Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Branding Revisited

When I started Sepulculture, one of my first posts was about branding and the book industry. Some of my comments were noted by Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch. He pointed out that Vintage Books was one of the most recognizable brands in publishing, despite my claim that Vintage seemed a little schizophrenic with all of its sub-imprints. I still stand by what I said. While Vintage is widely recognized within the publishing industry, among few consumers is it a known "brand" in the way other products are. I think in publishing we sometimes forget that the book buyers at Barnes and Noble and Borders aren't the end consumer. But the question I find useful from Cader's remark is whether or not it matters for a publisher to have brand identity among consumers? Certainly it matters with our retailers -- I want B+N to think of Vintage as the publisher of great literary fiction and non-fiction, but how much effort should Vintage put into conveying that impression to consumers? Typically in the industry we don't invest much (if any) capital in marketing ourselves. We invest the overwhelming majority of our resources in branding our individual authors, building awareness of their names and titles among consumers. But is there a point to also developing a consumer sense of what "types" of books we as a specific publisher produce? I feel there are.

In working to promote some of our recent trade paperback originals to young readers, it has frequently occurred to me that I could really save a lot of effort in trying to explain to these kids that our books are smart and cool and interesting to them. If they understood that Vintage frequently publishes these type of books that they enjoy, I wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel every time out. I think about the way that independent record labels have successfully managed to this with this very same demographic -- kids know what to expect from a Vagrant or Saddle Creek band, Side One Dummy or Drive-Thru Records band. Why shouldn't publishers enjoy a similar recognition? I guess there's no reason why they shouldn't, only a question of whether or not it's possible. If anyone out there is still reading, I would to hear your thoughts. Is branding only effective for small labels, or in the book business small publishers? One of my favorite publishers is Soft Skull Press. I think they could make Soft Skull a really strong identifiable source among young people. I would assume their marketing budgets are slim (or non-existent), but I think a lot of this work (especially when you're talking about grass-roots efforts anyway) could be done very inexpensively. A topic for further consideration.


Blogger John said...

This is an interesting idea, though I wonder if a publisher like Vintage isn't too large to pull this off. Soft Skull Press is on the same level as Saddle Creek, for example, but Vintage (unless I'm overinflating its market position) is more in line with Warner Brothers or Interscope (or whatever they're called in these days of megamergers). It's one thing to brand an indie label that traffics in emo, singer-songwriterly artists, it's another to do so with a label that offers a breadth and depth that spans several genres (again leaving aside arguments regarding the homogeneous nature of pop music).

Vintage was very successful in this regard with its Black Lizard imprint, taking a smaller slice of what it offers, in this case noir/crime fiction, and aggressively branding it. The Vintage Contemporaries series of the late 80s-early 90s (I'm thinking of Exley, McGuane, Ford, Carver, Nordan, Crumley, etc.) was another success story. Both excelled because they shared stylistically similar covers and near-universal quality.

12:07 PM  
Blogger The Red Fork said...

I think that for publishers branding is seen as more of a luxury. Publishers reinforce their brand when they oh-so-rarely discover pots of money left over from, as you said, branding their individual authors or series. I'm a gal in Canadian publishing, where literary powerhouse McClelland & Stewart recently celebrated its centennial by relaunching its brand and, for the first time, a recognizable logo. Venerable Canadian small press House of Anansi, uses as their slogan, "Anansi publishes very good books." I think because our culture and our literature is closer to us, we are protective of our image and fight a little harder to maintain it--when the budget allows it. Which you'll surmise is not as often as we'd like.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

I'm glad you brought this up!

I buy books based on who published them...when they come from indie presses. I don't see why individual imprints at large conglomerates can't do the same thing. It also opens up possibilities for events and/or anthologies that group like authors. Soft Skull, Akashic, etc. do this kind of thing all the time.

One more corporate example: MTV Books. (That's Warner, right?) It has a certain demographic straightaway. I don't know what kind of sales numbers this identity generates, but from this consumer's POV, it's a great idea, especially for paperback originals. I have several MTV Books on my shelf. Their design, editorial choices, etc. are easy to identify on a table.

(And no worries, I have tons of Vintage on my shelf too.)

12:10 PM  

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