A thought on celebrity

Jason Della Rocca added the following aside to one of his recent posts:

(Tangential aside: In an odd way, on a meta level this plays into my previous post on “celebrity”. Not knowing anything about [Steven Johnson’s ‘Ghost Map’], I bought it solely on the strength of the author and positive past experiences with his work. In the end, I enjoyed the book immensely. Would the same have happened if books simply had the name of publishers plastered on the front?)

I answered in a comment, the comment got eaten somehow, so I’m turning it into a blog post.

His question is an old question, and it is rhetorical and the expected answer is ‘no’. I don’t think my thought on the subject can be pushed so far that the answer becomes ‘yes’, but I hope it might nevertheless be interesting.

The names of both authors and publishers are brands, and these brands have a relationship to products. Both the brand itself and the relationship determine the product’s reputation – the level of trust that makes one buy the product without exhaustive research. The reputation compresses, or represents, information about the product.

In the case of ‘Ghost Map’, the relationship between brand and product is simple: Steven Johnson is the main creator of the book.

Another kind of brand-product relationship is ‘endorsed by’. If a person I trust says a certain product is great, I am likely to believe them, especially if I feel my values and interests are aligned with theirs. The internet has made it a lot easier to create a brand based on yourself as a human being with taste and integrity. If, say, Neil Gaiman recommends a product on his blog, I am more likely to take a look at it than when Dan Brown says he likes it. Dave Perry has understood this very well, as can be seen by his ‘David Perry Recommended’ program (which I find hilarious, in a good way, and intend to shamelessly copy at some point). The relationship between Tantor Media Penguin, the publisher of ‘Ghost Map’, and the book is much vaguer.

I know little about the art world, but I have noticed that it has become less uncommon that the curator of an exhibition is considered to have made a greater artistic contribution than the creators of the works he or she has selected (e.g. Mike Kelley’s ‘The Uncanny’ – although it’s perhaps not the best example as Kelley does actually produce art himself, even if there was none in that exhibition as I recall). The same applies of course to DJs, who are judged by how they select music.

Similarly, I am sure everyone can come up with cases where an association with a publisher is considered a sign of quality. For me, if music is published by certain small labels (e.g. Warp, Ninja Tune, G-Stone), I am more likely to listen to it. Similarly, I am much more likely to try a book published as part of Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks sub-label than J. Random Elf Saga, part XII.

Alright, branding 101 I am sure. The relationship between a brand and a product is affected by the amount of products that share that relationship. The chance that I will enjoy a random (ha ha) book published by Random House, one of the bigger book publishers, is very small – much smaller than with the abovementioned Gollancz sub-label, say.

And my point (finally!) is that, because of the mechanisms outlined above, if we lived in a world that put the names of the publisher on the cover of a book rather than the name of the author, it would make good business sense to fragment the publisher’s brand into smaller and smaller sub-labels (perhaps including the name of the editor at some point?). Which, in theory, could result in a situation where the brand-to-product ratio is about the same as today.

So I argue that the underlying princples remain the same no matter what we put on the cover of the book. The name of a person is probably the most efficient kind of brand. It doesn’t scale well, but I think no brand does, depending on the complexity of the product’s identity (i.e. brands scale better for toilet paper than for fiction).

Enough theorizing about subjects I don’t know anything about. What do you think?

Update: Josh Lee pointed out in the comments that the publisher of ‘Ghost Map’ is Penguin. I should take a closer look which Amazon product I’m looking at next time.

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