Semi-Formal

Smash more Coke bottles

In Robert Calasso's The Art of the Publisher, the author, the chairman of the lauded Adelphi Edizioni, distills the art of publishing as the quest for form:

the capacity to give form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book

The most overt demonstration of form comes from the books’ design. The Art of the Publisher dedicates a lot of thought to the role of covers across a publisher's list. Cover design is an art, and it is also the simplest, most blunt way of communicating form. Covers give a consistent visual identity that can create an immediate sense of union across a publisher’s body of work. Whether it is the famous Gollancz yellow jackets or anything at all from Penguin, a consistent cover style can give the impression of form, connecting very disparate books.

But… Calasso also goes on to explain that, although the visual component of form is very nice indeed, the first and foremost means of determining form should be ‘judgement’.

Calasso defines judgement as the publisher's choice of when to 'say no'. Accordingly, form requires a comprehensive understanding of what you are and what you aren’t. At M&C Saatchi, this is the essence of ‘brutal simplicity of thought’. Understanding what you don’t need to say, and focusing - ruthlessly - on what you do.

In most publishing houses there are specific editors - and sometimes specific imprints - each with their own vision and taste: judgement. But the larger the publisher, the more the taste-making is diffused across the organisation. And when the realities of commercial pressure become involved, form becomes less of a priority. Do you know who publishes Lee Child? John Grisham? Fifty Shades? The Secret? Would you buy a book by the publisher of Lee Child, because they also publish Lee Child? I suspect not. Lee Child has form with Lee Child, but not with Bantam’s list (saved you a Google).

Form is easier to spot in small presses. A small press generally has a single taste-maker involved, making consistency easier to mandate. Small presses also have to emphasise form because they don’t have brand authors or marketing budgets. They don’t have much else to sell besides their judgement.

Publishers with form that include (but go beyond) the visual:

  • A vintage example: Lin Carter's work with Ballantine Adult Fantasy.

  • More contemporary: Hard Case Crime, which, like the above, is a mixture of both commissioned and reprinted (curated) titles, striking cover art, and distinct editorial vision.

  • I think Comma and Strange Attractor are interesting as it is less editorial ‘taste’ and more philosophical consistency. Everything Comma does - from translation to writing workshops - is about surfacing new voices and new talent, a commitment to discovery that runs through the books and the organisations. Similarly, Strange Attractor ‘celebrates the unpopular’, and their almost-aggressive cultishness gives a sense of form throughout their list.

  • Harlequin and Mills & Boon have a different type of form, in that they’re organised entirely around audience need: tactically using sub-brands to help readers sift through a commoditised market by need. Everything - cover art, design, editorial selection - is judged based on fitting a specific reader taste. It is demand-led form.

  • Black Library - it helps when your form is largely dictated by your existence as a tie-in brand, but they don’t miss an open goal, which, by industry standards, is an impressive achievement. Games Workshop have a clear vision of what all their products are ‘about’, as well as a consistently grimdark, OTT, darkly comedic style.

The promise these publishers all make is their judgement: if you liked one book from Black Library or Hard Case Crime, you’ll probably like the next one, too.

Can Random House or HarperCollins (or Kindle Unlimited) make that promise? Probably not. The logo of a large publisher comes with certain guarantees of quality and professionalism, but a consistency of taste is not one of them.

In the world of advertising, form is another way of describing the ‘Coke Bottle Test’.

This is apocryphal, but the classic Coke bottle is designed so that, if you smash it, every single piece is supposedly instantly identifiable as to its origin. A handy metaphor for integrated marketing: every part of the campaign should be a meaningful microcosm of the whole.

The bottle is also a metaphor for how audiences consume a campaign: smashed. Yes, the social content and the TV work really well together - but what happens if the campaign is smashed? Does the hashtag make sense if they don’t go to the cinema? Are your out-of-home, direct mail, and PR activities connected solely by the presence of a meerkat, or is there something more meaningful that ties everything together?

Advertising has always understood form, or ‘integration’, as cover art. You don’t invest in meerkats, black horses, or singing blokes named Howard and not run them through everything. The challenge is to go deeper. Every aspect of the campaign should be part of ‘a single book’, linked by a consistent philosophy, a clear vision, a distinct style, a focused commitment on the audience, or a brutal simplicity of thought. Integration starts with judgement.

Get: Publishers of integrated marketing campaigns
To: Think beyond cover art
By: Being judgemental


Further reading:

  • You know a great illustration of form? The humble mixtape. One person’s judgement, carefully curated, craftily designed, highly focused around the needs of a single audience. (And with a specific objective in mind: PLS LOVE ME BACK)

  • Amazon is the enemy of form. The site lists a book’s publisher as a second-tier technical detail, hidden below the ‘Simultaneous Device Usage’ and ‘File Size’ information. This isn’t merely being passive aggressive about the ‘competition’, this is a commitment to atomising the market as much as possible to create a search-driven consumer.

  • Conversely, Foyles used to shelve its books by publisher, which strikes me as a Pyrrhic devotion to form: “Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade”

  • Why does it matter? Amongst other things, books are still a status symbol.


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