Menushopping cart
Tools for Working Wood
Invest in your craft. Invest in yourself.

JOEL Joel's Blog

Pay For Play


Pay For Play 4I am tired of reading blogs that tell you that everyone except themselves are corrupt and everyone just recommends stuff they have an interest in. Salesmen, of course, recommend only what they make the most money on, and magazine endorse any product if the manufacturers advertise enough or pay a bribe.

Not only isn't this true - it makes no sense. Of course a bad salesman in a crappy store might do that. And a fly-by-night magazine may do it, but good magazine? Good retailers? No chance.

First let's discuss salesman. Good stores make their money off of repeat customers. Better stores (and I hope we count amongst them) have free return shipping. So any company that doesn't try to make sure that a customer walks out with the best choice of product that they can is just shooting themselves in the foot. Retailers rarely care what you buy. They care that you by it from them, and you walk away happy. Happy customers return and buy more. The big problem for good stores is when a customer wants to buy something that isn't right. While we might gently suggest an alternative, we don't want to get into an argument, and we are just unhappy because we know the customer might be disappointed and blame us.

The only time this breaks down is with stores where the salesperson gets a commission. This means the longer term goals of the company might not be in line with the shorter term goals of a salesperson who has quarterly goals to make. Retailers we like, ourselves included, don't pay sales commissions and that solves that. (N.B. the following added on 1/25/2015). A reader pointed out that this statement isn't fair to the multitude of salespeople who are on commission and strive to do their best for their customers - for the same reason we all do - happy customers are good, repeat customers. He's right and I apologize. While we all have been exposed to bad salesman - the real key I suppose is company policy and company goals. - not commission.

While it is easy to suspect woodworking magazines of requiring payment for a favorable review, it doesn't happen. The reason is simple: Magazines make their money by selling subscriptions and advertising. Readers aren't stupid and if a magazine really was pay for play readers would figure it out and ignore them.

We would happily send just about any tool, or any shop full of tools, to any magazine reviewer in the United States or Canada. Except that since every manufacturer is willing to do the same thing the bribe effect is totally cancelled out. In addition no reputable magazine of any kind allows their editors or writers to accept free stuff, and if they do borrow stuff for a test or an article it's generally understood that there are no strings attached and will be returned or donated when they are done. Otherwise it's just too complicated for everyone.

Most magazine do have columns for mentioning new products. These aren't reviews and they don't have the impact of a recommendation. Even in this case editors print what they want. As manufacturers we can influence content by sending in a relentless stream of new products and press releases, but we can't force them to be printed (and I've tried for years). Editors are happy to look at new products. Sometimes they say send them along, and sometimes they say please no as they have tons of stuff to do and no place to put anything. Sometimes we have something interesting that jumps the queue, most of the time something we think is really interesting falls into the editorial abyss.

The American magazines keep a barrier between the editorial and advertising departments. In general (and I am hopeful this can change) even if a magazine writes a glowing review about a product we sell we don't find out about it until we get our copy in the mail - usually after sales spike, and we are out of stock for reasons we cannot fathom. Sometimes the editors do drop a hint and that way we don't disappoint readers who want the product. But it's always after the magazine has gone to press. English magazines work almost the same way, although we do occasionally get calls from advertising departments saying our product will be in the next issue and would we like to advertise. We don't.

What keeps the magazines honest is you, their readers. Readers aren't stupid, Once readers figure out that a tool recommendation makes no sense based on performance, they start figuring out what's going on, and the few bucks a magazine might make in bribes will kill readership pretty quick. It's just not worth the risk. Even advertisers don't have an advantage. We don't advertise in Fine Woodworking very often, Lee Valley doesn't either (just one large example), but what do you know, both companies get products reviewed and recommended all the time. Even when our products aren't recommended magazines the articles usually explain why and even if I don't agree, it's pretty obvious that taping a couple of Benjamins to the tool when we send it in wouldn't do any good.

Most magazines don't publish bad reviews. While a bad review can be hysterically amusing to read, there are way to many good products to write about and why waste the space on a turkey? From a purely statistical point of view a lot of good products never get written about either. Not enough pages on the planet.

While I am sure there might be some magazines with a pay for play policy I haven't found them, they are not influential, you probably don't read them, and they won't last long.

