trade publishing

Nike’s swoosh line, Starbuck’s two-tailed mermaid, McDonald’s golden arches; branding and being recognizable to consumers is of utmost importance for a company. But according to Erin Cox, “the trend in trade publishing has been to focus on branding an author instead of an imprint[1].” This essay will argue that branding a publisher or imprint like any other company is more lucrative and better on a long-term basis. It will first consider the many ways in which Penguin Random House, the number one player in the publishing industry, uses its logo, distinctive colour palette, imprints, and its new bookstore to brand themselves and the effect they have on their readers. Finally, this essay will consider several advantages publishing houses, whether big or small, have in branding themselves, as well as look at productive ways to do so.

 

Brand Recognition

But first, it is important to have a clear understanding of what “branding” means. Borrowing Erin Cox’s definition, “branding is a method by which a publisher or a publishing imprint defines who they are and the types of books they publish in order to establish a relationship with the reader.” It is easier for a niche publisher to define who they are and appeal to a chosen audience as they focus on one specific compartment of the industry. Harlequin is a good example of genre specific branding. Romance readers know what to expect when they pick up a Harlequin book. Many go as far as to subscribe[2] to them, something that isn’t easy to accomplish in the industry. Much like someone chooses a Starbuck’s coffee over a Tim’s for its overpriced quality, a fan of the romance genre will choose a book published by Harlequin because they know they will not be disappointed with the brand’s consistent delivery and quality.

 

It is, however, more difficult for a trade publisher like Penguin Random House to establish that kind of relationship with their readers[3] because they publish in a variety of genres and every book targets a unique audience that isn’t necessarily related to the previous publication. Yet, the brand of the black and white penguin inside the orange circle is still recognized widely, even among readers. To understand this occurrence better, let us consider the merger of the two companies together. In 2013, Penguin Group (owned by Pearson) and Random House (owned by Bertelsmann) combined to form Penguin Random House, a global trade book publisher that produces over 15,000 books a year, employs over 10,000 people, and owns 250 recognized publishing divisions, imprints, and brands[4]. It was announced that Bertelsmann (Random House) now owns 53% of the company’s share while Pearson (Penguin) has the remaining 47%[5]. Yet, the new company’s name is Penguin Random House and the brand’s new logo is a penguin. Even its wordmark uses Penguin’s distinct orange shade.

 

My theory is that Penguin Random House decided to keep the penguin logo and iconic colour because of its established brand in the publishing industry. While most publishers kept—and still keep—the front cover of their books free of their personal branding, Penguin went the opposite direction. From the start, Penguin Group was careful to include its logo and colour (when possible) on many of their series’ front covers, or at the very least, prominently displayed on the spine of every book. This recurring imagery became, with time, meaningful to readers. Now, after several years of promotion, the Penguin brand is “synonymous with quality books, impressive design, experimentation, and a great sense of fun[6],” or a “combination of quality authors and quirky legacy[7].” Readers associate the penguin and the bright orange to their favourite books and have grown to trust the brand to deliver an enjoyable product of quality. Thus, when faced with the choice of buying George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from Penguin or from another publisher, a reader is likely to decide based on brand recognition, because that feeling of trust cannot be bought or forced on readers. And, as Edward Nawotka said, “[a]t the end of the day, branding is about making you feel something[8].”

 

Along the lines of brand recognition, Penguin Random House recently opened a bookstore in Toronto, under the company’s Canadian headquarters. The shop features a “curated selection of titles and trusted recommendations[9]” that changes every so often, as well as book-related merchandise like mugs, notebooks, and tote bags[10], and other “high-quality modern accessories[11].” In addition to their recommendations, the shop also offers special editions of their reader’s favourite books and a collection of Canadian authors’ bestsellers. As you can see in the photo below, everything—from bookshelves to products—was designed to match the brand, creating a friendly, sophisticated atmosphere. Finally, the store has only one permanent employee who is assisted by rotating volunteers from the office above[12], and it sometimes holds author signings and other such events. Readers might even cross paths with their beloved authors who may be on their way to the company’s office. According to Robert Wheaton, Penguin Random House Canada’s chief operating officer, the shop “is not a venture into direct bookselling, but an experiment in research and development: a way for employees, from sales and marketing to design and editorial, to interact directly with book consumers[13].” In conclusion, considering insights[14] that the company gains from interacting with readers, the store is a means to improve the production and delivery of future publications. But it also strengthens the brand in the customer’s eye with its unique design, its propagation of branded high-quality items that consumers will display proudly to their friends and on Instagram, and its commitment to allow readers a certain access to their favourite authors.

