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?

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{ 12 trackbacks }

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{ 49 comments }

Ann Kingman 09.24.09 at 1:08 pm

I have many thoughts, but I want to sit back and wait for others to comment first. Still, a few bits of interest, from which I draw no conclusions whatsoever.

Do you remember Deliberate Literate, the Random House-only independent bookstore in Memphis? This was pre-Bertelsmann, so it was little Random, Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, Crown, and Ballantine. And I think they also carried John Grisham because every store had to at that point. It was owned by someone unaffiliated with RH — he was just a fan. I have no idea what happened to the store, but I know it no longer exists. It was an interesting experiment.

New England Mobile Bookfair in a Boston suburb still organizes most of the store by publisher. They have no computerized inventory system. There are a few display areas where publishers are mixed (new hardcover and trade paperback, etc.) but for the most part, it’s aisle upon aisle of books organized by publisher and imprint. Store customers know how to navigate Books in Print or other resources to determine a book’s publisher, so that they can find it. It’s fascinating! It’s an older warehouse-style store, and prices are discounted, so customers put up with the chaos. If you’re ever in Boston, it’s a place not to be missed.

Seth Godin 09.24.09 at 1:08 pm

Why bother giving a 90 minute talk when all I needed to do was tweet nine sentences…

I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate my talk on this basis, do you?

Emily W. 09.24.09 at 1:40 pm

A lot of European bookstores still shelve by publisher and I used to hate this when I lived in Spain. I think it makes the bookstore a more snobbish, intimidating place, one that only connoisseurs can navigate without guidance, where you’re forced to ask for help. I much prefer the generalist’s layout we favor here. As for branding for publishers, it makes sense for the small, specialized lists you mention above, and some very focused lists at big houses, but overall there are too many books, and too many imprints, to expect consumers to care and keep track of it all. I just don’t believe this is how we read. It’s a truism in the business that every book is its own unique product, which is what makes us different from, say, laundry detergent manufacturers. But it’s true. Readers care about authors, and what their friends like, and if you’re a really good bookseller (which it looks like you are – this is a great post) we’ll care about what you think too. But we have to be able to find you first, which will be the challenge going forward online.

Patrick 09.24.09 at 1:41 pm

Seth,
Firstly, no, it’s not fair. You’re right, I cherry-picked some stuff that Ron pulled out of your talk because it riled up the publishing folks on Twitter. I can’t wait to hear/read the full speech, as I’m sure it’s more nuanced (most of your stuff is). I included it here as I thought it illustrated a pretty dominant theme in publishing world discourse (It’s all broken, throw it out!), and since I was going to spend some of my post illustrating how I thought publishers ought to change, I felt like the tweets were relevant. Again, if the full text or video is going up, I’ll be the first to watch it and probably talk about it (admittedly, especially now).

Secondly, I think if you’ll go back and read some of the archives of this blog (which you may not have time to do and considering I quoted you secondhand through tweets, I can’t really blame you if you don’t), you’ll see that I’m actually probably in line with your thinking.

Anyway, thanks for the comment.

Patrick 09.24.09 at 2:01 pm

Ann,
Both of those sound like incredible stores. The Random House store idea is interesting, and that’s actually something Stein suggests in his original post. On the one hand, one could open a store and sell nothing but RH books and still have what I would call a general interest bookstore. I’ll admit that when I think of publisher-owned bookstores, I tend to think of the McSweeney’s stores or the Taschen stores. Never really considered whether a huge house like RH could do it, since I think the whole point is to be specialty. Do you happen to know why the Memphis store closed? Very interested.

Michelle Witte 09.24.09 at 2:04 pm

I think you’ve hit on a very important topic, especially for smaller independent publishers: branding. Despite the assertion that general readers don’t pay attention to who publishes a book, there are many who notice the continued quality of books from the same publisher and seek them out.

What makes a publisher stand out, then? Is it getting a great level of distribution? Yes, I think a great deal of it is, as you point out. Is it possessing large publicity budgets? Not necessarily, especially in this world of social media where anyone can be a ce-web-rity. Is it consistently producing quality books that people want to buy? Absolutely. In this case, content, package, and design is key, and in that publishers can stand out.

Ron Hogan 09.24.09 at 2:20 pm

I feel like some of the tweets you’ve cherry-picked are being taken out of context, and to some degree that’s my fault for trying to boil Seth’s talk down to 140-characters-or-less sound bites on the fly. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to fully convey the optimistic call-to-action embodied in his remarks through Twitter; I hope the video excerpt I shot and will be posting to GalleyCat will do better.

In particular, I should clarify one quote: “What is book publishing doing right now that authors can’t live without or accomplish on their own? Nothing.” In a fuller context, what I hear Seth saying is that many of the services publishers provide today–including but not limited to copyediting, distribution, and marketing–are available to authors through other channels, and “accomplish on their own” is a poorly reductive way of saying “accomplish on their own or get elsewhere.”

