Special Report: The Brand's the Thing
Though the publishing industry has traditionally served three main roles—gatekeepers, curators and distributors—the instant and global distribution of information has thrown a wrench into at least two of these functions.
While technology has only magnified the need for quality curation, self publishing gives authors a way around the gate, and the Internet has laid waste to long-established distribution chains. The digital revolution was a huge win for the act of publishing. Content is now everywhere and can be purchased anywhere. But how, in this sea of content, do publishers who invest in the time-honored processes that ensure quality content communicate that?
There are many methods to boost content discoverability—many are technical, many are strategic, and all should be tailored to the content and audience in question. The most powerful—and most resilient—method for improving your content's discoverability, however, is to inspire your once-passive audience to actively seek you out.
Active discovery—where customers know to specifically seek out your content—requires branding.
The Need for Branding
With a seemingly infinite wealth of information available, the task of separating signal from noise, or expertise from the alluring charm of ignorance, becomes paramount. Search engines don't do the job. Amazon doesn't do the job. These are both flat content ecosystems—in which everything, regardless of quality, sits on the same horizontal plane. The dreck doesn't sink. The gems don't shine. When the search box rules, you need to give your customers a reason to search for your content. Branding is the key to establishing the trust and providing the necessary impetus.
Publishers provide the quality assurance—editing, expertise, vetting, etc.—readers seek. But the brands associated with publishers currently mean little to readers. This branding crisis represents a golden opportunity for publishers to shed their tradition of working in the shadows and introduce themselves to the world as the purveyors of quality content.
If content branding is now essential and publishers need to step out into the limelight, the question becomes: How? Branding strategies are not universal. Nike—known for producing quality athletic apparel—doesn't brand themselves in the ways Virgin—known for daring and lofty business strategies—does. So what's right for today's (and tomorrow's) content producers?
Branding for Niche Publishers
Publishing houses and imprints with a clear focus on a niche—such as Chelsea Green Publishing (sustainable living), O'Reilly Media (software developers), Harvard Common (cooking, parenting) and so on—will have an easier time establishing themselves as experts than trade publishers or houses with varied lists. These niche-oriented publishers already have an extensive and targeted arsenal of content to draw upon to begin their brand-building. They already have defined audiences, defined content boundaries and a community of expert authors. Also, these publishing houses will not need to select a niche on which to focus at the exclusion of any others. They've serendipitously set themselves up in the same way the Internet has organized itself—by topic.
Shay Totten, communications director at Chelsea Green, a publisher focused on bringing the politics and practice of sustainable living to a broader audience, sees niche branding as the merging of content and company. "I think of branding very simply, which is that our [company] name and our books are synonymous with authentic content written by people who are practitioners in their respective area of expertise—not just writers who have become 'experts' by interviewing others. To me, the branding for a book publisher keeps you more engaged with your community of readers, writers and doers than if you just sat back and looked merely at what is selling and what is not."
In every step they make, Totten and the Chelsea Green crew consider their venerable brand. "At Chelsea Green, we think about branding from the metadata out to the [customer] in a bookstore. It's all about framing the message of the book, presenting the book that resonates a certain ethic and ethos that ties back to the mission, and to keep our name synonymous throughout.
"For example, we have dozens of partnerships with bookstores in which we provide them with discounted books—frontlist and backlist—in exchange for a dedicated, branded shelf inside the bookstore of our titles. We also partner with like-minded organizations, like the Post Carbon Institute, on guides and series of books that help communities shape their own future."
But the process begins much earlier. "It also starts at the acquisition process," says Totten. "And that means editors being fully engaged in what will further not just the Chelsea Green mission, but keep us a leading voice in whatever niche a potential books falls into as a category."
This niche-level branding has significant advantages. Joe Wikert, general manager and publisher of O'Reilly Media, the popular publisher for software developers, says branding and curation have been key to their long-term success. "O'Reilly as a brand has always represented a reliable resource to developers. They would seek out an O'Reilly book on a topic. You don't see that in most genres of publishing. … In fact, [because readers seek us out] we generate more ebook revenue through our direct channel than we do through ebooks on Amazon."
Wikert says O'Reilly aims to be thought of as a publisher that is forward-thinking, trustworthy and that amplifies the voices of the developer community. They have accomplished that task in several ways:
1. O'Reilly has invested in launching and sustaining niche conferences around the world:
•Tools of Change for publishers
•Strata for data geeks
•Velocity for web-infrastructure engineers
•and OSCon for the open source software community
This conference-marketing approach brands the company as the friendly center of a community of experts, introduces O'Reilly Media to a constant stream of new authors, and boosts the company's credibility within its niche and sub-niches. Conferences are also a potential profit-center for the company.
2. O'Reilly Media extends trust to their readers in the hope that they'll be trusted in return. "The fact that we're DRM-free helps show that we're forward-thinking and that we trust our customers," says Wikert. Offering DRM-free books with free updates for life has not only built the brand, it has provided a huge marketing advantage.
Branding for General Interest Publishers
Though proud of O'Reilly's strong brand at the company level, Wikert allows that company-level, niche-specific branding may not be the most effective place for everyone to throw their branding efforts. "Right now the only brands that seem to matter in [general] publishing are the author and the series. The publisher is generally unknown, same for the imprint. It's similar to the movies where you may have loved that Lincoln flick but you have no idea which studio produced it."