 

Communities and Relationships

But even after considering Penguin Random House as the world’s largest book publisher[15] and recognizing its distinguishable logo, the company still faces the same challenge as every other large trade publishing house: branding for a specific audience. They do, however, have a certain advantage given that some of Penguin’s and Random House’s imprints already had a distinctive brand before the merger. Based on Mike Shatzkin’s theory, those imprints are at the heart of the company’s success. Much like General Motors would not have been as profitable without their sub-divisions, marketing Chevrolet cars to a different audience than Cadillac[16], each of PRH’s imprints targets a unique market, facilitating the brand’s marketing efforts. Penguin Classics, for instance, with its recognizable, classy look and illustrations, holds its highbrow reputation[17] of classical texts. The penguin logo is on every single front cover, assuring that, even when the book is mentioned on a website or in a review, showing only the front cover, readers will be subjected to the brand. Rough Guides is another example of a branded imprint. The logo is big, graphic, and used on every publication and promotional item, feeding Rough Guide’s reputation of “providing indispensable travel information[18]” to every pair of eyes that comes in contact with the books. And these are only two instances among many others.

 

But although some of PRH’s imprints evoke a clear sentiment of trust in readers, the company still hasn’t achieved the “Harlequin status” of reputable, branded publishing house. An imprint like Plume, for example, which publishes mainly trade paperbacks written by authors whose “voices [were] previously neglected by mainstream publishing[19],” offers no element on the front cover of their books that indicates who publishes them. There is neither a logo nor a recurring feature that distinguishes their books from any other publisher’s. But there is hope for change. According to Tom Weldon, CEO at PRH, the new company brand system will be “evolutionary not revolutionary[20],” meaning that the company will evolve over time, recognizing the “diversity and individuality of the Random House imprints alongside Penguin’s more unified brand approach[21].” Whether PRH decides to distinctively brand each imprint as an individual, marketable identity or not isn’t clear, but there are many reasons why they should.

 

First, branding authors is a great way to create reader loyalty, until the author decides to move on to another publishing house, taking their readership with them. In addition, because the most productive authors produce one or two books a year[22], branding opportunities are limited[23]. Therefore, instead of relying on authors, publishers could rely on their own personality and talent to remind readers how much they liked their previous books and why they will enjoy the publisher’s next publication, no matter who writes it. This, according to Erin Cox, could be accomplished by addressing the reader directly. Publishers could put more energy and capital into advertising for the brand. They could also pair current titles with the backlist, package books differently to promote the publisher’s brand more prominently, train staff members to become spokespeople for the company (organize interviews, host book clubs, write blogs, etc.), and interact with readers—something that Penguin Random House is doing with their Penguin Shop—through the publisher’s website, giveaways, or any other medium that makes sense for the publishing house[24].

 

All this capital spent on marketing the publisher’s brand would not go to waste, even as authors come and go, because it is, as Mike Shatzkin explained in his article, investment marketing. Compared to spent marketing—which doesn’t last—investment marketing is all about building a community and developing relationships[25]. It is not only interacting with readers but giving them a common interest that will enable them to interact with the brand even when the publisher is not involved. Such communities already exist in the publishing world. They are informally called fandoms. Pottermore was a great example a few years ago when the website was interactive. Harry Potter fans would create their own accounts and interact with peers from across the planet while learning more about the world they all adored. A similar community could be possible, especially for niche publishers and imprints. And here, being niche doesn’t require publishing in only one genre, but instead defining the publisher’s editorial vision and focussing on books that uplift this vision. Doing so would not only reduce marketing costs[26] but also help readers know where to look for their next read, reducing their chance of being disappointed[27].

 

Increasingly Digital

All these advantages and tips are becoming more and more crucial as the publishing industry progresses into a digital world. For instance, as Michael Smith points out, branding book covers is even more important now with the growing popularity of e-books. Elements that individualized the print book, such as the type of paper, size, and wrap cover, don’t matter when a reader buys the Kindle version. “The brand experience is owned and loaned by the Kindle machine[28],” he says. Even as potential customers search the web to find their next read—on Amazon for instance—they rarely have access to full wrap covers, making it difficult for them to recognize who the publisher is. This, along with the increasing number of books published every year, is why carefully branding publishers and imprints must become a priority.
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[1] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017. https://publishingperspectives.com/2010/03/insert-publisher-here-why-branding-to-readers-should-matter-to-publishers/.