(The five houses you mention are all great houses, by the way, are great independent publishers… who I would argue understand precisely Seth’s argument that the future of publishing isn’t in acquiring one book after another and then trying to figure out who’s going to read them, but in attuning themselves to the wants and interests of a [however loosely organized] band of readers and asking, “What would they read?”)

I think you and Seth and Bob Stein probably ARE a lot closer philosophically than this.

Rich Rennicks 09.24.09 at 2:32 pm

Good thoughts. I’d add Persephone Books to your list. I actually saw a display of their books at Politics & Prose earlier this year. They look amazing together, and I haven’t read a dud, yet.

Cynthia Shearer 09.24.09 at 2:48 pm

This is not a new idea, and it’s worked in the past: Vintage Contemporaries, as originated by Fisketjon…I wrote my first book aspiring to crack that club. But even before that, publishers have always branded. Maybe what we need is a RETURN to publishing brands via standards rather than so much investment in branding only a few writers at such great cost. As I type this into my phone I’m sitting next to a shelf of books like Zola’s Nana, part of a luxe set brought out by my husband’s father for Macy’s, circa 1940′s.

Harriett 09.24.09 at 3:20 pm

Come to think of it, in vintage children’s books, I do shelve some things by publisher: Golden Press, Volland, Scribner’s Classics, Happy Hour, even North-South and Disney. You could even argue that the juvenile series books started out as a Straetemeyer Syndicate collection, and has morphed to include all the copiers and followers of that genre. That goes for Random House Beginner Books too, for which Seuss and RH created a whole new genre. But I think this theory appeals to the collector mindset, and is more easily adaptable to vintage & collectible books. Although I wouldn’t mind some more brandable publishing collections — come to think of it, I often have temporary displays of NYRB Classics children’s books. Ultimately, it’s another way of looking at niche marketing and genre classification, which is more of an active decision in the bookstore than you might think.

Henry Baum 09.24.09 at 3:27 pm

Hmmn, well can’t writers become brands as well, as so a writer/publisher could conceivably become a valuable brand? There’s no doubt that having the stamp of a publisher – whether it’s Random House or Two Dollar Radio – is useful, but they also have a narrow criteria (one is more interested in moneymakers, one doesn’t have bottomless reserves), so it’s tough to break through that door. The main thing publishers offer is distribution. You can hire an editor, but getting decent nationwide distribution is another matter. Now, when that’s fixed, all bets are off.

Ann Kingman 09.24.09 at 4:56 pm

OK, I’m back. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, for many, many months and through many heated but friendly debates with other publishing folks on twitter.

Publishers have already effectively branded themselves — to the bookstores, especially the buyers and owners. That ‘branding’ comes into play every day. It’s done through a recognition of publishers’ strenghts and weaknesses, and the added value they represent to the bookstore beyond the physical product. If publisher X is announcing a huge new writer that they say will make it big, the bookstore knows if publisher x usually gets it right, or if publisher x is full of bluster. And that plays into the buying decision. They know if they advertise publisher Y’s book in their newsletter, they will be able to get stock when they need it, versus publisher Z who always runs out of books just when the reviews hit. Much of that branding comes from the people involved at the publisher – the sales rep, the editor, the publicist, etc.

So it irritates me when people say that ‘publishers can’t be branded,’ and that ‘customers won’t care.’ I don’t think it’s true, but I think the branding isn’t as straightforward and cut-and-dried as your typical consumer product. Publisher’s can’t splash their name on billboards and stadiums and expect it to mean anything. But, like you and the other commenters above have pointed out, it *can* be done. With social media, many of the messages can be spread more easily and to more targeted niches than ever before.

Consistency, focus, and added value can go a long way in branding to the consumer. Some decry the gazillions of imprints that exist, but that’s because many have lost their focus. An imprint geared to reading groups, marked by inclusion of reading group guides and added material in the back of the book, is much easier to brand if it is only reading group books (there’s Shatzkin and his argument about “verticals”).

But can it go farther? Can a publisher create a consistent online experience that surpasses the covers of the book, but makes that publisher’s products more desirable? What other added value propositions can publishers offer? Packaging is key, both art and quality of the production. High quality acid-free paper for literary works vs. use of cheaper, disposable groundwood paper would likely appeal to a part of the book buying population. Some publishers are doing this — but are they telling people?

I’ll stop taking over your comments section now, sorry. I think you are right to be thinking about brand, both bookstore and publisher. I hope others do more thinking along these lines as well.

(p.s. I have no idea what happened with Deliberate Literate. Maybe someone who knows will read this and fill us in).

