Author as Brand Name
Name recognition—"branding"—is very important in the selling of virtually all fiction and many non-fiction books.
Quick! Tell me the name of Paul Theroux's publisher. What about Pico Iyer's or Bill Bryson's? Don't know? Of course you don't. I don't know either. It doesn't matter to us, because we buy and read their books because of who THEY are, not who publishes them.
The Importance of Branding
Name recognition-"branding"-is very important in the selling of virtually all fiction and many non-fiction books. Many of the great travel guide series were launched by a single book written by an author who knew his/her craft: Eugene Fodor, Temple Fielding, Arthur Frommer, Karen Brown. Today, however, the trend is away from author recognition and toward the increased promotion of publishers' and series names, sometimes at the cost of author recognition.
Publishers work hard to build their own brands. Though they value having recognized writers, there is also an element of conflict: the publisher wants the traveler to buy a book because of the publisher's name first, and the writer's name second, if at all.
As more and more guides are written by groups of authors and influenced by editorial decision and direction, the identity and individuation of authors becomes weaker and weaker. This is vaguely beneficial to publishers, but very detrimental to authors.
Authors must work hard to build their own personal reputations among the traveling public. By increasing their name recognition and identification with certain destinations, topics or types of travel, authors increase their own book sales and also their value to and bargaining power with publishers.
Branding: The Intel Example
The computer world offers a telling example of the power of branding:
It used to be that Intel made the CPU chips for most computers, but people who bought computers knew only the name of the company which had assembled the computer: IBM, Dell, Compaq, Packard Bell, etc. The computer company's added value (the circuit boards, the power supply, disk drive, case, etc) was quite important to the quality of the final product, but the central processor was even more important. Only nobody cared.
Intel saw this, and saw the dangers inherent in its products being a nameless commodity: computer companies could dictate terms, could switch to other chip suppliers, and computer customers wouldn't care. The computer companies would have all the name recognition, and thus the "clout" with consumers. Intel would be disempowered in the market.
Thus was born the "Intel Inside" campaign, and the rest is history. Now, if a computer company builds a PC-compatible machine with some other company's processor (ie, non-Intel), it has an uphill battle to sell it to consumers, even if its processor is superior. Indeed, many people don't even realize that there are other companies besides Intel that produce CPUs.
Author branding works! Some people DO buy your books because YOU wrote them, not just because they're in a popular series. When people take a good guidebook on the road, particularly to an unfamiliar foreign country, it becomes their constant companion, their "bible," and they come to think of you as a close friend, guide and confidant. If your book is no good, they'll know it. If it IS good, they'll appreciate it, and they'll look upon you as a friend.
Authors' Names DO Matter!
I was in a bookstore once, looking over the burgeoning collection of travel guides. As I stood there, a couple came into the store, headed for the travel guides, and started browsing the Middle East shelf. They were planning a trip to Turkey. I watched breathlessly as they picked up several guides--one of which was mine--and leafed through them. The woman said, "This one's by Tom Brosnahan. I hear he's quite the expert." I couldn't believe it, but there it was right in front of my eyes. They bought my book. I floated home.
So authors' names DO matter!
I've had letters from readers who've written, "I used your book in Turkey. When I picked up the Lonely Planet guide to La Ruta Maya, I noticed you'd written that one as well." So some people do notice, and some people take a liking to an individual author's style, approach and voice.
In fact, in some cases and for some travelers, the author's name is more significant than the series name. You've probably talked to travelers who mix up Fodor's with Frommer's with Fielding's, or say Rough Guide when they mean Lonely Planet, or say Lonely Planet Handbook when they mean Moon Handbook. Publishers' names and series are important and powerful selling tools, but they are not the only reason people buy guides. Authors are also important, and to survive and prosper we must work hard to increase our name recognition. We must convince travelers that buying a particular author's work is as important as having "Intel Inside."
