I recently heard a talk by Eric Huang, Development Director for Made in Me, who is, in short, brand-minded and believes that publishers could be doing a whole lot more with brands, including branding themselves. This inspired some thoughts.
Eric mentioned imprints in particular as currently having little value to consumers, who mostly don’t recognise them, don’t understand them and don’t connect them to the mother company. They are consequently also not engaging in the sort of behaviour they engage in with other brands – namely, not just buying a branded product but continuing to rely on the brand as a tried-and-tested product or service they have good experiences of. Eric Huang thinks publishers are being silly not to try and build this kind of a relationship with their markets as well.
There are some publishers who have managed it. Penguin, its orange logo and its uniform Classic covers are quite iconic; Bloomsbury is Harry Potter’s publisher, and… and that’s it. It’s different if you ask people who work in publishing – in a little pond the fish all know each other. Chatto & Windus are an esteemed literary fiction imprint, Virago does women’s fiction, Canongate focuses on Scotland.
If publishers were to try and become more recognisable to consumers, they would have to achieve brand recognition in one of two ways: distinction through quality or distinction through curation.
Some years ago, when I was still living at home with my mum, the hoover broke and we had to get another one. We looked at a hundred different models and they all looked like they could do the job. Then we noticed that all the really old appliances that we had around the house were Philips ones. The toaster had been in the family for as long as I had, the kettle was old-fashioned but fully workable, the washing machine was showing no signs of aging, and so on. That observation made the decision a lot easier, and we bought a Philips hoover. (It’s a marvel. I’m a big fan.)
So consumers keep tabs on their purchases, learning from bad and good decisions. Good brands have built up trust over a longer period of time and minimised failures.
Publishing doesn’t lend itself to minimising failures very well, sadly. We produce creative products, and even good-quality ones (let’s say this means no typos, plot holes or actual incorrect information) are not to everyone’s taste. Publishers also frequently take risks, such as publish first-time authors, try new genres, attempt to join in a trend and come too late, or any number of other ventures that often turn out to lose money. Big-name authors famously pay for many of these experiments, and that’s just the way publishing will work until such a time as someone comes up with a way to accurately predict which books will succeed and which will fail. But it does make upholding rigorous quality standards (in the eyes of consumers) impossible. Every publisher has a sizeable flock of black sheep at the back of a warehouse gathering dust.
The other route to recognisability is to specialise, ideally in something relatively niche or not widely available. I buy most of my shoes at Aldo, because their shoes fit my feet, which are quite big and given to blistering. Whenever I need a new pair, it’s my first stop. To give a bookish example, I read most of Mary Renault’s books in one go after discovering The Persian Boy, which fit perfectly into my favourite genre at the time: GLBT-themed historical fiction. It’s hard to come by and I was overjoyed at having found some at last.
Specialising is easiest for small publishers. Or is it? I’ve sometimes heard people say publishers should get rid of imprints, because they serve no useful function that couldn’t be achieved otherwise and they just confuse readers. I think, however, that imprints would be the ideal way to curate niche subjects under one roof without committing to that genre or subject area overall.
This would work particularly well in genre fiction – I know that at least scifi fans can be particular in their preferences (eg. ‘hard’ science fiction over other kinds of scifi) and might appreciate having a trusty source of exactly the stuff they like. With a little market research we might be able to find which niche subject areas are understocked, like GLBT historical fiction for me, and target those areas with a cohesive list that has a memorable name and an interesting logo.
In what other ways could publishers reinforce their brand statuses? Or should we stay away from such blatantly commercial measures altogether?