Stephen 09.24.09 at 6:27 pm

I work for a literary publisher that is currently dealing, in its own way, with the issue of “branding.” In some ways, the discussion we’re having comes down to the look of a set of books. Our publisher is a great fan of the simple, no frills designs of Gallimard or P.O.L editions. (See here for an example of a Gallimard cover.) On the other side, I think that the simplicity of a cover like the one above is ingenious and, well, cheap, but makes a hard sell an even harder sell.

What scares me about the hot topic of branding is that it seems in some ways to be a diversion from the content of literature. All of this talk about the “look” of books sounds suspiciously like we’re talking about the emperor’s clothes. I realize we’re really talking about making visible a publisher’s aesthetic, but how often do book covers convey what is inside of them?

I find a lot of this talk of finding an identity is somewhat counterproductive. Publishing is not teetering on the brink of the abyss because publishers don’t know how to market their books; it’s teetering because somewhere along the line publishers got this crazy idea that they can make a lot of money on books. It doesn’t work that way!

GL 09.24.09 at 7:18 pm

I wish you could search by publisher on bookstore websites. Amazon, for example, has links to see other books by the author, but not the publisher. (I don’t think the search on Vroman’s does this either.) It would be a nice feature so you could see other books from that brand.

Emily Pullen, Skylight Books 09.24.09 at 7:29 pm

Another great post, Patrick! I recently visited our WeHo indie cousin Book Soup, and they had 2 sections shelved by publisher: NYRB Classics and Europa (complete with a buy 4 get one free deal). The Europa books were even shelved by color . In terms of junkie-esque shaking fits, be forewarned.

I go back and forth on whether general customers seem to CARE about what publisher a book comes from — I notice these things as a bookseller and eagerly snatch up certain catalogs to type because I know they’ll have interesting stuff, but that’s because books are the water I swim in.

I’m inclined to think that customers don’t notice, but then wonderful exceptions to that rule pop up. At Skylight, we have a monthly salon to feature small publishers that our staff members like, and they’re almost always well attended — by people to have come to trust our taste (much as we’ve come to trust the taste of certain publishers or imprints). I also lead a book club at the store and I always try to steer them toward choosing books from presses I like. Last month, we had a great discussion about Benjamin Parzybok’s COUCH from Small Beer Press. I told them about the other interesting stuff Small Beer puts out and how COUCH compares. One member said that she loves how I always share publisher tidbits about our selected books because reviews and friends rarely do. Finally, we almost always sell the Oxford Very Short Introduction titles in twos or threes, either as a result of successful branding, a unified display, or a combination of the two.

I suppose I’m also inclined to inflate the indie bookseller’s role in this whole business, but I think that they are really the ones who are going to notice a publisher brand and bring that awareness to their customers. Incentives (read: larger discounts) to promote a particularly well-developed publisher brand could go a long way, but it has to be something different than just another pre-packed cardboard floor display. I’m so over those. There is certainly room for publishers to develop their brands online as well, but I honestly think that it is harder to cut through the cultural static there than it is to reach someone through well-designed and consistently high-quality books.

And finally, I think that we booksellers and publishers must remember that we are gears that work together in this business, counterparts rather than direct competitors. And we can develop our own brands without stepping on each others’ toes.

Jane Friedman 09.25.09 at 2:25 am

I wonder if packaging/art/production quality will matter if e-books/digitization become 50% of the market, as some predict could happen within 3-5 years.

Also doubtful that the strong brand/relationship between bookstores and publishers is that meaningful. Everything I read, everything I see in the business shows more control going to readers and opinionmakers, not the bookstore-publisher relationship. (In this, I agree completely with Emily W. above.)

daniel menaker 09.25.09 at 5:10 am

My wife is married to Daniel Menaker, and I bet if you asked her she would be glad to forego his alleged editorial skilz if he would wash the dishes from time to time.
Thankz for the shout-out, in what is generally an excellent, sober but sanely hopeful post.
–Dan Menaker

Lesley 09.25.09 at 5:56 am

So funny to see The Deliberate Literate mentioned here…I know several people who worked there, all of whom had a love of books. It was a great little store.

It was sold to an employee in 2003 who expanded the title selection beyond RH but primarily focused on the cafe. It really became more of a cafe that sold books, from what I understand. As such, it suffered the fate of many restaurants and closed sometime in 2006 or early 2007, I think.

Stephanie Oda 09.25.09 at 7:09 am

The only brand that counts is the one created by the author. Consumers couldn’t care less about the publisher. Even the mainstream media, when mentioning a book, often fail to say who the publisher is, which drives me crazy. Ever hear Oprah say “I just read this wonderful Random House book”?

The idea of branding by publisher has been around since the word “branding” entered the lexicon about 15 years ago. It may work in a mild way for, say, collections of classics that look nice on a shelf, but this is a relatively small chunk of the business.

