Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book branding?

Back in the day when I could call myself a publisher in Switzerland we sold a crazy quantity of large-format books of photography. Our speciality was bringing out books not unlike those Benedikt Taschen put his name to so successfully in the years which followed. Ours were premium priced and distributed by mainstream partners including Collins in London and Morrow in New York. This was in the late seventies and I found myself reflecting on this at the weekend.

This was was the result of my introduction to Spotify. I spent Sunday assembling on the music service my favourite albums of that era. (Fleetwood Mac play as I write). The previous evening my daughter and one of her young men had cooked up a lovely curry and the conversation was as good as the food.

It turned out that Mischa is in the music business, managing a couple of bands. Not a huge surprise… I was doing the same when I was twenty-five. But what I did find very interesting indeed was one of the ways he is responding to the disruptive change which has overtaken the music industry in the decade past, his adoption of a business model which intrigues me greatly.

The book publishing sector is now also trying to cope with change. Indeed there have always been pioneering initiatives, some perhaps ahead of their time. Already at the beginning of the eighties I witnessed a brave attempt in Germany to break free of the strictures of conventional bookselling. Tchibo is to Germany what Folgers is to the United States, the leading coffee brand. And Tchibo has a good thousand retail outlets in prime locations, all with a very heavy footfall. In comparison Germany’s largest branded bookstore chain, Thalia, has only fifty-five branches.

The girl I later married worked for a Munich publisher whose output was exclusively available in the Tchibo retail coffee outlets. The cover prices were very modest, since no middle-men were involved, the print runs were enormous and there was widespread gnashing of teeth among the highly regulated bookselling establishment.

Tchibo cannily exploited a gap in the market, demonstrated out-of-the-box thinking, and even thirty years ago found books a very viable side-line. This was… it must be emphasised… long before Starbucks started putting on sale items which have no relation to their core food and beverage business.

I guess the Tchibo strategem stayed in my mind as we all in our own way tried to deal with the new realities of the internet and a world gone digital. As a storyteller I knew that I must embrace self-publishing, given the improbability of discovery in the slush piles of the established players.

In the nineties my concern was finding new ways of selling 'indie video'. My day job was producing soap opera for established German networks. But how make sales of content which was outside the mainstream? The DVD was a promising new medium at the time. 

Sure, I'd send pretty girls round the 'in' clubs with not cigarettes in their vending tray but with Xandy hat ein Handy on little silver discs! At the time, it must be said, the mobile telephone or 'Handy' was in Germany the next big thing.  That was hard to explain on Saturday evening to Jessi and her digital native with their smartphone so far beyond anything we could ever have dreamed of in the mid-nineties. Well... it might have worked!

It was a hesitant step in this direction that I made about eight years ago. I had thirty-nine chapters of a manuscript and the vague notion that a website-based hybrid form of self-publishing was thinkable for Sex& Drugs& Profiteroles. The idea was to release a chapter per week as an audio podcast hosted on what seemed at the time to be the most promising platform. The first thirteen chapters were to be free, but a one-time payment would be asked for from those wishing to carry on to the end. Each audio ‘chapter’, however, was preceded by a short video clip, a vlog in which the novel's heroine looks back on the events that the story relates.

Each weekly clip then closed with a call to action inciting the user to click through to the audio. The additional effort involved was far from onerous nor particularly demanding in terms of video skills which, in this day and age, are no longer exotic or unduly challenging.

In the case of my own project we didn't get further than Chapter Seven. But this was not on account of any basic flaw in the operational model. At the time I was working in Abu Dhabi and my 'heroine' was at university in England; our only direct collaboration was for the last two chapters which were coveniently locationed in Dubai. And our realization was that a venture of this nature is not made easier when thousands of kilometres lie between the participating creatives. I remain convinced that the video component enhanced the discoverability of the work in text or audio form, even if in 2006 YouTube was by no means as potent as it is today. A story that is difficult to find is a story which will never be read; this being a problem that few of the self-publishing enablers have adequately solved.

In spite of the setback with S&D&P I persist in believing that there are unconventional practices wbich the publishing business could adopt. And this is where what Mischa is doing with his bands set me thinking.

Gone are the days when the major music labels generously financed the productions of new artistes. For some the GarageBand app is enough for ‘self-producers’. But others remain convinced that a professional studio and experts behind the glass help in the creation of high-quality tracks. So who pays for this? Mischa and others are persuading commercial partners that ‘branded entertainment’ offers a way forward. The music end-product is offered exclusively as a bonus to, for instance, subscribers on a particular mobile phone virtual network (MVNO) or shoppers in a specific chain of stores. In a way this draws on the experience of Starbucks with their entertainment offerings.

Musing over this (with Crosby, Stills and Nash to inspire me) I thought back to the Tchibo episode. Might the approach today work for popular fiction? Might the next Fifty Shades Of Grey be on sale exclusively in La Perla or Victoria’s Secret boutiques? Very attractively priced books (possibly in e-book form) at the check out in branches of Zara or H&M, carefully curated to correspond with the profile of the customers of the respective marques? 

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