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...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Memoir and fiction: it's how we read them

Here's a great article by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the crucial matter of the different ways in which we read fiction and memoir. I agree with it all and have said most of it myself on this blog at one time or another, so I don't want to add anything, so please just go and read it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

London Book Fair

So I went to the London Book Fair. Someone once said - I'm sorry, I don't remember who - that a book fair is no place for a writer, but it's perhaps a sign of the times that this year there was a strong emphasis on self publishing, with seminars on things like how an author needs to be an entrepreneur, and Advanced Marketing for authors, and there was a dedicated Author's Lounge for unpublished authors  - though I'm not quite sure who they were supposed to be networking with: each other? I somehow can't imagine a load of agents and publishers coming down to be networked with, though I did attend a session there entitled The Future of the Literary Agent, in which Hellie Ogden, who has recently joined  Janklow and Nesbit, talked of a new relationship between authors and agents in which authors appointing agents want to know what agents can do for them. The whole tenor of this session, at which Andrew Lownie of Andrew Lownie Associates also spoke, was that it's a whole new world in publishing, with agents taking a much more active and creative role in managing the careers of their authors, and many publishers getting left behind in a quickly-changing digital ethos, overtaken by e-self-publishing and the kind of enterprise Andrew Lownie himself has - apparently very successfully - begun, trialing books as ebooks and via print on demand.

The Authors' Lounge for this event was vastly overcrowded, with people standing and sitting on the floor, and I did take a photo to show you, but I'm afraid when I got back to my very cheap hotel with absolutely no room whatever in the bathroom, the iphone (on which I'd taken the photo) slid off the pile of towels on top of the lavatory cistern into the loo (which made it in the end a very expensive yet inconvenient hotel). I know it's a cliche, dropping your phone in the loo when you're drunk, and I can't deny I'd had a glass or two, but still...

I was at the fair to take part in a Salt panel on How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring. Branding was a key word at this fair. The great message of our panel was that we all have to be ourselves, yet we all need to be a brand, indeed we need to brand ourselves, so figure that one out, dear   Readers. In fact, our great chair, Elaine Aldred is going to blog about the event, and I'll link to her post when she does.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Edge Hill Prize long list and what it shows

Last year, or maybe the year before, the Edge Hill Prize (for a published short story collection) began publishing their longlist. This move is to be welcomed, chiefly and most obviously because it gives publicity, and introduces us, to a larger number of excellent books that may otherwise get no attention whatsoever, but also because it provides us with some measure of the current state of short story publishing. This year the Edge Hill longlist is larger than ever, and it does indeed paint an interesting picture.

It does seem that the locus of short story publishing in Britain and Ireland is now firmly the small presses, and that there are more small publishers than ever in existence producing excellent work. Of the 24 publishers represented on the list, 19 are truly small publishers. It's even more interesting to look at the proportions for the longlisted books: 37 books are listed, but small publishers have produced 29 of those, Salt and Comma being responsible for nine between them. Perhaps another interesting fact is that six of those 19 small publishers - Doire Press, Arlen House, New Island, Stinging Fly, Blackstaff and Lilliput - are Irish, two (Parthian and Old Street) are based in Wales, and another (Freight) is Scottish, reinforcing the notion of the short story as non-conformist.  Perhaps to my own shame I hadn't actually heard of Doire, Freight or Lilliput, or indeed of some of the remaining ten: new to me were the Valley Press based in Scarborough, Route which operates from Pontefract, of all places (I'm prejudiced - I once lived there!), Skylight, Elsewhere, Tightrope (Canadian) and Odyssey (US, I think - they charge for their books in dollars, at any rate). The two I haven't yet mentioned are the northern-based Pewter Rose, and the Bristol-based Tangent.

It's perhaps to be noted, though, that the bigger publishers are still producing short stories - two longlisted books come from Pan Macmillan, and Bloomsbury has fielded no less than three. Interesting, though, that Faber, which one thinks of as the home of literary fiction par excellence, and which has triumphed in this prize in the past (their authors Claire Keegan and Sarah Hall have both been overall winners), appears to have nothing to enter this year (Junot Diaz, the only short story writer they seem to have published this year, failing to be eligible as he's not British-born).

Anyway, many congratulations to those writers on the longlist, and if you'll permit a little indulgence, very special congrats to those on the list I happen to know personally: Carys Bray with Sweet Home (Salt), Nuala Ni Chonchuir with Mother America (New Island), Tania Hershman with My Mother Was An Upright Piano (Tangent), Jackie Kay with Reality, Reality (Pan Macmillan), Adam Marek with The Stone Thrower (Comma), Jonathan Pinnock with Dot, Dash (Salt), Jane Rogers with Hitting Trees With Sticks (Comma) and Tony Williams with All The Bananas I've Never Eaten (Salt)