By James P. Othmer
MAHOPAC, NEW YORK: Writing this sentence is a brazen, deliberate and irrevocable act of branding.
Trust me, before it (and all subsequent vowels and consonants below) was written, it was parsed, focus-grouped and post-mortemed by twelve angry, bookish consumers on the shiny side of a two-way mirror in Teaneck, New Jersey. To wit, they were asked:
Will it harm or enhance the author’s reputation?
Does the author have even have a reputation?
On one hand, wouldn’t writing so blatantly about commerce — comparing art, a book or an author to a brand! — alienate him from the high-brow MacArthur Fellowship club to which he aspires, not to mention put him at the top of Naomi Klein’s black list?
Yet on the other, his latest book is about the past, present and future of the advertising business to which he briefly (20 years is brief in the grand scheme of things) sold his soul. So it sort of makes sense, right?
This is all being shared, of course, in the spirit of the bane and beauty of 21st century social media branding: transparency.
So, as the author of the forthcoming book Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet (published in September by Doubleday in the US) when asked by Publishing Perspectives to share my thoughts about branding books, authors, publishers and booksellers, here’s what the marketing team behind “Brand Me” is allowing me to say.
AUTHORS: I recommend first taking the David Littell/John Updike Test…
Ask yourself the following: Have I recently signed a multi-million dollar contract? Do I have a five-decade legacy of literary success?
If you answer “yes” to either of the above, or if you’re independently wealthy, or fully embracing the starving artist life, it is perfectly acceptable to say “The promoting of one’s books is beneath me,” and/or “That is not my job. It is the job of my publisher.” For emphasis, you can even jab your finger at the full page New York Times ad with the picture of you pensively considering the universe.
If you answered “no,” I look forward to reading your witty and substantive blog, seeing your provocative and original trailer on Youtube, and watching your smart and entertaining Twitter posts appear with bold frequency and continued relevance as pub date approaches. I hear writing essays isn’t a bad idea, either.
PUBLISHERS: If Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken are featured on consecutive spreads in your seasonal catalog, the concept of promoting your company to the general public as one that stands for a certain unified sensibility is not recommended. Same applies to publishers of William Vollmann and Danielle Steel. It will just confuse us. However, if your imprint only publishes books about religion, specific subgenres of sex, superheroes, ornithology or really good fiction, you are indeed special. Embrace that which makes you special and take it to the branding hilt.
However, there is a place for the mainstream publisher of Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney to promote its brand and that is to the people who sell their books. People for whom it’s important to know that if it’s a Widget Press book, it will be of a certain production, promotion and content standard, it will be published with passion and originality and backed by a knowledgeable, diligent and conscientious sales force. Then go ahead and carry through on that.
Also, publishers, feel free to Tweet. Just remember that a litany of 140 character posts that say Buy this hot/sexy/hilarious/depressing new book is not the best way to engage humans and build a loyal following. Tell us something interesting about something other than your product. Or at least sell your brand more provocatively. What celeb just walked out of which senior editor’s office. Who’s sleeping with whom in marketing? If gossip is not your thing, think of your home page as a content channel for essays, industry (but not only yours) news, jokes, entertainment and videos, and think of Twitter as a way to steer people there.
BOOKSELLERS: You may get branding better than anyone in publishing.
Independent booksellers realize that their store is their brand. The way it’s decorated. The music they play. The way in which the titles on the front table or Website are curated. The way they use Twitter to share information about what’s selling, what’s going on in the industry and even which author is saying what in their store at this very second. They realize that simply saying “come shop here” isn’t enough.
One of my favorite pieces of bookstore branding is for a store that hasn’t even opened yet, 60 miles from my home, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It’s for Greenlight Bookstore. For several months the owners have been giving Twitter and Facebook updates about their endeavor — the admirable and brave opening of an Indie in this market — including architectural drawings and construction updates about things like sheetrock and insulation. Even though they probably don’t think of it this way, it’s branding. Because of the compelling nature of their story, and the transparent way in which they’re sharing it, I’m following and rooting for them.
As well as for anyone who realizes that the best form of branding is to do it truly and authentically, and to tell a story that people actually want to hear and become a part of. In other words, be your own focus group.
CONTACT: Othmer directly
READ: Othmer’s blog about his book
INTERESTED: In foreign rights, contact Courtney Gatewood at The Gernert Company (click the link at left).