So when you read a good review in a mainstream magazine you can be pretty sure that the magazine writers and editors like the product well enough to write about it, or in the case of announcements they thought the item newsworthy. If you disagree with a review (and gosh knows I do all the time) take a look at the review and figure out why. It's more than possible that the features of the tool that you find important aren't the same ones as an editor finds important. Just because their conclusion isn't the same as yours doesn't mean anyone was paid off. They weren't.

The blogosphere seems a different matter. According to the law if a blogger accepts a product for free, or for payment, they have to disclose it. Some do, unfortunately many do not. In the woodworking world, just by reading the blogs it's pretty easy to see which blogs are pay for play so I don't need to tell you here.

I get asked to write blogs on this or that all the time, or just publish a press release. I don't. I do try to write about new products, but just like a magazine my creditability depends on material that rings true. Otherwise you wouldn't both to read it. I have written blogs based on suggestions from other people, but it's because I find the subject interesting. Now I am writing a series on sharpening with diamonds. Why am I writing it? Because we just started stocking DMT and I need to learn about the stones so I can write product descriptions and answer questions. The series of blogs is about my testing and how it will effect my approach to sharpening. My suggestions on stone selection apply to me. I think they also apply to many of you but not necessarily. Part of my testing is so I can figure out what we should recommend to customers. But our general recommendations might have little to do with your actual situation. We stock a lot more permutations of diamond stones than anyone needs, myself included, and there are whole sizes of stones that I can't see myself ever wanting but might be appropriate for you. I need to learn enough to recommend the right stuff depending on application. So that's why I am working with diamond stones and why I am writing about them. And yes maybe reading about my testing might help sales. I certainly hope so. But even if it doesn't, long term having good content brings people to the site, lets us recommend equipment appropriately, and leads to sales - or at any rate that's the theory.

Join the conversation
01/21/2015 Pete van der Lugt

We've never met, but I do value your opinion, based primarily on your blogs content, quality of store inventory, and your standing among peers in the industry. But I'm not sure I can agree with the content of this particular blog. I should say, that it is not a black and white issue. By that I mean, while I believe certain magazines are guilty of what you are saying, it doesn't mean that their entire content is worthless. I will say, that there is a particular magazine in the industry, that I believe at one time was the "gold standard" for information amongst serious woodworking hobbyist and professionals, who has sold their soul to the devils. The quality of the products they continue to push, has fallen. They push tools that are unnecessary, and the quality of their contributors has dropped off the charts. Does that mean there is NO valuable information within their pages? No, so my subscription continues. But their content is horribly repetitive and they are now behind the cutting edge rather that their initial status which was that of setting the standard. As for blogs, I think you have to decide for yourself as to whether you just want to be a collector of all things with the word "wood" attached to them, or whether you truly want to better your skills as a woodworker. Which often means "what can I do accurately with what I have" rather than "what new tool can I buy, that advertises they can do the job for me".

Even with your reputation, it's still your goal to sell product. Your saving grace is that you primarily stock quality product. Your blog on stones says a lot, in that you are stocking a quality line of stones, but openly say that not all are necessary to achieve the goal, which is a sharp tool.

I used to buy Popular Woodworking once in a while at the newsstand, but have added them to my subscription list, because in my opinion, they have clawed their way to the top of the magazine hierarchy. They've done this by writing articles that address issue's that may not pander to the masses, but guess what, those issue's have been addressed ad nauseum. Personally, how many times can one magazine write about how to cut a dovetail, before they feel they have adequately addressed the issue? At this point, what other opinion can you come to, other than that they are trying to push the latest jib, saw or chisel?

Again, it's not a black and white issue. While I think certain magazines are absolutely guilty of never saying a bad word about an advertisers product. It doesn't mean I can't learn something new from their content. But I have definitely soured on their reviews. And I find myself just thumbing through their articles looking for a rare gem of knowledge. Rather than in the past, where I sat at the mailbox waiting in anticipation for articles that might actually be of interest to me. And I think the quality of information in magazines in general, like the quality of most tools in general, has fallen. Their are boutique tool manufactures out there, and thank goodness for the Internet, that are raising the standard of tool quality. I think the Internet in general, may be the saving grace for small businesses. It offers them a venue to be seen and heard. But magazines in general, are pandering to the businesses with the money to buy their ads.

Again, I don't mean to start an argument with you. But most of the magazines available, are doing and writing what they need to do to sell ads. And I think their content backs up that statement. But again, it doesn't mean that everything they write is wrong or of no value.

