Friday, January 30, 2009

Branding Authors Causes Pain

This article by Jill Priluck in Slate's The Big Money is all about authors becoming brands. Publishers and people within publishing clearly have a conflicted notion about this concept, and Priluck does a nice job unpacking why that is and what branding means in the changing landscape of publishing: "In the book world, where the word "brand" is either sacrosanct or dirty, there's little consensus."

The article demonstrates the kind of classic doublespeak employed in publishing, where commercial publishers want a strong product but also want respect from the literary community. I mean, can we really not refer to Mitch Albom as a brand? Really? His agent says no, but the marketing department at his publisher has already made the bed. Sorry, buddy.

But Priluck also shows the downside of being branded - the pigeon-hole effect: "In their desire to fulfill the dictates of a brand, authors can compromise their integrity as writers, especially if they cubbyhole themselves." And this is where you see the ongoing problem in publishing that many of us online have discussed, even ad nauseum. Publishers want a reliable product and they want to put it out quickly, and writers who get sucked into the system can wind up with the very short end of the stick. As Priluck explains,
With limited choices, [authors] trade depth for instant gratification, visibility, and higher advances. Ironically, their longevity, supposedly the marker of a good brand, falls by the wayside. It seems that unlike a detergent or a car, an author who is branded too quickly will often fizzle out just as fast.
This is when the speed of publishing runs into the commitment a writer must show to a topic or idea to execute it well. Delivery dates get pushed up, demands increase, corners get cut. Sometimes an agent is in on it, sometimes an agent is helping the author carve out necessary space and time.

Somehow we need to find the balance with high-speed communication - Twitter being the at-times comical example - and smart, thought-out, patiently crafted writing. Even cellphone novels, much buzzed-about right now though they scream of lame trend to me, can be crafted rather than hammered out. (See a nice parody of this idea blogged here by Peter Hyman.)

I do like when newer technology meets older writing, as with the George Orwell blog. So are we going to see classic novels translated into text messages and serialized, or twittered? I'm sure we are, just as we now have an LOLcats version of the Bible (egads, man). I'm not opposed to this kind of serialization, which could drive readers to great books. And authors can let readers into their process to some extent through Twitter, as long as it doesn't lessen their discipline to the actual writing (or result in leaked manuscripts, as famously happened with Stephenie Meyer last summer).

I'm all for sharing writing quicker and in various formats. The formats are not going to give the writing a shelf life; the quality of the writing is, so writers should keep that in mind even as they stare down demands from publishers in need of that product.

(Thanks to JasonB at Galleycat for the branding link.)

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