Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Re-Visiting "Branding Re-visited"

Richard Nash at Soft Skull took up the gauntlet of my call for some opinions on books and branding and wrote a very thoughtful piece on his blog. I highly recommend reading the post in its entirety, but this is specifically what Richard had to say about branding and corporate publishing:

My instinct is that it can be done, but it would really require a complete reinvention of the structure of the corporate publisher. You'd need to create small imprints within the company, consisting of a group of maybe 4 to 8 people functioning as an entire editorial and marketing and publicity operation, availing of the corporation to provide infrastructure, sales, distribution. They would have considerable autonomy, so long as they met their financial targets.
Everyone in that unit would be encouraged to think like a publisher, considering the entirety of how a book gets from the writer to the reader. And the sales, rights and contracts, production and manufacturing groups would be structuring themselves as service providers.

In effect the Random Houses and Penguins would be holding companies of a stable of imprints and the primary difference between them, and a company like Soft Skull working with a distributor like PGW, is that they would have stable cash flow and great economies of scale on everything from FedEx to printing.
(Operations like
Perseus and Avalon are existing examples, albeit on a smaller scale, of this hypothetical structure).

But, absent that level of autonomy it would be very difficult to build
a brand, since all a brand is, really, is a small group of people creating something they think is lovely, and a larger group of people (readers) agreeing it is lovely, and a bond developing between them. That connection can't be faked, not in books...

I agree with Richard's analysis here, which is part of why I continue to think about this question, especially in regards to Vintage and Anchor books. V/A is a small imprint in a larger group which is then part of a huge corporation, yet V/A enjoys quite a bit of autonomy (or at least that is my perception) and has a small enough staff to work closely together, share ideas, and work on all aspects of the publishing process. This is, roughly, the essence of my job -- cover several areas of expertise and bring together comprehensive and cohesive marketing strategies. But the situation Richard proposes is not really happening at Vintage and Anchor. We are still structured like other corporate imprints -- the traditions that separate departments are still intact and the potential for cross-pollination and "team" development are still largely unrealized. This is not a criticism of Vintage and Anchor in any way, but more so of this aging model on which all of publishing is set.

Sadly, it seems like everyday I read in Publishers Lunch about some new imprint being founded. Aside from being vanity projects for successful editors and publishers, I wonder what's the point when we all pretty much do the same thing anyway. It would be great to see a large corporate publisher, like Random or Penguin, gamble on a small "indie" imprint that aimed to become a culturally identifiable source of specific types of books. I mean hell, it would be worth it just to see something different for a change.

In Spiegel & Grau's mission statement, they say, "The books published under the banner of Spiegel & Grau aim to be on the frontline. As publishers, we want to be responsive to the issues that touch people's lives but also to provide a forum for thinkers and writers who break new ground, pose new questions, provoke and challenge us to remain alert and live to change, even as they entertain us." Well that certainly differentiates them from everyone else. Seems like the only ones not breaking new ground, posing new questions, or provoking any change are the publishers themselves.

I have often wondered if people working in book publishing actually read the books they work on and apply the wisdom therein to their own lives and jobs. We published James Surowiecki's THE WISDOM OF CROWDS and I found the irony striking that we would promote this book as a work of such value to business people and yet not take any of its principles into consideration in examining the nature of our own workplace. I invite you to read the book to understand the reasons why, and then maybe examine how your business operates.

I'm getting off topic here, but I think it speaks to questions of, "What are we (as publishers) doing here? Why aren't we asking more questions? Really challenging ourselves as professionals to do it better?" Everyday we work with some of the most brilliant, innovative writers, who are constantly reinventing themselves and their craft to push their art forward. We seem rather dull by comparison.

I think quite often of something Laurence Kirshbaum said in the New York Times last December. He said, "The demands of publishing and marketing a book today have grown to exceed the ability of a publisher to cope. I felt very keenly that we were leaving so many good marketing ideas unexplored because there were too many authors and too little time."

I think he's right to say that part of the problem is in sheer numbers -- too many books are being published for any reasonable degree of marketing effort (and dollars) to be spent on every book. However that's not the only reason good ideas are being left unexplored. Part of the reason is that we are still beholden to a set of practices and perceived notions about "how to publish a book" that keep us so preoccupied we can't begin to think outside of our traditions. And in the context of branding, and with respect to Richard Nash's comments, we are still beholden to the sense of "how a an imprint is organized" to fully appreciate the value of trying it differently.

Why aren't there a hundred blogs out there asking these questions? And why is Richard Nash the only person giving thoughtful answers? Again, as my thoughts are not complete on this subject, and potentially out-and-out wrong, I welcome any comments you may have, or email me a link to your blog post if you write something.


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