Branding: The Future of Publishing?

by Patrick on September 24, 2009

Bob Stein has written a very thoughtful and compelling post about the future of bookstores at if:book, the website for the Institute for the Future of the Book.  It's an excellent piece, so please click through to read it in its entirety, but I'll try to summarize a bit of it here.  His thesis is that, as technology evolves, the line between online and offline will become increasingly blurred.  Bookstores, in turn, must recognize this and create “a clean, well-lighted place for books,” a place that serves as a superior browsing experience, a gathering place for readers — both in the corporeal sense and through networked interaction, as well — and a place that offers expertise.  He's absolutely right about all of these things.  He correctly points out the difference between in-person shopping and online shopping (most online shoppers already know what they want, whereas in our physical store, I would bet we make more money from people buying books they never suspected they'd want).  In short, he gets a lot right.  Again, go read his post, as he says this all much more eloquently than I just did.

As somebody who works in a bookstore (as the internet guy, no less), I think about the future of our business quite a bit.  They aren't always happy thoughts.  For one thing, to do much of what Stein recommends doing would mean completely reinventing our business.  Some of the changes we could make, but some would be beyond our means — both physically and financially.  And you can bet they'd be beyond the means of most indie bookstores.  Of course, as is always the case when reinventing a business, most of these innovations would be easier for a brand new store to make.  Not coincidentally, there are quite a few new stores that are doing just that.

But today, I thought I'd talk a bit about something else Stein discusses in his post — how publishers might proceed in the future.  This is a hot topic today, but let's be honest — isn't it every day?  Every day, somebody has an idea of how publishing ought to be in the future.  Today, for instance, Seth Godin addressed the Digital Publishing Conference in New York, and, according to Ron Hogan's Twitter feed, said things like “What is it that publishers do for a living? It's not chopping down trees.”  and “What is book publishing doing right now that authors can't live without or accomplish on their own? Nothing.”  This understandably angers some people in publishing.  After all, do you like to be told you're not doing a good job?  But is he right about these things?

Let's take the first assertion, that their job is not cutting down trees.  I think this is probably correct, since the logging industry has more or less a stranglehold on the whole deforestation business (also, Christmas tree moguls).  What about the second assertion?  I don't think this one is exactly correct.  I keep coming back to three things that publishers do that no author can do no his or her own (I will make a numbered list, so that it's easier to read):

  1. Curatorial. If you write a novel, why should I read it?  If Knopf publishes it, or Two Dollar Radio publishes it, or Melville House publishes it, I will likely give it a shot.  Why?  Because somebody other than you — and somebody who reads a lot of fiction, no less — also says that it's good.  You cannot now, nor will you ever be able to, do this yourself.  The mechanism for how this happens might change, but credibility is also going to be key.  Oprah has enormous credibility for some people (not so much for me), but she can't help everyone.  A publishing house is still the safest route to credibility.
  2. Editorial. You know, editors really do improve books.  They don't just take out the typos (that's actually a different job altogether).  Like it or not, your book would benefit from some time with a good editor.  Hey, maybe your husband has mad editorial skillz, I don't know, but what I do know is that he isn't Daniel Menaker (unless you're married to him, but what are the odds).
  3. Sales. Cory Doctorow made this point, and I continue to think he's correct.  Godin probably disagrees, but the role that sales reps play in publishing is also grossly underrated. Certainly I can find out about books through the internet, etc., but a rep who knows what I like can make a big difference in breaking a new writer to our store.  Also, publishers bringing authors to booksellers in whatever way they can is very important.  How many books did Unbridled sell by introducing so many influential booksellers to Emily St. John Mandel at last year's Winter Institute?  I don't want to go too far afield here, because this could turn into a Miranda Priestly-esque rant on how Debbie Stier, Michiko Kakutani and Bookavore determine what you read, whether you know it or not.  Let's just say that Mandel is an author who is a very big hit among booksellers, and I'm willing to wager that it won't be long before that love trickles down to you, good reader.

But I'm digressing here from the original point of Stein's post.  He has a pretty great idea for publishers:  become a brand.  I've talked about this before, but many publishers, through the process of conglomeration, have lost much of their brand identity.  Stein has further thoughts on this:

Amazon, by doing its best to disconnect works from their publishers has nearly completed the deterioration of the value/meaning of publisher brands, a process that started with the rise of the big aggregator bookshops. In order to survive in the networked era, publishers will need to reverse this trend and forge much closer connections to their customers. this could call for a variety of solutions, including newly conceived publisher-owned, online-meatspace bookstores, or a re-imagining of the Foyles arrangement (now since abandoned) of shelving books according to publisher. [in high-end department stores, this is already the norm, with each maker having its own real estate on the shop floor.

This is a fascinating idea.  It wouldn't work in a general bookstore, at least not yet, as the average customer simply doesn't have an association with most publishers.  But it could work.  He later points out that many video store shelve the Criterion Collection DVDs in one shelf together, regardless of genre or filmmaker.  The same could be done for certain publishers right now.  The advantage here falls to the little guy, the indie and the upstart.  In the interest of ending this post on a positive note, here are five publishers bookstores could start shelving in their own little mini-sections right now:

  1. The New York Review of Books Classics. NYRB Classics are my most trusted publisher.  They publish high quality literature with no filler, and as a kicker, their books look great.  They'd look even better all together on a shelf.  Stories bookstore in Echo Park shelves some of these on their own shelf, as does Book Court in Brooklyn.  When I see displays of these books together, I have junkie-esque shaking fits.
  2. The Melville House Art of the Novella Series. These books look gorgeous together on a shelf.  My wife will now read just about any of these, as they aren't a huge time commitment, they look great and they've been right more often than not.  It's a nice brand they have going.
  3. Two Dollar Radio. TDR has a very strong brand, publishing adventurous fiction across a spectrum of ideas rather than genres.  They also understand the value of design, creating attractive books that look nice together in a set.  Not coincidentally, they offer subscription packages on their website.  They continue to be a model of how to start a small press and publish great stuff. In short, they don't compromise.
  4. Featherproof. Featherproof is, um, proof that you don't have to have all your books look the same to have a successful brand.  In fact, that's kind of the whole point of Featherproof:  “featherproof books is an indie publisher dedicated to doing whatever we want. This might take the form of publishing an idiosyncratic novel, design book, or something in between. We love paper, but we're not afraid of computers.” It does help, though, if all of your books look incredible.
  5. McSweeney's. Yeah, I know.  But, check out the incredibly robust section of McSweeney's books at a place like Skylight, and you'll see that they continue to have a cohesive brand that makes sense in a section.  They're probably the most recognizable small press in the business today.

There are plenty of other publishers making headway in creating or reinforcing great brands, but I think these are the furthest along in terms of cohesiveness.  Each of them publishes only what they think is quality, no filler books.  That's how you build trust.  Anyway, that's what I think, but what about you?  What publishers would make sense shelved on their own?  Could a large bookstore switch to publisher-based organization or would you hate that?