Publishers to Readers: We’re Not That Into You

December 19th, 2005 · 4 Comments
by DavidThayer

Jane Friedman is a smart executive. She runs Harper-Collins, one of the trade houses large enough to represent the book industry as a whole. HC is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp conglomerate, with all the drama and trauma that implies. Ms. Friedman made the comment last summer that she envisions a time when authors are secondary to the brand name imprint, that future book buyers will want to buy a book because Harper Collins is the publisher.

Harlequin is the role model. Everyone knows what a Harlequin title is. Even the casual observer understands that Harlequin has a traditional audience, fans of Romance. A customer may safely purchase a Harlequin Romance because the brand assures them that what they see is what they get. But Harlequin has a dazzling array of imprints that seek to fine-tune its audience appeal. If I were the target audience, I’d be confused. Can’t I just buy a Harlequin?

No. Jane Friedman’s vision of branded buying used to be Harlequin’s sweet spot. One giant is moving away from that ideal while another longs to get there; Coke wants to be Pepsi and they both want to be Gatorade. The varying corporate strategies illustrate this confounding fact about big time publishing: they don’t know who their customers are. They know Barnes & Noble, Borders, Costco and Walmart. Those are four faces of wholesale book buying. Here’s what they want: whatever sold last year. By narrowing the focus to what the big buyers want, major publishers risk alienating the end user, readers. Does this matter? General Motors cooked away its audience thirty years ago and has never regained market share; today its bond rating is junk and its pension liabilities may force the company into bankruptcy.

File Under: The Business of Publishing

4 responses so far ↓

  • Bill Peschel // Dec 19, 2005 at 1:26 pm

    If HarperCollins succeeds at this strategy, they may follow in Harlequin’s path and control the author’s name as well. Can you foresee the equivilant of a Robert Ludlum line of international espionage thrillers, a Sue Grafton female P.I. series, a Dan Brown religious thriller line?

  • flamingbanjo // Dec 19, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    An analagous move towards “quality control” in the music industry (this is the corporate branding meaning of quality control, i.e. presenting a uniform, consistent product that adheres to an already successful formula) has led to the Britney Years. How many indistinguishable pop-tart princesses are there now? I’ve lost count.

    And yet, in spite of this brilliant marketing strategy sales are declining and execs are mourning the fact that there is no new generation of pop acts with staying power of over ten years. Why? Because somewhere in their rush to create a pre-fab, glossy and thoroughly undifferentiated product, they forgot about the people who actually buy their stuff. Consumers have very limited loyalty to a product that had to be force-fed to them in the first place.

    Ditto movies. Execs are scratching their heads wondering why audiences aren’t rushing out to pay $10 to see movie versions of the Dukes of Hazzard and Bewitched.

    The idea that I would buy a Harper-Collins book just because I had some kind of special warm feelings towards that brand name is exactly the kind of idea that sounds great on paper and probably goes over big at board meetings but will not survive an encounter with reality.

  • David Thayer // Dec 19, 2005 at 5:03 pm

    Bill, my imagination often fails me when it comes to foreseeing developments in publishing, but I find the idea of authors toiling away for a brand disquieting. I thought Jane Friedman’s remarks to Edward Wyatt were all more frightening for her cheerfulness.

  • Diana Peterfreund // Dec 20, 2005 at 8:14 am

    Back in the good old hollywood heyday, people went to see movies because of the studio that was attached to produce them. An MGM musical. A Paramount Picture. On and on. Actors and directors were slaves to the studio that allowed their movies to hit the screen.

    But, it turned out that people really didn’t care what studio made a movie, as long as it was a story they were interested in featuring STARS they wanted to see. The star of the film became paramount, because the producer couldn’t control what happened to the film, not the way the directors and the actors could. That was the true measure of quality.

    The best Harlequin authors are hte ones that become brands outside of Harlequin, and eventually move on. They break away from the studio system that fostered them, because no matter how Harlequin tries, it’s the individual that controls the content that is the true value in the system.