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Authors as Brands: How does this affect the publishing landscape?

In the publishing industry, marketers are constantly looking for the best way to sell a book. One of the most notable practices in marketing is branding an author. This is when an author has name recognition and generally has a genre or style attached to them. The act of branding is not something new to the industry, but it has definitely become more prevalent in later years with the rise in authors and more books in the market. To make an impression, or to make a sale, people need to recognize the name. Branding authors is a very important practice from a marketing perspective, and one that makes selling a book much easier but this is problematic for a number of reasons, internal to the publishing industry and to authors. There is a risk that if the publishing industry relies too heavily on using brands or on branding authors, other books will not receive enough funding, or even be acquired unless they already have brand recognition.

Authors have been revered by publishers and by audiences for many years. They are often thought of as the holders of truth, as the singular genius that have created a work and are treated with respect and admiration. Whatever your feelings are on authors, it’s clear that there are many people who view them as the most important figure in relation to their work. J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, Robert Ludlum. These are names that are easily recognizable and are, themselves a brand. J.K. Rowling will forever be associated with Harry Potter. Danielle Steele has been featured in Forbes’ list of 10 top-earning authors for the past three years.  Robert Ludlum is such a notable brand that even though he died several years ago, books are still being published in his name.[i] Joe Moran’s text, Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America, comments on the growth of celebrity authors and how it has become common to see authors in the public sphere, like talk shows and book signings. There are many different types of celebrity that Moran describes, but it is still obvious that they are still creating a brand through their work, interviews and the persona they create.[ii] To “focus on the personality, not the work”[iii] has become common practice because it is much easier to market a person than it is to explain what a book is about and why it is important to read. Since the book became an important cultural phenomenon, the author has been tied to the work in equal measure. What has changed in recent years is the devotion to celebrity culture and the size of the market, which makes it even more difficult to compete which is why authors and marketers have turned to creating a brand.

In my research for this paper, I found hundreds of articles online to help new and growing authors in their quest to become a brand. So what exactly does this mean? And what does it entail? First, it is clear that you have to have a distinct vision and style.[iv] This is probably most clearly demonstrated in genre fiction where authors are often tied heavily to the world they have created. For example, when a reader picks up a Stephen King novel they can expect suspense, horror and science-fiction. If he were to change how he writes, there is the chance that this would “disappoint and alienate his readers.”[v] To become a brand, an author has to form an identity: one that connects to the public and is easily distinguished from others. Codex data has shown that customers are willing to pay 66% more for an eBook by a favourite author over an unknown author.[vi] If you still doubt the power of a name, consider Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling published by one of the big-five publishers Little Brown (Hachette) in 2013. Despite being well-reviewed, in its first month it sold just 440 print copies. When it was later revealed that it was written by JK Rowling, the sales increased considerably.[vii] An author’s brand is meant to establish with audiences, “Why you?” over the many other authors “vying for their limited attention”, and it should be consistently delivered through every work.[viii] This does not mean the work has to be the same, but it has to be clear to the audience that it is your work.[ix]

From a marketing perspective, there are many reasons why branding an author would be beneficial. First, you are creating a niche that the author can fill. This means in the long-run you will continue to sell books from this author because of the specific space they fill in the market. After their name has been established it’s easier to sell their work as “the new book from…” instead of trying to express what the book is about. Furthermore, this makes it easier to fulfill audience expectations and to have an idea of what audiences want if they want a book by a specific author. Ultimately this means you have guaranteed buyers who will always want to buy their work. This is substantiated in a poll in The Making of a Bestseller. Editors and agents believe that fan base and “whether the author’s previous book was a bestseller” are keys to success.[x] Generally branded authors have a big audience because their name grows with the amount of books they publish. This is because their relationship to their audience is constantly developing and they are always gaining more fans as their name gains popularity.