Stephanie Oda

conan the grammarian 09.25.09 at 7:28 am

The Great One didn’t *really* just misspell “forgo,” did he? SDIUOS (Sleep Deprivation-Induced Unorthodox Orthography Syndrome) strikes again!

Maire 09.25.09 at 7:56 am

My favorite bookstore in Chicago, Unabridged, shelves all the NYRB together. They also have separate shelves for all of the Penguin Classics, the Modern Library Classics, the Melville House Novellas (love those), and even that specific imprint of HarperCollins with the cool looking short story covers (http://www.fiftytwostories.com/). I LOVE that they do that.

Getting back to the original point, I definitely think that branding could help publishers. I’ve always found it odd that large publishing houses have dozens of imprints, all of which presumably have some in-house distinction of which imprint publishes which “kind” of book, but all of that is totally invisible to the consumer.

Patrick 09.25.09 at 8:38 am

@Henry,
Of course writers can become their own brands. In fact, Stein argues that this is what publishers have decided to do in lieu of branding themselves. Doubleday will do just fine with the Dan Brown brand, but I would argue that the other authors on their list could be better served by a stronger publisher brand. The whole idea of a publisher brand — and one of the things that self-publishing lacks at the moment — is a kind of praise by association. If you’re on the same imprint as Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith or Haruki Murakami or whichever author you think is a genius, that ought to help you. At the moment, I don’t know that it is.

And to respond to several comments suggesting that readers don’t care or know about who published a book, I completely agree. I’m merely suggesting that a path to success could be reasserting the publishing company as a brand. How else to break in a new writer? Or give a chance to a difficult book? I think this is one of the potential pitfalls of our user-aggregated future: that work that isn’t instantly appealing might not get a fair chance. There are other ways to evaluate worth than just popularity, and while obviously a publisher will sell more of the instantly appealing books, I think there has to be a place for the books whose worth reveals itself over time. You probably can’t get rich publishing those books, but I’m convinced you can make a living at it. And in a world where authors, as Seth Godin has pointed out, don’t need publishers for distribution or even, maybe, for marketing, this is an area where a publisher can add value. Whether they can all do it or whether they all should remains to be seen.

Jon 09.25.09 at 9:26 am

Fascinating post. As one who does pay attention to imprints but who has for a long time been involved with the publishing and bookselling industry, I’ve often wondered myself if the “average” reader notices brands. I think these days I would lean toward yes, though with a note that building a brand identity that people will actually notice isn’t easy, nor of course is finding an author who will necessarily become a best-selling author or brand. I think of who are also publishers, such as City Lights–people travel to the store as a tourist spot; people notice that something is a City Lights book. I think of Harlequin romances, which some people buy simply based on the brand. I think of McSweeney’s as noted in the article, whose nearly every book one friend of mine–who isn’t a wide reader otherwise–purchases. I think of the now defunct Black Sparrow, whose unique designs and few famous authors helped propel the rest of the list to an extent. Continuum’s 33 1/3 series seems to have gained notice among many of music-fan associates here in town. Most people won’t necessarily buy every book a brand sells, but that the book is branded with a given imprint does mean something. That said, most brands seem to have limited audience appeal, perhaps because most brands have been aimed at niche audiences. Beyond that, once the brand begins carrying hundreds of titles, the books end up competing with one another. Who could afford, for example, to purchase every Vintage Contemporary? But at least one might consider such an unknown author under that imprint before one considers another unknown author.

AM 09.25.09 at 9:46 am

GL–You can search Amazon by publisher if you use the advance search feature and just enter a publisher then search.

Ryan Chapman 09.25.09 at 9:58 am

Thinking about Jane’s comment about the possible decline of packaging with the rise of ebooks, and the branding question in particular: I wonder if instead of branding by house, we brand by editor. List the editor’s name in all your metadata and on the spine, like those senior editors with their own imprints.

It wasn’t until I worked at Macmillan that I realized I’d been reading an FSG editor’s list for 10+ years! That would be handy knowledge every time I’m browsing in a bookstore. (I fully concede this would be a shelving nightmare.)

Patrick 09.25.09 at 10:08 am

Ryan,
This is a great idea, and something I’ve kicked around a bit on my own, too. Apropos of that, did you see this post on GalleyCat today?

Seth Godin basically makes that exact point, that the way to sell literary fiction in the future is to have the editor be the public leader. To an extent, the music industry has done this with producers (particularly hip-hop, where producers often rise to the level of celebrity, such as Timberland). I’ve never understood why the big houses don’t do more of this. If I were Little, Brown, I would be trying to make Michael Pietsch a household name. It can only help sell books. The only thing I can think of is that these editors are already overworked and asked to do a lot more than they were five years ago or ten years ago, they might simply not have the time (Bob Miller made the comment that the future was “more work for fewer people.”). Either that or a reticence on the part of editors to be seen as salesmen (a reticence that many authors will need to overcome in the near future). Anyway, thanks for the comment.

