(Winter)Birth of a Brand

Like most people I buy things. And not just any things – I choose particular things to buy, because I prefer them over others. And, being in the business of marketing, I’m professionally interested in this process of preference. Marketing folk try to engineer choice… so how does it work? Is it a purely rational process, that could be scientifically tested to produce predictable, repeatable results? Or a seething mass of emotion, prejudice and random chance that needs an art (a black art perhaps) to understand?

One recent object I paid money for was a paperback book – Winterbirth, a fantasy novel by Brian Ruckley. Here are some reflections on how I came to prefer this item over 1000s of others; a sort of focus group of one (me), sprinkled with the Ps of Marketing

Winterbirth cover

I came across the book in a bookshop – so the mighty apparatus of distribution (place) played a vital role in the purchasing process. I hadn’t seen any promotion for the book, so its packaging had to do much of the work of convincing me it buy it. While I picked it up and fondled it speculatively, my thought process went something like

looks like a Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden book – is it actually a fantasy? maybe its been misshelved – hmm, ‘A World of Ice…A World of Blood…A Godless World’ – sounds like an Arctic dystopia – might want more of a feelgood factor – mind you in the warm weather the cold might be nice – the ‘Godless’ thing sounds interesting – has anyone reviewed it? Well the Times say ‘No one who enjoys heroic fantasy should miss this’ – David Gemmell books used to be described as ‘heroic fantasy’ – would be good to find another author like him – 3-for-2 sticker, eh – that makes the price pretty decent for a new author – if I can find two more I’ll give it a try…

Although stories involve mental activity the book is the physical evidence of what’s on offer. This is more of an influence than one may expect – in this case the material heft of the volume, the texture of the cover, the paper quality, even the smell of the thing all felt right.

It’s hard to sample the ‘product‘ of literature without buying it first. In this case, I glimpsed inside Winterbirth and read a couple of lines. This is a pretty daft way to choose a book, though there are plenty of possibilities to unchoose one based on a random glimpse of text. For me, buying books in this genre, I can be put off by badly done pseudo-mediaevalism (‘Guard yon door!’), excessive modernity (‘OK then, let’s storm the keep’) or complete silliness (‘flaxen moustache’.) Ruckley survived this test, based on whichever bit of prose the page-flicking lottery served up to me.

The process of engagement with the book isn’t limited to what happens between the covers. Time was that authors seemed like distant, exotic figures – like the gods themselves, best avoided in real life. Producers of culture were a breed apart from its consumers. Had I been alive in the 1950s, I doubt I would have been sending telegrams to J.R.R.Tolkien whilst reading The Lord of the Rings. However modern technology, the structures of fan culture, and the nature of book marketing mean that communicating with writers is not too difficult for those with a mind to do so (although having something to say to them can be a challenge.) Authors’ websites and blogs have become an expected part of the experience… Halfway through the book I found Brian Ruckley’s website and asked him a couple of questions. From there I read a few reviews and generally felt drawn further into the whole endeavour of the book, before I’d even finished it. So Web 2.0 has added a kind of community dimension to my £7.99 (before discount) purchase. And, if my commitment to the book was to waver (which it didn’t as it’s excellent) the reviews etc on the web could act as a kind of Prozac for post-purchase blues.

Marketing communications are promises, and like marcoms it’s easy to see a book as a promise, or rather series of promises – the cover promises you an interesting text; introductions, foreword and prologues promise you more; each page carries on promising the next will be worthwhile. Even the end often promises further pleasures from future books (particularly in this case, with more volumes to come.) Ultimately these promises are never fulfilled, however good the book (or product or brand) is – as desire itself cannot be fulfilled, by its very nature. In fact the better the book, the less fulfilled it makes the reader – who hasn’t got to the end of a great book and wished it hadn’t finished? I guess we all collude in the game of creative dissatisfaction…

Anyway, for what it’s worth there’s one micro-example of the marketing process in action. (What a fantasy author might describe as a Journey, or Quest…) Along the way, for me at least, the author has been transformed from a mere corporeal human being (Brian Ruckley) into a kind of brand (‘Brian Ruckley’), ie a reliable source of future ‘products’. And I’ve been transformed from a casual paperback buyer to a seeker of signed hardbacks and someone who tells people about the book… This is the kind of thing that has marketers cackling and rubbing their hands in their subterranean lairs. But, reflecting on this, it’s amazing that any product gets sold in commercial quantities. So many things had to fall into place for a purchase to happen, eg for me to buy, like, and recommend this book. If the single word ‘heroic’ hadn’t been quoted on the cover I doubt that I would have bought it, at least not then. The same things didn’t fall into place for the thousands of books I didn’t buy that day. It seems a fragile business, a complex web of interactions with the product itself (or rather, the physical artefact that is the ‘focus’ of the product) at its centre. A sophisticated symbolic architecture needs to be deployed to position the product as an object of desire for a largely unknowable and changeable audience. High-involvement purchases, high-involvement commitments such as choosing a university, are both more and less fragile I think. More so, as there is far greater complexity and length of time – more processes, more communication, more possibilities for it to all fall apart. And less, actually for the same reasons – there is more opportunity to rescue the relationship, precisely because there is more time, more interactions, more investment on both sides. Whereas if I leave a book on the shelf in Waterstones that’s the end of it.

So, be it an art or a science (or a form of magic) it seems marketing does work, some of the time.

9 thoughts on “(Winter)Birth of a Brand

  1. I think that’s the most informative glimpse into the thought-processes of the potential book-buyer I’ve seen in a long time, and I was a bookseller for six years… damn, wish I’d known back then what I know now, etc.

  2. Postscript. Popped back into Ormskirk Waterstones today, and they now have a whopping six copies of Winterbirth dominating the fantasy shelves (where everything else has one copy, apart from Tolkien whose every utterance is available in multiple editions.) Perhaps my purchase twanged a Shelob’s-web strand of the Waterstones system, triggering a greater quantity of copies being dispatched. More likely it’s some vector of sales and reviews firing the synapses of the Waterstones marketing superbrain. Or maybe the manager just likes it. Whatever, it’s interesting how volume of copies displayed affects perception of the book. It’s still the same story, but now it has a sense of ‘we’re backing this one and anticipating demand, get yours now, all the cool kids are buying this one’, as well as more visibility…

  3. Fascinating post. One of the many interesting things in there is that you spell out something it’s easy to forget, or at least get distracted from: for all the hype and excitement about the internet and online bells and whistles, the vast majority of sf/f book purchasing decisions are still made more or less on the spur of the moment and are influenced by good old-fashioned factors like a book’s presence and profile in high street bookstores, it’s cover and the blurb on the back. So it has been for decades. As you rightly point out, though, the internet does have a potentially significant role in what you might call ‘ancillary services’: building an author-reader relationship, providing news etc. I’m not quite ready to think of myself as a brand, but that undoubtedly can be a part of the process for some authors – Neil Gaiman, anyone?

  4. Having said that… perhaps it could be argued that any author creates a kind of brand when they enter the public arena. It’s just more noticeable with people like Gaiman, who have achieved a breakthrough point where their name supports entry into new media and genres. (Also Gaiman behaves ina brand-like way, eg with his trademark leather-jacket image.)

    Also interesting that in the age of Facebook and fan fiction, that readers are cultural producers too – maybe we’re all brands nowadays!

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