Nowadays, everyone in publishing feels the pressure to be a brand.
Authors can't just be humans stringing words together in dingy rooms. They must be multimedia kingpins with slick photos, signature colour schemes, event calendars and a panoply of social platforms broadcasting their every thought.
Publishers can no longer be shadowy middle-(wo)men quietly getting books out. They must be direct-to-consumer conversation leaders who recommend, entertain, gather data, produce merchandise and lead public campaigns.
As for book-related startups, well, they often have nothing but brand. Eager to hoover up the reader recognition and loyalty that publishers have historically failed to secure, they carefully craft their logo, app, elevator pitch and values in an attempt to lock users into a "community" they'll never want to leave.
This is, I think, a good thing, overall. Authors have to (wo)man up and take more responsibility over, and control for, their careers and readers. Publishers have to clarify what they stand for and get down and dirty with the rapidly changing audiences they're supposedly catering for. Startups have to be crystal-clear about what, exactly, it is that they're offering.
The problem is, when everyone's a brand, no-one cares.
In a recent piece for us, John Bond, the founder of publishing services company Whitefox, wrote about a book his team recently helped produce, but which bears no sign of their involvement. "Maybe there are more ways of doing good work and getting your message out there than the constant white noise of self-congratulation on social media," he posits. "Some brands can sit happily below the radar, camouflaged, and allow other creative collaborators – writers, publishers, brands – to shine."
As consumers, we're famously short on attention. The more brands that emerge, the more fickle we become. But the one thing we do remain loyal to are the stories we love, and the front-people who create them. So should publishers and publishing startups stop trying to be so relentlessly B2C, and double down on helping the talent "to shine"?
Should publishers put more effort into helping their authors build strong, resilient and creative brands, rather than marketing their own? Could they come up with smarter ways to communicate with readers and capture their data in collaboration with their individual writers, rather than trying to do it en masse and over their heads? What if the first question they ask of any author is: how can we turn their story into a long-term, profitable, diversified and sustainable brand? Not just: how can we get this book out and move onto the next?
Of course, there's a risk of authors defecting and taking that investment with them - but twas ever thus. And such a mutually beneficial approach might well breed a sense of loyalty that would make publisher or platform-hopping less likely.
The real question is: do publishers really have any choice? Of course, some clear basic branding is essential, but trying to get readers to pay attention and forge strong emotional bonds with anything other than the obvious - the stories and their creators - seems like largely misspent resource.
The sustainable innovation success stories we're seeing emerge happen when the brands start to take a back seat so that the work itself is pushed to the fore. Look at The Pigeonhole, partnering with Pan Mac to apply their model to a Ken Follet campaign and winning a FutureBook Award. Look at Wonderbly, maturing from the one-trick-pony 'Lost My Name' concept to become an innovation-engine for Roald Dahl.
We all want to be loved. But might it be better if a few of us get loved, and more of us get paid?