Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Lesson on Brand Management

As I've mentioned a few times before, mes auteurs, publishing is a strange industry in many ways. One of the ways in which it differs from other enterprises is that the author of the work, not its physical manufacturer, is the brand name. For the most part, no one cares who publishes a given book; they only care about who wrote it and what it's about.

Part of this is intrinsic to the industry: just like with movies and music, the writer(s)/actor(s)/artist(s) is/are the source of the desired material, so regardless of whose label is affixed to those names, consumers will make their purchases based principally on the artists involved. As a culture, we care about Johnny Depp more than Lionsgate, Jay-Z more than Def Jam Recordings, and Suzanne Collins more than Scholastic.

Another part of it, however, is due to publishers' treatment of their own brands. Many include their logos on the spines and back covers of their books, but never the front (Penguin Classics is a notable exception), and publishers with myriad subdivisions and imprints further confuse consumers by including those logos but not the logo of the parent company.

How many of you knew that Dutton, Gotham, Prentice Hall, Riverhead, and Viking were all part of Penguin? That Knopf, Crown, and Ballantine are all Random House (and that those groups contain their own smaller imprints)? That Grand Central (with its imprint, Twelve) is Hachette's, as is Little, Brown & Co.? I could go on, but you get the point.

I think a significant problem for publishers in the industry today is a lack of brand consolidation. A lot of it is because individual imprints have their own specialties and want to maintain their identities apart from their parent publisher: Threshold (Simon & Schuster) specializes in conservative politics and nonfiction, Tor (Macmillan) in science fiction and fantasy, &c. This is all fine and good—or at least, it has been—but with companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble beginning to dominate the market, publishers will have to change the way they play the game.

As Sarah Lacy at TechCrunch notes, Amazon is preparing to take over the role of publisher in the world of tomorrow. And in that hypothetical world, I think Amazon's name would be just as important as most of its authors'.

Unless traditional publishers can reinforce their names and reaffirm their relevance over the next five years, I don't see why anyone will prefer a Random House book or a Penguin book over an Amazon/Kindle book. Authors will always be major brands in publishing, but I think publishers will need to increase their visibility as well. If they continue to bank on running the show from behind the scenes, it's my opinion that it will be to their long-term detriment.


  1. In the realm of choral music publishing, I can tell you that the publisher does influence what I buy. I love Boosey & Hawkes and Earthsongs because they have much better editing and they tend to have the cultural background printed with each piece, if relevant. I avoid Hal Leonard.

    I think you're on to something, though. I buy based on authors, not brands. Perhaps the publisher does not define its brands because it leaves all of that to the authors.

  2. This is really true. I never cared about publishers until I started writing. The publisher is still not a factor in what books I decide to read.

    I'm not yet published, but when I submit to a (small) publisher, I want to know about the type and quality of book they publish. If I look in their books and find typos, poor writing, and sloppy editing, I know I don't want to submit to them.

    As a reader, I wouldn't buy such a book, of course. But I never would have assumed the problem was with the publisher. Now I know better.

  3. Mardott, that is very true. I came across a small publisher at a conference that manually glued graphics on to their master copy, then made poor quality photocopies. Their books were photocopied, too, and stapled in the middle and folded over. I could have done better by myself.

  4. I'll disagree in part with the idea that no one cares who publishes a given book; I think that in certain categories, brand identity is a notable consideration. SF/fantasy is one; the leading imprints/publishers in that category (Tor, Baen, DAW, Ace) are all strongly brand-identified and marketed. Consider also travel guides, computer/technical books, and the For Dummies brand.

    I'd also disagree that the big corporate parents (Hachette, Random House) necessarily need to increase their consumer brand recognition in the book marketplace. I agree that in many cases their imprints need to be better brand-identified and marketed (as a for-instance, I think RH has lost SF/F market penetration by failing to strongly market and distinguish its Del Rey and Spectra brands effectively), but I don't think it's a good idea to market them both as "Random House", any more than you'd want to tell consumers that former arch-rival brands Betty Crocker and Pillsbury are now under the same corporate umbrella.

    One smaller publisher that's attracted my attention via its branding strategy is Arcadia, an outfit that's made an apparently profitable business of specializing in micro-niche local history books on a nationwide level. I should note that I have no idea what their authors' contracts look like (and would be very curious to find out), but to me they're an example of a branding strategy executed thoughtfully and well.

