It's Friday which means another regurgitation from several years back. This one originally published on January 13, 2007:
Nancy Drew has always held a fascination for me, not because I clamor for a good girlie mystery but because of how The Nancy Drew series evolved. Established by Edward Stratemeyer, The Drew books were written by a number of ‘house’ writers (Mildred Benson) and the books were never dependent upon one author for their success. While the publisher of the titles was little recognized, the Drew series grew to become a strong branded product line and, as such, represents a model today's publishers may want to emulate. Corporate branding exercises little impact in the publishing world: We all know this and, while some publishers have tried to create brand strength (i.e., Paramount Publishing), success has been sparse and probably – in truth - not aggressively sought after.
There are exceptions. I used to start my Intro to Publishing courses at Price Waterhouse by asking the group to name a publisher. I stopped doing this when a partner once popped up and said HARLEQUIN! While some consumers might be able to identify Harlequin or Hungry Minds or Fodors, they would be hard-pressed to cite HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster with any relevance. Consumers have little emotive connection with publishing trademarks (a fundamental facet of brand awareness) and publishers are unlikely to ever achieve this connection with consumers. So, in an age in which the author transcends the publisher (Patterson, Grisham, Ludlum, Courtnay) what is a publisher to do? Investing in a branding campaign would be expensive and ultimately pointless, but embarking on a strategy similar to that which produced the Drew books might be more constructive.
My extrapolation of the Drew example led me to wonder why publishers don’t establish their own character-based brands. More publishers will do what Nelson has done and drop imprints, but will they also start to develop their own character-based franchises? Clearly, it is hard to ‘bottle’ what makes John Grisham a popular writer, but there are examples where existing characters have been extended in new ways. For example, there is a cottage industry of TV soap-opera lovers who create stories, novelizations and back-stories for the characters that appear in the TV soap operas. George Macdonald Frasier took a minor character out of Tom Brown’s School Days and created The Flashman series of satirical historical novels. The book packager Alloy Entertainment (which got caught up in a plagiarism charge last year) also operates a Nancy Drew model. There must be many others.
Publishers don’t have to look far to see how powerful character-based publishing could be. The comic book industry has been doing this for 50 years. In this industry the corporate brands (Marvel, DC Comics, etc.) have benefited from some of the reflected brand indentity that characters such as Superman, Spiderman, Aquaman and others have created in the minds and behavior of consumers. In book publishing, the opportunities to create character franchises are there for the asking. James Patterson has embarked on developing an author/character franchise and, if publishers were smart, they would be thinking about creating contracts that gave them the ability to broadly leverage the characters that authors create. This would include (with the author's permission) ghost-written books and stories of both the main characters and development of derivative story lines out of the books (as in the Flashman example). The opportunity to expand the content output and publish to a ‘template’ would generate higher revenues for publisher and author, stable consistent output and content consumers could enjoy.
The above scenario still accords some level of risk for publishers that the ‘powerful’ author may go off on his or her own. Given the examples in the music industry of late, some have suggested that major authors will do what Radiohead has done and walk away from the traditional publishing model. Some may, but it will hardly be an avalanche and this threat is no worse for a publisher than losing an established author to a rival house. The bigger question is how publishers can maintain a consistent funnel of marketable branded content. I believe publishers should be attempting to develop their own proprietary content franchises by building character properties in the same way the Nancy Drew series was created. There are several ways to develop this: Firstly, publishers can simply buy out an authors work so that they own it in total and can leverage it anyway they want. Secondly, they can license characters from other media: Who wouldn’t want to read a hard-boiled procedural featuring Law & Order’s Lennie Brisco, for example? As publishers begin to travel down this road, they could evolve into character based enterprises similar to Disney and Marvel. This, in turn, would make them less susceptible to the whims of authors and the corresponding limitations of their contracts.
Harpercollins is owned by NewsCorp which owns Fox. Assume that Fox owns the character "Dr. House"; why don’t you see a series of House mysteries written to a formula by ‘house’ (sorry) authors whose job it is to churn these out every two weeks? And there is no need to limit the books to Dr House; any of the characters in the show should be fair game. Publishers who focus on their publishing brands have things backwards: They should see things from the consumer's point of view and that view is more than likely focused on either an author or a character. Build the product pipeline up with a character based publishing approach and the publisher may grow in the ascendancy.
Obviously, authors are a critical component to a publishing house’s viability but as distribution flattens, barriers to entry drop and generally the industry changes. Publishers need to reassess their content-acquisition strategies to ensure they have access to revenue-producing assets that will remain with them for an extended period of time. Perhaps the Drew model will become more widespread.