Thursday, February 11, 2010

How do you brand a book?

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.

16 comments:

Brendan said...

I don't have any brand loyalty to publishers. I suppose I always thought of them as means to an end-getting my authors books out. It is the authors who are important.

To them I do have loyalty but even then it can be short lived-I call it my three strikes rule. Three(what I consider) stinkers and you are off my list.

John Lambshead said...

Baen also inspire brand loyalty in authors. They are a great company to work for.
John

Ori Pomerantz said...

What John wrote.

Ultimately, brand loyalty is loyalty to an experience. In books, that experience comes primarily from the author. To have loyal readers, you have to either have loyal authors, or have editors who make sure the books in a series are consistent.

You cannot brand a book. But you can brand a series if it lasts long enough (for example, 1632). You can also brand authors.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Brand loyalty is really interesting concept.

It can linger for years. I still feel well disposed towards Fritz Leiber and I discovered his books in my early twenties. I fear reading them again now, because I don't know if they will stand up to time.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

But I do have a branding iron! It would be easy.

Seriously, this is a total confusion to me, personaly, because I write SO MANY different styles/genres.

John, years ago, when publishing was almost in as bad shape as it is today, I met an artist friend at an art show. She was concerned for me and asked how I was doing. I told her about DOITD and her face lit up. "Oh, you're with Baen now? You'll be all right then. They take care of their people." :)

Ori -- EXACTLY what do you mean by branding authors? I must inform you I'm SERIOUSLY averse to pain and hot stuff. (runs.)

Kate said...

Brendan,

So you wouldn't notice if, say, one publisher was consistently publishing more of your favorite authors than anyone else, and be tempted to look more closely at that publisher's offerings?

I'm asking because this is the exact story many Baen barflies tell when asked how they became interested in an author.

Kate said...

John,

Baen is the only one I've seen that consistently gets it right - "it" being treating their authors like actual human beings with brains, looking after the fans as well, choosing books that are identifiably "Baen"...

Kate said...

Ori,

This is why a smart publisher gathers authors that have a similar "feel" and builds that, good quality, good treatment of authors and good treatment of readers into a 'brand'.

Kate said...

Rowena,

Precisely. When you notice that an awful lot of those favorites have the same publisher name, it becomes tempting to try something new from that publisher. I've found authors that way.

Kate said...

Sarah,

You're a brand unto yourself. And put that branding iron away! You're not allowed to brand your kids! Or me. Sheesh!

Chris McMahon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris McMahon said...

Generally I don't have a loyalty to a particular publisher. But going back I think I did really enjoy the Grafton books coming out of the UK (was that a Harper Collins' imprint?)

Baen really do have a sense of building a brand and trying to povide something the readers want. Ditto on that!

matapam said...

I'm pretty oblivious to publishers. Only after find the Bar did I become aware of how many of the books on my shelves were Baen, and how many of those were my favorites.

That got me looking at the other Baen authors.

I think it's difficult, if not impossible for most of the big publishers, simply because they are so big and publish so many authors in so many genres. The different genres all have different feels to them, and can ruin any feeling of similarity.

Now, I think authors tend to have a voice that carries over from genre to genre. Yes, even you, Sarah. I think you come to trust an author to produce the same sort of completion and satisfaction at the ends of books, however diverse the other content.

I think that makes it hard for some authors to write to satisfy some publisher's preference. This one wants downer endings, with deep philosophical meaning, that one wants the Good Guys to always win, the one over there wants a strong female lead, and generally kills the love interest. That one wants explicit sex and lots of gore.

If you can identify a branding, and write to it, you may be better able to sell to that publisher. But if you've established a contrary branding of your own, will you lose your fan following?

Brendan said...

Kate, normally I am looking for authors. I still do most of my browsing in shops and while a publisher may have a good cover design team that will help get me to pick up the book initially I certainly aren't looking at publisher logos as I go up and down the aisle.

While I do have web pages bookmarked of especially SF speciality publishers I seldom check their pages for new reads. I tend to go there for further info or research on an author I may be interested in.

Unfortunately also, unless I am going into speciality book stores(Minotaur in Melbourne there is very little chance of me seeing anything by Baen on the shelves

Chris, Grafton was a HC along with a number of other that seem to have disappeared, no doubt as part of the rationalisations of the 80s and 90s.

Dave Freer said...

Ear Tags Kate. Not as effective as branding, but work on dog-eared books. Seriously -what Matapam said. I didn't know publishers had house styles and hadn't noticed who published my faves, until I encountered Baen's bar - which was after I had sold to Baen. It's a good effort, and I can see why publishers may need it... but I am less sure authors need them doing it - because they can only do it by using us, and tying ourselves too closely to what may be their bad decisions can hurt us (ergo the cries of 'greedy authors' coming from readers in the aftermath of the Amazon/macmillan fight). Now, calling authors 'greedy' when 90% or more of the cost of a book goes to retail or publishing, and most of the authors I know would make more flipping burgers is ludicrous -- but it is a side effect of letting the authors (who get very little if any benefit from rising prices) be identifed with publishers who want to elevate prices. So if a publisher wants to use my name for his brand - they need to show real loyalty to me. Baen at least try to do that.

Stephen Simmons said...

Maybe I can offer another perspective here. I'm an avid SF&F reader, recently bitten by the writing bug - Sarah showed me the way here, blame her. :)

I had noticed, as a reader, that the overwhelming majority of my purchases in the past few years seemed to be from Baen. Honor Harrington led me to The Bar, even though I really don't have the time to participate there. And on the vanishingly-rare occasions that I manage to exhaust my shopping list of "books-to-buy-next", yes, I find that whether or not an unknown author is published by Baen DOES affect my likelihood of picking up their book.

When the writing bug bit, the first place I thought to turn was Baen. I ran my work through the "slush pile" forum in The Bar, with positive reactions from the 'flies there. And I'm strongly leaning toward trying REALLY hard to break into their stable as my first choice as an author, if I'm that lucky ...

Yes, branding works, imho.