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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Branding: Priority for publishers

There is no publishing industry fan page that is good enough to sell books. No one goes to fan pages for publishers because publishers are not household brand names. The authors are. That’s how publishing works.

-Penelope Trunk, “How I Got a Big Advance from a Big Publisher and Self Published Anyway,” July 2012

But what if it didn’t work that way?

Like most of my friends (and a good deal of the publishing universe), I read Penelope Trunk’s scathing indictment of the inept marketing skills of major publishers. (And its subsequent follow-ups.) And while it kindled in me a number of emotions and ideas, both positive and negative, I’m not going to talk about that.

Instead, reading this article made me think about something I’d always known in a new way. Publishers are not household names. People aren’t aware of publishers. And in the age of rising Amazon and declining bookstores, I think it’s vital that they should be.

Curators

This got me thinking of other marketing things, specifically Pinterest. Pinterest is so fascinating to me in part because people use the word “curate” when they talk about it. Curate is an interesting word; I don’t think I’d heard it more than five times in my entire life before Pinterest got big. Now, I hear it monthly, if not weekly. Suddenly, we are all curating things.

Curating means choosing. Cherrypicking. Finding the diamonds in the rough. Those are all concepts that I used to associate with bookstores.

In bookstores, I was the one culling through the undesireable titles, the titles I’d already read, the ones that looked boring or silly or otherwise wrong. I was the one choosing the perfect book from those stacks of second-raters. In retrospect, however, I’m starting to realize that feeling was an illusion. Sure, I was choosing. But I was choosing from a finite set of books, a limited selection—which had conveniently been (wait for it) “curated” for me by my bookstore.

Without bookstores, we’ve lost that level of pre-selection. In the age of Amazon, I now find myself inundated by choice and overwhelmed by variety. And as self-published books become more viable economically, and more accessible, my choices grow exponentially.

To be honest, I don’t like that.

I get nervous. I get scared. There’s too much pressure to choose. It’s a crisis of overchoice. And this is where publishers have an opportunity to step back in.

Publishers have always been a sort of upper-level curator—editors choose books that complement their list, companies choose a specialty that they want to focus on and gently reject books that don’t quite fit their vision. But this selectiveness only really has any pull with the booksellers who are choosing what books to purchase for their shop. It doesn’t trickle down much to the consumer.

Now, in many cases, we’ve lost the bookseller, our middleman. And publishers need to start leveraging their “curated content” to the general public.

Strategies

Why is this an important move? First, it gives each publisher its own platform from which to promote books—that means relying less on authors’ platforms. Think of your favorite author; remember how much you look forward to their next book? Now imagine that your favorite author was a favorite publisher, publishing 10-12 books per one year instead of one book per several years. Imagine that this publisher has a very focused list, and, really, all of their books are about the people or places or events or activities that you like best. (Say, vegan cookbooks. Or clean-cut romance novels.)

In fact, this is way better than the other option, which is picking five or ten favorite authors and then juggling between their websites until one of them announces that a new book is in the works. It’s even better than a bookstore, because you don’t have to wade through all of the other genres and topics that you don’t like. You can trust the publisher’s aesthetic, the quality of their products, the relevance of their plotlines. Just thinking about this makes me excited.

a very excited person

This is how excited I feel. (Photo by Leah Thompson)

For new authors, this is a dream come true. It’s what authors want—and sometimes need—publishers to be: a platform with the ideal, built-in fanbase ready to devour the next book. Instead of publishers relying so heavily on authors to have a strong platform and a good following, this gives authors the opportunity to get a good start with a strong customer base right off the bat.

There are challenges to this shiny new “branding” thing, though. One of them is that authors frequently change publishers; in many ways, the ideas laid out here work best if authors stick with the folks they know, using their personal celebrity to help drive the publisher’s platform and increase the customer base.

But this reliable customer base may also be a tool to encourage authors to remain with the same publisher and stay “true to their fans”—or something like that. What do you think? Would this be a good or bad situation for powerhouse authors? For new authors? What are other challenges to this concept of consumer-oriented “branded” publishing houses?