Also in the long-term, it is much easier for a marketer to invest in a single person than investing in many up-coming authors. If the marketer feels an author has a strong voice, they can spend time building them a strong platform and social media presence. Pouring money and time into one person who ultimately will produce work consistently and connect with audiences is more worthwhile than trying to do this with every author who might not suit being branded. Certainly author’s fan bases and well known authors existed before marketing books, but marketers have helped increase author celebrity and contribute greatly to branding authors.  Marketers are dedicated to helping the book sell and having an author with an audience is an easy way to sell books. Branding is an easy way to get books bought, but it can have negative effects on authors and publishers.

In the publishing industry, the marketing department has a limited budget which can only spread so far. An author with name recognition or who in future could become a brand name for the company would most likely receive more funding. These are the authors that will get to tour, have posters made, be sent for interviews and will have more exposure than others. The publisher wants to stay in the mind of the audience and further the author’s name in hopes that this will lead to more sales and generate fans. If a large chunk of the marketing budget is put towards these authors, then other books will suffer from a lack of funds. Even with big name publishers who have more money than most are still more likely to put money towards authors who have the potential to sell more books. There are also many authors (especially in literary fiction) who are not easily branded, depending on what they write or how much they are willing to be in the public eye. Because of this, there is a hierarchy set up within the industry between authors who are willing to be branded and those who will not. There are also books that have difficult subject matter and need more money to generate interest, which they are less likely to receive. It’s certainly cynical to believe that marketers will go for an easy sale, but considering how dependent publishing is on sales, it is not surprising that their money would be focused on authors who can generate the sales needed.

Also, smaller publishers have trouble competing with bigger publishers who are more likely to be able to support branded authors and can help brand authors because of their resources.  Not only is it harder for smaller publishers to hold onto authors who could become high-sales brands, it is also difficult for them to compete with the marketing budget these authors receive. This is one of the many aspects in the industry where smaller publishers just can’t compete on the same terms. Furthermore, generally smaller publishers are known for their high literary work, which is often viewed of in opposition to celebrity. In Star Authors, Moran details how authors are constantly struggling to come to terms with their celebrity and how mass market work is sometimes viewed as not as valuable as literary fiction. Fame often becomes the focus of many notable authors work as they struggle to hold onto what they want to create with many expectations being placed upon them.[xi] Although, many of these authors cannot remain in the small-literary-publishing sphere because they do not have the resources to print enough copies or market the authors widely. Branding authors has contributed to an unnecessary, forced dichotomy of mass market vs. literary fiction. This is only perpetuated by the status and amount of money in big name publishers vs. smaller cultural publishers.

Another downside to branding authors is the possibility that this could affect acquisition choices in big and small publishers. If the publishing industry becomes too reliant on big name authors and valuing pre-established marketing power then a lot of authors will not be chosen. It is apparent through the many people I have met through this program that often publishers look at the platform an author already has before signing them. This includes their followers on social media, what they have published, whether or not they have a website, and what their estimated audience will be. The author might only be valued because of their pre-existing platform rather than because of what they are contributing to literature. Some publishers might decide to start branding an author or choosing work simply because their style is unique, not necessarily because they should be published. If we are too reliant on this mode of marketing, and the potential for money-making over what actually works for the publisher and author, the publishers will make more money but also could ignore voices that should be published, because they are harder to market.

If publishers invest too heavily in the brand of the author, this can lead to their compromising their integrity in a big way because there is a greater potential to incorrectly market a book or value the author’s brand over the quality of the book. There are many authors in the world who are notable enough names that often their books covers are all designed similarly to give them an aesthetic appeal. In this case, publishers are not really selling the work itself, but the idea of the work. There is also a possibility that the quality of the book would diminish because as long as it is contributed to the brand, that is more important that what the product is. The intention or value of the book also might be lost because it was more important from a marketing perspective to promote the author as a whole brand rather than their work as individual pieces. This could also alienate new audiences who are misled by the cover design. Since author branding is a very innocent way to promote a book, and one many do not think about, I believe there is more of a risk to compromise in the name of the author. A publisher might believe they are doing something good to help one of their authors instead of seeing branding for the troublesome space it occupies in the industry. If a publisher is willing to compromise in this regard, and turn to only authors who can and should be branded, there are many authors who exist outside of this realm that would be lost.