[2] Shatzkin, Mike. “Publishers, brands, and the change to b2c.” The Idea Logical Company. September 06, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2017. http://www.idealog.com/blog/publishers-brands-and-the-change-to-b2c/.

[3] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017. https://publishingperspectives.com/2010/03/insert-publisher-here-why-branding-to-readers-should-matter-to-publishers/.

[4] “About Penguin Random House Canada.” Penguin Random House Canada. April 24, 2015. Accessed February 15, 2017. http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/content/about-penguin-random-house-canada.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cooney, Jessica. “Penguin Random House Canada to Open Retail Location in Toronto.” Penguin Random House Canada. August 24, 2016. Accessed February 18, 2017. http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/news/penguin-random-house-canada-open-retail-location-toronto.

[7] Smith, Michael. “The importance of publisher brand on book covers.” A Brand Day Out. October 22, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2017. https://abranddayout.wordpress.com/2010/10/22/the-importance-of-publisher-brand-on-book-covers/.

[8] Nawotka, Edward . “What Makes for Effective Publisher Branding?” Publishing Perspectives. March 31, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2017. http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/03/what-makes-for-effective-publisher-branding/.

[9] Cooney, Jessica. “Penguin Random House Canada to Open Retail Location in Toronto.” Penguin Random House Canada. August 24, 2016. Accessed February 18, 2017. http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/news/penguin-random-house-canada-open-retail-location-toronto.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Penguin Shop – About.” Penguin Shop. 2017. Accessed February 17, 2017. http://penguinshop.ca/pages/about-us.

[12] Tobias, Conan. “Penguin-branded bookstore opens in Toronto.” Quill and Quire. August 24, 2016. Accessed February 17, 2017. http://www.quillandquire.com/omni/penguin-branded-bookstore-opens-toronto/.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Nawotka, Edward. “PRH Canada Opens Toronto Bookstore.” PublishersWeekly.com. August 25, 2016. Accessed February 10, 2017. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/international-book-news/article/71274-penguin-random-house-canada-opens-toronto-bookstore.html.

[15] Greenfield, Jeremy. “Penguin and Random House Combine to Form World’s Largest Book Publisher.” Digital Book World. October 29, 2012. Accessed February 18, 2017. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/penguin-and-random-house-combine-to-form-worlds-largest-book-publisher/.

[16] Shatzkin, Mike. “Publishers, brands, and the change to b2c.” The Idea Logical Company. September 06, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2017. http://www.idealog.com/blog/publishers-brands-and-the-change-to-b2c/.

[17] Jojal. “Penguin’s highbrow reputation.” Paperbackrevolution. January 03, 2017. Accessed February 11, 2017. https://paperbackrevolution.wordpress.com/2017/01/03/penguins-highbrow-reputation/.

[18] “The Rough Guide to Provence & the Cote d’Azur.” Bookstobrowse. Accessed February 15, 2017. http://www.bookstobrowse.co.uk/books.php?content=Rough%2BGuide%2BProvence.

[19] “Plume Overview.” Penguin Books USA. Accessed February 17, 2017. http://www.penguin.com/meet/publishers/plume/?ref=2B4575AB81AF.

[20] Shaffi, Sarah. “PRH unveils new branding | The Bookseller.” PRH unveils new branding | The Bookseller. June 14, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2017. http://www.thebookseller.com/news/prh-unveils-new-branding.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017. https://publishingperspectives.com/2010/03/insert-publisher-here-why-branding-to-readers-should-matter-to-publishers/.

[23] Nawotka, Edward . “What Makes for Effective Publisher Branding?” Publishing Perspectives. March 31, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2017. http://publishingperspectives.com/2010/03/what-makes-for-effective-publisher-branding/.

[24] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017. https://publishingperspectives.com/2010/03/insert-publisher-here-why-branding-to-readers-should-matter-to-publishers/.

[25] Shatzkin, Mike. “Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Publishers Can Do to Flourish in a Community-Centric Web World.” The Idea Logical Company. May 29, 2009. Accessed February 15, 2017. http://www.idealog.com/blog/stay-ahead-of-the-shift-what-publishers-can-do-to-flourish-in-a-community-centric-web-world/.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017. https://publishingperspectives.com/2010/03/insert-publisher-here-why-branding-to-readers-should-matter-to-publishers/.

[28] Smith, Michael. “The importance of publisher brand on book covers.” A Brand Day Out. October 22, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2017. https://abranddayout.wordpress.com/2010/10/22/the-importance-of-publisher-brand-on-book-covers/.