Monday, September 28, 2009

When words lose their meaning 1

Brand, v. = To burn your effin sign onto a calve's haunch so other cowpokes know whose little steer is whose.
Brand, v. ≠ To turn a reputation for publishing good books into a unique signifier for the consuming public, like Kleenex, Xerox, Coke, or -- in the old days -- Polaroid.

The more commonplace the product, the greater the need for "branding." For example, carbonated, caffeinated sugar water needs branding. Like a cow. A novel by John Banville does not. It does need to be talked about and written about, however.

Brand, v. = To doll up a mass market product by implanting a life-style-altering image in the stressed-out consumer's mind instead of enumerating the product's inherent qualities (assuming it has any).
Brand, v. ≠ To turn a colophon or, worse, an author, into a designer label.

Human beings are not brands, no matter how celebrated. Walt Disney was not a brand, "Disney" is. John Grisham is not a brand, he's an author who writes a comforting kind of legal thriller that many readers enjoy.

Brand, n. = A label worn on the outside by those who don't know better.
Brand, n. ≠ The results of a poll taken among such people.

I know that New Directions will publish books that interest me, just as I know that Simon Spotlight Entertainment will not. That's because each has a certain reputation. Even so, New Directions is not a "brand" -- I wouldn't buy one of their books simply because of Heinz Henghes' carved centaur on the spine.

Branding, n. = A serious course of study at our nation's finest business schools, where Proctor & Gamble is held in awe.
Branding, n. ≠ A profound and far-reaching concept worthy of serious study at our nation's finest business schools.

When people in the book business start talking about "brands," "branding," "brand management," and so on, don't ask them what they really mean by those words. Just ask them what books they publish. Their lists will tell you everything you need to know about their so-called "brand."

Brand management, n. = The use of ceaseless repetitive messaging in advertising, promotion, and publicity to distract the consuming public from the intrinsic worth (or lack thereof) of the products a company produces.
Brand management, n. ≠ Buying shelf space at a chain superstore so that all your books are shelved together.

Last week, Patrick at Vroman's Bookstore blog wrote a strong, thought-provoking, and eminently sane piece called "Branding: The Future of Publishing?" I found a lot to agree with, including his assertion (and that of some of his commenters): booksellers, readers, reviewers, yes, even some consumers, are aware of a publisher's reputation and will pay attention to it in deciding what to read. That reputation is made and maintained by the books a publisher publishes, not by any of the chicanery that passes for marketing in our MBA culture, although some have tried. Patrick cites a few independent presses who have built such reputations: New York Review Books Classics, Melville House, Two Dollar Radio, Featherproof, and McSweeney's. These five houses are in the hands of wonderfully talented real people who consistently publish good books, books which reflect their interests, their knowledge, and their taste. Anybody who loves books can name a lot more like them (many of the respondents did).

To call them brands, however, denigrates them, I think, because the very word "brand" no longer has any substantive meaning. It's Tom Peters-speak, an empty word now bandied about loosely by those techno-savants who are engaged primarily in "branding" themselves. Whatever that means. Is it not enough to talk of publishers and their lists? To identify which ones are doing a good job, and which ones are treading water? I think if you polled a hundred random booksellers, you'd find wide agreement as to which is which.

Great publishers are people who seek out and discover great books, with the desire and ability to bring those discoveries to the attention of a community of readers. The best among them love to sell books, not brand them.

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