Saturday, December 08, 2007

Further Thoughts on the Branding of Authors

Further thoughts about the issues raised in my last post (can't you tell I'm blogging in a hurry at the moment - it's because I've started writing again!):

Comparing our lack of seriousness about books to the attitude of the poverty-stricken but book-desiring inhabitants of Zimbabwe, Doris Lessing also said this:
There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: "Is she good-looking?" If this is a man: "Charismatic? Handsome?" We joke, but it is not a joke.
Now Dominic Proctor's notion of 'branding' authors, as he describes it to Danuta Kean, seems essentially a good one. His idea, if I read it correctly, is that at present publishing is geared to retail structures which treat books as commodities to be sold alongside other similar commodities, (3 for 2s etc). This means that each book loses its individuality and becomes divorced from a writer's oeuvre and turns into a 'one-off' product. Such a system, as so many writers have found to their cost, places no investment in either an author's career or in the long-term life of a book (authors dropped when their first books don't 'sell', books shifted back to the warehouse and pulped after a very short shelf life) and ignores the potential of word-of-mouth build. Instead, he says, publishers should be building what he calls a 'brand' to attract a community of readers around an author's entire oeuvre.

So far so good - great, in fact. And here's Joanna Prior, marketing and publicity director at Penguin, on how Penguin helped Zadie Smith to break out of what Danuta Kean calls 'one hit wonderland':
“A lot of what it comes from is an unshakable belief that you have the ‘real thing’ on your hands, that you have an author who is going to write for a career not just one book.” Such belief, she believes, should fuel publishers’ confidence to create distinct identities that set authors apart. In the case of Smith this meant an emphasis on her distinctive name using bold cover design and tactical publicity that showcased her as a voice for a new generation.

Well, again, that sounds smashing. But didn't you notice all those journalists commenting, as Doris Lessing intimates, on Zadie's youth and beauty, and didn't they put plenty of stress on her personal background?

It's one thing when an author's work is the brand, it's another when the brand is the person of the author. It's dangerous, actually, as Zadie was clearly indicating when not so long ago she pointed out wryly that she'll be old 'and ugly' soon.


Steerforth said...

Even more ephemeral than physical beauty is an author's status as a young Turk, capturing the zeitgeist. I wonder which Zadie Smith will lose first?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Mm, and yet another thought occurs: not only is it hard for an author to continue to fulfil such a 'brand', there's such a thing as brand fatigue, to which the continual re-branding of businesses nowadays is a response. Perhaps we need an altogether more radical and less superficial approach to literature? (And pigs'll do the proverbial...)

Shameless said...

Age also seems to be the bind. I've seen a few agents now calling for submissions only for those "under 40". Blimey. I better get a move on, having just turned 39. :-)

Debi said...

I don't know if it's just me, but the very word 'brand' makes me feel nauseous. The thought of applying to myself? Yerk ...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, yes, and it's always the language that counts when it comes down to it. Proctor's idea as he describes it sounds good (ie of putting more stress on an author's whole career), but actually doesn't the use of the term 'brand' undercut it all anyway, implying a commodity after all?