This piece, by Jill Prulick, originally appeared on The Big Money on 1/28/09.
People in the book business rarely agree on much, but no one disputes that the long-suffering industry is slogging through one of its worst periods ever. Editors are freezing their acquisition budgets; publishing houses are shrinking; booksellers are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Paradoxically, the proliferation of digital media that is arguably the biggest threat to traditional publishing also offers authors more opportunities than ever to distribute and promote their work. The catch: In order to do that effectively, authors increasingly must transcend their words and become brands.
What does that mean? It depends. In the book world, where the word "brand" is either sacrosanct or dirty, there’s little consensus. Is there a difference between a best-selling author and a brand? What is the process by which an author becomes a brand—and is it a good thing?
The answers are as varied as weather in New England: A brand goes beyond one format into television or film; a brand is someone you would read regardless of the subject. For every theory ("All best-sellers are brands, but not all brands are best-sellers"), there’s a near converse ("You need to achieve best-seller status to launch a brand"). And some shun brands entirely. "Authors of best-selling books are not brands," insisted former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman.
There are even more contradictions. Traditional branding—a mix of ads, media appearances, and book tours-is dying. Marketing departments are being slashed. Authors are pushed to promote their own books, while reviews-and their accompanying ad space-are shrinking. Independent advertiser Verso, which recently launched targeted online advertising, now spends about $2,000 to $3,000 per book on marketing, a fraction of its budget a year ago. And yet publishers, agents, and editors all say that recognition, dependability, and longevity sell books.
No one questions that James Patterson, author of 45 New York Times best-sellers and subject of a case study in brand management at Harvard Business School, is a brand, thanks to an army of consultants. Patterson’s books, which have grossed more than $1 billion and have filled the author’s coffers to the tune of more than $100 million, are practically encoded with unifying, Patterson DNA—from the title to the packaging to the hook and hanging cliffhanger.
The clear lines end there. Five percent to 10 percent of publishers’ lists, the so-called blockbusters, are top-performing authors with built-in, expanding audiences—i.e., brands. Tom Clancy. Patricia Cornwell. Suze Orman. Mitch Albom. Or are they? "I don’t really look at him as a brand," said Albom’s agent, David Black, who recently negotiated the deal to release an Albom commencement speech on the Kindle to extend the author’s reach. "Whatever we can do to expand his audience we will do."
Brands are often the elephant in the room no one wants to confront. Some authors consider it unwise to be branded as, er, brands; it’s a signpost for low-brow, mass-market sensibility. And it’s also the case that the vast majority of fiction writers, even today’s best-sellers, did not begin their lives as brands. Many were unknowns whom publishers rejected. Believe it or not, there was a time when few had heard of John Grisham. He sold his first book from the back of a car and no one was interested. Then came The Firm. "I took John to bookstores, and, at every turn, clerks were putting his book into the hands of customers," said Ellen Archer, president of Hyperion Books. It became a hit and launched the author into a brand name.
In today’s fickle marketplace, the Internet—with blogs, videos, Twitter, and other promotional tools like Amazon’s Author Stores—is the modern-day equivalent to hand-selling. Thomas Friedman even posted a chapter of Hot, Flat and Crowded on LinkedIn and asked members to weigh in. (Disclosure: I was part of Friedman’s publishing team.) In a way, authors are empowered in this new model, provided they can leverage their networks into living, breathing communities who have a stake in—and benefit from—an author’s ballooning platform.
But it comes with a price. When authors are beholden to a brand, they ally themselves, almost like actors and athletes, with agendas and meanings that are well beyond their control. In their desire to fulfill the dictates of a brand, authors can compromise their integrity as writers, especially if they cubbyhole themselves.
The Chick Lit genre provides numerous examples. The Nanny Diaries, published in 2002, sold more than 1.5 million copies and was made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson. But the author’s 2004 follow-up, Citizen Girl, pitched as social satire—male bosses filled in for Park Avenue socialites—was a flop. The authors, who reportedly were unable to sell their idea to Random House, settled on Simon & Schuster’s Atria—and satisfied the beast that was the brand. Lauren Weisberger, "Bridget Jones," and Melissa Bank suffered similar trajectories—some worse than others—and their careers as writers have waned.