  5. Penguin isn't really a brand. Penguin Classics is a brand. Ace is a brand. Portfolio is a brand. Firebird is a brand. (There is an imprint called Penguin, but it doesn't have a strong identity -- imprints with the same name as the parent company, like Penguin and "Little Random," tend not to have strong identities, perhaps for the same reason Mickey Mouse has been a bland wimp for most the past century: it's hard to be both distinctive and a corporate symbol.)

    This is exactly parallel to the way that SC Johnson isn't a brand, but Glade, Drano, Windex, Ziploc, and Raid are brands. Book publishing is very much like other manufacturing industries in that the consumer band is not the same as the name of the parent company, and it's not particularly surprising or remarkable.

    Most publishers tend to promote their author-brands more strongly than their house brands -- though there are exceptions, such as Harlequin and O'Reilly -- because the authors have stronger, more resonant brands with consumers. But there are definitely publishing brands, and consumers who read deeply in particular areas know the brands in that area.

    I'd say your advice is exactly backwards: publishers need to understand the power of specific brands and strengthen the ones they have. Their big "mainstream" imprints, though, are clearly the ones with the least effective branding and the least audience recognition -- perhaps they need to focus their efforts better and present a stronger brand proposition for "Bantam" or "Little, Brown" or "Viking."

  6. Until I started writing, I never paid attention to publishers. Books were books.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. This is all fine and good—or at least, it has been—but with companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble beginning to dominate the market, publishers will have to change the way they play the game.

    I know there are many arguments that take the form, "things were like this, but now INTERNET!, so they must become like that"
    but I feel you might have left out some important explanatory material here.

  8. I completely agree -- not one non-writer reader I have ever polled cares who published the book. I wonder if, in the future, some big-name authors won't morph into "publishers" (ala James Patterson). While I don't like when authors have other novelists ghost-write or co-write their ideas, I WOULD be more willing to check out an author endorsed/published/vetted by one of my favorite authors.

  9. I used to buy all my books from the Doubleday Book club. I would sit and peruse the ad material for hours before deciding on the next great novel to read. Never went to a bookstore for a long time. And when I did, ah...there I can touch and smell them. OK! weird I know. Can anyone tell me what a Kindle smells like?

  10. At a senior age I'm scrambling to catch up on all fronts of life - really like sink or swim. A week ago I wailed in frustration at having to learn a new (to me) format on my Word to make my book e-book friendly at another site, outside Kindle. I've learned so much in 7 short days about that program, this new site and many like it outside Kindle/Amazon - and did learn. I think the smart publishing people are learning too to move on to what their buyers want.

  11. I think the smaller imprints would be wise to brand themselves better. A SF/F author starting out with NO name recognition would do well at a SF/F publisher with a strong track record (I believe djonn above would attest to this.) People honestly would pick up that book by an unknown author because they trust the publisher's judgment.

    That's how its been in the music industry for awhile. There are plenty of bands I've checked out solely because they're on the same label as other bands I like (late 90's/early 00's Drive-Thru Records being the perfect example of this.) So I think you're misguided in your assessment that branding is all about the author/artist. Creating a niche for your imprint and understanding the audience you hope to reach creates a community surrounding your brand, or at least it should, I think. These smaller imprints do themselves a disservice by not saying as loudly as possible, "hey, we're such and such Publishing and if you like x genre/type of book, then you're gonna love our authors!"

    Just my opinion! Good post and discussion! Thanks Eric!

  12. I published with Soho and found as I visited bookstores and attended events, that their brand identity was really quite strong in the crime fiction community. It struck me as such a sensible approach.

  13. Interesting. Read this after I finished a first draft on a similar entry for my blog that extends the question (no answers yet) to not just publishing but actually selling. As the publishing world changes the marketing of the author brand has to shift. We, the authors, must become more savvy and better educated to the business side of bookselling.

    Love your blog.

  14. I agree to a point, but I think that certain imprints, mainly in genre fiction, would do better to strengthen then branding, rather than eliminate it altogether. Harlequin makes a mint off of it - they divde their books up into "series" that cater to a specific demand (ie. Cinderella-type story, Christian historical, and contemporary romantic syspense with down-to-earth characters). Since readers know exactly what to exact from each series, they'll often buy all of the books in that series each month, instead of buying by author name alone. You mentioned Tor, but I think that's another example of great branding. I've bought books I wasn't sure about just because I saw that they were from Tor, and I know what to expect from that brand.

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