Tim O’Reilly’s Exclusive Interview with Book Business Extra on How O’Reilly Media Built Its Computer Technology Book, Web and Conference Brand
O’Reilly Media Inc., a technology publisher, with corporate offices in the heart of the Silicon Valley, utilizes pen and ink woodcut-style drawings of different animals on many of its books. It has been doing so for years, which has helped create greater worldwide recognition for its products.
The company, a driving force behind the commercial Internet, Web 2.0, blogging and online book selling, has also perfected the use of brand identity.
“Like so many things in life, the O’Reilly animal branding was a combination of luck, generosity and unexpected genius,” says Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media. “When we first began publishing small books about the Unix operating system under the brand ‘Nutshell Handbooks,’ all our books had the same image—a simple image of an opened nut—designed to get across the idea that our small books captured the meat of a complex topic. We were very low-budget, and didn’t have money for designers or logos.”
By the time it had seven or eight books out, the company realized it had a problem.
“At trade shows, people would look at a display, and since the books were distinguished only by the title, not by the cover image, they wouldn’t realize that there were different books. So we finally broke down and hired a designer to come up with a cover treatment,” he says. “Unfortunately, it was completely expected—all geometric and high-tech. … I said that they weren’t right—we had to keep looking.”
That happened on a Friday afternoon. According to O’Reilly, one of his writers, Linda Lamb, went home for the weekend and told her housemate, Edie Freedman, a designer at Digital Equipment Corporation, about the problem.
“She had a brainstorm: Unix program names sounded like weird animals to her,” O’Reilly says. “…She designed seven or eight covers for us, including ones for books that hadn’t been developed yet. Among the ‘weird animals’ she chose were the tarsier that graces the cover of ‘Learning the Vi Editor,’ and our Web site at oreilly.com, the slender lorises [a colorful parrot] on the cover of ‘Sed & Awk.’”
Lamb brought the comps in on Monday, and the staff was not quite sure what to make of them.
“Iconic images today, they were rather shocking and unexpected back in 1987—a real risk,” he says. “But we hung them on the wall and kept looking at them, and after a week or 10 days, I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
So what made these images such and integral part of O’Reilly’s brand?
“In terms of it becoming a core part of our brand, a good part of that was because of its originality and unexpectedness, but it was also because it meant something,” O’Reilly says. “I still remember the first time we published a book without the animal brand—it didn’t feel like an animal to us—it was a reference book, without the hands-on voice from [the] trenches that we thought of as our signature.”
So as time progressed O’Reilly Media refined its idea of what an animal book meant and practiced the technique of preserving its brand image.
“We stretched it and grew it, but kept a strong sense of its core value proposition,” he says. “And that was what made it so valuable. Our competitors cheered every time we published a book without an animal, because they thought we weren’t using our brand advantage, but they didn’t get it. We were preserving our brand advantage, by making sure it meant something.”
Over the years O’Reilly Media has built many other strong publishing brands, according to O’Reilly. O’Reilly Media has also expanded its brand base into avenues outside the book business such as its Open Source Convention, Web 2.0 Summit, Web 2.0 Expo and Conference and most recently its Make magazine and the Maker Faire conference.
O’Reilly says that a brand is a promise to the reader, and a large part of what makes a successful brand is not its iconography, but that it embraces a big idea and remains true to that idea.
For more information on what Tim O’Reilly and O’Reilly media are achieving in the world of publishing, check out Book Business’ March issue cover story. Also come see CJ Rayhill, Chief Information Officer, O’Reilly Media, Inc., interviewed by Book Business Editor In Chief Noelle Skodzinski at the Book Business Conference and Expo in New York City. Rayhill will take part in the “Spotlight Interview: Going Beyond Print” on Monday, March 5 from 1:15 p.m to 2:15 p.m. For more information visit www.bookbusinessexpo.com