Keeping the faith: building author brands

Nick Robinson, Sales Director of Vintage Books had a tough act to follow for his recent Publishing Masterclass at Kingston University. Just an hour before, students had been entertained by Simon Winder and Zoe Corfield from Penguin, surely most publishing students’ dream organisation… But Nick rose to the challenge, sharing a sales’ view of the ‘facts’ of the publishing business today, backed up by numerous stats and graphs. The most effective of these were probably his Wordles of 2009 and 2010 bestselling authors: a very effective way to demonstrate Stephenie Meyer’s and Jamie Oliver’s respective dominance.

UK total consumer market sales by author, 2009


UK total consumer market sales by author, 2010

But how do authors get this big?  Most fiction authors, says Robinson, take a number of books to become successful. He cites 7-8 books for Val McDermid to make it, and 12 books for Ian Rankin. And, in a world where people are daily questioning the value or purpose of publishers, perhaps this is one of their most important roles: to stick around, invest in and support talent, doing their upmost to help great authors reach the market they deserve. In Vintage’s case, Jo Nesbo is a case in point.

First published by Vintage in 2005, Nesbo’s (then Nesbø – the ø was later removed as it was considered to put some potential readers off) first books hardly made an impact on the market. Confident they had a great storyteller on their hands, though, Vintage got the Tesco Book Club and WHSmith Travel on board for the second book, and added a strapline and quote to the cover; sales increased, but still not to the level that would write the author’s name large on a Wordle. For the next book, in 2008, Vintage repackaged the entire back catalogue; sales rose again, but still not as much as Vintage felt the books deserved. So, in 2010, on the back of the success of a certain Stieg Larsson, the company put a cross-organisational taskforce on the project. Armed with a killer quote handily provided by the Independent (“The next Stieg Larsson”), and a familiar-looking ‘girl in peril’ cover image, as well as the backing of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waterstone’s and Richard and Judy, Vintage’s efforts finally paid off: The Snowman paperback edition sold ten times as many copies as the 2005 Devil’s Star paperback in a quarter of the time. 

The development of Jo Nesbo. Patience, belief, commitment and smart branding helped deliver sales success for a great storyteller.

Aside from taking the time, thought and money to develop Nesbo as a brand, Robinson attributes this success to having everyone at Vintage behind the project, whether in editorial, sales, marketing or finance. And although the patience and effort demonstrated here may seem extreme, given Robinson’s own estimation that any major trade publisher needs at least three books that sell over 100,000 copies in the run-up to Christmas, the effort seems worth it.


3 responses to “Keeping the faith: building author brands

  1. I find it sad that readers out there wouldn’t consider reading a book simply for the spelling of the author. Shouldn’t publishers be encouraging world literature and diversity? But I suppose you gotta do what you gotta do to maximise profits in the trade paperback industry…

  2. Sebastian, many thanks for commenting. I’m sure this wasn’t an easy decision for the publisher or author. However, it’s not a new concern – pen names are often used or invented in order to ‘appeal’ to audiences. Just think of Mary Ann Evans – better known as George Eliot – who used a male pen name in order to “ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels”. (see for more info)

  3. Pingback: The future for publishers is content creation, with a dash of Martini | Kingston Publishing·

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