Wikert asks in his Dec. 10 post to the Tools of Change blog, "Who goes into a store looking for the latest book from Penguin or Random House? Nobody." While this may be an overstatement—Penguin is perhaps the most recognized brand of the Big 6)—it's one not meant as a slight against Penguin or Random House, merely an observation of structure. Think of it this way: No one walks into a convenience store looking for a Unilever product—they walk in looking for the Unilever-owned brand Ben & Jerry's. Similarly, a person may not sit down to their browser to search for a Wiley product, but they do, however, seek out a book from Wiley's For Dummies series.
General interest publishers may publish books for a wide range of niches. Within those niches, the publishers may have several series of books. The brands promoted by that publisher may be niche-specific—as in the case of sci-fi imprint Tor—or series specific—as with For Dummies.
Stephen Koenig—currently the vice president of ecommerce in the HarperCollins Christian Publishing Division and previously a senior vice president at Interweave—has seen great success building niche-specific brands for general interest publishers over the years.
"I think the key is for publishers to build their brands by creating content of their own around the content niches they serve with their books. This can be done either through disciplined curation, re-use and marketing of their existing book content, or through the creation of additional content like blogs, newsletters, white papers, etc. that then also promote the books in the publisher's catalog. It has to be authentic, though."
While at Interweave, Koenig oversaw the company's ecommerce division. During his time with the company, they built their brand by establishing digital communities based on their niche crafting topics—knitting, beading, quilting, etc. In each of these communities, Interweave—the company—was represented by no more than a logo in the corner of a web site. The brand built was not Interweave. The brand was the community.
Interweave's knitting audience grew underneath the KnittingDaily brand—with strongholds at a blog (knittingdaily.com with 150,000 unique visitors per month), on Facebook (with 50,000 members and 5,000 current conversations), on Twitter (with 4,000 followers), on Pinterest (with 1,960 followers), and so on. Interweave collected knitters from around the web and built an interested, engaged and enthusiastic community of knitters under the—now very valuable—KnittingDaily brand. This community is now the perfect sales—and promotional—channel for the company's knitting books and content.
Interweave's branding efforts, however, don't stop at knitting. They've built 10 such communities: BeadingDaily, QuiltingDaily, CrochetMe, SewDaily, SpinningDaily and so on.
Despite his successes, Koenig cautions that there are roadblocks. "To me, a brand is simply who your customer thinks you are. The more authentic you are, the easier it is for the customer to understand, remember and engage with you. To define your brand to your customer, you have to be able to first define it to yourself. This is a difficult thing for book publishers because many of them really don't know who they are."
Choosing an area of focus is vital to branding success.
Rachel Bressler, executive director of corporate and publisher relations at The Park Literary Group, and formerly an associate publisher at Ecco—a division of HarperCollins—says that in her experience, general interest publishers focus their branding efforts at the author level. "Authors are the brand," she says. "That's where readers connect to the material. Publishers are seeking out authors who can be successfully branded or are pursuing already successfully branded authors." This focus gives bigger houses—with a wide array of topics—more flexibility to publish potentially profitable books from any pre-determined niche.
However, Bressler argues, due to the rise of self-publishing and Amazon's publishing efforts, there is a growing need for publishing houses—of all sizes, but particularly the general interest publishers—to communicate to the readers the value of their curation work. "There's a reason publishers choose not to publish hundreds of thousands of books per year. It's the editorial work we still do that makes us valuable." Branding—boosting name-recognition and communicating the value of curation—is one way general interest publishers can compete with the avalanche of unvetted, unedited content online.
Bruce Shaw, president and publisher, and Adam Salomone, associate publisher, of The Harvard Common Press have a publishing catalog that straddles two distinct—though compatible—niches: cookbooks, and childbirth and parenting guides. They also argue that brand development is vital, but that it shouldn't necessarily always be targeted toward consumers.
"This company has changed because of the use of social media and how it has allowed us to reach professionals and others in our industry," says Salomone. "We're obviously targeting some consumers on social platforms, in the hopes that they'll find out something about our books and want to buy them, or at least browse for them in-store. But that is certainly not the main goal of our company brand. It's much more about how we engage with colleagues and continue to build our reputation in those circles."
"Branding can take a number of forms. It can be in the professional world, such as business-to-business or to other colleagues—agents, authors, accounts, etc.—which actually is very important for professional and business development."
With the goal of building professional advantageous business connections, Shaw and Salomone are world-travelers. They attend every food-related conference under the sun to build their brand—searching for new authors, new trends, new market opportunities, and great grub. Rare is the day they're not in an airport.
However, in 2012, Harvard Common Press took the conference approach one step further. Instead of flying to a conference, they helped organize one of their own. The 2012 Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York City was organized in large part by Shaw and Salamone in an effort to bolster the company's brand and visibility—not with readers, but with the food writers and food professionals of the world.
Salomone and Shaw do allow that today's digital tools make business-to-consumer branding easier, but question whether or not it's necessary for a publisher straddling several niches to market to readers.
"With social media, it's becoming easier to build a brand for [consumers], but is it necessary [for everyone]?" asks Shaw. "It's really the authors who can and should be the brand and connect with their readers on a more experiential level. … We focus [our branding efforts] most especially on our authors, our books and our book series. We do invest somewhat in the publishing house brand, through social media, participation in trade shows, conferences and other events, but, it's more for professional development than for consumer recognition, which is an important distinction."
As Wikert says, branding will only grow to become more important. "[Branding is] critical, maybe even more so in the digital age as there's so much noise to rise up from. [Too many] publishers never really became destination, household brands. That will cost them in the ebook world as they'll have a hard time creating a direct channel and will be forever dependent on retailers like Amazon."
Content branding is a new art for many publishers, and one at which many will need to improve—whether on the niche, company or community level.
As readers seek symbols of quality in the new digital distribution system, publishers will become ever more adept at communicating their value—and capitalizing on it. BB
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