Branding an author is problematic for many reasons, but what are the alternatives? One option would be to make the publisher the brand instead of the author. In this case, the publisher would have to focus their publications considerably to create the niche and following an author receives. There are also already brand-name publishers that exist, but because of the variety of what they publish they don’t exist in the same way a branded author does. A benefit of having a publisher as the brand would at least steer aware from this author-worship that often exists in the current model, but would also push a lot of reform from companies that are very hesitant to change.

Another option would be to steer clear of branding completely and instead market each book as an individual work. The difficulty of this is that many people invest heavily in the author still, and we would have to change people’s thinking from emphasizing who created it, to what was created. Branding is shorthand for marketers and it is necessary in the current climate with audiences who’s time is precious to them. It’s easy for marketers to say “this is the next Gillian Flynn” than it is to say how the book distinguishes itself in the current market. In both instances, the changes are quite significant but I think either model would be preferable to what we have currently.

There are many expectations placed on brand name authors by marketers to fulfill their role in publishing as a creator who falls into a certain style. Beyond just how this affects the author, branding in publishing can negatively affect the industry in many ways. As convenient as it is for the marketing department in a publisher to depend on an author’s name to carry their work, it has become standard in the industry to push for authors who will be willing to put themselves forward in hopes that they will eventually become a brand. Authors as brands are an easy way to make a sale, but limit the authors and often put publishers in a position to put money towards these works rather than new books.

 

ENDNOTES:

[i] Hephzibah Anderson, “How Authors become Mega-brands,” BBC Culture, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140219-become-an-author-mega-brand.

[ii] Joe Moran, Star Authors : Literary Celebrity in America. (London, GB: Pluto Press, 2000), 10. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] NY Book Editors, “Your Guide to Branding Yourself as an Author,” Ny Book Editors, http://nybookeditors.com/2016/09/guide-branding-author.

[v] Writer’s Relief Staff, “Why Every Writer Needs An Author Brand,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/30/writing-tips_n_5241199.html.

[vi] David Vinjamuri, “The Strongest Brand in Publishing Is…,” Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2014/03/04/the-strongest-brand-in-publishing-is/#4a7d074f67b2.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Kimberley Grabas, “How To Build Your Author Brand From Scratch (And Why You Need To),” The Book Designer, https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2015/12/how-to-build-your-author-brand-from-scratch-and-why-you-need-to.

[ix] Writer’s Relief Staff, “Why Every Writer Needs An Author Brand,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/30/writing-tips_n_5241199.html.

[x] Brian Hill and Dee Power, Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents, and Booksellers Behind Them. Chicago, US: Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

[xi] Joe Moran, Star Authors : Literary Celebrity in America. (London, GB: Pluto Press, 2000), 10. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Anderson, Hephzibah. “How Authors become Mega-brands.” BBC Culture, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140219-become-an-author-mega-brand.

Grabas, Kimberley. “How To Build Your Author Brand From Scratch (And Why You Need To).” The Book Designer, https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2015/12/how-to-build-your-author-brand-from-scratch-and-why-you-need-to.

Hill, Brian, and Power, Dee. 2005. Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents, and Booksellers Behind Them. Chicago, US: Dearborn Trade Publishing. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

Moran, Joe. 2000. Star Authors : Literary Celebrity in America. London, GB: Pluto Press. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

Vinjamuri, David. “The Strongest Brand in Publishing Is…” Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2014/03/04/the-strongest-brand-in-publishing-is/#4a7d074f67b2.

Writer’s Relief Staff. “Why Every Writer Needs An Author Brand.” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/30/writing-tips_n_5241199.html.

NY Book Editors. “Your Guide to Branding Yourself as an Author.” Ny Book Editors, http://nybookeditors.com/2016/09/guide-branding-author.