The Strongest Brand In Publishing Is ... (by David Vinjamuri)
When comparing authors, publishers tend to focus on book sales. But sales figures tell only part of the story. Expensive advertising and a strong push for distribution and display at bookstores might yield strong initial sales but create lots of returns and low profitability. An early and fortuitous movie deal might overexpose a book that doesn’t meet the promise of the movie.
A thousand other externalities make sales data inadequate to measure the strength of an author’s franchise. To understand which authors are worth investing in, publishers need a better measure of an author’s value.
Brand, Not Platform
The metric often used to evaluate new or developing authors isplatform – roughly defined as the social reach of the author though Facebook fans, Twitter followers, blog views and speaking engagements. But according to Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, which polls thousands of readers to determine their preferences and purchase behavior, platform is a misleading metric.
We’ve seen celebrities with extremely high name recognition and very large platforms fail miserably in book sales. Being famous or having millions of Twitter followers alone is not enough to build a strong franchise as an author.
Hildick-Smith points out that only about half of adults read books and just a fifth are regular book buyers. So a celebrity with a large and dedicated following will not automatically become a bestselling author.
Brand loyalty is important because it has a direct impact on profitability. In fact, Codex data shows that consumers are willing to pay a 66% premium for a book by a favorite author over an unknown author. The chart below is for eBooks only (the prices are higher and premiums narrower for print books), and it also suggests that ebooks from new or lesser-known authors should be priced under $6.00, versus the $9.36 or more that readers are willing to pay for a favorite author.
Loyalty, Not Sales
“A great book will find its audience.”
One view in the publishing industry is that bestseller lists are the product of a skill-based meritocracy. But the reality is that the popular perception of a book itself is colored by the strength of the author’s brand. When we view bestseller list, part of what we’re seeing is a brand ranking. Without a strong and loyal fan base, there are few routes to these lists, and they all involve either book awardsor copious amounts of money.
Yes, both online and critical reviews can help, but only if the book attracts enough attention to make these review relevant. In other words, before a book can possibly become a bestseller, it needs to reach critical mass. Without the foundations of a strong brand, most authors will never get this far.
We saw the proof of this point last year. In April of 2013, Little Brown (Hachette) published The Cuckoo’s Calling by unknown author Robert Galbraith. Despite the big-five publisher and solid early reviews, the book sold just 440 print copies in April. When it was revealed several months later that the book’s author was none other than J.K. Rowling, the sales arc bent. As you can see from the chart below, The Cuckoo’s Calling sold 228,000 print copies in July.
So the author brand clearly has a huge impact on the success of a book, regardless of the quality. The question is – what makes for a strong author brand? To answer this question, let’s look at the strongest brand in the most recent Codex survey.
And The Winner Is … JACK REACHER
Jack Reacher is the creation of British author Lee Child, and has sold more than 70 million books, making Reacher more than a billion-dollar brand. But what’s most interesting about Lee Child’s creation is not the size of the brand but its strength. Child doesn’t have the largest following among bestselling authors: just over a third of book shoppers are aware of him versus the more than 95% who know John Grisham and the 99% aware of Stephen King, both of whom have sold more books.
But while just under a quarter of Grisham and King’s readers count either man as their favorite author nearly a third of Reacher readers mark Child as their favorite. (King and Grisham still rate on the higher end of reader loyalty, by the way. Most bestselling authors have less than 20% fan loyalty.)
This loyalty is not just theoretical: Child carries a higher percentage of his readers with him to each successive book than any other bestselling author. While just 41% of John Grisham’s fans owned or planned to buy his newest novel Sycamore Row, 70% of Child’s fans wanted a copy of the last Jack Reacher tale “A Wanted Man”.
In fact, Child has the strongest reader loyalty of any bestselling author. To get some insight into why Reacher is such a strong brand, I spoke to Child while he was running errands in Manhattan on a sunny New York morning last week. He emphasized three key factors behind Reacher’s success:
Consistency – Unlike Stephen King or John Grisham, Child’s work is a single series. “A series is better than a sequence of [unrelated] books in terms of building brand loyalty. There are two components of loyalty: one is the author and the second is the subject. If you like the author but you’re uncertain of the content of the next book, that’s an obstacle. It runs counter to the literary view of writing that values originality and growth. Jack Reacher is the same person in every book. He’s unemotional and focused on detail. There are lots of things that he always does that characterize who he is.” It may be no coincidence then that the last two offerings from King and Grisham (Doctor Sleep and Sycamore Row, respectively) are both sequels of their most popular early novels. Grisham’s work did a good job of communicating this relationship – and sold 21% more than his last book, The Racketeer. Doctor Sleep didn’t initially communicate that it was the sequel to The Shining, and it’s sold only on par with 11/22/63, King’s last bestseller.
Authenticity – Child has a very unique take on what makes a novel authentic. “Authenticity is not the same thing as accuracy. I live in New York. If you know New York then some of the actual reality of [life in] New York might not seem believable to the reader who doesn’t live here.” And by this, Child means that the art of narrative authenticity is culling details that are authentic from the larger pool of those that might be merely accurate.
