Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
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.
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.
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.
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?