Branding Our Books: Repackaging the Publishing Industry

Publishing house branding strategy has been a topic of conversation among industry professionals for a while now. As with any large corporation, developing an identity is important to publishers, or it should be. However, Royle, Cooper, & Stockdale estimate that “56% of book buyers had some awareness of publishers’ brands, but only 4% of those questioned thought that the imprint influenced their purchases” (6). This means that publishers are failing miserably at branding themselves, or they simply are not trying. Either way, it is a significant oversight when 96% of a multi-billion dollar industry’s consumer base consider their purchasing decisions uninfluenced by brand. What are some ways in which publishers have dabbled in branding themselves, and how can their efforts be improved upon to make sure that publishers not only reach the largest demographic possible, but also prove themselves valuable and relevant components of a quickly morphing and digitalizing world? One way would be to propose a move away from sole reliance on social media marketing and individual author branding and a focus on supplying both products and services to consumers in order to create a powerful brand.

What Is A Brand?

A brand is defined by the American Marketing Association as “‘[a] name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.’ Branding, therefore, means ‘endowing products and services with the power of a brand’ (Kotler & Keller 2007, p. 136). Thus, companies try to distinguish their products or services from those of other companies” (Lis & Berz, 198). Once initially created through the implementation of a name, design, etc., a powerful brand can develop a higher level of recognition by taking advantage of the fact that “consumer identification with the brand often goes beyond the physical constituents of the product and these added values satisfy social and psychological needs. The powerful brand then promotes a social or lifestyle image with which the consumer identifies, as can be seen with brands such as Nike, Levi’s, and Mercedes-Benz” (Royle, Cooper & Stockdale, 5). Unfortunately, within the publishing industry this level of powerful branding is rarely if ever reached. Publishers stop at the first level of brand implementation (utilizing a recognizable name, design, etc.), despite the fact that the intrinsic nature and goals of all literature are inherently focused on promoting social or lifestyle images, thereby making books one of the easiest products to convert into a “powerful brand.”

For example, in the 1960s, Penguin was praised for their bold branding efforts when they commissioned famous avant-garde designers such as Colin Forbes and Ole Vedel to design the covers of a Pelican series (Royle, Cooper & Stockdale, 7). If Nike, to reference an earlier example, had stopped at the design of their shoebox — regardless of the designer’s credibility — their brand would not be the powerful icon it is today.

Even so, “most consumer book publishers run imprints that are called trade brands, recognizable by the trade but not by consumers” (Clark & Phillips, 108). This helps with the business-to-business side of the equation. Penguin Random House will get more attention than a smaller, independent press due to their powerful economic and symbolic capital within the industry itself, but there are very few consumers who will buy a book because it was published by Penguin Random House. Rather, consumers will likely buy a book because of the product itself, due to a combination of author/title branding and social media marketing. This not only ensures the perpetuation of what Lis and Berz calls “mass-market driven short-termism” (194) in which each new product has their own branding process and expiration date, but also puts a financial and institutional strain on the product, which can negatively affect quality of both production and content.

Current Branding Strategies

Articles both academic and professional have increasingly addressed branding in publishing, especially in light of the recent digital revolution and the growing ease of ebook production and self-publishing. Two of the most common ways in which publishers employ branding are either through the individual author, or more recently, through using social media marketing to connect to consumers. While both prove effective to a certain extent, they both have inherent issues which render them problematic as ultimate solutions.

Author Branding

One way that publishers have traditionally used branding was to build up the reputation of individual authors, creating a brand founded on the reputation of individual products. As Thompson describes, “Readers become ‘fans’ of a particular writer, or of a series of books by a particular writer, and they want to read more. The publisher can therefore count on a market that is to some extent captive” (Thompson, 213). This is why authors like Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, and J.K. Rowling are so prized within the publishing industry. Their books create loyal consumers, which is one of the only ways publishers can guarantee repeat sales.

While effective, this strategy opens publishers up to several risk factors. First, relying on authors for branding “makes it hard to develop a consistent message that reflects the mission of the house as a whole and distinguishes it from the competition” (Rosen, 1). This relegates imprint brand to being a side effect rather than an implementing force, taking power away from the publisher and putting it in the hands of however many authors are on that year’s list.

Because of the power given to them by their publishers, “best-seller authors are now able to demand large advances and…have relatively short contracts with their publisher. This begs the question as to what happens to brand recognition from the publisher’s viewpoint if the author moves to another publishing house” (Royle, Cooper & Stockdale, 11). Authors move from house to house frequently, whether they are following their editors or being won over by promises of higher advances or better marketing. If publishers pour their brand into these authors, they risk losing everything at the drop of a hat.

Finally, using author branding is a privilege that only certain kinds of publishers can afford. “This kind of loyalty is more common in fiction than in non-fiction, and more common in commercial fiction than in literary fiction” (Thompson, 213), since “Non-fiction authors tend to be less well-known and therefore less marketable as a brand image” (Royle, Cooper & Stockdale, 10). Additionally, “the smaller a company is, the more susceptible to one or two hits or disappointments [in terms of author successes] it becomes. Faber & Faber exemplify this situation with their fall in profits at the end of 1997. The Bookseller reported that ‘the absence of a ‘big book’ in the last fiscal year — has had a deleterious effect on the results — with pre-tax profits falling by 57% on sales down by 14%” (Royle, Cooper & Stockdale, 9).

Social Media Marketing and Digital Technology

Another way that publishers have begun trying to connect with consumers is through social media marketing. “To be successful, a publishing house needs to effectively manage its own brand as well as that of its authors and products, and social media seem to be a tool that will increase in importance for marketing and branding in the near future” (Lis & Berz, 194). It has become a requirement for a serious publisher to have a website, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, or an Instagram account. Studies have been done on the effectiveness of social media marketing, and “T-tests show that social media offerings that can be associated with publishing products do in fact increase the probability of customers purchasing products — regardless of whether they concentrate on branding the author, the publisher, the character or the series” (Lis & Berz, 193).