Uniqueness – Corporate marketers find uniqueness in two-axis consulting charts showing them where the holes in the market exist. Child stresses something completely different. “I ignored all the other series. If you start with a laundry list of things then the book won’t be organic. Reacher is not a white knight. He lies and cheats and steals but because he’s doing it with integrity, people recognize him as a real human being.”
Building an Author Brand Today
Child published the first Reacher book in 1997, in the early days of the Internet. While he had some early experience with online forums, he essentially withdrew from active online participation with his readers before the rise of social media. He believes that Reacher lives more effectively online without his interference.
New authors face a starkly different reality. For one thing, the number of titles available to read has grown exponentially. Readers shopping online will have more than 700,000 new books to choose from this year. That’s up fairly dramatically from the11,022 books published the year Stephen King turned 3. The books they’ll find online will range from Mr. King’s own bestsellers from Scribner (Simon & Schuster) to the works of small presses and individuals. More than half the number will be self-published.
Codex data suggest that beyond personal recommendations, existing platform tools like blogs, Facebook, Twitter and appearances to connect with booksellers and librarians, there are two emerging ways for a new author to break through. The first is through price promotion, which has emerged over the past year to account for 6% of new book discovery. The largest two portals for this discovery are Amazon’s Kindle Daily Dealsand BookBub; an independent e-mail list that promotes discounted books to over two million readers. Both are powerful tools, but may be inaccessible to many authors. Amazon deals are not open directly to authors and BookBub favors established titles and rejects a reported 80% of requests to be featured on the daily e-mail.
The second tool that now accounts for 1.4% of all book discovery isGoodreads. Goodreads is a social network that focuses specifically on books. Amazon acquired Goodreads in the second quarter of 2013.
Building a Brand With Goodreads
Goodreads was launched in 2007 by Otis and Elizabeth Chandler. It allows readers to identify and review books they’ve read, and connect with other readers to discuss books. Part of the success of the site stems from a close integration with Facebook, which allows Goodreads members to automatically post their Goodreads reviews to Facebook.
I spoke to Patrick Brown, the Director for Author Marketing at Goodreads. He gave me a brief list of best practices for authors using Goodreads:
Cover – similar to other online sites, most readers view the book cover as a thumbnail. A cover that communicates strongly at this size is key.
Book Description – The value proposition for the book is extremely critical on Goodreads.
Social Interaction – Remind your existing friends or fans to review your book on Goodreads and add it to their shelves. Put the Goodreads badge on your website to drive people to engage with your book.
These seemed like basic points to me – what respectable publisher or author doesn’t work to produce the best cover and book description possible? Brown emphasized that incremental improvements in these areas do matter, however and he cited an internal study done last year that showed that many readers on Goodreads were attracted by the book description for The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. So perhaps closer attention to the short description of a book pays dividends.
Goodreads doesn’t mirror the world of Bookscan sales or Amazon reviews. Most authors who sell in appreciable numbers in the physical world or on Amazon have a presence on Goodreads, whether they manage it or not. But there are outliers, whose Goodreads impact dwarfs their real-world book sales. And some of these become significant authors because of Goodreads. When I asked Brown to cite one of the most effective authors on Goodreads, he named fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan without hesitation. Sullivan is one of those writers who’d written a closetful of books before he was first published. He moved from publishing in a small press to self-publishing and then traditionally publishing with Hachette starting in 2011. He’s sold 475,000 books in English and has been translated into 16 other languages.
Goodreads Secrets of the Fantasy King
Sullivan’s told me that he engaged with Goodreads as a reader first, rather than an author. He set aside an hour a day to engage on the site. “Goodreads was 80% of our success early on.” Sullivan joined multiple fantasy groups and avidly read and discussed the work of other authors. While he listed his own books in his signature, he was careful not to push them as a community member. But he built a solid base of friends on the network and these friends helped him grow as he published new books. He had three specific suggestions for using Goodreads:
Run a Giveaway – Sullivan gives away advanced reader copies (ARCs) of his books on Goodreads up to 6 months before the book is available in print. This gives the books more value to contest winners who read them before the general public. “I was only giving away two copies but 2,700 people entered and I got the member names for all of them,” Sullivan told me. In addition, each contest entry generated a story on that person’s activity feed on Goodreads, which became free advertising for the book.
Build a List – In Sullivan’s world, building readers can be a one on one chore, but the numbers add up quickly. “I used to go to malls and stand in a bookstore for an event for three hours and I’d get 5 people to read my book. But then they’d write back to me and some of them would become fans and recommend my books.” Goodreads makes the same process much easier.
Participate in The Community – Sullivan stresses a central point about communities – they treat others in the community best. The secret to being promoted within a community like Goodreads is being a good citizen and participating not just as an author but as a reader. Sullivan was also one of the first authors to friend virtually every reader who gave his books positive ratings. As a result he now has over 51,000 reviews of his books on Goodreads.
It may be unknowable what separates Jack Reacher from thousands of other series as the strongest brand or which authors will find the most success in social networking. Looking beyond sales numbers to measure reader loyalty – and then systematically building that loyalty is worthwhile for publishers and authors alike.