The Branding Debate
5 Jan 2008
Laurence Gardner contributes his thoughts to the Branding Debate.
The original 'It's the Brand Stupid' article makes the point that “Publishers rightly contend that their marketing is hamstrung by a 21st century industry structured around retailers not writers”. Personally, I do not believe that the industry should be structured around either; it should rightly be structured around the customer requirements of book-buyers and readers.
Authors with track records, supportive fan bases and operative websites are in constant ground-level contact with their existing readers and other parties with interests in their respective subject matter. We hear from dozens of them by email every week; we talk to them on radio phone-in sessions; we attend conferences, give lectures and interviews, take part in debates, answer questions and meet a great many readers personally. Neither publishers nor retailers are in such a regularly informed position. Authors are kept abreast of the market needs of their particular genres; they are aware of the primary areas of interest, and always know what is required of them for the next book. But, as things currently stand, the opinions of lesser enlightened shopkeepers are preferred by publishers, and readers' requirements are constantly ignored.
Authors do not need branding; they and their ongoing market research simply need to be taken seriously for it is they, not the retailers or publishing company sales reps, who are best placed to satisfy continuing or changing readership trends.
The word 'brand' relates strictly to a readily identifiable product. But now we are faced with a marketing mentality which suggests that authors should themselves become brands. This is not only absurd, it is impossible since authors are not products; they are the creators of product. Only publishers can create brands for their wares. “The Penguin World of Classics Series” -- that's a brand. “Osprey Military History Editions” -- that's a brand. It might even be said that “Harry Potter”, with all its spin-off material outside the books, constitutes a commercial brand. But nobody buys JK Rowling T-shirts; thus she is an author, not a brand.
Individual authors and their works do, of course, require a recognizable public image, but those of us who have been around for a while already have such profiles in place. Whether termed 'image', 'profile' or even 'brand', it does not take a publisher or a marketing agency to contrive the intricacies of such definition; these things evolve quite naturally from regular contact with one's readers.
The very concept of branding authors (as if they were ranch cattle stamped with a particular iron) would be tantamount to restrictive practice, containing writers within designated corrals, with no ability to develop their themes into new fields of interest along with evolving readership requirement.
These days, authors can do a great deal to enhance their own profiles via the Internet, but in order for this medium to function there needs to be a publisher-driven strategy which causes people to look for the authors and their works on the Web in the first place. People can only search for names and titles which have been made familiar to them by some other means. In this regard, publishers should be paying far greater attention to a continuing public awareness of their authors instead of pandering to market-stall bookstore practices that result in short-lived launch promotions rather than purposeful ongoing campaigns.
Publishers' marketing budgets are now largely confined to expenditure within the trade in order to get publications displayed in the ever decreasing number of bookshops. But this is of little use to authors whose names and latest works (unless they happen to be media celebrities) are given no publicity in the public domain by way of any direct advertising. Book buyers are left to 'discover' the latest titles by chance when visiting the bookstores -- a pastime which is itself in decline because, apart from the town-centre chain-stores, there are now very few local bookshops in which to browse. If it were not for Amazon and authors' own websites, a great many books would be entirely unknown to the public at large.
Authors do not need branding; they need support and publicity, and their books require promotion. Since the bookstores do not do this for the majority, it must necessarily be the function of publishers to use the press and media for significantly better mass advertising of individual or selectively grouped editions. It is quite impossible for anyone to want to buy a book if they are not first made aware of its existence.
Reverting to the opening statement that 'Publishers are hamstrung by a 21st century industry structured around retailers', it can only be said that publishers have done their own hamstringing in this regard. They have caused it to happen and allowed it to happen, while at the same time decimating the independent bookstore market. Authors cannot change this; readers cannot change this, and the chain-stores will not change it voluntarily. Only the publishers can confront the situation which now exists to the detriment of themselves, their authors and their readers. Until this untenable matter of retailer control is redressed, and a proper industry balance of mutual interest restored, no amount of fancy branding can possibly succeed.