Thursday, March 31, 2005

Fiction's Top 20 villains (and Anti-Heroes)

A week ago my friend Mike alerted me to an article that ran in the Guardian (UK) about how Waterstone's (a book retail chain in the UK) had generated a list of Literature's Top 20 villains and Anti-Heroes. Now anytime you attempt to order the top 20 of anything as subjective as this, your most likely achievement is, first and foremost, to make an ass of yourself. That's all well and fine for me as long as you stick to the fundamental criteria of your ranking system.

My problem with the Waterstone list is not so much in the titles they chose, but in the basic criteria they used to construct their list. Now keep in mind that this list was generated by a bookseller, one who presumably has read A LOT of books. Am I to assume that this body of book knowledge couldn't come up with a list of ONLY 20 villains or ONLY 20 anti-heroes? Is the literary world so full of likeable protagonists that we have to lump villains and anti-heroes together into a single "bad" category?

Sure, I can hear the arguments arising already - it could be difficult to draw a clear distinction between a real villain and an anti-hero in some instances - but when you look at the Waterstone's list, it's hardly a fine line to walk.

They start off the list very well with The Master and Margarita, Perfume (one of my favorite books), and Lord of the Flies. Coming in at #4 is a shocker: Fight Club! Some might argue that Tyler Durden is an anti-hero, but in fact he fits the very definition of antagonist even if he happens to physically be the protagonist as well. What should really be the cause of argument here is how the hell did Fight Club make it to #4? I love Chuck Palahniuk as much as anyone, but #4? Above Lolita? Above American Psycho? No way!

A Clockwork Orange ranks at #5, and I have no problem with that, but at #6 is Schindler's List. Who's the villain? Hitler? No, he's not a main character in this one. I realize Oskar Schindler had some character flaws, but #6 on the top 20 novels featuring the best villains? What an insult to great villains!

Okay, so I won't bore you with my analysis of the whole list, but I should note that Lolita at #10 and American Psycho at #14 are ridiculous, as they should both be in the top 5. Additionally, The Great Gatsby at #15 ("he gives Patrick Bateman a run for his money" - WHAT?) and The Catcher in the Rye at #17 are just absurd in the context of villainy! But the worst (well, maybe along with Catcher in the Rye as the worst) has to be #19: On the Road. Waterstone's explanation for this choice, "Two anti-heroes for the price of one in this classic of the Beat generation." And to think they passed over Crime and Punishment for that. Those wacky Brits! How degenerate to be unemployed and go on a roadtrip!

Monday, March 28, 2005

Business People Are Extra-Terrestrial

I've recently developed a new marketing principle: Human beings are lazy... business people are extra-terrestrial.

If you didn't figure it out from my new maxim alone, let it explain it briefly. The first part, human beings are lazy, is not too difficult to grasp. Not that I want to make snap judgments about all people, I don't, but our species, especially the American variety, procrastinates with aplomb. We put off doing all kinds of important tasks, everything from the very simple (cleaning our homes, taking out the trash, and paying bills) to the slightly more complicated (filing our taxes, talking to our kids about sex and drugs, and telling others we love them). If it's something we don't feel like doing, there's a good chance we won't.

The second part plays off of the first - if human beings are lazy, then business people are something beyond lazy, hence "extra-terrestrials." That may sound downright un-American to your ears, but the fact of the matter is that it's true. The American workplace is full, not only of procrastination, but of personal inefficiency and distraction as well. Who works in an office and doesn't spend at least a small part of the day surfing the internet for personal reasons?

This premise was confirmed over the past five years after the dot-com bubble burst and nearly every company in America starting down-sizing its workforce. In the months and years that followed the cut-back, the most amazing thing happened: productivity increased in nearly every industry and companies were able to improve their balance sheets with lower overhead. Some companies were increasing capacity while decreasing personnel. Those who still had jobs were ready to work their asses off in order to keep them and companies across the country benefited greatly from it. Now if that doesn't indicate that there's some slack in the rope, then I don't know what does.

