Monday, July 28, 2014

Authors and Baked Beans

Some time ago, when I was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, the new managing director of the chain book store Waterstones came to speak to our committee. We wanted to talk books;  he wanted to talk  commodities. I don’t think I was the only one who was struck dumb when he told us flatly that there was absolutely no difference between a book and a tin of baked beans; they were both just something to sell, preferably piled high and priced cheap. Successful selling was all about ‘the brand’.

I’m happy to say he was wrong; Waterstones didn’t prosper under his direction and he has long since gone. James Daunt, who is in charge now, fortunately has an entirely different attitude and the bookshops are once again a pleasure to visit, a place where books have individual identities.

But as authors we’re constantly being encouraged to develop ‘our brand.’ As part of ‘the package’ we must also  develop ‘our voice’. One website I looked at recently suggested that  to be successful you needed to work out precisely who your target audience was and aim your writing precisely at them. A helpful way to do it would be to read the advertisements for products that this audience might enjoy and imitate the style of the copywriters.

It made me profoundly sad. Perhaps it works, but I’d hate to think so. I’d always naively thought that your individual ‘voice’ was something that came about as you grew into being a more confident writer, a projection of what you are, yourself. I like to think that when  readers pick up one of my books that they can recognize that it’s me speaking to them, the way my friends recognize my voice on the phone without having to be told who it is.

I can see that from the point of view of sales it’s good to make it easy for someone browsing to spot your books on a shelf but I reckon that’s more a question of consistency in book design – and I’m particularly lucky with my present publisher that they have developed a distinctive style – a ‘brand’ if you like –  for my covers. (If you’re reading this, Susie, thank you!). 

I admit, too, that when I started writing I studied PD James because I thought maybe it would rub off on me so that I wrote like her – imitation genuinely here being the sincerest form of flattery! It didn’t, of course, but I’m glad about that. I’m me, and even if I’ll never be the writer she is, I’d hate to be successful because I was marketed under a ‘PD James’ brand – yes, just like a tin of baked beans, only  with the supermarket label instead of  Heinz.


Eileen Goudge said...

When you've been in the book business as long as we have, Aline, you've seen a lot of changes. Fortunately some things never change. Readers still want to read and a good book can be enjoyed by all sorts. Thank you for highlighting that!

Aline Templeton said...

Thanks, Eileen. Yes, it's lovely when you find that your readers can't be put into one bracket.