Brand Names

By Richard Curtis

When I entered the publishing business the paperback revolution was in full swing, and among the innovations introduced at the time was the insertion of ads in paperbacks. Although a number of products were tried out, the ones that stood out most vividly were cigarettes. There was debate on both Publishers' Row and Madison Avenue about propriety and economics, and I don't recall that I cared much either way; it was fine with me if people wanted to run ads in books, and fine with me if they didn't. The ads didn't inspire me to buy the product, but few ads do anyway. Nor did I find them a desecration of literature, mainly because the books they ran in were often desecrations of literature to begin with. Still, some authors did not like it, and others worried that the insertion of an ad for Marlboros in The Attack of the Hydrangea People today could lead to one for Desenex Foot Powder in War and Peace tomorrow.
I doubt if such ethical considerations would have prevailed if the economics of carrying advertising in books were sound, but they apparently were not. In addition, the susceptibility of book buyers to such ads was not terribly high. Publishers and advertisers might, given enough time, have overcome these problems had not, the story goes, some publisher run some cigarette ads in a book about the dangers of smoking (the story may be apocryphal, but it's too good to resist). The incident pointed up the dire possibilities, and so it came to pass that many authors and agents demanded specific language in their contracts stipulating that no ads would be run in their books, except ads for other books published by the publisher) without their express consent.

Ads in books are not very cost-effective ways of conveying a sales message. If the average distribution of a run-of-the-mill paperback original is 50,000 copies (it's often less), of which perhaps half will be returned, you're talking about 25,000 exposures of the ad, maybe a few more if the book is circulated beyond the original purchasers. That's not a great many exposures compared to the hundreds of thousands or millions an advertiser can get in national magazines, and its a pittance compared to the exposure of ads on the Internet and the effectiveness of ads on network television. But, you say, don't advertisers pay less to run ads in books than in magazines or on television to compensate for the difference in exposures? They certainly do; so much less, in fact, as to make it scarcely worthwhile for the publisher to sell the space.

There are other problems as well. Despite the commercialization of the publishing industry many publishers do have compunctions about the ethics of commingling ads with the texts of books, and although they may have few reservations about publishing books depicting human depravity in all its hideous glory, they draw the line at disposable razors and smokeless tobacco. You figure it out. Another problem is consumer resistance to ads in books. While most buyers of literature don't think twice about ads that appear in magazines, they find the same ads discomfiting in books. This may relate to the disposability of magazines; books are to keep, and book buyers may feel that their cherished possessions are contaminated by ads.

If we accept the truism that where there's a will there's a way, then we may be able to find creative ways around the problem. First, however, authors have to acknowledge that advertising in books does not necessarily spell the death of civilization as we have known it. Perhaps they would have an easier time doing so if they thought there was something in it for themselves.

What's in it for publishers, we all know: money. Advertising defrays costs and enhances profits, worthy goals for any business. But authors do not benefit from advertising revenue, nor do I think many of them feel entitled to do so. But surely, if they consider how much money is paid to contributing authors by such ad-rich publications as the New Yorker or Vanity Fair, it should be clear to them that there is a distinct relationship. Without meaning to sound overly cynical, it's easier to imagine authors accepting ads in their books for disposable razors and smokeless tobacco if they're paid advances twice the size of those they're now getting. Maybe the time has come, then, for authors to rethink their hostility to the notion.

It may well be that, for the reasons I've given, it's an unfeasible one. Nevertheless, it does raise a related issue having to do with the relationship between book publishing and other commercial enterprises. You might call it brand-name sponsorship of books, and though our industry is awakening to its potential, there's still a lot of fuzzy thinking in this area.

Our society is heavily dependent on brand names for the selection of consumer goods, and the consumer of books is no different from the consumer of soap powder. Publishers are confronted by a serious problem in this respect, however, because when it comes to selecting books, the "brand name" of the publisher means nothing to the consumer. Oh sure, the average book buyer is probably more familiar with the names of Random House, Doubleday, and Simon & Schuster than with firms like Beacon Press or Chelsea House, but he or she does not prefer Random House books over Beacon Press ones. The book buyer has no brand name loyalty, and little brand name recognition: I warrant 90 percent of all readers cannot tell you the name of the publisher of the book they are currently reading. Readers who loved a recent Putnam book could not care less about Putnam books in general, and if the author moved to Viking his readers would buy his Viking books as avidly as they bought his Putnam ones.

Readers, as I say, are as brand-name conscious as anybody else, but for them the brand names are favorite authors. But I'm constantly surprised at how little advantage publishers have taken of the availability of brand-name companies to sponsor books - sponsor them, that is, the way they sponsor television programs. The Procter and Gambles and General Foods of the world are loaded with money and spend stupendous sums on advertising and promotion. The sums necessary to back a book and put it on the bestseller list are pathetically low compared to what must be spent to achieve consumer acceptance of some new product or model: we're talking about perhaps a hundred thousand dollars or a little more, the cost of one or two magazine ads for soap products or automobiles or cigarettes. For another thing, these companies are in a position to buy books - lots of them, for use as premiums given away or sold at high discount to purchasers of their products.

Many writers who are not names may have wonderful ideas for books and superb expertise to bring to them. They will probably not get very far, however, because good ideas and extensive knowledge are unfortunately not enough to interest publishers in commissioning books. I cannot tell you how many worthy proposals are turned down annually by agents and publishers because the authors lack a "platform" or "credentials." When I see such proposals, I often suggest that the author try to link up with a brand-name company in that field and try to interest the firm in sponsoring his book. The same principle might wed brand-name sponsors to whole lines of books. Cosmetic or fragrance manufacturers could be persuaded to back lines of romance novels, for example.

There is gold mine potential in this area known as licensing, and, because it means more work for authors (and possibly lucrative deals for them if authors and their agents play their cards right), far more attention ought to be paid to bringing sponsoring companies onto the publishing scene.
Some purists will attack this notion as another form of subsidy publishing, and that, unquestionably, is what it is. But an industry subsidized by Marlboro cigarettes, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, and Alpo dog food is still preferable to the present system subsidized by authors.

Photo courtesy of Kate Sherrill, who spotted the ad in a 1972 paperback version of Agatha Cristie title.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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