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

3 comments on “Branding: Priority for publishers

  1. peterturner108
    July 23, 2012

    Thanks for your post. It’s an important topic, something I’ve blogged about myself (at http://www.ampersand-publishing.com/blog/). I agree that publishers need to make branding a priority for publishers. But I think I see obstacles (and opportunities) that you may be missing.

    Publishers do actually already focus on brand already. Their brand is prominently on every product they sell, on their website, and any outbound marketing they do. The problem is most publisher brands (both their houses and their imprints) are virtually meaningless. What’s the difference between Harper and Random House, Vintage and Perennial, or even Clarkson Potter and Chronicle? Brand is only valuable from a marketing point of view if it provides a point of contrast: for example, Whole Foods vs. Stop & Shop.

    Some publishers are launching new brands. Random House’s Biographile.com is a good example. It’s niche oriented and publisher neutral. But this raises the other big obstacle to brand building–it’s very time consuming and expensive. I tend to believe that the investment necessary requires that these sort of emerging publishing brands need to sell books, not just market them, as the customer data has value over time that is lost when a sale is pushed off to a third party retailer.

    I totally agree that we need middlemen, curators, who can filter books and other content based on topic and quality. Something booksellers have done brilliantly for centuries. To my mind, this is the opportunity on the horizon–an opportunity that could play as powerful a role in our lives as bookstores have in our cultural history.

  2. jennagilligan
    July 23, 2012

    I worry that too much specialization would sink a house. If you do cookbooks and biographies and business books, if one or two of those categories isn’t working, then the sales from the one that is working can still keep you afloat–if you just do one category, though, you’re completely at the whims of the market. Plus, you run the risk of having all the books on your list compete with each other. (Granted, this still happens even with a diverse list, but you can at least spread out the pub dates and stick a novel between your baseball biographies. And speaking personally, I think it would be a little frustrating for a publicist–you’re pitching against yourself to every media outlet.) And if your category’s not working, I think it makes it a lot harder for a house to overhaul its entire list quickly enough to save itself. Clearly, this model does work for the smaller, niche publishers that you linked to and others that you didn’t, but if the entire industry moved in that direction…?

    That being said, I could see it being an advantage to a new author, who could tap into an already-interested audience and know that they’re being handled by a house that knows exactly what to do with their books. Powerhouse authors, though, might be afraid that they’ll be lost in the shuffle–it’s much easier for a book to stand out when it’s the different one, you know?

    It also raises another issue in the whole evolution of publishing from a business-to-business to business-to-consumer model: how much do readers trust publishers? I’m not sure they do. Bookstores are a more impartial intermediary–sure, they want to sell you something, but they don’t care if you buy a Harper Collins book or a Penguin book, so long as you buy something. I rely on the media and reviews and word of mouth to curate my books for me because that seems more organic and impartial, somehow, than having a publisher who is directly invested in the sale of that book curate them.

  3. Leah Thompson
    July 27, 2012

    You both bring up good points. Peter– I agree that yes, publishers are already “branded,” but you echo my point that the brands are meaningless to the consumer. They may convey something to a bookseller (bestsellers, big marketing money, high production quality, etc), I suggest publishers should adjust their image so that they are speaking directly to consumers, instead of– as they are now– more or less directly to middlemen.

    Jenna, I take your point, but I also think that publishers like your company are a pretty good example of a well-defined lists. They have a couple of really strong areas (i.e., vegan cookbooks) that they know how to do really well, and that they seem to have a pretty established market for (though I may just be assuming that).

    This is different from bigger publishers who have a wide subject range but a shallow understanding of all the different markets they are trying to reach. I think that moving forward, narrow focuses with deep customer understanding will win the day– and perhaps that means that bigger publishers need to reorganize and do some rebranding by subject/genre in order to facilitate that deeper understanding.

    Regardless, I’m sure my thesis could use some deeper meditation. I only see a small portion of the industry from where I sit– thanks for adding your perspectives!

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This entry was posted on July 23, 2012 by in Business, Opinion and tagged , , , .

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