Sarah McCoy 09.25.09 at 10:17 am

Halleluiah, Patrick! A worthy post and riveting discussion. Being a debut author of a large publishing house imprint, my perspective is admittedly naïve but honest. You recently commented that perhaps we’re living in a world where authors may not need publishers for distribution or even marketing. That has not been my experience. As an author breaking into the literary scene, my publisher is just about my best friend.

My publisher, editor, marketing director and publicist weekly work to help me “brand” myself and, indeed, their imprint. Their goal is to distinguish my name and book(s) from the millions. Yes, it’s equally self-serving. I want to succeed and build my readership. They want to succeed and build theirs. The more they brand me, the more their brand grows. It’s a process benefitting everyone. This as been my observation, but I suppose not all publishers are created equal.

In your original post, you wrote that expecting readers to differentiate by publishers in a general bookstore wouldn’t presently work. I agree. The average readers walks into a bookstore and abides by the rules: Books are commonly arranged by author’s last name. We can’t ask readers to adhere to new guidelines when the game board is the same.

Personally, my publisher’s insignia is more than a mark of publication. It’s a quality seal of which I am tremendously proud. Beyond the art designs, typescripts and covers, true readers distinguish writing style and content, and will purchase accordingly. The goal of the publishing house should be to publish authors that rise to their standard of excellence. Only caliber stands the test of time, flashy ad campaigns, bookshelf distribution, and e-Books.

Going forward, I thought Ann Kingman’s question an excellent one: “Can a publisher create a consistent online experience that surpasses the covers of the book, but makes that publisher’s product more desirable?” I think it starts with how readers judge the works in each publisher’s portfolio. I’ll be interested to watch the digital book world take shape, and most importantly, the industry’s hand in it.

Theresa M. Moore 09.25.09 at 10:23 am

The issue of branding for us (me) was always the sticking point between the brand and the books. When we were Ikthalion Press we were branded but not seen in bookstores. Now that we are Antellus, our presence is only confined to the web and maybe Amazon. We would like to reach bookstores like Vroman’s but we are blocked by many factors, among which is that our supply chain depends on print on demand. We offer a returnable policy but our printer does not. But I think that the customer doesn’t care about which publisher printed the book, only its price and quality, so in our case branding seems to be superfluous. We concentrate only on promoting our books, with less emphasis on brand.

Placing books according to publisher will not sell the books any faster. People are already conditioned by the presence of genre sections, so they will not be willing to distinguish their book buying tastes by publisher brand.

Hans Weyandt 09.25.09 at 10:59 am

At the store I work at we have a dedicated NYRB wall and sell an awful lot of the series. We have a couple customers who have been reading almost exclusively from it for a few years.

I think for small stores where the staff can keep the inventory straight in their heads it makes all the sense in the world to have small focused sections not just based on topic.

By publisher is one way to do this.

Jennifer Roth 09.25.09 at 12:58 pm

I recently moved and, when reshelving my books at home, decided to arrange all the classics by their series. There’s the Oxford World’s Classics section, the Penguin Classics section, Barnes & Noble Classics… The trick to these is that they all have a very specific, recognizable look. The uniform treatment works especially well with classics, as customers are already looking for something old and familiar–but perhaps it could work with new books too, if they’re branded correctly. Then again, there’s always something enticing about that one book that looks completely unlike the others; you have to pick it up and touch it.

Jason Smith 09.25.09 at 2:38 pm

I agree with everyone’s suggestions of presses that have done a great job of branding themselves, but I think there are a myriad of other presses that have done so as well. In our store, the most asked for press is definitely Triple Crown Publications. In fact, I think they’re so successful that they run the risk of one day becoming a proprietary eponym like Kleenex of Xerox. In the future, it’s possible that when people say Triple Crown they may actually just mean urban African American fiction in general. Osprey would be second on my list of presses that customers are constantly coming in, asking for and expecting them to be shelved together. DK Eyewitness books would be another one. And I would say that I can’t think of a travel publisher that hasn’t done a good job of branding themselves to customers and instilling fierce loyalty. I wouldn’t recommend trying to sell a Lonely Planet to a regular Fodor’s buyer or vice versa.

Someone mentioned Black Sparrow and I think you could add Grove in the 60s or New Directions as presses that people used to trust implicitly. Even if you’d never heard of the author, you trusted John Martin or Barney Rosset or James Laughlin enough to buy the books they believed in. I think Dalkey Archives serves that purpose nowadays. Though our store doesn’t shelve them together, we have plenty of customers that scour our shelves to find them. Soho Press’ mysteries would be another press that isn’t shelved together, but they have a consistency of design and quality, so that many customers work their way through their entire list. Taschen is another press that is often shelved together or put in stacks together that people turn to and ask for. And we shouldn’t forget political presses on both sides of the spectrum that have done a good job of branding themselves.

