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[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers

On March 18th, in response to the Publishing Perspectives story “Digital Case Study: Publishers’ Online Marketing in Spain,” Editor-in-Chief Ed Nawotka posed a discussion question asking if readers cared about publisher branding. This sparked a flurry of debate among readers on the Publishing Perspectives site and off-line between Publishing Perspectives Business Development Director Erin L. Cox and publishing veteran, Sarah Russo, who happened to be writing a piece on the very subject for the insightful blog, The New Sleekness. In the interest of debate and for the readers of both Publishing Perspectives and The New Sleekness, both Cox and Russo have expanded on their thoughts for and against publisher branding. Below, is Erin Cox’s reasoning for publisher branding. You can read Sarah Russo’s reasoning against trade publisher branding on “The New Sleekness here.

By Erin L. Cox

Erin Cox

Erin Cox

I wouldn’t say that I’m label-conscious, but like many consumers, I like to know what I’m buying and, sometimes, a brand helps me make a decision based on an assumed quality. That goes for a shirt from the GAP, a new Samsung television, and, oftentimes, a [INSERT PUBLISHER HERE] book.

When I was first applying for jobs in publishing, the cover letter I wrote to Vintage said the very same thing: “When I buy a Vintage paperback, I know that I am getting a book of literary excellence and it’s something I want to read” (I didn’t get the job, but I would go on to work at another house known for its brand — Scribner).

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.

A Collection of Knopf Borzoi logos

My favorite example of branding was shared with me by friends at Knopf (and can be seen on the Alfred A. Knopf Facebook page). It was an advertisement that ran in the November 1957 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which featured the Borzoi Credo. The first line of that Credo is the very thesis of my argument:

“I believe that a publisher’s imprint means something, and that if readers paid more attention to the publisher of the books they buy, their chances of being disappointed would be infinitely less.”

Now, let me qualify that statement by saying that I am not suggesting that readers shouldn’t experiment with new imprints, small publishers, self-published books, or impulse buying; but in the same way that reading the flap copy gives you an idea about what the book is about, checking out who published the book might also help readers make a more informed choice.

More to the point, how should publishers be branding themselves to better attract readers? Who should they be branding to (readers or bookstores)? And, what is the most effective way of doing that?

I believe publishers should offer branding that is addressed directly to readers, instead of relying solely on the bookstores to translate their message for them.

Why can’t imprints help define the books that each is publishing to a consumer and show that this book will deliver x, y, and z of what they experienced with the last book they bought by that publisher?

We cannot rely solely on authors doing the work for publishers. Many authors today have little or no loyalty to the house. What’s more, they often take years in between each book, while the house continues to release hopefully excellent books year-in and year-out.

We, as publishers, need to remind our readers of the great books they’ve loved in the past that we have given them and why our books will continue to delight them, no matter which author’s name is printed on the cover. The house must rely on its own personality and talents to attract readers. And, believe me, they will come.

So, how can they do that without spending an exorbitant amount of money and with the systems in place already? Here are some thoughts:

Advertising

Generally in the summer and around the winter holidays, publishers do group ads for their books and often highlight “Great Reads from [INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]” at the top of that ad. Why not do more of that throughout the year, highlighting a few key titles and branding those ads? Do those ads in the same locations (publications, websites, billboards, whatever makes sense based on the imprint’s focus) to create brand-awareness among that audience. If that is successful, expand.

Mine the Backlist

Let the paperbacks work for you. Pair a current title published with a classic title that people love and remind people that both books are published by the same publisher. This could be done in book clubs, advertising, co-op store displays, store discount opportunities, publicity. Or, do what the brilliant New York Review of Books has done and find books that were published well years ago and republish and repackage for today’s audience.

Package

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.

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.

Social Networking

Some publishers are using social networking to build their brand. They have Facebook pages, online book clubs that attract readers around the world, creating and posting custom videos, all of which I think is helpful. But it’s also important to increase the attention and partnerships with like-minded sites. It’s not enough to just have a Facebook page, you must seek out readers and interact with them. Ask them what they want. Invite readers into the publishing process.

