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Do Publisher Brands Still Have Relevance?

Kate Eltham espies HarperStudio, asking whether they should have a separate Web portal/site, or just operate with a blog. She wonders: can a publisher drive a brand these days? Or just authors? What would make the return on investment worthwhile?

Personally, growing up, discovering reading, I remember some imprints with fondness, and I might see their name as an added validation of quality — e.g. Black Cat/Grove always meant
something specific; so did Pantheon (not the same thing!). But I would never purchase solely because of the brand “hey another Black Cat by an author that i’ve never heard of — I’ll give it a go!” That never has happened to me.

Anyway … back to Kate:

And all this got me thinking … is the author the only brand? Isn’t it possible, however unlikely, that some publishers could create an identity so strong and a community so vibrant that audiences seek out their books because they trust and like the people producing them? It’s hard to imagine of the multinationals, but not so hard to imagine of the quirky independents who have well-known identities associated with them, such as McSweeney’s (Dave Eggers) or Small Beer Press (Kelly Link).

Of course, even a wildly successful publisher blog is unlikely to generate the kind of audience that would shift books in the quantities required to make the ROI worth it. Then again, when you look at blogs like Boing Boing it’s quite clear the awesome power of conversation and community. The publisher as brand may not be something to write off just yet. Perhaps publishers just haven’t worked out how to do it well in the new paradigm.

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Comments: 5

  1. Hi Peter,

    I agree….it is rare (if ever) that I would buy a book because of it’s publisher. We are definitely of that mind at HarperStudio. We’re switching over to WordPress and will hopefully have more flexibility to make it a more author-centric site. Once we make that switch we will put up more author pages and make them dynamic and interesting and fresh (I hope)!……and then it’ll be more about our authors.


  2. Part of the problem is that publishers these days have all become so big and generic that their brand power doesn’t matter too much to most readers. Yet some still have an association with quality, Picador and Faber come to mind.

    Look at the music business for some clues: BMG or Virgin probably doesn’t matter in the least to buyers, they are just big labels, all the same more or less. But smaller “craft” labels – concerned less with pushing product, and more with finding quality – value their listeners and their musicians in ways that the big labels don’t.

    I think we are going to see similar movement in publishing, as new, smaller publishers start appearing, and gaining global audiences through the web. While the big guys will continue to be seen as generic brands, indistinguishable from each other, the smaller presses will increasingly take on the curator role.

  3. You don’t need to brand sacred cows. What about stray calves?
    Ok, established authors benefit from ambient attention through many channels, and the added value of a publisher’s brand (or a series name) do not add a lot for them.
    What about newcomers, translations?
    As a potential reader, shall I wait for a community to identify the newcomer within my scope?
    I’m still very grateful for Gallimard establishing its “Collection La Croix du sud” as a brand, which helped me discover many authors from Central and South America.
    I also appreciate brands to select books as gifts, in domains where I need the ‘shortcut’ of a brand, the expertise of the publisher or editor of a series.

    It’s a pity that Amazon excludes this way of displaying titles (more precisely, asks publishers to buy space in a custom ‘shop’ if they want to gather some of their production).

  4. Depends on the publisher, and the field. “Baen” and “Tor” certainly have brand loyalty in the field of SF because readers of SF know that the publishers are knowledgeable in the field and aren’t likely to publish crap. “O’Reilly” and “Wrox” have similar reputations in IT.

  5. I definitely buy IT books based on subject
    and publisher (eg O’Reilly) or series (eg Missing Manual) rather than author. But for fiction the publisher is practically irrelevant.