Monthly Archives: June 2015

Judging a Book by Its Cover – A Tricky Business

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Judging a Book by Its Cover – A Tricky Business

I just had a bit of a branding epiphany.

Recently two new books came out from notable authors:

  • Go Set A Watchman’ by Harper Lee (author of the all-time classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘, published in 1960)
  • Under Fire’ from Tom Clancy (who first published ‘The Hunt for Red October’ in 1984, and went on to sell over 100 million espionage and military thriller books).

Lee WatchmanClancy Under Fire

Both are regarded as brilliant writers, with one key difference: Ms. Lee is still alive, and Mr. Clancy is not.

Apparently able to write from beyond the grave, Mr. Clancy’s name prominently adorns new books in the market, which at closer inspection are actually written by others (Grant Blackwood this time, Mark Greaney previously).

(in a bit of confusing overkill, a sub-brand third name is on the cover: “A Jack Ryan Jr. Novel”)

My initial gut response: Betrayal! They’re selling me Clancy and delivering Blackwood! Marketing malfeasance of the highest order! Isn’t Clancy’s writing the reason people bought the books? Isn’t he the brand? If not, what is the brand when it comes to books?

BN-JC364_queena_FR_20150625124759

ILLUSTRATION: NISHANT CHOKSI

Joe Queenan takes a swing at this very topic in a recent Wall Street Journal piece (mentioning a few other dead-but-still-publishing authors), and this quote starts to get to it: “…it is the vision of Tom Clancy and V.C. Andrews and Robert Ludlum that makes their work so remarkable and unique, not the plots, characters, prose or leitmotifs. The actual writing is secondary.”

Apparently these posthumous publications still sell quite well. People have something in mind when they hear the names Clancy, Ludlum, and even Franklin W. Dixon (Hardy Boys) and Ian Fleming (James Bond).

In the same way a brand’s essence is the expectation it creates for what will be delivered, these authors set an expectation that is the core of these books’ attraction. And apparently the essence of these authors’ brands was their imaginations – the unique areas in which they chose to set their storytelling, and the imaginative approaches to the storyline – – and not necessarily the specific unique quality of their prose.

Indeed, Ludlum trademarked plot lines and partially wrote books before he died, which have been ghost-written as new material afterward, presumably with his blessing from beyond.

Forbes covered this topic a few years ago and has some additional interesting examples.

basieDisneyClaiborne St Laurent  Perry Ellis BB

When you think about it, we readily accept the same phenomenon as it occurs for other brands in entertainment, where no one expects (or wants) to run into the name on the marquee:

  • Count Basie Orchestra for big band jazz
  • Disney for wholesome family entertainment
  • Liz Claiborne, Yves St. Laurent and Perry Ellis for fashion

So upon reflection, it seems OK in certain situations to evoke a person’s name that has over time consistently come to represent a type and quality of deliverable, and in effect has earned its right to be a brand.  That is what a brand is.  Even if it can leave you feeling a bit misled.

But this can only go so far.

  • I will not go to see Itzhak Perlman if played by someone else, watch a Usain Bolt-branded ghost-athlete, or read newly published Shakespeare by a ghostwriter.

Some things are not meant to be duplicated.

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