For what it's worth, and this is just one persons opinion.
I'm not trying to argue either but I can't agree with you. "But most of the magazines available, are doing and writing what they need to do to sell ads." Never, in the past 15 years of being an ironmonger has any editor, advertising, executive, or writer of any of the major magazines asked me for anything in return for a favorable mention. Ever! As for advertising - nope - has never been an issue one way or another.
01/21/2015 Anthony
Thanks for a great article. Your knowledge and insight really helps people like. I appreciate your good work, keep it up.
01/21/2015 Pete van der Lugt

I surely take you at your word that there is no trading for good evaluations. I just don't feel comfortable anymore that the evaluations of advertisers products, are honest. I have the impression that the large advertisers products, are unrealistically glowing.

It's just an impression. Thanks for your reply. Perhaps I've just grown jaded over time.
It is an interesting quandary. In some places the provided materials for review need to consumed. To test and not use a pricy glue or finish is wasteful. If you don't use the result, the test is not complete. A break/bend/mangle test is not the same and in some cases not as useful as a wear and use test. In many cases the cost of the expendable materials would be much more than the cost of the prose written in evaluation. Items that reduce value quickly after use are also problematic.

If you sent a set of your wonderful brushes to a magazine for review, they might as well keep them in their shop. No one else is going to value a used brush, despite it's continued functionality.
01/21/2015 Daniel
I remember once reading a piece by a former editor of Guns and Ammo magazine. He was expressing his elation at being a 'former' editor and the freedom he felt to be able to finally express his true feelings about the stock and trade line of revolvers made by Smith and Wesson. Over his years in the business, he had noticed a precipitous decline in the quality of the line to the point where they were approaching being downright dangerous to fire. When he brought up this point to the publisher, he was, lets say, discouraged from taking any further notice of the facts because S&W made up a % of the mags advertising revenue.

Take from this what you will, because I cannot lay my electrons on this article to post a link, but the tension is still out there in media to toe certain lines.
01/21/2015 joel
I don't know anything about gun magazines I am just reporting on the woodworking magazines I deal with. Also these days advertising in magazines is less and less important. Take a look at any of the woodworking magazines - they have far less advertising than they did before the internet, and there big job is increasing their readership in competition with all the free stuff that is available on-line. And you don't keep readers by looking at the ads and making the magazine one giant advert.
01/21/2015 Richard
To say advertisers have zero influence (direct or indirect) on a publisher or editor is not true. The degree of influence just varies for different editors, depending on their duration and nature of relationship. Magazines and tool makers/sellers all try to strike a friendly relationship as they rely on each other in general.

I do find that my assessment of Popular Woodworking is not the same as Pete's and I dropped my subscription because its articles in the past two years or three were pretty much by the very same handful writers. I picked up the Fine Woodworking instead because of its diverse contributors.
01/22/2015 Andrew

I would like to agree with you and I haven't any doubt that it is true of TFWW's relationship with magazines, but I have harsh experience to the contrary. When I was getting into woodworking, I received a small inheritance from my carpenter grandfather and decided to spend it equipping a shop with power tools. I based my purchase decisions on reviews from a top woodworking magazine and bought from one major manufacturer. Two of the expensive machines turned out to be absolute junk, unusable because of faulty design and I later discovered to my chagrin that this was widely known. I was duped by the reviews.

I think your theory breaks down when it is a major, long-term advertiser. I am not talking about bribes or anything crass, just an unstated understanding of what is at stake.

I don't pay any attention to reviews anymore. Instead, I have found a few retailers, you among them, that I can trust and I buy from them. I read blogs by people I know and respect. I also appreciate the opportunity to try tools at shows and events.
01/22/2015 Tom Gill
When someone does amazingly fine work and offers fine tools and valuable information, so generously, they need many thanks. Many thanks, Joel, many thanks.
01/25/2015 Ron Dennis
Joel, I don't what turned your crank, but I have really enjoyed your writing on using diamond stones to sharpen woodworking tools.

I've used DMT since they were first offered. My logic was to buy once and be done. My most recent addition was the 8000 that I purchased in July of 2014. I LOVE IT! No more honing compound needed on my strops.

I do plan to add some of the premium horse butt you sell to sooth my soul and polish the newly honed edges.


Ron D.
Comments are closed.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.