When a Brand is not a Brand

[intro]Yet more conversations last week that made us feel as though mainstream trade publishing really were happening in an air-tight, members only bubble, the rest of the world going about its business outside and occasionally stopping to peer in out of curiosity.[/intro] At a debate in a central London university, where we discussed branding with a group of students on an advanced publishing course, we listened to a successful author talk about the subtle nuances of creative interpretations of her book’s jacket from different publishers in different territories around the world. Some she liked. Some she hated. Some, to her, captured the essence of her book. Some were positioned to appeal to a sales person or a retail buyer, neither of whom would ever read the book but who wanted their customers to pick up clear signals that it contained a certain kind of fiction.

For most authors the question what the cover of their book will look like takes on a disproportionately high significance. It is the window into their creation. They want to sell millions of copies – but often via a design brief that says, ‘this needs to look like nothing that has gone before it’. It enrages and delights them in equal measure. It is also the closest anyone in the chain of influence will get to affecting what they perceive to be their  brand. Some authors have a modest above-the-line spend, but not many. So, what we’re really talking about here is not branding at all but packaging. No less a skill, though one which is inextricably associated with production rather than imaginative entertainment.

But publishers don’t employ packagers. They use cover designers, in-house or outsourced, clever interpreters of briefs that say such useful things as ‘like the last one, only, with a twist’. Designers who will hold covers up in a meeting that could have up to fifteen participants, the vast majority of whom will not have read the book in question but enjoy attending one meeting in their working week where they feel they can influence the physical manifestation of the companies output.

The reality is that with shelf space squeezed and more sales taking place online or in the form of e-editions, conversations with authors about ‘branding’ tend to centre on covers because that is all the publisher can cost-effectively influence. It is a small, physical canvas that might appear in a shop window, will appear on Amazon, but almost certainly won’t represent something with clearly defined values, something differentiated from its competition. Like a brand.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. The conversations will continue with authors and their publishers in their bubbles. Or maybe one day one of the few really identifiable author brands will start working with a packager. From the outside, looking in, that would be interesting.

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