No business in it's right mind would expect that level of efficiency to be sustained over a long period of time, and as business seemed to be growing steadily again, most sensible outfits began to hire as well. But, of course, once the crisis is averted, human nature can return to form. Now don't get me wrong, Americans love a paycheck, and they'll work really hard when they feel it's in jeopardy, but as soon as business picks up and their jobs are more secure, the work-ethic is the first thing to go.

So what does all of this mean and why does it matter? Well, once you realize how supremely lazy the average American worker can be, you can begin to develop strategies to make your hard work MORE productive by tailoring your efforts to appeal to the lazy. This is especially true in marketing - the more work you do to make selling a product to someone as easy as it can possibly be, the better you will sell that product.

In my experience at Vintage Books, there have been some very fine examples of this principle - everything to doing all the legwork in creating a story idea that is then handed over to the media to setting up huge events with great publicity at no cost just by making enough phone calls and bringing in sponsors.

I think businesses are often guilty of making lazy mistakes - falling into the trap of spending money rather than expending effort, energy, brain-power, and resourcefulness. Frankly, I believe that anything you dream up can be accomplished (and probably at no cost to you) if you are smart and work hard enough to achieve it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Branding Nightmare

Branding was one of those buzzwords that circulated through 1990s marketing-speak with greater virulence than a cab driver's body odor in a NYC taxi. The effects of both were often equally offensive. The fact of the matter is that brand identity has been around since Caveman A knew to go to Caveman B for extra sticks and stones because he knew the other cavemen had lousy wares. Since then, anyone deft in the art of business has tried to associate their brand with being trustworthy and reliable in order to maximize repeat-patronage and word-of-mouth endorsements from faithful consumers.

Skip forward several (thousand) years, and you see that branding has become something closer to iconography than reputation-building. These days so much value has been placed on slick logos and easily identifiable, repeat marketing campaigns that it's almost an after-thought to build brand identity from the ground up by establishing a product with a core group of consumers that will advocate on behalf of the company and/or product by virtue of its quality. The later of these two approaches requires more persistence, patience, and hard work, which is, I suppose, why the former has become so popular - you only need to spend money in order to get an eye-catching logo and a snappy advertising campaign.

That said, my company (Vintage Books) has done a pretty good job at building its reputation on the quality of the books we publish. Without getting into specifics, the list of titles and authors we published is unparalleled (proof of which can be found by browsing the Vintage catalog). However when it comes to branding, Vintage has found itself in something of a schizophrenic nightmare due in large part to the fact that it has no universal image or logo that consumers can identify when browsing in a book store.

We have the Vintage Sun logo, which is the basic Vintage brand; the Vintage International logo, which is does not mean "foreign" as much as it means "world-renown;" the Vintage Contemporaries logo, which tends to means next to nothing as plenty of contemporaries are published under the Sun logo and the International logo; the Vintage Classics logo, which is ostensibly more "vintage" than Vintage; the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard logo, which is the mystery & crime group obviously; the Vintage Espanol logo for Spanish-language books; followed by a few less common logos, such as the Vintage Departures logo for travel books, the Vintage Civil War logo, and the Vintage Spiritual Classics logo. Ironically, we publish a whole line of Sci-Fi books, too, but they don't have a unique logo.

By my count that's nines logos and only a few of them look even remotely similar. Now, short of completely over-turning the apple cart and starting afresh with one universal logo, how does one go about branding such a multi-faced product?

It's an interesting dilemma because the Vintage brand is actually a very meaningful one. According to our website:
Vintage Books was founded in 1954 by Alfred A. Knopf as a trade paperback home
for its authors. Its publishing list includes a wide range, from the most influential works of world literature to cutting edge contemporary fiction and distinguished non-fiction. With a list that includes such important writers as William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison, Raymond Chandler, William Styron, A.S. Byatt, Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, Haruki Murakami, David Guterson, and Richard Russo, it is today's foremost trade paperback publisher.
In addition to that list, Vintage is home to James Baldwin, John Cheever, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Langston Huges, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Willa Cather, Truman Capote, and W. Somerset Maugham. We certainly stand to benefit from brand identification when it comes to these writers, which is also to say something quite remarkable about the living authors we are publishing today. The name itself, Vintage, implies something of lasting quality in the books we publish, and I think the sun (at least) is symbolic of a lasting, reliable source of renewal and life - but what about the other eight logos?

