Sunday, April 21, 2013

Branding in publishing

Longman's dictionary:

brand n 1 a charred piece of wood 2a a mark made by burning with a hot iron to designate ownership (eg of cattle) b a mark formerly put on criminals with a hot iron 3a a mark made with a stamp, stencil etc to identify manufacture or quality b a class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer c a characteristic or distinctive kind; a variety (a lively ~ of humour)

brand vt to mark with a brand 2 to stigmatise 3 to impress indelibly (~ the lesson on his mind)

branded adj labelled with the manufacturer's brand.

Well, it's obvious which of these we mean when we're talking about branding in publishing, isn't it?
Or is it? The more I think about it, the less sure I am, and the more sure that sometimes we aren't at all clear what we mean.

Our Salt panel at the London Book Fair was centred on the notion of branding, though our focus was on the use of social networking in creating a brand, and we took the necessity of creating a brand, and the concept itself of a brand, for granted. But since then I've been thinking...

What precisely do we mean by a brand, and who or what is meant to be the brand? Clearly when the LBF invited Salt to form the panel on the strength of their success via social networking, they were thinking of Salt's output as a brand, in the sense of n 3b, 'a class of goods', in this case books, 'identified by name as the product of a single manufacturer', and also perhaps as n 3c, since Salt is characterised and made distinctive as a quality literary list. It's pretty obvious that a publisher does need to be brand in these senses - both as a business, and in the case of a literary publisher, for artistic reasons.

But then we Salt authors were there to speak for ourselves, precisely for our individual identities as writers, distinct from each other (we hope) and from all other authors, and it is constantly said now that an author - an individual author - needs to be a brand. It was an idea that was utterly taken for granted in the session on The Future of the Literary Agent I attended later that day. When agent Hellie Ogden spoke of what she was going to do for a new author she had taken on, it was the author's brand she spoke of managing and promoting. But what does this mean? In what consists the author's brand?

All too often, I fear, it means that an author is considered, or expected to be, the manufacturer of a series of one particular kind of novel. I have too often heard writers complaining about being pushed by their publishers to write another novel just like their last (and others of being rejected for not doing so), in other words to conform to their supposed brand, in the sense of 'being marked with a stamp'. Well, ouch! After all, creativity is all about innovation, to be repetitive is to be anti-creative. But even more pertinently, from the business point of view too there's a huge fault in this kind of thinking. Of course we like brands: as humans we take comfort in the familiar, the recognisable, but we are also excited by the new: brands can pall, especially in this era of the restless search of the new. This, I guess, is what leads to the deplorable situation of publishers dropping those they may have pushed into repetition, thus wasting their previous investments, and constantly seeking desperately for the The Next New Author.

But in good business practice a brand will maintain a constant while simultaneously refreshing and evolving. And is it not the case that serious authors do this anyway? The brand of a serious author consists after all in voice or style - which as T S Eliot averred is embedded in personality - or maybe something even more subtle, a particular characterising talent or energy, which in turn can give rise to the refreshment of literary variation.

Come back, you abandoned literary mid-listers, all is, or ought to be, forgiven...

9 comments:

Sheenagh Pugh said...

A friend of mine, Don Little, had written a couple of detective novels for Robert Hale. His third was different, a sci-fi novel. Hale did accept it, but insisted he publish it under a pseudonym (Martyn Wessex, IIRC) just in case his readers were confused... They don't give us credit for much intelligence.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, the attitude to readers needs some examination...

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

I'm with the 'style = brand' line of thinking. I would hate to write the same novel or story over and over. I write for myself, first and foremost, and repetition would bore me.
'Brand' used for people is so yukky anyway. I think it is more suited to commercial writers/crime writers.
Literary writers are generally more maverick in their approach to creativity. They want to write about different things, in different ways.
'Brand' smacks of 'formula' and if there is one thing I loathe in writing it is the formulaic.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, I do think that's the trouble with the word - it does lead to an expectation of formula. And 'branding' was a real buzz word at the LBF.

Alison Wells said...

I was reading an article by Brian Aldiss at the weekend in which he talks about the 'mode' of writing. By using the idea of mode we can merge traditions of writing without tripping us too much on 'genre'. So we might write literary, sci-fi or thrillers in a gothic mode or horror in a comedy mode or any combination of the above and more. In some ways mode might be like 'mood'. I've differentiated my more literary and sci-fi selves (as Alison Wells and A.B. Wells respectively) but it's more problematic than that. My 'sci-fi' is also a large part domestic comedy. I've written serious literary fiction but hope to go lighter in the future towards comedy, more noir towards gothic to name some. Writers need constant reinvention of themselves and their work - look at the legacy in music of someone like David Bowie. As you explain, I can see how branding is seen as useful by marketing and sales but anyone who cares about literature needs to encourage change and innovation.

Rachel Fenton said...

I find the whole author as "brand" thing revolting, on the whole, though I have kept my comic writing identity separate from my other writing ID. I have been told that my diversity is my downfall, but, personally - and considering I write out of an essential drive and necessity for my well-being - I'll have to be a commercial failure and a creative success. There's another facet to this branding thing, though, in the sense that, as a woman, I've already been branded in a way with my father's name. To have patriarchy applied to my work as well is not something that appeals to me. Publisher as father figure is not attractive. Let me be myself - with all my aspects.

quinross98 said...

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Anonymous said...

I write the story I want to write, not to fit in with some pre-conceived notion of genre or 'what the readers want'. I hate the idea of being labelled, my first novel is about a single woman struggling to find her identity and I do not want it to be labelled as chick-lit.
www.sandradanby.com

Paper Cut said...

This was an awesome post and I especially enjoyed the roots of the words branding, which reveal its not-so salubrious past. For many years, writers have had the chance to play in their own sandbox. Now with the publishing world in flux and the rise of the indie author writers are faced with a sink or swim situation. It would nice to write all day, but then again who read our stuff except our families and dogs.