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I Will Not Make a Coherent Argument

Rob Walker brought my attention to this article about the author as brand:

Paradoxically, the proliferation of digital media that is arguably the biggest threat to traditional publishing also offers authors more opportunities than ever to distribute and promote their work. The catch: In order to do that effectively, authors increasingly must transcend their words and become brands. [. . .]

In today’s fickle marketplace, the Internet—with blogs, videos, Twitter, and other promotional tools like Amazon’s Author Stores—is the modern-day equivalent to hand-selling. [. . .] In a way, authors are empowered in this new model, provided they can leverage their networks into living, breathing communities who have a stake in—and benefit from—an author’s ballooning platform.

With the examples in the article being people like James Patterson, John Grisham, and Mitch Albom (where’s Tom Clancy? Dude has videogames named after him), I’m glad Jill Priluck pointed out the insanity and danger of this all:

The overemphasis on platforms means that authors sink into brand-speak to get their projects sold, even though their writing—and often their reputations—gets short-circuited. With limited choices, they trade depth for instant gratification, visibility, and higher advances. Ironically, their longevity, supposedly the marker of a good brand, falls by the wayside. It seems that unlike a detergent or a car, an author who is branded too quickly will often fizzle out just as fast.

This “author as product” mentality is pretty insane and really devalues the work itself. It also completely fits in with the changes that have gone on in the publishing world over the past couple decades.

Through mergers and corporate acquisitions, any “branding” that publishing lines once had (and by “brand,” I mean editorial vision and identity, something readers can recognize and appreciate, not the Open Letter XBox game) has been completely dissolved, and the name on the spine of a lot of books is sort of meaningless. So the author’s name/reputation/brand is more important than the publishing line, something that is the exact opposite at independent houses, which are often introducing unknown authors to the reading public.

Andre Schriffrin’s The Business of Books (which should be required reading for anyone in publishing, but is strangely out-of-print) gets into this exact issue, especially when he takes Michael Korda to task for his lackadaisical attitude toward this shift—and the cheapening of publishing as a whole—in his publishing memoir, Another Life:

Korda describes these authors, on which the firm’s fortunes were increasingly to rely, with remarkable disdain. They are demanding, their clothing is vulgar, they do not know the right places in London at which to order custom-made shoes, or the appropriate restaurants at which to eat—subjects on which Korda is very well informed. At the same time, he describes their books as the unavoidable wave of the future as publishing becomes increasingly tied to the entertainment industry, and the styles and values of Hollywood become dominant. Celebrity books are the titles that will make or break firms and Korda, with his boss, Richard Snyder, are determined that it will be the former.

In the time Simon & Schuster was bought by Viacom, owners of Paramount Pictures, and for a brief while it was even renamed Paramount Books. While Korda is frank in describing the economic pressures of these changes, he is nonetheless firmly wedded to the assumption that these are the books on which publishing should focus, and he is proud of his successes with them, if not of his associations with their authors.

Schiffrin then related a bit about Korda attacking Harold Robbins for Robbins’s shame at going from a literary author to a commercial one, concluding:

It seems that in today’s publishing it is only authors who despise themselves for selling out. Publishers merely anticipate inevitable trends.



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