It's as if we've done all of the excruciatingly long and hard work of building an impressively reputable product line, but then shot ourselves in the foot with what should be the most simple finishing touch, the universal thing that ties it all in together for the consumer: the recognizable image!

Friday, March 18, 2005

SXSW and Non-Traditional Marketing

Having just returned from the Interactive portion of SXSW, I am convinced of two things: SXSW Interactive is a gathering of amazing people and I need to start writing my own blog. I went to the conference hoping to seed the book WHORES ON THE HILL with bloggers and other "influencers" who might enjoy the novel and talk about it online. I also wanted to meet as many people as I could and develop some productive relationships. It's hard to know at this point how successful the trip was, but regardless of the outcome (and my execution of the plan) it was a good idea.

My job at Vintage and Anchor Books is to research and develop new ways of marketing and publishing books, to identify new channels for promotion and sales, and to organize alternative marketing campaigns - and by "alternative" the book publishing world often means "online." Examples of what I do are organizing and launching a fan club for
Alexander McCall Smith, offering a "waiting room copy" of OVERCOMING DYSLEXIA to pediatricians so that parents would see the book while waiting for the doctor, and arranging book give-aways with popular bloggers. My job is to take non-traditional ideas, buzzword = outside-the-box, and turn them into feasible plans. More often than not these ideas are just common sense - pediatricians and parents have a vested interest in the reading development of children! - but in the current state of publishing, there's little (if any) infrastructure to reach outlets that are not mainstream media and traditional book retail.

My job is the first of its kind that I've ever heard of, but I can't imagine it will be the last. Given the changes in the marketplace (in nearly all forms of media), most large companies could probably benefit from having someone to fill in gaps left by the traditional means of business - especially since those gaps are growing as the industry changes. But I sense that many who've worked in the media business are a little confused, if not intimidated, by the changes happening. Most of the change has developed from the ground up by a younger, more tech-savvy generation that has a greater interest in creating new means of communication rather than explaining what it has already done. And for good reason - their peers get it, and the older business people who don't are often happy to throw money at them so they can feel assured they are keeping pace with new technology.

Take for example something Tom Anderson of
MySpace said at SXSW. In short, he said that MySpace has more money than it knows what to do with because companies are spending so much to advertise on his site. Why? MySpace is the #7 most trafficked site on the internet behind Google at #6. Tom went on to advise audience members NOT to advertise on MySpace, but to actually use the site, open a FREE account and use it - he promised the return would be hundreds of times more valuable. The problem is that takes work, time, and some creative thought as to how MySpace can work for you. It's easier to throw money into an ad than try to understand this new, "cool" medium.

You can call that laziness, but it's more than that - it's also a generalized fear that something new can't be understood. I'm not a very tech-savvy person (a point that was made painfully clear to me by speaking to people at SXSW), but I understood that if I didn't try to put myself and my company into the mix, we would either miss opportunities completely or have to spend a lot of money just to hang on in the periphery. The irony is that the people I work with think I'm very web-savvy. I'm only smart enough to know that I don't know very much, and that my company has a long way to go if it really wants to modernize itself.

That said, Vintage and Anchor can take some consolation in the fact that I seemed to be the only person there from a major book publisher, which is precisely what I expected and part of the reason for being there. SXSW is a music, film, and interactive conference - there's nothing about it that focuses on books, and therefore most publishers are completely ignorant to it. But here's where the utter common sense of non-traditional marketing comes into play - SXSW is not only vastly populated with people who like to read, it's a virtual epicenter of "influencers" - you know the people who talk about things they like and influence others to go out and buy those things. In my opinion, these people are more important in today's market because they survive on their credibility with people who communicate with them - something mainstream media has lost almost entirely in recent years. Being the only person there promoting books meant that I stood out to everyone I spoke to - people seemed almost relieved that I wasn't another person pushing a website, a service, or a band - and the fact that I probably handed them a free book to read made them all the happier.

This is non-traditional marketing. And who knows, I got a lot of business cards from people who said they had a writing project for which they were seeking a publisher. Perhaps this could also generate some non-traditional publishing as well.