Why Publishers Shouldn’t Brand the Brand

by Sarah Russo

A few weeks ago, Sarah Russo had started work on a post about publishers branding digitally for TNS. Shortly thereafter, she happened upon Publishing Perspectives’ story “Digital Case Study: Publishers’ Online Marketing in Spain,” Edward Nawotka posed a discussion question asking if readers cared about publisher branding.  This sparked a flurry of debate among readers on the Publishing Perspectives site and off-line between Publishing Perspectives Business Development Director, Erin L. Cox, and Sarah. In the interest of debate, and for the readers of both Publishing Perspectives and The New Sleekness, both Erin and Sarah have expanded on their thoughts for and against trade publisher branding.  You can find Erin’s post here.


If you’re not certain of what branding is, I can assure you that you see it each and every day. On your commute, online, in the paper, you’ll see advertising for brands that you know, love and despise, from Verizon to Johnson & Johnson to…HarperCollins? No, perhaps not.

I’m of the belief that publisher or imprint specific branding would be not only fairly fruitless for trade publishers but also hugely time consuming and a financial drain. Branding, specifically online branding, works in niches that allow you to reach specific communities. A branding campaign needs a defined target or it is destined to fail.

Branding for trade book publishers is different from most major brands with big advertising budgets. Publishers have relied on grassroots branding like the book tour to get both the name of the author and the press out into the communities for decades. Smaller store turnouts combined with the smaller number of independent bookstores have made launch tours for new authors few and far between. Compounded with shrinking book review pages, publicists are seeking new forums for their books. Many pursue online media and that has thrown publicity right into marketing and corporate branding. Publicity, marketing and branding have often overlapped and are even synonymous at some major trade houses because they rely heavily on individual authors and books and not the true brand.

The abundance of publisher Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter feeds suggest that publishers want to go direct to consumers, but many are not reaching that audience at all. Some market research on the bigger imprints’ Facebook pages would likely report that their “fans” are already in the industry (or want to be). Pantheon has 724 followers this morning. Sixty-five of those followers are publishing people that I know personally. That’s a hefty percentage. And that’s a lot of effort expended to get those 700 fans, a minimum of 10% of which are in the industry.

This begs the question: can the general consumer be made intimately aware of the differences between a book from Knopf and one from Free Press? If they’re aware of the difference will they choose one over the other? Will the knowledge that Knopf is more liberal and more literary than Free Press impact the book buying decision? I think it very well could, but what would it take for the general consumer to recognize that name? There are a select few consumers who know these names and link consumer confidence with them, but they are not the majority of readers.

So we need to reach a new group of readers. I don’t think our reading public is spending hours watching TV each day. However, targeted TV ads could work in the right markets using the right TV programs. Slate tested an interesting TV ad experiment recently. It’s not out of the question, but it can be strategically limiting financially and production-wise. (I’m not intentionally leaving out radio but NPR ads are frequently used by publishers and are nothing new.)

A complete rebrand (design, web, social media, events, corporate promotion) could be effective for publishers who want to invest in widely branding their operation. HarperStudio is a good test case for branding on a smaller scale. As a publisher who uses its employees to speak on behalf of the publisher and brand the imprint, it’s gotten a lot of play since its inception in early 2008. But tying yourself to one or two strong personalities can leave you vulnerable: consider recent reports talking of its demise with the departure of publisher/founder Bob Miller, whose picture, as of this writing, still smiles from the top of their Web site. I don’t think anyone would disagree that in two years HarperStudio has built a brand for itself effectively within the industry but has it sold more product because of that branding? Has it gained recognition in the wider world? Difficult questions to answer from the outside but I would assume no. You can see answers to those questions here.

Whether publishers are looking for readers interested in general fiction or specialized professional books, readers are on the web. Finding those interested in a certain subject or genre isn’t rocket science but it does take some trial and error and a willingness to work to build solid relationships. Attempting to make an impression on the “general reader,” who is just as likely to pick up fiction as they are biography, would require a far reaching online (or broadcast or print) campaign. It would take an immense amount of resources to reach such a broad group of active readers on the internet. And this essentially ignores the competition issue, would Random House permit an extensive branding campaign for one imprint to the detriment of its other imprints? Sensibly, I would think not. They could rebrand RH as a whole but I doubt rebranding all of the imprints into Random House would be welcome or really an option.

Online promotion is critical in a rapidly changing book market. Opinions differ on how to foster brand and book/author awareness, but the need for it is no less necessary for specific publishers. The rise of “wireless reading” (ebooks, pdas, netbooks, iphones) and the intense use of social media makes this an interesting time for branding digitally. Facebook and Twitter are being used to brand, but they can dilute a brand if they are not excellently maintained with new content and ideas that add information not just repeat it in this sphere. Chelsea Green has a substantial Twitter feed with weekly contests that create viral marketing for their books. They have a niche and are informative, active and engaged with their readers.

Crossover experimentation with branding and marketing on the web is relatively inexpensive compared to the print and broadcast ads of recent decades and still largely underexploited, finding the right mix could create success. Tor.com would be an excellent example of tapping into a publisher’s core market effectively online.

A comprehensive online branding campaign can be pursued by any size publisher with a thoughtful strategy targeting the right audience firmly behind it. It can be the right course of action for specialized publishers, but in my opinion general trade publishers are chasing rainbows in this sphere.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Oxford University Press.