Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Building Authorial Brands

After a few years on the outside looking in at the publishing industry, I have to admit I am flummoxed: why does it seem so hard for authors to take advantage of the new technologies out there to build their careers? Why does the publishing industry view digital technology as a threat instead of an opportunity? And how come books are more like wine and less like whiskey?

Ok, let me start with the last one, first. I drink both wine and whiskey. (I'm surprised my wife doesn't come out of her dead sleep right now to shout, "and too much of both!") I have been enjoying wine since a trip to Italy in 2004. Whiskey is a more recent hobby, something I've only been trying for the last two years. And yet I feel much more comfortable picking out a bottle of unfamiliar whiskey than a wine I've never tried before. Why?

It's simply because whiskey operates under a few relatively simple rules that help me to categorize it and find what I like: it could be scotch or bourbon or rye. If I want a scotch, I could go for a single malt or a blend, and know exactly what I'm getting. There are a few simple descriptors that give me a good sense of what I'm getting. Wine, on the other hand, seems endlessly complex, and thus remains intimidating. Books are the same way: other than the broad categories like 'romance' or 'fantasy', what guide is there to help me try a new author on a whim? No, you have to do research: read reviews, ask friends, what have you. One would think modern technology would help with this, but not really. (I will say that Amazon's recommendations are a step in the right direction, but unless you buy a lot they seem wildly speculative.)

Let me offer one example relevant to my efforts as a struggling writer of science fiction. The magazine I spend the most time with is Asimov's, which I'd say has a 50% 'hit rate' for me: 50% of what they publish, I like. I consider that pretty good. And yet I have not bought a book on the basis of those stories, though many of the authors have books out, and many are published repeatedly so I have a good sample of their work. And that's mostly because the magazine makes no effort to encourage that behavior, and neither do the writers, other than putting a bio at the beginning of their stories. Why isn't Asimov's looking to actively promote some writers, and have a stake in their success? Why don't they seem much interested in promoting a specific "Asimov's Style" that would reliably please readers and build a more consistent brand experience? As it exists, the magazine (and all the others I've found in the fiction world) seem to exist as a checkpoint for writers looking to get along to a book contract, where they will start from scratch in building their audience.

There is an opportunity for writers, magazines and book publishers to form an alliance that would serve all parties. But each group should be looking to build a more reliable, recognizable brand that consumers can trust. If they do, the electronic world we are entering will offer rich opportunities and many satisfied (and paying) readers for all sides. If not, we'll continue to hear whining about the decline of publishing.

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