“Their DNA is different”

Image by Flickr user alvy. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Image by Flickr user alvy. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In case you missed it, last week the UK publishing industry was jolted out of its early-summer slumber when the news broke that Charlie Redmayne was to replace Victoria Barnsley as CEO of Harper Collins UK. In a piece last Friday for The Guardian, entitled Bad week for women in publishing as two giants step down, which also covered the news that Gail Rebuck would be replaced as chief executive of Random House UK (now Penguin Random House, of course) by Penguin’s Tom Weldon, the following caught my eye (my emphasis):

Though both Barnsley, who is 59, and Rebuck, 61, could be as tough as anyone when required, they have been author-centred. “What they’ve done is to enable editors. It’s not that they necessarily are those editors. Authors feel the most enormous respect for them and faith in them,” said the source.

In contrast, Charlie Redmayne and Tom Weldon both came up largely through a passion for brand and franchise, with Weldon running Penguin’s commercial division – responsible for authors such as Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Clarkson – and Redmayne moving from the digital side of the industry. “Their DNA is different,” the source said.

So, two changes of guard and two possible changes of direction (or DNA, in fact): from author-led publishing to brand-/franchise-led publishing. Which got me thinking: Are we undergoing a similar shift in ELT, too?

Brand 101

Image by Flickr user Curtis Gregory Perry. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Image by Flickr user Curtis Gregory Perry. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

First, a little basic marketing terminology, and only because I happen to have written the book on it :-). On one level, a brand is “a name, design feature or symbol used to identify a seller’s goods”. On another, it’s a term used to refer to a specific product that an organisation produces, or even the organisation itself. So Coca-Cola and Pepsi are both brands, but so are Oxfam and Unicef. Importantly, a brand has to encapsulate something; it carries meaning for the consumer. That’s why Coca-Cola is considered a household brand, but that no-name cola-flavoured-beverage you can buy from you local corner shop isn’t. Coca-Cola have spent a lot of time and money making sure that Coca-Cola means something.

The Age of ELT Brands

So what (or who) are the big ELT publishing brands? Well, the publishers themselves, of course; say any publisher’s name, and we’ll have associations with their brand. What else? Cambridge University Press’s in Use brand, without a doubt; Headway from Oxford University Press; Cutting Edge and Market Leader from Pearson; Global or onestopenglish from Macmillan; the list could go on and on. These are all individual courses, products or series, but they’re also all Big Brands. And, in most cases, they have individual authors, or teams of authors, behind them, who are often brands in themselves (as many successful authors are). But here’s the question: from a purely commercial perspective: what matters to customers more, the brand or the author(s) behind it?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that you can’t separate the two; that the author and the brand are completely intertwined. And that’s true. Or at least it has been up until now. But there’s a growing sense amongst the ELT writing community that there’s some change afoot in how the big publishers and authors are going to be working together from now on. Is that because we’ve moved away from author-led publishing towards brand-led publishing? And, if we have, what’s the difference?

Brand-led publishing

Image by Flickr user Mariusz Bartosik. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Image by Flickr user Mariusz Bartosik. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A few years ago, I worked for a major ELT publisher in the role of Brand Manager. The brand I was responsible for managing was a major, six-level adult coursebook series, and a very good one at that. It sounds like a marketing job, but it was actually 100% editorial. And it was a relatively new position for this particular publisher at the time. Until then, most editorial staff had worked on ‘lists’ (Adult English, Business English, Secondary, etc.); this would be a job that was about looking after a particular coursebook brand rather than the list that it sat on. And strategically, it made a lot of sense; this is a valuable brand for the publisher, and a key rule of good brand management is that you protect the brand at all costs. That’s the first thing I think we’re seeing: the circling of the wagons around financially successful, tried-and-tested brands whose maintenance is low-risk and high-return. So expect lots more new editions of the brands we know and love; expect those brands to be stretched into multiple formats (online versions, ebook versions, apps, games, etc.); and don’t expect any of those brands to be vanishing anytime soon.

At the same time, publishers will be wanting to take tentative, low-risk steps towards creating the next generation of big ELT brands. And the key term here is low risk. Given the tumultuous state the world of publishing is in at the moment, very few people are taking big risks with new, unknown brands. The most successful, big-ticket brand launches I personally think we’ve seen recently were Global from Macmillan in 2010 and Speakout from Pearson in 2011. We’re now half-way to 2014. Money is much scarcer than it once was in publishing, so ideas are going to have to stand up to intense financial scrutiny before they’re approved; that, sadly, is likely to choke innovation, especially author-led innovation. Quite simply, it’s harder these days to get the people holding the cash to bet the house on an author’s vision.

