"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" - caption to a 1993 New Yorker cartoon by Peter SteinerGoogle 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 sponsorship of your search results are masked, or the information provided unclear, inaccurate or simply off topic. Currency of information is another problem. Despite these shortcomings and threats, we rely heavily on the free internet to make vital health, financial and other life altering decisions. Ironically, your computer is better protected from online threats than you are. Trademarks are a form of reputation-based security.
Just like Norton or McAfee, which guards your computer from malware and viruses, trademarks filter out 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, traditional publishers have undervalued the goodwill associated with their brands and imprints for years.
Let the Reader Beware
Like the health of readers, the health of mainstream, or old-line commercial publishing is at risk. It isn't a stretch to say that the internet has depressed the value of commercial nonfiction. According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP) StatShot report for October 2012, nonfiction book sales are down. Recently, John Wiley & Sons, retired from travel book publishing, ceding one of its evergreen travel brands to Google. 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 opt for pricey eBooks?
My modest proposal is simple, elegant, and workable. Kill a reader. Blame the internet. All it would take is a one mushroom hunting enthusiast led astray by an anonymous blogger who misidentified a poisonous mushroom as a "safe" and delicious substitute for store bought 'shrooms. Cue the propaganda arm of the Association of American Publishers ("AAP"). Issue a press release. Free information is shitty information. That's the "Got Milk" message the AAP should be shouting from roof tops.
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 five" (four?) book. Put another way, a publisher's brand is a useful indicator of content quality.
The way I see it, trademark is the new copyright. It is the key to competing with free. Information quality and pedigree should matter.
Whereas a trademark identifies goods, a trade name, like Random House, merely identifies a company. As Mr. Oathout points out in his book on trademarks, "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 hedge your bets by buying an assisted self-publishing company like Authors House, rebrand your company as a trusted source. That's right, call a trademark attorney or brand specialist.
Hire a Hit Man?
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 advice found on the internet. Am I suggesting that the industry hire a hit man to off a mushroom trolling enthusiast and make it look like an accident? Nah. Only stupid people plot murders. And, no self respecting book publishing executive on an expense account would ever travel to a New Jersey airport diner to interview hit men or discuss the details.
Seriously, if traditional publishing houses wish to remain standing, their brands, colophons and imprints need to stand for a certain level of quality or reliability. 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. The accrue goodwill 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 communicate with prospective purchasers. They lower the consumers transaction costs, as do series titles.
As part of the AAP's efforts to fend off the digital barbarians, the EFF'ing advocates of free, Google Books, the ebbing 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.
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!
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.