Branding And Publishing Strategies

Today, publishers are looking more to cut back on the amount of titles they release and focus their marketing clout and expenditure on extracting as much as possible from the branding of high-end authors. That doesn’t mean mainstream publishing editors aren’t open to new authors with an original book or voice. It just means the playing field is getting a little less hospitable. There seems to be a lot less players on the playing field and the substitution bench is getting crowded and our publishing managers are getting evermore conservative, unwilling to risk a late substitution from an unproven player in an effort to hold out and still win the game. Author solutions services will often use this argument to hook you into their services. Consider that almost all writers you read started out as unknowns, published a first book, broke the so-called mold, achieved what you might consider impossible or hopeless, but remember, they almost all did it by pursuing the commercial route, either directly, or via a literary agent. They, and the people who represented them, read their first book, believed in their brand, and managed to connect and sell it to readers.

Certainly, we are seeing more and more books coming out through alternative channels, be it self-publishing, or the flourishing array of small presses, some with as little as three or four titles per year. Unfortunately, authors who explore alternative routes to mainstream publishing often don’t have a brand—scratch—aren’t a brand of themselves—even heavier scratch—don’t even understand what a brand is in publishing of any route. Dan Brown is a brand. Jodi Picoult is a brand. Stephen King is a brand. Hell, British comedienne, Jo Brand, is a fucking brand in name as well as comic execution. Double hell, Sarah Palin’s even got her political PR team to turn her into the ultimate Hockey Mom-Rottweiler brand and one day she could be your president! All the above players have been ploughing the playing field for a long, long time. They understand PR, media, and most of all, creating their own brand. Picoult has deftly rattled off novel after novel about family and relationships, posing moral and philosophical dilemmas for many years—what if I gave birth to twins and they turned out to be reincarnations of Jesus and Lucifer? Would I love them both just as much? That’s Picoult signature and brand and she is wonderful at what she does. Think the Jerry Springer show on sedatives. And Picoult, more importantly, knows it, and so does her agent and publishers. Having a brand is one thing—having people around you or the ability within yourself to exploit this is entirely another.
In my 2010 predictions, I said we could see authors who enjoyed moderate success at commercial publishing houses find it increasing difficult to win over their editors with their latest opus. Indeed, I qualified that by saying we will see some big enough names jump from the mother ship and join the burgeoning independent family. Canongate did a great job in the UK with Obama. But the independent family is not necessarily self-publishing per say—rather the area of publishing where the medium-to-small press is not only deft at involving the author in every facet of book publicity, but damn well expects it. The self-publisher must do this as a given. It’s not some publishing culture clique, vogue down them indie parts of the city—it’s a fucking financial necessity—resulting in a sink or swim book. Broadly, I do welcome the approach of a well-thought out, condensed, homogenised, marketing campaign, and so should any passionate author worth their salt—provided their new-found small press is not, in turn, running the legs off the author as if they were some form of new marketing donkey (read camel if you want to be upmarket) for the solution to the rigours of economic decline and creating a bottom-basement publishing empire…eh, from the bottom up!
Bob Miller and HarperStudio have been getting this new strategy of publishing right over the past twelve months. If you want an author to do some of the donkey marketing work, with finesse, then the publishing partnership/contract needs to recognise this and reward the author through an increased royalty share. There are some really strong UK publishers in the independent field well-placed to adopt some of these strategies. Salt Publishing has had a real go at it, but economics have played much of a part in 2009 and it looked touch and go for them for a while. They are not out of the rapid waters yet, and I seriously feel they need to look at their royalty structure to survive (single digit royalties just aren’t cricket in the independent game anymore) and pick up the really big fish from the mainstream arena if they are to see out 2010 and really develop as a true independent of great promise. There are other great pretenders, Two Ravens Press, Snowbooks—I equate them with publishers like Soho Press or Soft Skull Press (arty, urban and eclectic), or their musical equivalents of the early 1980’s, Rough Trade and 4AD, highly independent but crucially with a definitive branding and an extraordinary ability to identify that brand and the creators of it, through to reaching out to an audience/reader and connecting with them.
So whatever the origin and the route to readership, independent publisher, small press or self-publishing author—what’s the brand and how do we identify and find it?
Well, it’s not the norm; otherwise we wouldn’t have independent operating authors or publishers. We’d just be selling plain vanilla ice-cream all the time. But, just sometimes, someone likes their vanilla with cherries in it, or curious wee green bits—we taste first, savour and enjoy, before we actually discover the wee green bits are pieces of pistachio nuts. It’s only then we ascribe a tag, a flavour, a definition and a brand to them. Good marketing and branding starts out with absolutely nothing, and ends up with something glorious and unique. Bad marketing starts out with something and tries to make it something it will never be. Bad marketing will never separate the wolf from the pack, nor the gem that sits amongst the stones at the bottom of the sea. So, again, what leads to good branding, identifying and selling the idea of a book?
Branding is not one book, as such, but its inception and origin must at least start there.
Every publisher and agent you will contact wants you to tell them everything about your book in one concise short sentence (that’s about 0-12 words, tops, 15 words, and after that I’ll have to kill you). It’s tougher than it sounds. Try it. If you can’t; two things, one, maybe your book needs a sharper focus. Its core idea and branding should shine through after just a few pages; and two, maybe you don’t understand your own book as well as your readers can define it. Creating something often allows us to overly immerse ourselves in the result of our endeavours, and we don’t see our book’s simple necessity and message. It’s also what a good editor worth their salt is looking for—something clear, unique and different. This is also the true definition of what independent publishing is. At large publishing houses, often a promising manuscript will have to be read by an editor, then, outside readers, and ultimately, the commissioning editor before it is passed to the sales and marketing team. A manuscript can fall at any of the latter hurdles, but it helps if the first key editor sees the light shining from your manuscript. Too often, set formulas, and prescribed ideas of manuscripts that went before can influence what falls on the commissioning and sales desks. This is why a skilled literary agent who believes in the merit of your work and can see the branding possibilities of your work and can help to push and guide a manuscript through these treacherous waters.
So, how does Jodi Picoult fair in our branding exercise? OK, 15 words max.
“What if I gave birth to Jesus and Lucifer? Would I love them both equally?”
Holy shit! Just in at 15 words. I think this can still be tweaked, but what the hell. I found my first novel Academy really difficult to market and brand. It was a highly complex, historical and dark novel. My subsequent book was far more esoteric and experimental, and, yet, advanced copies and readers presented its tag and branding within a few days—where cruelty meets beauty—four words.
Branding one book can be difficult. I think it gets easier the more books an author writes. And so, it should if the author is making defined and progressive development in their books and writing style. I am lucky in my time to have met and even befriended a great many authors. One thing is clear when we discuss branding for an author and their books. It takes time. There is no author I know of, and I mean no author, who writes successfully full time and managed to achieve it after a book or two. Those who do manage to write full time have long identified their brand and managed to connect that brand with an established readership after about four or five books whether they have achieved it through mainstream, small press, e-publishing or self-publishing.
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