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Recently the friendly-looking team at HarperStudio asked a question on their blog, The 26th Story, about whether to invest in a full-featured website or keep up the blog. Since they invited input, I weighed in with an oft-quoted phrase in the industry: “The author is the brand”.

The general idea (which someone else much smarter than I had a long time ago) is that customers don’t walk into a bookstore and ask for the latest HarperCollins or Macmillan. They seek out their favourite authors and genres. Readers want to buy the next Alexander McCall Smith or Stephen King or the latest crime thriller or epic fantasy.

In this context, there doesn’t seem much point in investing a lot of money in a publisher website with a lot of bells and whistles, unless you can master the challenges of searchability in order to drive attention to your authors and titles. Instead it makes more sense to invest in communities of interest around topics or genres, such as the Spinebreakers or tor.com sites, or individual author brands.

But then I had a quick look through the HarperStudio blog and static pages and was pretty charmed, actually. When was the last time you saw a publishing company website with candid photos of the publishers? Open, humorous bios with real human details? There aren’t a heap of publisher blogs that are more than publicity channels for the books they’re putting out. The Penguin blog is funky and well written with a diversity of voices, but these are still disembodied voices emanating from an opaque corporate behemoth. The 26th Story is one of the few blogs where I feel like I’m actually engaging in a conversation with the real people behind the enterprise, instead of being fed marketing copy. 

Perhaps that will change as HarperStudio signs more authors and has more titles to manage and promote. Perhaps it will change when they create their new site – although I note they’ve decided to stick with a blog platform for now, using WordPress (good decision!) – but for now I like the small team feel of the blog, the sense (however idealistic) that I could take an elevator to the 26th floor of the HarperCollins digs and find Bob & co sitting around the table much the same as they are in their photo.

And all this got me thinking… is the author the only brand? Isn’t it possible, however unlikely, that some publishers could create an identity so strong and a community so vibrant that audiences seek out their books because they trust and like the people producing them? It’s hard to imagine of the multinationals, but not so hard to imagine of the quirky independents who have well-known identities associated with them, such as McSweeney’s (Dave Eggars) or Small Beer Press (Kelly Link).

Of course, even a wildly successful publisher blog is unlikely to generate the kind of audience that would shift books in the quantities required to make the ROI worth it. Then again, when you look at blogs like Boing Boing it’s quite clear the awesome power of conversation and community. The publisher as brand may not be something to write off just yet. Perhaps publishers just haven’t worked out how to do it well in the new paradigm.

I’ve got some thoughts about author sites and branding too, but this is getting to be an awfully long post already so I’ll hold that over for next time.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s worth publishers spending the time and resources on their own brand identity?

P.S. Keep up the cello practice, Bob. It is the most sublime of stringed instruments.