Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kill a Reader, Save Book Publishing (via Content Branding)

"[L]ike antivirus software which  scans for suspicious files and protects your computer, a trademark filters high risk information."
Google promises that the quality of information found on the internet (whether on depression or leasing a car) can be inferred through its search rankings.  However, often the author's credentials are unclear or inaccurate, or the commercial sponsorship of a site masked.   Currency of information is another problem.  Absent editorial control, unbranded, free information can be unreliable - even harmful information.   

Despite these concerns, we rely on the free internet to make important health and financial decisions.  While malware and viruses can take down a computer, misinformation can take a life.  I believe that as consumers become more cynical of search ranking results and online reviews, branding's role will increase.
 
Kill a Reader, Save Book Publishing

Like consumer health, the internet has put the health of commercial book publishing at risk.  Among other things, it has depressed the value of commercial nonfiction.  According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP) StatShot report for October 2012, nonfiction sales are down.  So, how does an ailing industry compete with free?  What would it take to get readers to flock back to stiff backed hardcovers, quality paperbacks, or download a  pricey eBook? 


Simple.  Branding, and a seriously injured mushroom hunting enthusiast led astray by an anonymous Wiki contributor who misidentified a poisonous mushroom as a "safe" and delicious substitute for store bought 'shrooms.   Free information is shitty information. That's the "Got Milk" message the AAP  should shout from the roof tops.  Blogs and Wikis kill!   AAP member publishers bring great ideas to life!   Publishers need to leverage their reputation.  

If you plan to birth a baby at home, traverse the Mohave Desert on foot, or forage for edible mushrooms, consult a recently revised and updated "big six" (five?) book. Put another way, a publisher's brand is a useful indicator of content quality. 

Cue the Director of Communications of the AAP 


My advice?  Prey on making insecure people feel safe when they purchase your books.  "We publish books by noted experts that you can bet your life on." 
 
Tragedy could open a door for the AAP to extoll the virtues of curated non-fiction. The AAP's current value proposition is, "We are America’s premier publishers of high-quality . . . and professional content." As such, the AAP pitch letter to the media might read:

If you are working on any stories regarding the recent mushroom poisoning deaths and health risks associated with uncurated information found on the Internet, we at that Association of American Publishers can provide a publishing industry expert for any relevant stories you are working on. Wikis kill. We 'bring great ideas to life."
In a run up to a "negligent publication"  trial,  Nancy Grace  would comment that the injuries were foreseeable, and wouldn't have happened but for a poorly researched Wikepedia artice on edible mushrooms.  One of the talking heads on the split screen would be an AAP insider-publisher.  He'd talk about publisher as curator, author credentials, branded content - but avoid the issue of currency of information, as publishers have not yet realized that creating a long-term relationship with the reader begins with creating a long-term relationship with the content, i.e., periodic revisions and reader alerts.  The phrase "negligent publication" would earn a hashtag, as people start to Tweet personal stories about their detrimental reliance on shitty, that is, non-curated information.    

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently defined the term "negligent publication" in a media liability policy as "a narrow tort in which the publication of material encourages or instructs readers to engage in harmful conduct." The internet is rife with negligent information. The internet is a creepy, shadow universe of unverifiable facts, pedophiles, snake oil salesmen, substanceless self-promoters and sock puppets. Do I really believe this?  While there's truth in that statement, there are "flowers among the weeds."  

If you felt a tap on your shoulder as you read the above  paragraph, likely it was the First Amendment wishing to remind you that books are not products, and, historically negligent publication cases have gotten little traction in the courts. But, the value of a negligent publication lawsuit isn't in getting a conviction, it's the promotional value -- getting readers to question what they read.  And, to gain an appreciation for the value of a book curated by a reputable publisher. Cheap is dear. Upon big six (soon five) books you can rely. Blogs not so much.


Trademark is the New Copyright

The way I see it, trademark is the new copyright. It is the key to competing with free. Sock puppetry and fake online reviews,  further drives home the point that information quality and pedigree still matters.   Just like antivirus software which  scans for suspicious files and protects your computer, a trademark filters high risk information.  "Without trademarks to identify and distinguish products or services," John Oathout, author of Trademarks, says "consumers would have no basis for selection or rejection, or any assurance that a particular product is the product they are seeking." Regrettably, though, publishers have undervalued the goodwill associated with their colophons and imprints for years.

Whereas a trademark identifies goods, a trade name, like Random House, merely identifies a company. As Mr. Oathout points out, "Frequently, the same word identifies both the [producer] and the product. "The Random House Dictionary" for example. However, most books are identified solely by a generic (unprotectable) title, or the goodwill becomes associated with the author's (not publisher's) brand. If you are being disintermediated,  don't head for the exits by acquiring an assisted self-publishing company like Authors House.  Instead, rebrand your company as a trusted source, a marketer of books, and a policer of piracy.  

A Modest Proposal

If I were marketing manager of the Peterson’s Guides, I’d gladly forgo my entire field guide to North American mushrooms marketing budget ($0?), for one severely ill, penny wise, but dollar foolish, mushroom enthusiast who relied to his detriment on a Wiki, and a connected Howard Rubinstein Public Relations account exec.   

Seriously, if publishing houses wish to remain standing, their colophons and imprints need to stand for something.  Alfred A. Knopf (the man, not the imprint) was keenly aware of that when he wrote The Borzoi Credo, a publishing manifesto which appeared in the November 1957 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
I believe that a publisher's imprint means something, and that if readers paid more attention to the publisher of the books they buy, their chances of being disappointed would be infinitely less.
Of course, Knopf was talking about trademarks.  Trademarks identify the source and quality of a product.  Trademarks accrue goodwill, a valuable intangible asset, for the publisher.  If you are familiar with Vertigo comics and graphic novels, you know in advance something about the level of quality of their publications before you make a purchase.  From a marketing perspective, most major book publishers (but, not Harlequin) get failing grades.  While familiar to booksellers, publishing imprints do not, as a rule, resonate with readers.  But there are exceptions.  If you own or collect vintage vinyl, you get it.  The allure of specialty labels equates with the loyalty certain indie presses enjoy. Melville House is ESP Disk.  Akashic is Stiff Records.  Ig is Verve Records.  These brands -- like series titles -- communicate with prospective purchasers.  

Conclusion

As part of the AAP's  efforts to fend off  the digital barbarians, the EFF'ing advocates of free, Google Books, the recession, etc., they need to remind readers that their premier publisher members edit the books they publish.  They provide high-quality entertainment, education, scientific and professional content that you can bet your life on.  Read with confidence.  Download with confidence.    

Yes, flagrant flackery can save book publishing. 

Disclaimer:  This is a satire. A book published by a commercial publisher can be as dangerous to you health, wealth and well being as a blog written by a self-appointed expert, or a self-published book on a trending topic like safe self-surgery (#SSS).  As the authors of a study on the quality of web based information on the treatment of depression wrote, "The real challenge is to devise strategies that selectively eliminate the weeds but leave the flowers to bloom." Let the reader beware!


Keeping with the mushroom theme . . .
Grace Slick & The Jefferson Airplane
"White Rabbit"

Resources

Alfred A. Knopf's (the man, not the imprint) Borzoi Credo


Winder v. GP Putnam's Sons (9th Cir. 1991) (Federal Appeals Court Decision concerning mushroom enthusiast who became seriously ill picking and eating mushrooms after reading The Encyclopedia of Mushrooms) 

Quality of web based information on treatment of depression: cross sectional survey Griffiths, K., Christensen, H.
 


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