Branding Revisited

Two weeks ago an article in the New York Times profiling Jane Friedman of Harper Collins ignited a firestorm among devotees of books; Ms. Friedman expressed a vision of a time when book buyers would simply reach for a Harper Collins title without awareness of the author. In the spirit of solid journalistic curiosity I sent Ms. Friedman an email asking for a clarification; she didn’t respond. Since nature abhors a vacuum we can only imagine her thoughts as an assistant read salient parts of the inquiry aloud. Mr. Miscellany is on line two; what should I tell him?

There’s evidence to suggest that Ms. Friedman’s idea is already gaining traction. Think back to the moment during INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS when the half-formed replicants began to resemble Kevin McCarthy. Obviously if all they looked like him the sinister plan to take over the planet would’ve been quickly detected; we’d have the cops comparing notes scene where they’d say…they all look alike. We don’t look the same…something’s wrong.

Romance writers can attest that HARLEQUIN is a brand. In fact HQ is busy creating demographic based imprints that calibrate the readers taste for which books must be written. The authors are low paid and very secondary to the process; sometimes their names don’t appear on the jacket. When they are acknowledged they write under psuedonyms appropriate to the sub-genre.

Judith Regan of ReganBooks, a Harper Collins imprint, is often mentioned as a publisher well versed in branding. Her titles are topical on provocative subjects like sex. She also published Tommy Franks memoir AN AMERICAN SOLDIER. Is the general a brand name? Will you discover him in a bookstore section marked ‘ReganBooks?’ Does your next door neighbor resemble Kevin McCarthy?

The argument could be made that the influence of branding has contributed to the decline in readership; a poorly written novel by a famous writer is one thing. Five in a row generally kills interest in future offerings from said writer; that the publisher is invisible in such a fiasco is a good thing. Bad books are the author’s fault; the logo on the spine is an innocent bystander.