There are certainly classic lines like Penguin, Norton Critical editions that have done an excellent judge of capturing customer’s attention, so that they ask for them. It’s branding that Bantam classics or Signet Classics have never been able to do. Dover, Library of America and Everyman’s Library are three presses that we shelve together. Though there are only a few bookstores in the country that have a large selection, I certainly always smile when I walk in a store that has a full line from the Loeb Library looking at me in their green and red dust jackets.

For me, I look at the hurt market as the easiest way to judge a press by its consumer appeal. If I told most customers that I’d just bought a Harper skid or a Simon skid, they wouldn’t have any idea what I was talking about, but when I tell them I just bought an Abrams skid or a Phaidon skid, they get excited.

Dan Wickett 09.25.09 at 4:24 pm

It’s interesting how quickly the branding idea spun into the appearance of the books; it’s great to see near the end of this thread how it got back to the editors. I love Patrick’s five choices and think there are certainly others right there or right behind those. One that always pops into my head is Unbridled Books. Their books don’t all necessarily look like they were designed by the same person, but the insides, the writing, it’s obvious to me having read a great many books published by MacMurray & Beck, BlueHen Books, and now Unbridled Books that the two men that acquired the words inside those covers, that edited them, and brought them into the world had to be Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson. To me, that’s what a publisher branding is all about. I don’t read everything Random House puts out but I’ll read any book I find out is edited by Gary Fisketjon.

It’s certainly a plus when you can line the books up on a shelf and say, yep, these belong to the same group, but as a reader, when I find an editor I trust and can keep going back and back again and again? That’s when I’ve found a brand that I will support and take a flyer on any time I see something new.

Barbara Fister 09.25.09 at 4:26 pm

Shopping at Foyles used to drive me nuts. It seemed the most user-unfriendly shelving arrangement known to civilization. To find books on similar topics you had to browse all over the place. I assumed they just didn’t like readers and found it easier to shelve that way.

One problem with the author as brand and the publisher as brand, too, is that authors and publishers frequently get divorced. Whose brand is important to the reader then? Just sayin’

Will Entrekin 09.25.09 at 5:35 pm

First, good post, and truly excellent discussion.

Mostly on branding–
“I’m merely suggesting that a path to success could be reasserting the publishing company as a brand. How else to break in a new writer?”

Isn’t the whole point nowadays, or at least the one drilled into the heads of aspiring authors searching for agents/publishers, that new writers pretty much must use Twitter, Facebook, and blogging to establish a readership/platform/brand before they can even consider querying anyone? Over in her agency’s blog, Rachelle Gardner began a discussion, based on a Washington Post article about a writer who had taken her marketing into her own hands, about writers’ taking their marketing into their own hands. A few comments there joked that the day and age of a writer finding success by publishing a single good book and then going totally Salinger is pretty much over.

That aside, the idea of credibility by association (like by publisher) is good, but isn’t the Internet already basically doing that? There is very little in the way of vacuum anymore; so much occurs in a space to which so many contribute, as is evident in this very post, where writers and thinkers and marketers and publishers and bookshop owners have all begun a new discussion and can talk to each other. Is the fact that an editor acquired a title the only thing that can confer credibility, or can you follow links to writers’ blog/Twitter feed/Amazon link and decide for yourself whether you like their writing?

I’m not advocating for doing away with editors or publishing, I should note. I think I’m probably just noting that the way we talk, discuss, and read has been changed by the Internet (I probably can’t say anything more obvious than that. Sorry), but also that one thing the Internet has done is increase not just our ability to use tools but also the tools to which we have access. You note, Patrick, that self-publishing lacks praise by association and thus has a weak publishing brand (and I really don’t think I’d argue with that), but many posts here have mentioned McSweeney’s without noting the ways that publisher has changed the landscape, especially since Dave Eggers runs McSweeney’s, which publishes Dave Eggers’ novels. It’s an interesting relationship. Of course, Eggers had already achieved notoriety by way of Might magazine and then by way of A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, but isn’t McSweeney’s reputation tied inextricably to Eggers, and vice-versa? I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone call Eggers a self-published novelist, and I’m not arguing he is, but certainly it’s an interesting relationship between publisher and writer when the two are basically the same. Does Eggers have an editor, considering he’s the editor of McSweeney’s?

Also, to echo Ann Kingman’s comment above, the end-user is an important consideration. Readers don’t care who publishes what book, but actual booksellers do. So maybe the answer is that publishers are good brands for booksellers but writers are good brands for readers. When writer can reach readers directly, as they’re beginning to, publishers and booksellers begin to mean less. What reader cares whether they buy a book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble? Which also leads forward to the idea that publishers who want to survive must build an experience more than the books they sell, and so must booksellers.