Think it over: a well-regarded brand name is a mark of consistent quality. Guidebook series sometimes vary widely in quality; but a single author's work does not. A good author writes good books consistently. This consistent quality demands brand recognition.
Publishers' Present Practices
But present publishing and marketing practices do not help our name recognition. Fodor's seems to do its best to divide and rule its authors. Frommer's used to publish the author's photo and bio on the back cover of the book, a personal touch which helped sell books because readers like the idea of knowing "who's accompanying them on their travels." Lonely Planet, Moon and some other publishers still publish author photos, but Lonely Planet used also to put the author's name on the book's cover and spine. They no longer do (but Moon still puts it on the front cover). So the trend is for less author recognition and more series promotion.
This benefits publishers, many of whom believe that guidebook writing is a fairly simple craft in which the authors can be interchanged with one another and even with editors, without loss of quality in the final product. It simplifies a publisher's scheduling and staffing if it can slot any author or even a staff person into any job that's needed at the moment.
We know that this isn't the case; that the best books are written by individual authors or very small groups of co-authors with a deep love and close, frequent and recent acquaintance with the destination, the culture, the language, the history, the readership. Not only that, but inexpert authors can generate editing, formatting and fact-checking costs which can easily wipe out any cost advantage gained by using them.
But it's easy to see why publishers should want to believe otherwise. We authors are all individuals, with different opinions, working methods, preferences and personalities. Let's face it: we can be difficult to deal with. We're all so, so, so...DIFFERENT! Working alone, by ourselves, miles or even continents away from our editors, we are out of the publishing loop; we're not "company wo/men"; we're not politically connected; we can't adapt to the shifting currents in the publishing world because we never get near the water cooler to catch the gossip. Though we may be on excellent terms with our publishers, they will still seek to promote their name and series (instead of our own names) because they don't OWN us and thus can't control us. We are not part of their product line, even though we create their products.
So what do we do? How can we increase our name recognition? Here are some suggestions:
How to Develop Your Own Brand Name
1. Have a website; post information of interest to your readers.
2. Put your email address in your books and offer to answer questions which are not answered by reading the book. In my experience, the flow of questions is quite manageable; and the effort to help your readers in this way is DEEPLY appreciated. Direct contact with the author often results in gaining a repeat customer, or one who will recommend your work early and often to other travelers.
You may want to put a note in your books saying that, due to time contraints, you are unable to plan readers' itineraries for free, though you will answer questions not answered by the book.
3. Write articles for newspapers and magazines which include your byline and the title of one or more of your books. This is great publicity, and you get paid for it! (You may even want to stipulate in the article contract that the title of your book must be included in your bio.) I wrote an article for the New York Daily News once. The money was not great, but their Sunday travel section had FIVE MILLION READERS. I could never afford to pay for such publicity...but this way, they paid ME.
4. Do bookstore signings, appearances and lectures. Your publisher's publicity department will often set these up for you, and may even share expenses; or you can set up your own in the region whre you live, or when you go traveling. Most bookstores are happy to do the logistics. All you need to do is to show up and talk for awhile.
5. Talk to a local travel agency about sponsoring a slide lecture on your destination or specialty. You contact a local restaurant; they chip in something (free nibbles? free glass of wine?) in exchange for getting the group's business. The travel agency and restaurant do the publicity. People come, have dinner/dessert/drinks and nibbles (whatever you work out), you give your lecture (40 minutes, then 20 minutes of question-and-answer). The travel agency gets the bookings, you get book sales and recognition.
6. Get on radio and TV. Sure, this isn't easy, but I'm not talking about getting on Oprah (we should be so lucky!) Radio and TV require an ENORMOUS amount of content, and this voracious need is never-ending. Sell yourself effectively to a talk-show producer and the chances are good they'll give you some airtime if travel fits their format. It can be done in the local studio or even by phone right from your desk, off the top of your head. (I was on "Good Morning America" once. It was hilarious.)
Your mother told you to be modest? Right. In polite company, but not in business.
In business, blow your own horn! Nobody's going to blow it for you.