Store Displays

Once a season, why not take some co-op money and devote a portion to in-store displays with a branding message at the top? Remind readers that these books are published by that publisher.

Web Sites

I don’t go to a publisher Web site when I want information on a book they’re publishing, so why would a reader? Create a reason for readers to go to the site: giveaways, games, more frequent interaction with the aforementioned spokespeople, a gift with purchase if they buy from the publisher’s site vs. an online retailer. Give-away book bags, t-shirts, mugs with your colophon on the side tend to get used an awful lot and represent a ton of free advertising. My Penguin Classic mugs are among my favorite and have inspired many a friend to think of books that he/she has missed over the years and go out and purchase.

The key is to not throw up our hands and say “it doesn’t matter to a reader,” but encourage a reader to see why it should matter. Only once we’ve changed the way we think about branding and what it means to us as an industry, will we finally be able to move past the generic anonymity [INSERT PUBLISHER HERE] and make readers care about us as publishers.

READ: Sarah Russo’s thoughts on trade publishers and branding.

BUY: Penguin Classic brand mugs, pencils, and even deckchairs…and books.

SHARE: Your own stories of branding and what has inspired you as a publisher and as a reader.  What would you like to see more of?

DISCUSS: What makes for effective publisher branding?

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8 Comments

  1. Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I remember in the 80s, Vintage came out with the Vintage Contemporary and International collections. I associated these brands with intriguing and cutting-edge fiction. I bought books based on this branding as opposed to their authors reputation. Great article, Erin.

  2. Posted March 31, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Thumbs up. A fantastic start. Most imprints can take a page from the more successful indie record labels – the SubPops, the Arts & Crafts, the Saddle Creeks – about how to build and sustain not only an identifiable style of product, but also how to foster reader loyalty. The roads all lead to direct sales, and that’s where publishers are going to want to be.

  3. Posted March 31, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    There are plenty of strong publishing brands out there, including Marvel, Dark Horse, Chelsea Green, Writer’s Digest, Tor, Harlequin, Vintage, Galaxy Press, Zondervan. Some are imprints within the Big 6, and some are independent, but each has a clear brand identity.

    Most of the arguments I see against publisher branding is that it’s hard.

    Well, duh!

  4. Sarah Russo
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    It’s actually not that hard. It does take a little thought and creativity. Something to note about the aforementioned brands is that they each have a niche: Marvel (comics), Dark Horse (comics) Chelsea Green (green/enviro), Writer’s Digest (writing life), Tor (genre), Harlequin (genre), Galaxy (genre), Zondervan (religion). The only one that doesn’t, Vintage, has a price point niche that makes them appealing to a specific group. Within their niche each one of these brands has created a conversation with their reading community. It’s a very different thing to have a general interest trade publisher carve out a niche from the incredibly diverse interests of the reading public.

  5. Posted March 31, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Niche isn’t a magic bullet; publishers’ brands still have to represent something that speaks to readers and separates them from the competition. eg: There are a ton of indistinguishable comics and genre publishers flooding the market with sub-par books.

    I think your argument against branding is really more about “general interest trade publisher” being an unsustainable business model, though.

  6. Sarah Russo
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Not that I disagree that there are some publisher business model issues, but I do think that is a whole other argument. The business model is changing and keeping market share is key for all publishers. There are effective ways of keeping that market share and ineffective ways. Branding is just one piece of the puzzle but you’re right, it’s not a magic bullet.

    There is no shortage of books out there and ebooks are only going to make the glut more overwhelming. It would be nice to see publishers distinguish themselves in interactive ways to rise above the deluge.

  7. erincox
    Posted April 1, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I got some personal emails from publishers who agree and disagree with my argument. I think the most difficult part of the branding situation is whether or not we can change the WHOLE industry and the way we think about publishers and what they mean. Advertising for single titles is what authors and agents want and there’s only so much budget to go around. What works for one imprint doesn’t work for another. How to reach readers is different for genre vs. literary fiction or business books. My story was meant to ask publishers to think about what they can do to distinguish themselves.

  8. Posted April 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Well said Erin Cox. Thanks for reminding publishers again. Branding is essential for publishers now than ever before, with self publishing flooding the market, you need to create a niche.

7 Trackbacks

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