A few years ago there was a lot of hype surrounding The Da Vinci Code. Although I had read nothing else by Dan Brown, I too felt compelled to buy it. And I read it avidly. Five years on, I could not tell you much about the plot, but I always thought that if a moment in time like that could be bottled, then publishers all over the world would buy it in crateloads and books could become real brands.'OK,' Barrett concedes, 'so it's not the most amazing marketing idea ever, but it created an unusual buzz around the launch of a book.' I must have missed that particular buzz. Actually, I'd suggest that publishers' PR are continually thinking of ideas like this (better than, often) without needing to pay Advertising Agencies wallopping great fees to think on their behalf. The internet, as Barrett's piece goes on to say, has opened up a lot of low-cost options.
But books are not brands. Or are they? Penguin certainly believes that they could be.
Last year, Penguin signed a new author, Charles Elton. Because it was so excited about Elton, the publisher wanted to do something a little different to the usual press releases and distribution and pricing deals. Because of the nature of the book, a poster campaign would have not been the right solution. So it drafted in BBH - the ad agency behind Persil and Audi - for a project to launch Elton's novel, Mr Toppit. The agency's head of engagement planning, Jason Gonsalves - a man well known in the industry to think outside the usual confines of marketing - took on the challenge. The aim was to take a different approach from the usual run-of-the-mill press and poster ads and instead to create what he refers to as "heat" ahead of the launch.
Elton's novel is about a fictional book called The Hayseed Chronicles. If you read the Times two weeks ago then you might have spotted a full-page ad in the form of an announcement from a fake organisation called The Hayseed Foundation, which complained about the use of the family's name and other aspects of Mr Toppit. It also directed people to a website for a full statement on the matter. If you clicked on it you discovered that www.hayseedfoundation.com had 'crashed', and were redirected to a website dedicated to the book.
But there's a misthink in the process, I'd say. Citing the Da Vinci Code (a left-field success) isn't the best place to start. Because if we ignore black swans like that title, it's not books that are brands; it is authors. People's reading tastes cluster. If a reader chances upon a title they like they'll mine out the whole seam. This might mean reading all the other titles by that author; or it might be finding as many similar titles as possible. Gollancz have done a good job of plugging into this latter phenomenon with a set of well-chosen 'masterworks' series (they've a very nicely designed Space Opera series coming soon, which even includes a title by yours truly).
One significant SF buzz at the moment is the imminent release of the new China Miéville. The book is called The City and the City, and it looks very interesting; but my point right here is that people are more likely to think of it as 'the new China Miéville', and less likely to think of it as 'The City and the City'. That's how we conceptualise the field.
This doesn't mean publishers should be putting money into marketing their authors as people, of course. Authors as people are, more often than not, mild-mannered desk jockeys. I feel I can speak for pretty much all my fellow word-extruders when I say this. Authors are capable of almost heroic powers of underwhelmability when put on a public platform. But this doesn't matter, because it's not the author as a person readers are interested in (even if they think they are). It's the author's style; the distinctive quality that links an author's books. Bottle that, and market that as a brand, and you'd really be getting somewhere.