Finally, Timberland is a brand of shoe and apparel. The hip hop producer is Timbaland. Who built his commercial name more through collaboration than production; his first mainstream exposure was his CD with Magoo in the mid-90s, and then he took some high-visibility jobs with Aaliyah, whose videos he appeared in.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 09.25.09 at 6:42 pm

The “editor as Timbaland” angle typically misses a key point: no record label propped him up; he built his own brand via a signature style and has profited very nicely from it. If editors want that kind of recognition, and success, they should do as Godin implied — and as all writers are expected to do these days — and get out there and do it for themselves.

There are many successful publishing “brands” doing the right thing, curating great books for a specific community of readers, several already noted, and I have to credit Richard Nash for having the guts to take the kind of leap so many dream about.

Publishing needs more doers like him and less talkers like Godin, honestly.

PS: Great, thought-provoking post. Thanks!

Curt Jarrell 09.25.09 at 9:08 pm

Branding does work for focused lists. Indie stores have set up Penguin boutiques in their shops. I have customers who regularly shop for the latest Library of America titles which I try to feature along with relavant titles. To a lesser extent Vintage Classics and Modern Library paperbacks are distinctive brands though they’ve been diluted in recent years by all the Random House cutbacks. And for romance readers Avon is still a big draw for readers who enjoy these entertainments.

Kim 09.25.09 at 9:30 pm

I think you have a valid point. I am much more likely to take a chance on a book by Europa or NYRB than any other imprint because they have never failed me. If I’m reading a classic, I head for Penguin every time and don’t care that Signet would cost less, the difference in the reading experience far surpasses any cost savings.

In my view, even more importantly if I found an editor I trusted I would buy every book he or she put out. In the last three years I’ve read so many books that I thought were good but had the potential to be so much better if with either a stronger editor or an author who trusted her editor.

I’m going to look at the publishers recommended in the comments, but would love to hear about recommended editors.

Patrick 09.26.09 at 10:21 am

Damn! Felled once again by my inadequate knowledge of hip-hop. I knew I should’ve googled Timbaland. (And your comments, as well as Guy’s are well-taken. Whenever I make an analogy between the music and the publishing businesses, I tend to overlook some of the key differences. This is a big problem with the way people like Chris Anderson talk about changing compensation for writers. There’s simply no equivalent to the touring musician in the book world. But that’s a conversation for a different day. Thanks again for the comments.)

Tosh Berman 09.26.09 at 6:23 pm

Hi Patrick,

I think of publishers as great record labels, like Motown, Factory, early Atlantic, and Rough Trade among others. The one’s you listed above are great presses with great editors. Also I want to add that Book Soup has a NYRB section for the last four or five months and it moves like crazy in the store. Also we have been featuring particular cool publishing houses : Melville, Europa, New Directions and Dalkey Archive. All of these presses are superb. Oh yeah and of course TamTam Books…… But that’s another story.

Cheers,
Tosh

Anne Marshall 09.28.09 at 2:52 am

Our publishing company is different so difficult to rightly compare. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is an established branding within the entertainment business – museums, tv shows, newspaper cartoon syndication, etc., much like Disney and other brands. We have been publishing books for the last seven years and always use our branding, very much to our advantage. We have numerous discussions on the size of the branding on the front cover spine etc. and always end up making it prominent. It sells our books and makes them stand out from others out there on the market. Random House distribute our books in the UK and are very happy to keep the Ripley branding prominent and again benefit from it. We are about to launch a new paperback fiction series for young readers and again had a discussion about branding them as Ripley (e.g. by default the author) or adding a pseudonym to all the books. The decision was to retain the Ripley branding since again we felt it would work very much to our advantage.

I understand that Ripley exists as not so much a publisher but a previous successful entity on its own. But whatever, it certainly helps to sell books. So I think a lot depends on the status of the publisher and its perception in the public arena – it can be used really positively when the perceived value and genre is clear.

Rachel Starr Thomson 09.28.09 at 5:45 am

Stephanie Oda said, “Consumers couldn’t care less about the publisher.” I disagree. As a reader within certain genres, I do notice the publisher. I read a lot of Christian-based fantasy and have taken note that much of the best is coming from WaterBrook; I already pay more attention a book if their name and logo is on the spine.

In the changing face of publishing, the role of gatekeeper is one of the most important, as noted in this post: a publisher gives an author automatic credibility. I’m very aware that my independently published books have a fight for credibility on their hands that has nothing to do with the quality of the writing; everything to do with who published it. The more publishers can play up that role, forming a relationship with readers who like what they publish, the better.

