Tuesday, February 08, 2005

More on children's books; and branding

Yesterday I ventured to suggest that selling large numbers of children's books was not easy to achieve, and especially so for a new publisher. And later yesterday booktrade.info provided a link to an article in the Sunday Times which proves that even established firms can find the children's market very hard going.

Tessa Strickland and Nancy Traversy set up Barefoot Books, a children's book publishing company, some eleven years ago. They did well at first, but in 2002 ran into serious trouble. Expansion into the US market had created all kinds of problems and they made a loss of £1.3m on sales of only £2.4m.

One of their attempts to improve the situation involved asking for help from the Sunday Times bunch of pundits. The experts made a number of suggestions, the chief of which seems to have been to increase brand awareness. Barefoot have apparently achieved this 'brand awareness' by linking themselves to companies which complement their products -- in this case companies which market stuff to parents who value quality over the mass market. They also persevered with a 'stallholder' scheme, whereby mothers effectively act as the company's agents or sub-contractors. The mums buy books from Barefoot at a discount and sell them on to friends or any other market they can find.

Result: the company's financial position is much improved. In the latest full year profits are at $200,000 on sales of $5m. And no, I don't understand why one year's figures are quoted in pounds and another's in dollars, either.

Personally I think it is very difficult indeed to establish a brand-name consciousness in publishing. At least 98% of readers don't give a tuppenny whatsit who publishes the books they read. Readers just simply never notice the publisher's name. It's there, on the cover and the title page and the copyright page, but their eyes just glide over it. If they like a book, however, they will go out and look for other stuff by the same author; and quite often such books are put out by different publishers, but the readers won't notice or care.

With excellent timing, booktrade.info also provides a link to an article from the New York Times, reprinted in The Ledger for some reason, which tells us that Jane Friedman, the boss lady of HarperCollins, is trying to make the name of that firm as recognisable as the brand names of some of her big authors, such as Michael Crichton.

Well, to my mind that is a totally lost cause. For one thing, there is no real consistency of product, not even among the offerings put out by a major player such as HC. A Michael Crichton book is simply not even the same as a book by another famous name -- and it definitely isn't the same as an HC book by an unknown, or a book in a different genre.

To my mind, the nearest thing to a real brand name that was ever achieved by a UK publisher was about 40 to 50 years ago, by the firm of Victor Gollancz. In those days, all Gollancz books had the same distinct look: the dust jackets were all bright yellow, with black lettering. The only difference between them was the title of the book and the author's name.

This was very helpful to me, for one. In those days I was reading mostly crime fiction, and Gollancz had a strong list. So I could go to the crime section of the local library, look for the books with a bright yellow cover, and be fairly sure that they were at least worth a try. Gollancz published the early John Le Carre. They also had a strong line in science fiction, with books like Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan.

But I don't think Jane Friedman is going to use bright yellow covers on the whole of her HC output.

The NYT article has a whole lot more on the branding of publishing companies, none of it very convincing.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Allen - I disagree with your comments that readers are unaware of the publisher as a brand and instead only recognize the author. I do actually sometimes check the name of the publisher when buying a book, either becuase some publishing houses really should not be allowed to inflict their wares on an unsuspecting public whilst others create some of the loveliest books I own. On the other hand, I read a ridiculous amount of books per year so perhaps I am an oddity but surely Penguin Books is a well recognized brand name? Oh, and thanks for a wonderful blog!

Miriam Jones said...

I would agree that generally, readers are much more interested in authors than in publishers. That being said, Barefoot Books is an interesting anomaly, at least in my experience; they are one of the few children's publishers that I would look out for, because they make it clear that they have a vision and an agenda, and so one can trust, to some extent, their choices. But yes, I think that they are probably the exception that proves the rule.

Nice books, though. Well made; lovely art.

Annabooklover said...

I also think that publishers are brand names. For example Faber and Faber, for a foreigner like me, are a guarantee of quality literature.
Here in Greece publishers are much more specific than in UK so many times I don't look for a writer but for a new title from a publisher. Mind you, this may not be very successful though since all publishers complain they don't make enough money here!

online movies watch said...

Online movies watch free