Always outnumbered. Generally overdresssed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to save publishing

Given I'm currently writing a book, bitching about the publishing industry isn't the best idea I ever had. But then, neither is taking a month off my freelance job to work on my dissertation, and then blogging and playing Demon Souls instead.

Look, here's an advert for Dan Brown's 'Secret Lost Sudoku Puzzle'. The first thing you'll notice about this advert is that it's not very good. But it is nonetheless differently not good from your run-of-the-mill book advertising.

Apparently publishers assume the point of all advertising is to alert existing fans to the existence of new releases. Posters give precedence to author and title. They may also use visuals to imply 'mood' and maybe a line to mop up a few new readers.

The Dan Brown ad is different, it contains an idea, one that answers the brief 'page-turner from a familiar author for your summer holidays'. The barbecue does 'summer' - that's probably the best thing about it, the only thing that makes me think it was made by the agency, rather than just sketched by a maverick marketing manager on the back of an All Bar One napkin.

But the idea is, well, fairly rudimentary. It seems like when products begin to be advertised competitively they have to go through all the phases of advertising that products with a history of competitive advertising went through years ago. (You can see this with plastic surgery ads on the underground, which are still in the protozoan phase of 'here's a photo of someone who's happy with our product'.)

The Dan Brown ad proves a number of things:

a) yes, it is possible to write adverts about books that aren't just covers with headlines.

b) that publishing house marketing departments are fundamentally inert, terrified of doing anything that isn't a cover with a headline...

c) ...because, all of the very low-hanging advertising fruit is ripe for the picking.

d) that they do believe it's worth advertising certain kinds of book - interestingly they advertise Dan Brown because he is already so popular. His are casual readers, people who only read on holiday and choose their books like they choose their margarine.

But see, publishing people are always whingeing about how they're selling fewer books, that the industry is on its last legs, that times are tough, that they're nearly 30 and haven't had a baby, etc. And this is partly because people who work in publishing do tend to be drawn from the ranks of nature's whiners and also, because they don't have to make their product, they only have to sell it, so they've got a complex about how comparatively easy their job is, compared to that of the authors they're forced to associate with, which means they have go on and on about how difficult and overwhelming it all is.

So what I want to know is, why don't they try harder see? Or just sit down and have a little think about it?

Modern media is set up to sell personalities more than things. Brands are personalities, saucepans are things. This being so, why sell books, when you can sell people?

So what you want to do is have a branding campaign, for, say, Ernest Hemingway. You sell Hemingway, like he was aftershave, but better - an aftershave that would teach you things, teach what to say and how to be. You do posters of Ernest Hemingway, with headlines by Tim Delaney, you do TV ads with Hemingway reading 'The Old Man and the Sea' over visuals of old Cuban fishermen bringing in marlin. You bring out Hemingway in a new edition, that's as identifiable as a set of white headphones, an edition that's properly pocket-sized. You show people how Ernest Hemingway invented a lot of the ideas we now know as 'cool'.

It doesn't matter that he's been dead for forty years, look at Billy Joel. One of the things the internet has done is to give people the whole of history to choose from. You only have to put Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas on a VW ad, and people buy it by the shed-load. It's not that they don't want beautiful writing, they just don't know how good it is, or they feel excluded by it.

Anyone want to start a publishing house? All we need is about £5 million for Hemingway's back list. We'll be rich. Rich I tell you.


Integral said...


Why do you think it's taking publishing houses so long to work out that they can make decent ads for books and/or authors?

Videogames went through their own period of crap advertising - screenshots with review quotes and sometimes a dreadfully poor headline. But now there are some terrific ads for games.

It seems the games publishing bods - who have only really been around properly since the mid-80s/90s - got their act together a lot quicker than their book publishing counterparts, who have been around for yonks.

So, like, what gives?

Ben said...

Chimes with the 'Will Self As Brand' stuff in CR.

My experience of book advertising is if you're unknown, your entire marketing budget goes into bribing your way onto the best shelves of Tesco and Waterstones. No advertising unless people know who you are.

And maybe you don't need £5m: there must be a shedload of public domain shit, like Dickens and Shakespeare to get you started for free.