There was a lot of talk at the BookExpo Canada Conference about the branding of books and the branding of authors. But there appeared to be general agreement among the various panellists that, at this point in time, the branding of publishers is a dead end.
Kevin Smokler, in a presentation titled “Brand New World,” offered some reasons for this. He listed trust as the key ingredient of a successful brand and asserted that trust can’t be created from the top down. Contemporary readers don’t trust that a book is a good one simply because an established publisher says so. Indeed, just as in politics, in the contemporary marketplace there’s a general attitude of suspicion toward large institutions and their pronouncements. Readers are much more likely to trust word-of-mouth recommendations from unofficial sources than to accept the word from on high.
Carol Fitzgerald took a similar line. In a breakout session, she asked what the success of The Da Vinci Code had done for Doubleday. Certainly it was good for their bottom line, but had it raised their profile? Apparently, most readers, even devoted fans of the book, when asked couldn’t name the publisher.
At least as far as large, mainstream publishers are concerned, I think I’m inclined to agree. Consumers trust them to the extent that they’re more likely to assume a baseline level of quality in a book from an established publisher than to take a chance on a self-published book. But I don’t think that there are many readers who, in trying to decide which of two books to purchase, will make their selection based on the fact that they prefer Random House to HarperCollins. Indeed, in an industry rife with takeovers and mergers, often two apparently distinct publishers turn out to be part of the same company anyway.
But I don’t think that the same is true of small/indie presses. By definition, small presses have small publishing programs. With discrete, carefully chosen lists, it’s possible for presses to maintain consistency both in quality and in editorial vision. Certainly there are a number of small presses whose books so consistently impress me that I’m willing to pick up any book that bears one of their logos on its spine and give it a chance regardless of whether I’ve heard anything about the book or the author.
This is something that small presses could capitalize on more. Indeed, I think that this is precisely what a number of enterprising small/indie presses are doing with the introduction of subscription programs, for example, BookThug in Canada, and soft skull and clear cut press in the U.S.
With all of this in mind, I’m launching a new feature on this blog called “Small Press Spotlight.” At least once per month, I’ll shine the spotlight on a different small/indie press whose books I think deserve your attention. I’ll tell you a bit about the history of the press and, where editors are willing to talk to me, its editorial vision. Then I’ll highlight three or four recent titles that have convinced me that any book the press publishes is worth a look.
Watch for the first instalment of “Small Press Spotlight” next week. The first few that I’ve got lined up focus on Canadian small presses that I’ve long known and loved. I’m always willing to be seduced by a new press though, so if there’s one out there whose books you think I ought to be reading and writing about, please let me know in the comments section or via the Email address on the sidebar.