Unfortunately, the use of social media has become a cure-all, something that can be employed in all circumstances to cure one’s branding woes. Instead of curating a powerful brand first and using social media as a tool, many publishers spend their time cultivating hits and likes without having a central message. This leaves the publisher unfocused and dependent upon social media to the point that it becomes a crutch, something without which they would not be able to operate. While social media branding is an effective and necessary short-term sales strategy, it must come secondary to a real sense of brand and certainly should not act as a substitute.

Digital technology falls prey to some of the same problems. Wharton School of Marketing professor Jerry Wind says that branding “will allow a little more differentiation, especially as publishers are moving beyond just books to ebooks and multiple screens and more interactive offerings” (Rosen, 1). Similarly, Kingsland and Satyal write that publishers “should talk directly to consumers about the whole host of experiences they offer instead of relying solely on booksellers to do so. This is especially true as technologies advance and it becomes more viable (and affordable) for publishers to create…new and enhanced versions of authors’ works” (3). Creating digitally advanced content and formats is an important goal, but “multiple screens and more interactive offerings” cannot and should not take the place of an effective and memorable brand.

Risk Reduction Branding Models

The publishing industry is one centered around the cultivation of a quality product, or rather a yearly list of quality products. With each publisher putting out a substantial number of products per year, “the market for books is already an enormously crowded one, and it will increase to be so as the number of titles published every year increases as well (Thompson, 11). This leads to a shortening of books’ shelf lives, and shifts the business away from a backlist centered long-termism to a mass-market driven short-termism (Squires, 26)” (Lis & Berz, 194). This overcrowding of the market by so many industries with uncultivated brand identities means that every book needs to fight for itself and on its own merit, making the gambling game publishers play that much more unpredictable. Additionally, if one focuses solely on product production, that product becomes the cornerstone upon which your financial and institutional success is built. When that product is also art, those corporate obligations run the risk of compromising it. With these compromises come mainstream airport best-sellers of poor quality in both production and content. For publishers who rely upon their product for their brand identity, these connotations can be disastrous.

One way to fix this would be to flip the model to take the pressure off the individual titles, making the brand responsible for the product instead of the product responsible for the brand:

Brand supported by individual titles
Individual titles supported by brand

With a strategy such as this, publishers can take the pressure off the individual titles to perform well enough to support a lucrative brand and instead use their powerful brand identity to carry both their front and back list titles. To use another graph, this is how Clark and Philips have depicted the current business model in publishing (108):

Current publishing business model

In this diagram, “brand” is just one branch of many, unconnected to such key factors as “product development” or “visibility & market reach.” If, instead, the business model gave more prominence to brand and it in turn was responsible for these related factors, it would decrease and consolidate risk in other areas:

Brand-based business model

In this model, what consumers would notice would be the publisher’s brand, which would then translate into an increased interest in products and a more memorable and consistent user experience, all while increasing visibility and market reach. This is beneficial to creating consumer loyalty in an industry that does not tend toward repeat sales, and also helps to control for economic and symbolic risk; if the brand is good, the products will be well-received, and a failed product will not be as devastating.

An Experiment in Product And Service Publishing

One way to develop a powerful brand that is able to sustain these other factors in a position of prominence is to explore the idea of “product and service publishing.” Revisiting the American Marketing Association’s definition of branding — “endowing products and services with the power of a brand” (Lis & Berz, 198) — it is important to note the use of the term “products and services”. Publishing is a product-driven industry, a product that tends to suffer from the effects of consumer risk aversion. The key with “product and service publishing” would be to expand the definition of the industry to incorporate the offering of services.

If publishers engaged in cultivating services consistent with and in relation to their original book publishing mission, this would enable them to build a brand tangential to and supported by their products without placing sole financial or institutional responsibility on their products’ performance in the marketplace. For example, Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon works “to engage readers, support writers, and inspire the next generation with great literature” by hosting events, readings, launch parties, and promoting literary intelligence and appreciation (literary-arts.org). Their brand is strong and respected in the community for the services they provide. If they decided to begin putting out a product (i.e. becoming a publisher in their own right), their strength would be on their meticulously cultivated brand identity. Potential consumer loyalty is already there, and would be easy to utilize in the sale of products.

Imagine, for example, a niche publisher that specializes in books celebrating world religion, spirituality, culture, and mythology. But they also have a roster of literary events that benefit the community in a non-profit capacity, and work in their community to promote literacy and education. Their brand, bolstered by the services they offer, benefits their products, alleviates the risk of betting it all the brand of a new title, and ensures consumer loyalty in a market that does not generally benefit from repeat sales. This is especially useful, as they are a small, independent publisher of non-fiction, two of the markets at a disadvantage using the author branding model.

Conclusion

The “product and service” branding model is purely theoretical and would benefit from more statistical research. Finding a publisher with a strong consumer brand and tracking their sales in relation to other publishers would offer more insight into the value of consumer branding. A survey of a pool of students at Portland State University or elsewhere requesting information on their favorite publishers may be helpful as well, highlighting whether or not the millennial generation in a city full of small, independent presses notice publishing house brands or consider them influential in their purchasing decisions.

The next generation of publishers could very well dispose of the archetype of the faceless gatekeeper of culture that has been associated with publishing for so long. “Product and service publishing” could implement a move toward an industry that engages with their community, cares about consumer loyalty, and cultivates brands powerful enough to support only the best books.