Monday, November 1, 2010

Burning Brand - what's in a Name?

Now a while back another list I am on had a few people getting rather excited about self published books at a book fair that they were invited to, but at which no bookseller was going to be to hawk their wares. They'd have to do their own, and how would anyone know they were a cut above? There was some mild hysteria about the idea that the myriad self-pubbed/ small press authors and books were overwhelming these events and the conference panels.

There were suggestions that ‘real' authors call themselves New York published or various other titles (we'll call you a ‘sanitation engineer') as an imprimatur of quality.

The trouble with this is that quality's hallmark is... quality. Not a title. And the trouble with titles is that "New York Publishing" is the mark of a bunch of brands (publishing houses) who have yet to fully wake up to branding and its value and how it works. Firstly, people have to actually know your brand exists. Baen figured this a while ago. Tor and I see now Penguin are trying to capitalise on their authors (who are brand names) to establish their brands in the minds of readers. This is good thinking for publishers if not necessarily for the authors (who are providing a very valuable property for free). It may of course be good for the authors too, as it lets your brand name mix with other possibly more august names. (August Names, see, are the names of authors who come out in August, which is when the publishers put out their best wares for summer holiday reads. And if you believe this, I have a book to sell you. About selling bridges...) The down side of this of course is the part they may not quite have figured yet, ie... You might end up tarnishing your brand with the more January Names (when no customers have any money left after their Christmas's Budget blowout, and you put up stuff not many people would buy anyway.) And this I do not think the new rush have quite grasped yet: public opinion of your WHOLE brand and ALL its products matter.

What? Yes, actually I DO know DRAGON'S RING is coming out in paperback in early January. But thank you for pointing it out ;-). I shall continue to believe that people will love the book and tell their friends, and that this was shrewd and not a label. I have to believe this :-)

Anyway, the point I am making is that a brand of value known for quality say... Rolls Royce for example, might make several models of motor car, or luxury cars and aero engines, but, to conserve their brand's value, none of these is a fall-apart assembled in Ping-Ping from slightly used tin cans and chewing gum and spit washing machine. A January, if you like. A powerful brand has no January names on its product list. Anonymous no label companies (where the brand is invisible) might make fairly good products and rubbish at the same factory, and put a lot of effort into selling fairly good, and just have the rubbish cheap to make. But companies who sell on brand, can't.

Anyone who believes the general output of large Publishing in NY has followed a policy of strengthening their brands by never putting out a January, erhm.... I suggest you read more. As a way of marking your book as something better than self-published / small press, this one is a failure. Moreover it's a failure the writer can do nothing about. As several people pointed out, this is a storm in a tea-cup. There have ALWAYS been vanity / self published / small press books about. And, while this is not generally true, a few really are far better than anything NY has brought out in the last 50 years, and probably about 10% are no worse. It hasn't brought down publishing yet, or drowned out the authors published by large publishing. Take it away, and those who fail now... would still fail. The reason is painfully obvious: because, quite simply, the self-published and small press can't get the broad retail access. With rare exceptions (that take a lot of luck and work) they can't match the NY Publishers' reach. It's hard, not very rewarding and most will give up before the breakthrough.

NY publishing didn't NEED a brand name, and imprimatur of quality, because they controlled most retail access. If you were in B&N across the country... you had their stamp of approval.

Of course that becomes awkward with the advent of the Internet and large online retailers, who are (at present) willing to give retail space to every Tom Dickanharry who can come up with a cover and thinks they can write. What's worse is that the large online retailers are prepared to give Mr Dickanharry 70% of the cover price (out of which he has to pay the cost of a cover, and for proof-reading, and hopefully acquire some editorial input). And large NY Publishing are pushing their newbies and midlist not into retail space they pwn, but into competition - with no more than Mr Dickanharry, and um... if the author is lucky, 12.5% cover price. It's going to take a fairly stupid author not to go to a small publisher, that will do as much as the NY House do, and will give him 50% of the cover price. Now you understand why the Publisher's brand name suddenly becomes a thing of value, that companies who had no real interest before are suddenly flinging themselves into, and pressuring their authors to take slots on their online blogs etc. It adds value to their Brand, at small extra cost (most of the real, vast cost -- the author's time -- the Publisher gets for free. On the plus side it does mean the bigger names -- who get the bulk of the advance spend and any other push and publicity, get to draw some light to the newbies and the midlisters by sharing a podium. Most of them like doing this, as anyone who has been to Baen's Bar knows. Authors -- especially those who have battered their own way up through hard knocks -- are actually amazingly good about nurture. Ok there are exceptions, but when I look at what other writers have done for me, my sarcasm leaves entirely and I can only be grateful and aspire to be one.)

