Note to Book Publishers: Turn the Page and Invest in Brand
In the so-called glory days of publishing, before nearly all the major publishing houses were bought up by a handful of corporate parent companies, the editorial and cultural contours of each publisher were distinct and well-defined. Today, however, the only marks that differentiate many book imprints are their names and logos, with some occasional hints at a cultural past or editorial ethos.
The merger of Penguin with Random House last year reduced the "Big Six" publishing conglomerates to the "Big Five": HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette and the new Penguin Random House. As author and journalist Boris Kachka wrote in the New York Times, in response to news of the merger, "Consolidation carries costs you won't find on a price sticker." Dozens of imprints and sub-imprints exist within each of the Big Five conglomerates; from a branding perspective, many of those imprints are indistinguishable from both their corporate cousins and their external rivals.
Very few publishing brands, in fact, mean much to consumers because publishers traditionally promote their authors, not themselves, as brands. But that approach and perspective needs to change. When a publisher's brand is indistinct, it diminishes the value that publisher brings to the books it publishes. Therefore, for publishers' B2B audiences -- namely, authors and the agents who represent them, as well as booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and professional book reviewers -- the brand needs to become a central part of the discussion.
Failing to emphasize the brand also takes a financial toll on the company. For sought-after authors weighing offers from two or more houses, the weaker the brand, the more advance money it takes to show strength and to convince those authors to come on board. This is particularly costly to publishers in the short-term because it's harder to recoup hefty advances in today's unforgiving market. But it's also costly in the long-term because it perpetuates the practice of overpaying for perceived bestsellers. This, in turn, reduces open spots for "mid-list" titles that might receive moderate advances but prove popular enough to turn a substantial profit.
What can be done? For starters, build a brand by defining or redefining a clear editorial vision, growing new authors into best-selling authors (over one or a number of books) and providing a better home for star authors than competitors do. It's easier said than done, of course, especially in such a consolidated marketplace, but it can be done, and it creates an advantage no amount of advance money can buy.
The publishing houses that do these things today have been known to win authors for less money than their competitors while producing one hit after another. Farrar, Straus & Giroux is a prime example. FSG is owned by Macmillan but is steadfast in maintaining its own brand. The company is known to pay smaller advances, but many authors find it hard to turn down an FSG offer even if there is more cash on the table from other publishers. That's because FSG's brand is synonymous with unwavering editorial standards, an unmatched roster of Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award winners, and contemporary literary megastars like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides.
High-end literary publishers aren't the only ones who use their brands to win authors and produce bestsellers. Independent publisher Workman and its design and cookbook imprint, Artisan, are terrific examples of strong brands that embody a focused, results-oriented approach to publishing. Workman, famous for its how-to, humor and gift titles (but not huge advances), produces book after book that sells hundreds of thousands -- sometimes millions -- of copies, like What To Expect When You're Expecting and 1,001 Places to See Before You Die. And Artisan, with its meticulous attention to detail and its insight into niche markets, is the publisher of choice for influential chefs and tastemakers whom one would expect to find at larger publishing houses.
An essential part of these publishers' success is that they've communicated what their brands mean -- that is, both the tangible benefits (sales, awards, reviews) and the intangible benefits (prestige, editorial spirit, emotional connection). This allows them to acquire new talent for less money than their rivals might spend, and keeps their editorial legacies and artistic missions alive -- which further reinforces their brands.
It also sets them up for a future in which publishers could very well start selling books and book-related content directly to consumers, bypassing most booksellers. The struggle over sales terms with Amazon, the slow disappearance of both Barnes & Noble stores and independent bookshops, and the arcane "returns" model (under which booksellers can return unsold stock to publishers) leave publishers, it would seem, with little choice. If this, indeed, is how things play out in the future, the houses with the strongest brands will not only adapt most easily, they will define the new bookselling landscape.