Obviously, not with a hot iron, paper and such being a tad flammable, but still... Authors can build brand by writing series, but how does a publisher build a brand? What does it take?
I'm writing this from the usual Kate-weird perspective, which is particularly bizarre right now because I'm witnessing a truly spectacular example of brand loyalty in the computer game realm - and one that didn't really happen deliberately, it just kind of grew.
Those who know me know I love (okay, that may be a teensy bit mild) the Myst games. I've been hooked every since I first saw Myst, and have followed the game through all its assorted iterations. It's been some 5 years since the last standalone game was released, and nearly 2 years since the last iteration of the multiplayer online version shut down, and more than that since the last new content. Think about that - over 2 years with nothing new. In a computer game series.
Monday around 2-30pm Eastern USA time, the online game was resurrected. Within 3 hours, fans trying to create their accounts and return to the game - remember, there's still no new content in a game series that's all about puzzle-solving - had brought down the servers. At least 3000 people managed to get to the servers and create accounts, and a reasonable number of the 15000 forum members kept trying most of the evening. Within 24 hours, the servers had to be replaced with bigger ones to handle the load, and by mid-afternoon Wednesday, mirroring and other alternative download methods were being actively explored - and the servers were still down more than they were up because there were simply too many people trying to get registered and playing. That, ladies, gentlemen, and others, is brand loyalty.
How do publishers get that kind of loyalty? They do it the same way the Myst games did, with a little bit (well, a lot) of luck. Provide the fan base what they want, keep in touch with them even during the long breaks between major news, let them play in the sandbox, and have a consistent feel to the books that you're selling. Baen does this, mostly, although they're better on the science-fiction side of the fence than the fantasy side. Harlequin used to do it, with their assorted category romances, although they weren't too great on the letting the fans play side of things.
Oh, and provide a bloody good product. The Myst games did this by a combination of eye-popping graphics, plots that twisted, turned and sometimes went relativistic but were all in the form of "something has happened. You (the player) have to find out what and make the right choice with all the clues you have or something even worse will happen" and production values that didn't give any concessions to cost-cutting - even though cost-cutting was happening behind the scenes. The result is a community of fans who are so eager to come back to their alternate world (and yes, we Myst Online fans do regard it as an alternate world) that they've swarmed the servers and brought them down from sheer demand.
Now I know books and publishing doesn't work quite the same way, but consider the loyalty of Baen's barflies. Any article on ebooks will have at least one helpful 'fly pointing out that Baen does it without DRM and makes money in the process (Hm. That doesn't sound quite right). Baen authors will get followed around online and in real life, with a swarm of helpful (and sometimes not quite so helpful, but hey, loyalty is worth a lot, right?) 'flies running interference, publicising - and sometimes defending - 'their' authors, and generally treating Baen and Baen's authors as something they are a part of. You can't buy that kind of loyalty, but if you have it, it's worth more than any marketing budget.
To get it, you've got to earn it - and Baen earned the barflies much the same way Cyan earned the Myst fans. It provided a nice big sandbox that could double as an alternate reality playground (in some cases tripling and even quantuming as one), did its best to provide good books that had a number of things in common, like plots that didn't involve navel-gazing and introspecting in ever-decreasing circles until the protagonist metaphysically flies up his own fundamental orifice, characters who were real enough that readers identified with them and wanted to see more of them, big booms (who doesn't love a big explosion, anyway?) and high powered weapons (often the reason for the aforesaid big booms). Authors were - and are - encouraged to hang out with fans in the virtual homes provided at the Bar, and there's a lot of information and goodies shared around.
The result... speaks for itself.
I don't know how long it takes something like this to build from zero to self-sustaining, but I suspect as publishing morphs, we'll be finding out. Because I don't think any publisher who doesn't offer some kind of brand and loyalty bonus to readers is going to be following the dodo into history's appendix.