This leaves me, finally (yes, you are relieved), at my conclusions: which are
1)If you are published by NYBighouse do take part in whatever Brand building forum they want of you. You have very little choice, and there are some advantages (whether this amounts to 37.5% of the royalties must depend on what other publicity you have. If you have none, and this will bring you 1000 sales as opposed to 10 chance finds, it is )
2)Distinctly brand yourself within that forum, and keep an off-forum site, which you refer to on forum, which offers things not available on your publisher's site. They're using you to build their brand, use them to build yours.
3)Make as many contacts and cross-linkages as possible on that site, with established authors and new writers and wannabes. There is no such thing as free lunch, but these are the people who will help you, as you help them.
4) The flush of self-pubbed and small press ebooks will not go away... or drown the quality. Many new start ups will find this is hard, unrewarding and give up. But some will stay on.
5) Some large houses will try to either cut a cosy deal with the larger online retailer to lock the smaller / individual players out, and stop their bigger names deserting them. If this fails expect at restrictive contracts.
6)Look beyond all of this, and build your Brand, even before you publish.

And I'd be curious about your impressions of where it will go?

12 comments:

MataPam said...

I think that at some point Amazon.com etc are going to look around and see that they have turned themselves from the online version of a big bookstore with _everything_ into the Dollar Store with shelves full of things that aren't worth the dollar. And that their usual business is getting lost in the heaps of plastic beads.

At that point they have three choices. (1) Toss the trashy inventory and get back to what they've always done. (2) Set up a separate section of "From the NY Publishers" books so their customers don't have to wade through the trash. (3) Set up their own rating system.

Now, I could be wrong. There may be so many people who love digging through the bargin bins to find a real steal that the current Dollar Store setup is viable.

But I think there's a limited time window in which new e-publishers have to get themselves rated as "Brings good quality goods" to get themselves on the right side of a quality partition. Which efforts will hopefully also serve to get their imprint in use as a search modifyer for readers diving into the bargin bin. Which will get them on the right side of a rating system that must either have huge numbers of slush readers, or uses reader ratings as a criteria.

Which way the industry will go next is unpredictable. New e-pubs can only try fro quality and push as hard as possible to sell every single one of their offerings, so they look good however a rating service weights "Numbers of good sellers" v "Numbers of DOAs."

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - I agree new start up need to get the numbers if they can, ASAP. But I also think Online retail are going to make entry a little harder (and possibly less lucrative, percentage - wise. No reason, except they can. Another reason to build and keep your own site-brand)
I suspect the flood will actually die out quite fast. Seriously, with or without intervention. Selling is hard, be it to the publisher or the public.

MataPam said...

Good point. if enough new e-publishers can stay in business with their own sites and online sales, they might be enough competition to influence, to limit, the big Online retailers' grab for a higher percentage of each sale.

And if the writers can keep control, be investors or outright owners of the small e-pubs, they may not get greedy either.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, yes, and more reason than ever to push readers toward buying direct from the author / e-pub. 1)The author gets a little better share 2)It strengthens the e-pub or self-publisher.

Ben Godby said...

Dave, great thoughts. I've got to admit that I'm... impressed by brands and by big New York publishers. I've never bought anything self-published because I like that publishers vet my reading for me - that they're willing to put their bucks behind this or that author's work. It's the same reason I submit my own writing to magazines that pay professional rates, rather than self-publish it or just post it on my blog: someone else's money.

Still, there's no denying the power of the "unlimited retail space" that is the Internet. But, personally, I don't yet know how to dig through that space to find the gems; nor do I see a need to learn as I don't have the time, and considering that there are a lot of great books published by New York houses, or available at the library, or whatever.

So, I guess that is still my caveat when it comes to the self-handled author... even though the borderlands of that caveat are being eaten away by steadily more lucrative arguments...

MataPam said...

Ben, I used to read slush (unsolicited manuscripts)for Baen. I don't even want to stick a toe back into that dreck on Amazon or anywhere else. Ten percent of what I read IF it had been rewritten after a thorough critique, IF it had been proofed for consistency, grammar, typos, corrected all the interestingly unique dialog tags, might have been fun to read. As it was, I passed on to the editor less than one percent and less than ten cent of those were purchased, although some are still awaiting evaluation and that number might rise.

By the average consummer is not going to sample a hundred books to find the one good one. He's going to quit after he samples ten and the one that he thought was good died with a whimper at the very end, leaving him disgusted and unsatisfied. Then he's going to go back to the "NY Brand."

Any one wanting to go independant needs to jump in before John Q Reader gets disgusted, and lead him off to a bunch of independant presses who've weeded out the bad stuff. So he can look for "NY Brand" and X, Y and Z sites for good reads.

I guess the whole point is that this is an opportunity for people, mostly writers, to create an "Independent Presses Brand" that will endure through the current chaos and emerge on the other side as a rival power to "NY Brands."

Dave Freer said...