Drew Goodman 09.28.09 at 1:03 pm

I think most publishers already realize they are a brand, their problem, is how little they strive to drive that brand to the end customer, the reader. Many publishers understand the value of their brand to the bookstore buyer. As a buyer/manager, I am more inclined to purchase books from publishers who have established their brand with me as purveyors of good books, whether that is Random House or Unbridled Books. I will, for example, buy nearly anything from Unbridled not because of an author’s name, but because they have clearly demonstrated to me their value as a publishing house in selecting quality authors and producing quality books.

Think about this- who are the houses that publish Stephen King, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, Cormac McCarthy, or Margaret Atwood? As a buyer, I could tell you, with a moment or two of thought, who publishes each of them, but I doubt many of their readers could tell you without looking at the book. In these cases, the author has become the brand, and the publisher has become irrelevant to the reader. If the publishers were to make an effort to grab the attention of readers as to who they are, they could then market the idea that “We publish Jodi Picoult, and here are some other great authors WE publish that you may like.” People may seek the brands as well as individual authors.

If publishers could learn to drive themselves as a brand, alongside the authors they publish, they 1) might establish themselves as a sought after commodity, 2) increase the marketability of mid-list authors and backlist titles, 3) and, therefore, generate more sales.

Adam Robinson 09.28.09 at 1:14 pm

This is a great angle to approach the ways that publishing is changing. I especially like that it’s turning the focus onto the relationship between bookstores and publishers rather than publishers and the Internet. The web is a good tool for getting a brand enforced, but ultimately nothing fosters a culture of literature like a great bookstore. I forgot about this until I spent an hour at one (Normals, in Baltimore) for the first time in forever.

Adam Robinson 09.28.09 at 1:15 pm

Also, Featherproof rules the, uh, roost.

Alessandro Cima 09.28.09 at 2:45 pm

I don’t know about shelving by publisher. I love to browse. But I could see myself quickly getting tired of having to go to fourteen different parts of the store to find Literature/Fiction.

For me, as a store browser, I would say that small publisher displays or compact shelf units might make the best sense. But if I had to figure out who was publishing Thomas Pynchon’s latest and then go there to the ‘P’ section and then somewhere else to get another publisher’s ‘B’ section, I think I’d lose my mind and cause some sort of bookstore disturbance!

But if you fed me and I could stay a while, well then everything would probably be alright regardless of how the store was organized.

Chris Grimm 09.29.09 at 7:12 am

Agree almost completely with Stephanie. There is virtually no publisher brand-resonance in the marketplace, nor will there be.

Zagat, FalconGuides , Fodor – those are viable brands because the comparative uniformity of the product.

I used to think that the Knopf brand helped sell books – but because of the breadth of a trade list, I no longer believe that at all.

In the trade book world, the author is the brand.

Tim Brandhorst 10.03.09 at 4:13 am

This post and many of the comments above fit hand-in-glove with the ideas laid out by Mike Shatzkin in his “shift” speech at BEA this year: imprints must become more vertical to reflect the wants/needs of niche online communities. Branding won’t be as much about consistency of cover design (where the conversation usually begins and ends today at many publishing houses) as about editorial consistency.

Text of Shatzkin’s speech: http://www.idealog.com/stay-ahead-of-the-shift-what-publishers-can-do-to-flourish-in-a-community-centric-web-world

Richard 10.06.09 at 1:45 pm

Readers/consumers should brand themselves too. Branding is great for everyone. Years ago, on a northeastern Wyoming cattle ranch, I once branded calves. Most of them ended up being bought as Quarter Pounders, so branding works!

susie 10.10.09 at 12:04 pm

I agree with Tosh when he says good publishers are like good record labels–or good directors, fashion designers, curators, etc. The idea applies to taste in every kind of media, not just books. If an editor or publisher are making products that are consistently awesome, observant people will take note.

I will categorically pick up any New Directions book I find at a used bookstore, whether I recognize the author or not. If you’re a reader and you scan your bookshelves, I bet you’ll find a trend of publishers; it’s just something that sorts itself out, whether you’re aware of it or not.

These days, it seems like the super huge houses like Random House, Simon and Schuster, and esp. St. Martins have become so obsessed with publicity and hype, the Today Show, and Oprah that the brand is really irrelevant. But, then there’s always FSG, Vintage, Picador, and Norton, who’re all pretty ace.

So maybe it’s an issue of scale. Family Books in LA, McSweeney’s in SF, Graywolf in Mnpls, and Archipelago in NY all have amazing brands. So what if the indie booksellers organized by publisher? Not everything, necessarily, but in some cases, using their good judgment? That’s a nod to publishers who’re doing their job well, and an asset to their customers.

Just like Sublime Frequencies, Luaka Bop, or Rough Trade compilations, I’d welcome a collection of picks from particular publishers, all in one place. Bring it on.

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