated becomes much more pronounced when applied to visual and written media.

Back in 2005, a production company called The Asylum, which had been happily making low-budget, direct-to-video horror movies since 1997, did something extraordinarily clever.

It released a bargain basement adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds in the same year as Spielberg’s no-holds-barred Tom Cruise adaptation of the same, and was rewarded with an immediate order of 100,000 copies by video rental chain Blockbusters.

The big win spurred a new business model for the Asylum, with the years to come seeing the release of films such as Paranormal Entity, Transmorphers, The Day the Earth Stopped, and Snakes on a Train – all bearing remarkably similar cover design to the films whose releases they shadowed.

The Asylum’s demographic was clear: tired parents in video rental stores, failing to remember the titles of big hits and picking boxes that, in a state of fatigue and unfamiliarity with pop culture, seemed identical to their recollection of movie posters.

Now of course, blockbuster has gone, and with it those late night box-browsers. But the model pioneered by The Asylum is far from obsolete: in fact, the purchasing environments fostered by online streaming services such as Lovefilm, Blinkbox and Netflix make it all the more lucrative.

Last night, my wife and I were browsing one of the above for a movie to watch, when we happened upon a movie called “Tooting Broadway”. The box design was slick, reminiscent of countless snarling Cockney stabathons, and it was only upon looking the film up on Wikipedia (where we were informed that the ending would “leave [us] in very surprisement”) that it became obvious it was a “let’s film my mates having a fight in a garage” type of affair.

Nevertheless, we only looked it up because, having ourselves lived in Tooting for years, the idea of someone using at as the titular manor for a gangster flick was faintly hilarious. But if we were living in Little Rock, Arkansas with little to no knowledge of South London geography, the film would have seemed as good a bet as Layer Cake or Snatch. And at £3.49 to buy, there would be very little reason to be discerning.

In the digital video shops we increasingly use as our sources of film entertainment, these movies are ranked alongside genuine big-budget efforts, with only a paragraph of description and a cover design (usually the most professional component of the whole project) to distinguish them from the real deal. In this sense, we have all become tired Blockbuster dads.

What’s more, book-buying has become a similar experience, through the advent of the Kindle and other e-readers.

The Kindle, to me, does to reading what electronic cigarettes attempt to do to smoking: provide a convenient technological replacement for a habit rooted in physicality. When I acquired mine, my reading habits changed dramatically, and with them the way I bought books. Rather than travelling into town and blundering round a shop or having to contest with delivery times – and thus my own attention span - online, I could simply select names from a list and have them appear in moments.

With the massive swell in self-publishing on the Kindle platform, these lists are getting very swollen indeed – and with the tiny price tags attached to the work of no-name authors, the temptation to play supermarket sweep when browsing can become irresistible.

I am an avid reader of science fiction, and I have recently developed a guilty pleasure whenever I run out of reading material: performing late-night trawls of the genre’s bestseller list on the Kindle store, and picking up six or seven extremely cheap books that seem to be being read and enjoyed by the masses, all by authors I have never heard of.

Most are mediocre – either bloated short stories that appear to have been proofread by drunks, or cliché-ridden hatchet jobs written in an attempt to jump on the rusty and creaking post-apocalyptic fiction bandwagon. But at 70p or £1.50 a pop, one can hardly feel cheated.

Besides, there are flecks of gold in there too. A case in point here is Hugh Howey’s Wool, a genuinely excellent survivors-in-a-bunker story I was reading on the way into work today, and which has gone from being a humble Kindle self-publish in 2011 to an international talking point with 20th Century Fox picking up film rights.

If the media I had access to was restricted to a pool of heavyweight titles approved by big studios and publishers, it’s very unlikely I would come across stories like this at all. And if the price of this occasional serendipity is a few pounds handed over to entrepreneurial hacks each month, then so be it. The more the merrier.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad