The always interesting Publishing Perspectives has a great double-sided post today about publisher branding, with Erin Cox advocating for publishers to spend more time & money on this, and Sarah Russo arguing about why publishers shouldn’t “brand the brand.”
It’s not hard to figure out where I stand on this argument, but I’ll try and objectively summarize both sides, starting with Erin:
In the last decade or more, the trend in trade publishing has been to focus on branding an author instead of an imprint. There are some notable exceptions, but, for the most part, publishers’ branding rarely extends beyond the colophon on the spine and printed at the bottom of an advertisement.
Ask any publisher, and they will say that the average reader does not relate to a publisher, they relate to an author. This may be true, but is this merely because publishers are not doing enough to brand themselves and their types of books? Is there more that could be done that would make imprints stand out, thus attracting more readers, and allowing savvy publishers to be more competitive in an already-saturated marketplace?
Before I begin, I would like to define the term “branding” as a method by which a publisher or a publishing imprint defines who they are and the types of books they publish in order to establish a relationship with the reader.
Anything that promotes a closer connection between readers and publishers is a good idea in my book. But going on, here are a couple examples Erin includes on how to build a brand:
Sure, there is a colophon on the side of the book, but why not create a standard package that helps to assert that this is a book published by [INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]. It could be expanding the colophon to take over the whole spine (which might also inspire bibliophiles to want the whole collection for their library) or be something more dramatic like Library of America’s uniform edition or the consistently colored spines of the aforementioned New York Review of Books editions.
And here’s a slightly more embarrassing/meta suggestion:
Put a Face to the House
Go forth and talk to the readers. Train a few editors, publicists, marketing people to be spokespeople for the company. Get them out there doing interviews, host a book club in a local store, write a blog about the books they publish, get them on panels at festivals and fairs beyond the traditional writing festivals. That’s how magazines help to brand themselves, why not book publishers? Chad Post, Publishing Perspectives contributor and Publisher at Open Letter, is almost more famous than his imprint. He was recently on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer” and is regularly on local television in Rochester.
I agree with all of this—with the caveat that this makes most sense when the publishing house (or imprint) has a clear focus. It’s hard to brand a general house that’s appealing to one group of people with its cookbooks, another with its poetry, etc. Not that it’s impossible—I trust in Knopf for basically anything in any category (although recent conversations about Dragon Pizzeria have shaken my faith a bit)—just that it’s easier if you are a certain definable thing.
Flipping sides, here’s a few quotes from Sarah Russo about why publishers shouldn’t brand themselves:
I’m of the belief that publisher or imprint specific branding would be not only fairly fruitless for trade publishers but also hugely time consuming and a financial drain. Branding, specifically online branding, works in niches that allow you to reach specific communities. A branding campaign needs a defined target or it is destined to fail. [. . .]
The abundance of publisher Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter feeds suggest that publishers want to go direct to consumers, but many are not reaching that audience at all. Some market research on the bigger imprints’ Facebook pages would likely report that their “fans” are already in the industry (or want to be). Pantheon has 724 followers this morning. Sixty-five of those followers are publishing people that I know personally. That’s a hefty percentage. And that’s a lot of effort expended to get those 700 fans, a minimum of 10% of which are in the industry.
That’s the best paragraph in here, especially considering that Open Letter has almost 1,500 FB fans . . . It actually sort of proves my point that you have to be somewhat specific to be able to build a brand.
So we need to reach a new group of readers. I don’t think our reading public is spending hours watching TV each day. However, targeted TV ads could work in the right markets using the right TV programs. Slate tested an interesting TV ad experiment recently. It’s not out of the question, but it can be strategically limiting financially and production-wise. (I’m not intentionally leaving out radio but NPR ads are frequently used by publishers and are nothing new.)
I think I’m done quoting from her. Sure, this is all fine and good, but none of her suggestions address the fact that the old model is creaky and not very adaptable to an age of connectivity. I agree that it would be a huge waste of money for Random House to try and rebrand itself—that’s just plain silly. But entertaining the idea of TV ads strikes me as being as misguiding as launching a billboard campaign. (Does anyone actually watch live TV anymore anyway?)
Sorry—I thought I could write a balanced post about this, but I can’t. Even if general readers don’t necessarily pay attention to who is publishing which books, a savvy, strategic branding campaign can help build a loyal audience in a relatively cheap and easy way. And who doesn’t want a core group of fans buying and talking about their books?