An Interesting Juxtaposition

humpty dumpty by aturkus

I came across these two very different points of view from two people I respect.

First, this one from one of the best blogs about the publishing arena:
Why Publishers’ Brands Matter
[Via The Scholarly Kitchen]

Publishers’ brands are under attack from all sides. We hear, for example, about the “article economy” and the strongly held view that publishers add no value to the process of editorial development and the dissemination of materials. In the book world, the argument is that no one buys a book because of the name of a publisher; it’s the author’s name that counts. These arguments have implications. If publishers’ brands have little or no value, then publishers can be disintermediated. An author can deposit an article into an open access repository and then let Google do the marketing; a book author can work directly with Amazon and collect royalties of 70% on revenue, potentially dwarfing the income of the highly educated fools who write books for such firms as Random House or Springer.


Then this from Doc Searls, a creator of the Cluetrain Manifesto, one of the pivotal books in my life:

Brands are Bull
[Via Doc Searls Weblog]

At 11:30pm on April 22, 1978 Saturday Night Live opened with Paul Schaffer, made up to look like music promoter Don Kirshner (whose show ran in most markets right after SNL). What followed was a lesson in branding that we’re still learning. Here’s how it looks in the show’s transcript (sorry, the original isn’t on YouTube):

Don Kirshner…..Paul Shaffer
Jake Blues…..John Belushi
Elwood Blues…..Dan Aykroyd

[ open on Don Kirschner ]

Don Kirschner: I’m Don Kirschner, and welcome to “Rock Concert”. In 1969, Marshall Checkers, of the legendary Checkers Records, called me on a new blues act that had been playing in a small, funky club on Chicago’s South Side. Today, with the help of Jerry Erdegan, and the staff of Pacific Records, their manager, Morey Daniels, and with the support of fellow artists Curtis Selgado and the Cray Band, they are no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product. So now, let’s join “Joliet” Jake and his silent brother Elwood — The Blues Brothers.

[ pan down and dissolve to Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, performing on the stage below ]

That was the first the world saw of the Blues Brothers: two actors who parlayed ironic comedy into a successful movie, in which the layers of irony piled higher and higher. All those layers speak volumes about “branding” — the reality, not the buzzword. What they say (or can’t un-say) is that the Blues Brothers are a commercial product.

Coming off my flight to London the other day I was caught in the crunch to leave the plane, in that spot near the door where the two aisles squeeze into one for the jetway. There I found myself in the passing company of two passengers talking about “personal brands” and how “social media” is good for them. I wanted to say “brands are boring” to them, but decided to blog about it instead. That’s the post by that title at the last link.


Now, the two posts come at brands a little differently, particular the latter which discusses the use of individuals to create a brand rather than the types of products.

I think that brand, which is really just a short-hand for representing some sort of reputation model, is often misused, particularly by many companies. Using a person to create a brand may work well for some organizations, particularly those without actual products that can be used.

But, as shown with Tiger, can be a dangerous game. Much better to create a brand for a real product.

When I was young, Donald A. Wolheim created DAW books, whose very distinctive yellow spines made their yellow books very easy to find. I would buy books just based on their editorial judgement, which is what led me to a whole slew of new authors (C. J. Cherryh being my best example.

Interestingly, DAW is now part of Penguin, which created the whole idea of branded paperbacks with very distinctive spine colors. Then they changed to the same sorts of covers as everyone else and editorial changes occurred.

So a great brand at one time. But that brand simply does not hold the same strength for me now. The authors do.

I would suggest that many publishers just do not have a really strong brand with many readers, and rely on store managers or other surrogates to recognize the brand. This becomes problematic in an online world where those surrogates no longer appear.

Creating genre imprints with very strong editorial oversight can be one way to go. It seems to work in science fiction and other genres. But in the ‘blockbuster genre’ there just does not seem to be the same branding strength.

I sometimes think that is how some groups want it. Telephone companies are famous for making things so confusing that no one bothers to change. It seems to me that many publishing houses are blank slates to many readers and that they seem to want to keep it that way.

I may be wrong but they are all such huge conglomerates now that almost every imprint has something for everyone, which makes it hard to generate a strong overall brand. Which is why so many seems to brand the authors themselves (i.e. King, et al.).

Which brings us back to the idea of an individual representing the brand.

2 thoughts on “An Interesting Juxtaposition

  1. Thanks. Good points.

    Interesting that publishers used to be “imprints,” and now are “brands.” As a label I prefer the former, which is native to the business.

    For what it’s worth, I believe what makes writers worth reading are their qualities as writers, not their familiarity as “brands.” John Updike was never a brand. He was popular and respected, but not because his publishers had burned his name into the brains of readers like ranchers burn symbols into the hides of cattle — which was, and still mostly remains, the mission of “branding.”

    Calling humans “brands” is as insulting and off-base as calling them “capital” or “assets.” A “brand” is not a synonym for authority or reputation. It is marketing jive, borrowed from the cattle industry, and applied to products and corporations since the 1930s. It came into popular use for individuals in the age of AdSense, when blogging went commercial, and multitudes amidst the Long Tail were taught by latter-day marketers that it would be cool to “monetize” their postings.

    Of course I am a voice in the wilderness on this matter. I might as well tell teenagers to stop saying “like” all the time.

    By the way, I am writing my next book for Harvard Business Press. I chose HBP for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with its value as an imprint. There is still much good to say for the reputations of at least some publishers.

    1. I find that the smaller market publishers, both of print and of music, are the ones with the best idea of what their value as an imprint is. As soon as they become big enough, they seem to lose that value. I wonder if in the drive to reach a mass market, they purposefully devalue what actually made them unique.

      The Long Tail is made up of some really interesting companies that often get homogenized as they try to become all things to all people. This is a wilderness I find much more fun to explore than the nicely built metropolitan edifices found where popularity reigns.

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