How Brands Hatch

Christopher Lloyd argues for greater long term investment in authors by publishers and more imaginative and varied marketing initiatives.

Publishing Houses have a problem with their marketing. At least that’s the distinct impression given by a discussion raging on freelance arts journalist Danuta Kean’s website: “I don’t think most publishers understand the importance of marketing,” writes one correspondent, “It’s like having a bus driven by blind people and wondering why this bus fails to pick up passengers, all the while marvelling at the fact the bus manages to stay on the road. How long before the accident? is the question most publishers ask themselves….”

Such comments provoked a chorus of approval from other commentators with a special disdain for publishers’ marketing departments: “Fundamentally they don’t understand their market,” writes Richard Havers, “While a commissioning editor may well understand it, by the time it’s reached the marketing department it’s all got lost in the wash. As one senior person in the marketing department of one major publisher said to me: “Oh no, we don’t talk to editorial about marketing! What on Earth would they know?”

Even Boyd Tonkin in his review of a Year in Books for 2007 (The Independent 21st December) accuses the British publishing industry of looking “slow and clumsy when it comes to harnessing the might of the Internet to engage and excite readers” and the chief defect during 2007 lay not with writers or readers but with “the sclerotic system of marketing and retailing…..”.

As a recently signed up first-time author (largely thanks to the efforts of Andrew Lownie) the relationship between authors and the marketing teams of publishers has for me become a rather important issue. For a new author to establish his or her credentials in the marketplace the competence and strategy of how to make successful brands (be it that of the author or the characters in their books) counts for everything and it’s largely down to a publisher’s marketing team to deliver the goods. But to what extent have they got their finger on the pulse and, anyway, how empowered are they really to make the difference?

To begin with I find myself experiencing a profound sense of déjà vu. A couple of careers back I spent 10 years deep within the newspaper publishing business at the Wapping compound of News International. Here editorial and marketing departments had a legendary hatred for each other. Only over the dead bodies of Murdoch’s editorial satraps would any marketing department ever get a grip of the paper’s strategic reigns. Market research, data analysis, reader profiling and customer segmentations were just fodder for whatever happened to be the latest political in-feuding between the commercial and editorial sides of the business. Their violent cultures were addicted to a permanent state of war. Arbitrary editorial hunches on the one hand were locked into mortal combat against the new fangled science of customer-centric marketing on the other.

For a foolish while I felt the urge to try to sort things out. During the dot com boom, when younger upstarts briefly had the edge over hot metal’s die-hards, the idea of restructuring the business to be more customer focussed briefly fell on fertile ground. Surely, I pleaded with the then chairman, Les Hinton, the company’s four newspaper brands (The Sun, News of the World , The Times and The Sunday Times) should act like filters into a single database of consumers (not readers) who could be served a constantly changing diet of content and commerce according to their own individual needs…. It wasn’t simply that the attempt was doomed to be struck down by the barons on the sixth floor but now I realise that the ongoing, obstructive war between marketing and editorial was intrinsic to the success of the business model itself.

Data-addicted marketeers can only watch and follow market trends as they take off. Good direct marketeers spot new trends early but they cannot be genuinely innovative. They simply spot opportunities to do more of this or that, here and there because such and such a segment of the market is growing. Alternatively, they can save money by doing less of this and that because another segment is shrinking. The good editor operates in complete counter culture. Free from the tyranny of spreadsheets and databases he or she serendipitously spots new talent, fosters new ideas on a whim and, when at their operational best, grabs a new spot on the commercial high-ground fuelled by nothing more than fresh individualistic thinking straight out-of-the-box.

A successful publishing company needs both approaches, One fully exploits untapped opportunities in existing markets, the other seeks out pastures new. The best publishing businesses appear to thrive on this weird, warrior-like dualistic culture where creative tension never resolves itself. Success comes from innovating and following the market all at the same time.

As I now edge closer to the world of book publishing I find just the same culture clash as with newspapers but this one operates on tortoise-time. Today’s commentary about useless marketing departments rings a warning bell in my mind. Derogatory comments about newspaper marketing are an endemic part of their business – it cannot be otherwise!

So what instead should a first time author seek to help establish him or herself (or book) as a new brand? According to Tonkin, chain bookshops are in a star-struck past where “only TV exposure buys success”. What chance of that for a Johnny come lately like me?

One solution would be to try to build a new type of relationship between authors and publishers that focuses much more explicitly on how new brands can be established and commercialised across all channels and media types. Own a successful brand and a book will take its place alongside all other categories of merchandise from cuddly toys to block-buster movies….

But what brand? Should it be the publisher’s own or the authors? Alternatively, are they the fictional characters in a book? After all, it was Harry Potter who made both Bloomsbury and J. K Rowling rich.

My aspiration is to explore the author / publisher relationship a great deal more than most through the process of building a brand together. The book I have just completed – What on Earth Happened? is the rather absurd attempt to tell the complete story of the history of planet Earth, its life and people from the Big Bang to the 21st century in a single narrative volume. But the idea is so much more than just a book. It could become a new way of thinking about the past – a way of organising all forms of knowledge within a chronological context that consigns traditional subject-based disciplines to the Victorian ages from where they came. The “What on Earth Happened?” brand could stretch across everything from a TV series, a quiz show and board game to a walk-through exhibition, computer game, web-based encyclopaedia, blog or new school curriculum.

But to make these leaps requires excellence in brand management and execution. Are publishers up to the challenge? Do they realise that their future business growth may come from morphing themselves from book publishers into the brand factories of tomorrow at whose heart lies the all-important brand-incubators – authors.

Tonkin says Britain has the best, most successful creative literary talent in the world but that traditional publishers are failing properly to exploit that creativity in the marketplace. My suggestion at transformation is to start by re-thinking the author / publisher relationship.

Let’s see more talent-spotting and pro-active author management. Much of the work undertaken by today’s literacy agencies belongs inside a with-it publishers core business development function. If author-brands are the key to future revenues then spotting new talent and nurturing their output is how the seeds of future profits will be sewn, regardless of channel or medium.

Let’s have more imaginative and longer-term contractual commitments that sign up authors more like they are recording artists. In return for longer periods of exclusivity, a publisher could have the confidence that brands they build successfully stay within the fold. Author Relationship Management – let’s call it ARM - should be as important for traditional publishers as CRM is for retailers today.

So rather than trying to untangle the internal wranglings between editorial and marketing that have and always will be a necessary part of any publishing company, book companies could model themselves on talent management companies like IMG. Author relationship management would convert creative talent into recognisable, valuable brands less susceptible to fluctuations in the purchasing habits of consumers regardless of how they choose to purchase and consume content.

Christopher Lloyd’s What on Earth Happened? A Complete History of Planet, Life and People from the Big Bang to the 21st Century is to be published by Bloomsbury in September 2008.

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Christopher Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd has had a broad and comprehensive career both as a journalist and as a general manager in the education business. After graduating with a double first class degree in history from Peterhouse, Cambridge in 1991, he helped research the personal memoirs of the ex Sunday Telegraph E...More about Christopher Lloyd