Tuesday, April 25, 2006

P&L Statements and the Book Publishing Industry

Via BoingBoing, I read this piece by Anna Louise at Tor about how a P&L statement works and the publishing decisions that go into the making of a book. It's not entirely universal, but for all intents and purposes it's spot on.

What I find most interesting about it was not the article itself, but the comments section, namely the number of authors who wrote comments saying they had no idea this was how it worked. Does that strike anyone else as being a little strange? Not that I think it's untrue. I think many authors probably don't understand the business model under which they do their business. I think this is a fundamental flaw of the opacity of our industry. It's far too secretive for no good reason.

Not surprisingly, I didn't see any comments of shock or surprise from agents. Agents, I suspect, do understand the business, but possibly don't share that information with the authors they represent. Perhaps it's in their best interest not to discourage their authors, or perhaps, not to stop their authors from feeling outraged when they don't get all the advertising they want.

Regardless, Anna Louise has started an important dialogue about a topic that seems to have been taboo previously, and I heartily commend her for it. Everyone who has ever published a book, is thinking about publishing, or has even a passing interest in the industry and how books are made should read her piece.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Comments on Branding

So, part of the idea here is to get people involved in a dialogue about book publishing, and to that end, I wanted to share a very thoughtful note that was sent to me by a publishing insider (who will remain anonymous) in response to my posts about branding. I am publishing this almost in its entirety, removing only the things that might identify this person.

Without further ado, "A Response":

I get what you are saying, and have been thinking about it for years. And it's interesting that someone fromV/A is asking the questions, because they are really one of the few that do have a brand that is somewhat recognizable to the consumer -- or a small segment of consumers. V/A is probably only surpassed by Harlequin and Penguin. Harlequin has, for all intents and purposes, become a generic word to describe one category of books -- I'm not sure that
consumers actually purchase books because they are published by Harlequin anymore. But at one time, they did. Penguin - or specifically, Penguin Classics -- well, a lot is in the packaging, and the fact that all of those books are merchandised in the same section in the bookstore. And I think that might be the key -- merchandising. Because you can try and try to build your brand, but if your books are spread out all over the store, there's not a cohesive message being carried through to the end consumer. If you look in a supermarket, all of the cereals are merchandised by brand. Does this help with brand loyalty? Perhaps not -- but if you are standing in front of the Kellogg's section and the store is out of Raisin Bran, you might reach for Rice Krispies - or Special K - they are all right at
hand. And after trying 2 or 3 or 10 cereals from that same section and liking them, you might discover that Kellogg's is a brand you can trust. Ballantine (now Random/Ballantine) has tried to reach the consumer (members of book groups) through its Readers Circle program. The logo on the spine, the spinner rack, and Book Group information speaks to the brand as a whole. But what I don't see are back ads or excerpts for other Readers Circle books that are not by the same author. That's a major opportunity to brand that is totally missed. Does Vintage/Anchor cross-sell other authors? Other consumer products are test marketed to the end consumer ... books
really are not. I would imagine that part of the test marketing process analyzes whether or not the new product fits within the brand, as judged by the target demographic of the consumer. Because books are so subjective, you and I might see a natural match between Richard Ford and Brett Easton Ellis, but
if the end consumer does not see the relationship, there goes the credibility of the brand. But because books are signed long in advance of any final product to test market, the decision about whether or not a book fits into the brand is made by only a few people, and often based on nothing but a vague sense of what the final product will be. The structure that Richard Nash describes
sounds a lot like the way the various publishers at Random House operate. Do you think that V/A would be more successful in building the brand if they were spun off from Knopf? What about Pantheon and its graphic novels program? Should it be its own entity? I'm not really sure how it would help the branding exercise.

I think this raises some important points that I had not addressed, though none more significant than merchandising. How stores decide to merchandise our product is of the utmost importance, because for all intents and purposes that is how most consumers experience us (the publisher).

There are publishers who have successful brands and I think that is largely due to the fact that they keep a narrow focus on what they do, such that you are likely to find there books in only one section (or only a few sections) of a bookstore. This makes the merchandising aspect easy. Workman might be a good example.

In private conversations, Richard Nash has said to me that his personal interests have led him to publish a broader range of books that venture outside his initial focus, and he wonders if he is diluting his brand. I don't think he is because I still know what kind of book a Soft Skull book is going to be whether it's poetry, a graphic novel, current affairs, or LGBT lit. Regardless, it's a damn good question to ask because I think the branding problem for publishers also has some origin in the broad range of publishing each imprint does.

These days it seems like every group and imprint seems to publish the same kinds of books, which is to say, any kind of book. Literary, commercial, academic, trade, mass market, hardcover -- everyone does it all. Vintage and Anchor have a tradition of literary trade fiction and non-fiction, yet now we do mass market books, too. This certainly blurs the lines a bit, and I think takes us further away from a discernible brand. It makes sense from a business aspect, but you can't have everything, and in this case I think it dilutes the sense of how Vintage is different from, say, Bantam. But that's just my opinion and I'm sure I have colleagues who would disagree.

As for the questions raised by this anonymous reader, I think there is a small amount of cross-promotion that goes on in the "back ads" (i.e. the extra pages at the end of the book), but it is done almost exclusively in books that are promoted as reading group favorites, which makes sense because these groups are often looking for the next pick. It's a harder thing to do with every book because of the way the authors feel about it (i.e. not happy that their book is a selling tool for someone else's book).

Other questions: Would Vintage and Anchor be better off (for branding purposes) if they were spun off from the Knopf Group? Or Pantheon for that matter? No, I don't think so. While there are differences, Vintage wouldn't be what it is today without Knopf, and really the group as a whole is pretty closely tied. Now I might entertain the possibility that the Knopf Group would do well to be spun off from Random House, Inc., but that's another thing all-together. For one thing, Anchor would loose it's influx of Doubleday titles and authors, and the group would lose it's sales force and all the other amenities that come with the big corporation. But I think it's a pretty amazing group of people that would make for a rather successful independent. It'll never happen, but it's a fun thought.