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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.

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Text Publishing has just announced The Text Young Adult Prize, which according to their website “aims to discover more wonderful new books for Young Adult readers, by Australian and New Zealand writers.” The winner will receive $10,000 and a publishing contract with Text.

First let me say hooray! I love young adult fiction. I’m an avid reader of it, sometime writer of it and am excited by any mechanism which might lead to more of it from Australian authors.

However, this brings up something of a puzzle, one which I’ve been pondering for a little while now. Text is just the latest in a growing list of publishers who are using competitions to find publishable manuscripts. Last month Penguin launched their Penguin Most Wanted Crime Writing Competition, also with a publishing contract for the winner (although I note there’s no mention of any prize money or advance). Last year New Holland Publishers and the NSW Writers Centre teamed up to offer the Genre Fiction Award with, you guessed it, a contract for the winner (I find it odd that there’s no mention of this award on New Holland’s website). ABC Books have been running the ABC Fiction Award for two years now. Of course, the Vogel has been running for nearly 30 years but there’s still a marked acceleration of this kind of publisher-driven initiative.

I’m not against writing competitions with publishing contracts as prizes. Provided the terms are fair and don’t disadvantage entrants, they can be fabulous opportunities for emerging writers. But, really, what’s going on here? What’s the difference between running a competition and simply opening up for unsolicited submissions?

In the case of Text, I suspect this is a confident move to build a new list of YA titles. Since Text also are happy to accept unsolicited submissions the competition is an add on, a way for them to attract the kind of manuscripts they may not have been attracting until now (although, I if they simply asked for such submissions they’d be fairly swamped within a short time of doing so)

But there may be other reasons that are not such good news for writers. Firstly, running a competition may be a way of capping the advance or not paying an advance at all. The terms and conditions of the Penguin competition don’t mention anything about an advance. Neither does the New Holland Award and in both cases there’s no prize money offered. Are they expecting to negotiate an advance via the usual methods once a winner has been chosen, or are they hoping not to pay one at all? Of those competitions that do offer prize money, the publishers can factor in a finite advance up front and if the books goes on to be very successful they’ve got a higher likelihood of earning back their investment and going on to make a profit. It takes a lot of the risk out of the equation for the publisher. It’s true that first novel advances are paltry anyway, so a fixed prize money may be to a writer’s benefit, especially where the prize seems to be quite generous (or at least adequate) such as the $10,000 offered by Text and ABC. But if the winning author has a literary agent, what are the chances they’d have been able to negotiate something better?

Secondly, a competition may be a way of insisting upon a “standard” contract. Will competition winners have the opportunity to negotiate terms of the publishing contract or will they have to accept the only contract offered? This is critical whether authors are receiving prize money or not. For the competition to be fair, it’s important for authors to be able to negotiate on any contract terms, but particularly those relating to copyright, subsidiary rights and royalties, and also any options on future manuscripts. If the publishing contract is not negotiable as part of the competition, will authors have an opportunity to read them before deciding whether its in their interest to enter?

But apart from these considerations, I’m still puzzled as to why publishers would prefer to run a competition than accept unsolicited manuscripts. What’s the difference? Do they perceive a difference in the workload and administrative resources required? I note that Text has only allowed one month between the Young Adult Award closing date and the announcement of the winner at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Surely the publishers will not give entries any greater reading time or consideration than they would to manuscripts from the slush pile? Do they believe they’ll receive more targeted, relevant or higher quality submissions through awards and competitions?

And how should authors respond? On the one hand, it’s great news, particularly when publishers accept submissions (in whatever context) when previously they had been closed to them. On the other hand, is this a gradual erosion of (the very little) power authors have to control their publishing contracts? Not that I ascribe any sinister intent to publishers running competitions, but I question the collective impact it may have on the industry. On that score, only time will tell.

Generally, when new writing awards are announced there is much celebration and back-slapping about the creation of new opportunities for writers to become published. But it’s important to delve into the detail to make sure we’re not murdering our darlings.