So how are we feeling?

I, for one, feel a little sad about the way things have worked out, while at the same time completely understanding why it’s happened. The fact is, it’s harder to develop author-led materials: it’s often messy, it’s sometimes combative; it’s usually more expensive. It’s easier to take a more methodical, brand-focused path: you do your research, you study the trends, you extrapolate from the market data, you manage your risks. But a focus group has never written an amazing coursebook. Not yet, at least.

So, teachers: do you care about brands? Do the big coursebook brands mean anything to you? In fact, do author names mean anything to you?

And authors: how do you feel about this shift? Is it the end-of-days or simply a new paradigm to adjust to? Do you consider yourselves brands? And do you consider yourselves the ‘owners’ of the brands you’ve helped create?

Finally, publishers: do you think it’s a fair assessment that we’ve moved out of the Age of Authors into the Age of Brands? If so, how does that affect relationships with authors going forward?

Let’s hear your thoughts.

36 Comments

  1. Hey Nick,

    Nice article and interesting comments that followed. I´ve come to the conversation somewhat late. But, this is where I begin.

    If I buy content, I must be able to brand the content to the school. That is my first rule, and I believe it should be the rule of any school. The brand on the book, ebook, course or material must reflect the integrity and brand the school represents. That´s how one might create a franchise for example – everything branded and integrated. Otherwise one is simply supporting the publishers brand – and what use is that?

    I think schools are to blame. They should be creating their own material or at a minimum demanding the publishers permit them to white label material. Let´s see what happens – but that is where I think there may be some interesting developments.

    Best,
    Robert

    1. Very interesting points, Robert; thanks for commenting.

      I wonder how much publishers are aware of how important individual schools’ brands are to their owners. After all, a paying student chooses a language school, not a book.

  2. A very interesting article. I think one point that is being missed is that those hugely successful brand titles that you refer to were written by authors of unusual calibre. Publishers may indeed be trying to downplay the role of authors these days, and appear to be aiming to get large amounts of content on an increasingly ‘sweatshop’ basis. That might work in some areas of ELT publishing, but over the longer run, teachers will always recognise material that is particularly well-written, and certainly recognise material that isn’t.

    Writing good ELT material for use in a wide range of settings, not just for your own students, is a lot harder than it looks. Publishers can try to sell on the basis of brand recognition, but significant success over a longer term will always depend on quality materials that have had proper time spent on planning, writing, editing and producing them (and therefore proper reward for the author’s time and skill). High quality material does tend to be more author-driven, but I don’t think that has to involve coming up with new concepts and approaches, as the notion of what most hard-pressed teachers expect from an ELT course seems to have become fairly settled by now. Within that framework, material can still be planned and written to a higher or lower standard.

    Titles based on high quality writing do indeed become brands in themselves, with their own identity and approach, and I think many teachers will always enjoy being associated with them, rather than downloading different disparate pieces of material of unreliable quality and having to work out how to use them coherently.

    1. Great comment, Paul.

      I loved this line: “Writing good ELT material for use in a wide range of settings, not just for your own students, is a lot harder than it looks. ” I say that exact same thing to the authors who apply for representation to my author agency. For me, it’s one of the keys to the whole thing.

      I was interested, too, in what you said about content written by authors of ‘unusual calibre’. I wonder what it was about that particular era in ELT that led to the emergence of authors of that kind of calibre. Is that missing now? If so, how do we get it back?

  3. ELT Brands are powerful, and necessary. Some teachers and schools need them, and students respond to them. Like coursebooks, they can also stifle creativity.

    The challenge for the brands you mention is how to translate well their offerings into the digital realm. The ‘In Use’ iPhone apps are an example of simply porting a book to an app. They don’t build the ‘In Use’ brand; they take from it. (Why do you think I paid for them?)

    The broader challenge (for all of us) is how to manage the proliferation of web 2.0 tools etc and maintain quality (and that’s where a brand could lead the way). As Phil said, crowd-sourced content forms some part of this future: not just from authors, but from students too.

    So in this area, I’d agree: ELT brands are more important.*

    * The caveat would be in the area of pedagogy where I’m inclined to buy on a combination of author and brand.

    1. Great stuff, Lindsay.

      A few words jumped out at me: “powerful, and necessary”. Very well put, I think, and correct for all of the reasons you state.

      I also like your assessment of the effect that the in Use app may have had on the brand. That’s the risk inherent in any kind of ‘brand extension’, and one which the publishers are going to have to manage carefully.

      And finally, I’m glad that you mentioned the ‘Q’ word. Quality control is going to become one of the biggest issues facing the ELT content creation business as go forward.

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