The Power and Danger of Branded Authors
Publishers of fiction know that the biggest influencer on book purchasing is author recognition, but not all may realize to what extent big names can turn a profit. A perfect example is J.K. Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling. Although the novel was met with favorable reviews, it initially sold only 1,500 print copies. But once J.K. Rowling's identity was revealed this past July, the book shot to the top of the bestsellers list, with some signed copies selling for as much as $4,000. Not only did the name recognition spur purchases, but it also made the book itself more valuable. Many publishers have taken notice of these profits and are eager to brand their authors into recognizable icons like Neil Gaiman, John Grisham, and Nicholas Sparks.
Peter Hildick-Smith, founder and CEO of the Codex Group, discussed the power of the branded author at the Digital Book World Conference last week. Some of the attention-grabbing numbers he threw out were that roughly 80% of the best-selling books were written by branded authors and consumers are willing to pay 40% more on a book written by an author they care about. Plus, more products can come from a branded author -- movies, video games, and in the case of J.K. Rowling, a wholly immersive theme park.
Profits-wise, this seems to make sense, but The Guardian reporter Jennifer Rankin raises some questions as to whether this is a beneficial strategy for discovering new talent. She cites the now famous author Hilary Mantel. Prior to Wolf Hall, the first of a powerhouse series on Thomas Cromwell and Tudor intrigue, Mantel did not follow the same path to prominence that many branded authors have. She wrote a memoir, a black comedy, and a historical epic, none of which defined her as a certain brand of author or offered a specific experience for readers. Yet her work has found success and her writing offers something new in the saturated Tudor-centric historical fiction space.
What Rankin fears and what Hildick-Smith never mentioned, is that as publishers turn their attention to big name authors, the undiscovered and mid-list authors, like Mantel before Wolf Hall fame, will suffer. The more money and energy that is spent on big names, the harder it will be for new authors to find a foothold and the less diverse the book selection. In his now highly-discussed essay "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Reader," Colin Robinson warned that, "The mid-list, publishing's experimental laboratory, is being abandoned." And in turn, the reader is being deprived.
As the diversity gap grows, experiments in storytelling are happening elsewhere -- on self-publishing channels, on Netflix, and on Twitter. These are the platforms to which more and more readers turn, and they certainly do not lack in unique stories. So is the branded author really our savior? Or is he distracting publishers from new stories and undiscovered talent?