Ben, having for a brief while read slush (and that was selected slush) for JBU - I can only agree with you that some - shall we call it preselection - makes finding a good read much more pleasant. That said, most readers at present do their selection in a bookstore (or library), browsing, or by pre-established name that they know and like on the internet retail space. Most would be unaware that any preselection had taken place. They're going to find out, the hard way, browsing on internet retail. This will leave them with name they trust or rather, 'brands' they trust. At the moment with publishers, there is the Romance brand Publisher (which shows how well it is established with me, because I can't think of its name)and Baen - who have a distinct brand with a brand following. Which leaves the new NYPublished author sitting as just another unknown, totally indistiguishable from 10 000 other self published books books, or the book from Littlebit press, Mildura, except the guys at Littlebit did proof the book properly (this is another issue - poor work on lesser titles shows up the brand)

So yes, readers need the branding (or some form of preselection) but so do publishers and authors.

Kate said...

I'm going to be the dissenting voice here, and point out that as the commercial publishers get less willing to edit and even proof-read the books they're publishing, the books become distinguishable from self-published books by precisely one thing: the ability to get them into the chain bookstores.

I started filtering books a long time ago. There's a relative handful of authors whose work I'll buy sight unseen. Anything else, if there's nothing for me to browse, I don't buy it.

I categorize very simply. If I can leave the preview/put the book down without regret, it's not worth my money. Some books will get flagged as "maybe one day", others get bought on the spot because I can't let it go.

Big box publisher names? No. They just don't figure.

A small press or epress that builds a reputation for quality offerings is likely to do well, IMO. One that doesn't do the quality filtering... probably won't do that well.

Brendan said...

Browsing through an online repository is very different from going through the slush pile. While those books are probably available, Amazon and other online retailers do have their own way of heading potential buyers towards books they are most likely to enjoy.

Things like user ratings, people who liked/bought this also bought... and forums where people can be quite free with thier opinions all work towards pushing people towards the most popular titles. Those that don't get traction through sales or reccomendations don't get seen. After all it is not in The retailer's intrested to guide you towards books that stink.

Jim McCoy said...

I've never been a fan of a particular publisher. I mean, I have been buying a lot of books that have been published by Baen Books in the last couple of years, but that's because they were written by some of my favorite authors. It has nothing to do with the little rocketship on the spine.

As far as the future of e-publishing goes, I have a hope and a fear.

My hope is that maybe I will see more of what I want to read. Remember when SF was an optimistic genre? Remember when Star Trek The Next Generation could have an android that was not out to kill everyone? Remember when Star Trek The Original Series could give us all the first interracial kiss (sort of) in American TV? How about Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series where all the problems of humanity were solved by science? I guess I'm alright with all of the dystopian stuff that's been coming out for the last decade, but how about a differing viewpoint? And whatever happened to pulp SF that was fun to read and didn't try to be "literature?" What's wrong with stuff that's just fun to read?

My fear is that we'll get nothing but a bunch of dreck. If I want poorly written, unimaginative drivel I can get that anywhere. I'm hoping that the online publishers will find good writers and EDIT their work. A lot of what I've been reading lately from major publisher hasn't been edited so I can't see a smaller house doing it. Maybe I'm wrong though. I hope.

Dave Freer said...

Kate said: I'm going to be the dissenting voice here, and point out that as the commercial publishers get less willing to edit and even proof-read the books they're publishing, the books become distinguishable from self-published books by precisely one thing: the ability to get them into the chain bookstores.

:-)I'm not sure about the dissent. Obviously the ability to write clearly is my weakness. I've noticed a steady cost-cutting going on across the industry for years - which has often hurt quality. Advances to new writers are what they were 30 years ago - when books were half the price, effectively, half price. Electronic typesetting meant huge savings, printing costs have come down in real terms, two years ago NY publishing let loads of staff go - editorial staff too. In the bicker with Amazon the big 5 ended up with a bigger share of the income. Yet every publisher claims penury and that their margins are tiny. Editors and publicity people are reported by various better connected authors who visit their offices as desperately overworked. This is, I am sure, all true. But the question that needs to be asked: so where is that money and time going? With various friends I have in the industy, I can't say the midlist or newbies see much of it. If I am correct it's going into a small segment of the publisher's output - which is also where the bulk of the gross income comes from. That's understandable, but does nothing for your brand, and... well, asks another awkward question, why do you have the rest of the list at all? I suspect the answer is not altruism, but that expenses are split... equally. ie, if there are 20 books this month... Joe Newbie is having his advance cut to pay the 1/20 of the interest bill for Fred Bigname's million dollar advance. Office expenses and staff costs and promotion costs are likewise split. While Fred gets 90% of the spend and work, he pays 5% of the bill. Which is justified because Fred brings in the big bucks... Except when you do the accounting a little more precisely and put individual expenses against the individual income, I suspect it might paint a different picture. I would be curious as to what that was.

And now, when brand reputation starts to count, this may come to haunt them.

Dave Freer said...

Jim, Bravo.

That's what I would like to buy, and try to write myself. It's what I've said there is a demand for, ever since I started writing. (A dystopia that is being repaired I think counts as optimistic, eh?)