Ever since I turned author (in 2013 with the release of my first Harlequin title, The Indian Tycoon’s Marriage Deal) I have been lectured by one and all about the rules of marketing as it applies to a newly minted author. The argument goes something like this: Publishing is one heck of a competitive business; new authors are coming out of the woodwork and publishers’ marketing spends are shrinking. As a newbie author it’s up to you to be out there pushing your book aggressively among readers. To cut the clutter you need to build yourself as a Brand. Before I turned fiction writer I was a business writer who specialized in writing about brands and their marketing strategies. I could see the merit in this line of argument and was happy to do what was needed to make my books more visible. However, having observed how branding is done (specially in India) in the publishing space, I believe that there are more cons than pros to the branding-works-for-newbie authors argument. Here’s why:
Brand building requires budgets. And new brands require even bigger budgets.
Consider the example of the well-known soap brand Lux. The mere mention of the brandname is enough to trigger an image of a soap that has been advertised endlessly as a product that is used by film-stars and is the “secret” of their youth and vitality. It has taken decades of pounding this message day in and day out over diverse media channels to build Lux as a mega brand. Today, the soap can move off the shelves without much advertising but to bring it to this stage Unilever has spent billions of ad bucks. In comparison, a new contender that pitches itself in the same space (with more or less similar USP or unique selling proposition) would not only need a ‘different’ ad pitch but also a huge ad budget to make its presence felt against the big brand appeal of Lux.
Now let’s transpose this scenario to the Publishing Industry. Take any of the mega-bestselling authors. Nora Roberts. JK Rowling. Stephen King. Or our very own Amish or Chetan Bhagat. These authors did not have huge advertising spends to launch their books. They built their audience by writing books (I am loathe to call a book as a product and more about that later in Part II of this Book Marketing series) that connected with their readers. One might argue that they did so when the publishing space was not so cluttered with new authors and therefore they had an easier time in building themselves as “brands”. Even though I don’t subscribe to that argument, let’s for a moment believe that is so.
Given the new uber competitive scenario the logic therefore would be (drawing from the Lux example): new authors need to be promoted more heavily by publishers. They need to support them with innovative marketing, sampling of their books at author events and create strategies that help them find new niches. However, what’s happening in the publishing industry is just the opposite: it’s the big-brandname authors who are being lavished with full page ads in mainline dailies and whose new book launches are celebrated at events. The reason is obvious: for publishing houses, the big brandnames are the ‘revenue earners’ and they are diverting their ad budgets to sustain them rather than create new “assets” or “brandnames”. An important reason why publishers would rather spend their budgets on big author-brands is they are protecting their own interests. If Westland drops the marketing ball in terms of pushing Scion of Ikshvaku (which is going to be a six-part series by Amish), they will not get the return on their investment in terms of the advance they have paid their bigname-author-brand. A newbie author-brand is a risky investment for risk-averse publishers. And publishers take only the minimum risk necessary by printing and distributing books by new authors.
Problem with such an approach is that the new author/brandname ends up spending his own money on launch events that are peopled by his/her friends and family; is not able to connect with readers and is unlikely to get a mention in the celebrity-focused mainstream media. Such a myopic strategy by publishers also means that publishers are losing out on new authors who have a potential to connect with new readers and build their new inhouse future mega brands. Moreover, without any buzz for the book, stores are unwilling to give it proper display and further reducing the chances of discoverability. As Ashwin Sanghi, best selling author says, “Jo dikhta hai, voh bikta hai” (For a book to sell it needs to be seen).
Ultimately, Newbie Authors are stuck in the bottom most rung of the Publishers’ brand portfolio. Unless the newbie author can pull a trick out of his/her hat and quickly scale the bestselling charts, publishers are unwilling to put their marketing muscle behind these ‘brands’.
Watch out for the Next Part of this Series on Authors as Brands.