Category Archives: Marketing

Signature, brand and authorship

signaturesWe’re all familiar with book-signing rituals, sometimes staged in conjunction with readings or launchings and sometimes sponsored by bookshops. They serve to promote sales, since the buyer of a book tends to attach special value to a copy signed by the author. Often the signature accompanies a personal inscription, even if the author has never seen the buyer before – ‘To [Did you say Daisy or Maisy?], best wishes…’ Embarrassment can follow – most notoriously when, at a book signing in Sydney in 1964, British writer Monica Dickens was handed a copy by a woman who muttered in a broad Strine accent what Dickens assumed was her name. The author signed the book To Emma Chisit, only to discover – as newspapers gleefully reported – that the woman had just been asking ‘How much is it?’ (No no, that’s not my moniker, Monica…)

But what exactly does an author’s autograph signify? John Frow’s recent book The Practice of Value: Essays on Literature in Cultural Studies (UWAP) includes a chapter on ‘Signature and Brand.’ Among other points, Frow argues that an authorial signature ‘has become intrinsic both to aesthetic and to market value.’ So when I scrawl my autograph on one of my publications, this action symbolises the fact that the book belongs simultaneously to two ‘regimes of value’ (Frow’s term): artistry and commerce.

I interpret this to mean that, having originated as an individual creation, a book is then taken over by mechanisms that reproduce and distribute it in large quantities. In the process of being replicated it becomes a mass-produced commodity, and so an autographed copy is seen as rendering it more personal again, restoring something of an individual-writer-to-individual-reader relationship.

By the way, Wikipedia told me something I hadn’t known about book signing: that it’s no longer confined to printed copies. ‘The growing popularity of ebooks and ereading devices’, says the Wikipedia article, ‘has inspired the development of software – such as Authorgraph (formerly known as Kindlegraph and renamed to reflect its expansion to include all ereading platforms) and Autography (for iOS devices) – that allows authors to digitally personalise ebooks by including autographs, dedications, and photographs, and to provide such personalisation remotely as well as at in-person book signings.’ I confess that I can’t see much point in an electronically signed copy.

A brand, Frow argues, is a signature’s corporate counterpart. What they have in common is the power of a named identity. Amplified by market mechanisms, an author’s personal name can offer brand recognition – something like a trademark, assuring prospective consumers that a particular book will provide the same quality of reading experience as previous products issued under this same person’s name. Frow remarks:

Books by the small number of established or emergent celebrity authors are the subject of intensive advertising and promotional campaigns which centrally involve the marketing of the persona of the author in chat and talkback shows, book signings, festival appearances and literary lunches.

Where does this leave writers who aren’t celebrities but are still urged to develop and spruik an ‘authorial brand’? It may seem simple enough: just formulate and promulgate a succinct summary of the kind of thing you write. But a powerfully attractive brand would need to offer a lot more than that. Requirements for becoming a star would ideally include glamour, notoriety, influential advocates, major prizes, cross-media prominence, and fabulously generous multiple-book contracts with instant translation rights in many languages etc etc. (Sigh.)

Meanwhile, what about the possibility of devising an exceptionally ornate way of inscribing your name, so that immense crowds of book-buyers will queue up for the sheer privilege of seeing you autograph their copies with the flamboyant curlicues of your famous signature?

The disappearing book launch

UntitledIn the latest issue of the ASA magazine Australian Author, Miriam Cosic writes about book launches as an endangered species – ‘one of the silent casualties of shrinking profits and digital publishing.’ Even among authors themselves, she remarks, there are divided opinions about the value of these events. For the mercilessly honest David Malouf they are merely ‘exercises in vanity’; for some others they still serve a useful marketing function.

I remember with pleasant nostalgia (and more than a smidgin of vanity) a few occasions when books of mine have been ceremonially launched on the waters of what I imagined could be an expectant world of receptive readers. They include the time when Elizabeth Jolley did the honours for my slim volume of poems The Shifting Shore, adopting her usual benignly vague persona to say kind chatty things about it. And then there was a memorable event when Hon. John Dawkins, the controversial former government minister who transformed this country’s university sector, generously launched my Higher Education of Education for Hire?  and I basked in his praise of it as:


‘…a refreshingly readable book: the author’s love of language is evident throughout the work. There is a minimum of jargon and a total absence of pomposity… Here we have an extraordinarily balanced approach, and in fact Prof Reid makes a case for balance, for getting the right kinds of tension working within the university – and between the university and the community, between the university and the workplace, between the university and business, between the university and government… What we can see in this remarkably thoughtful book is the essence of what a university education is about.’


And ‘remarkably thoughtful’ is how I’d describe the speech that Prof Brenton Doecke gave about my novel That Untravelled World on the occasion of its release at the 2012 national conference of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. It’s forgivable to feel gratified when you hear someone talk insightfully about a book you’ve written. I particularly appreciated Brenton’s emphasis on ‘the way the mystery of Nellie’s disappearance folds into an account of Australia prior to the First World War and then the between-the-wars period’ so that ‘the poetic evocation of scenes around Perth and moments in Harry’s journey through life’ become ‘woven into this larger narrative.’ You can read his comments in full here.


I’m sometimes asked to speak at the launch of someone else’s publication. When it’s a large multi-author work of literary history and criticism the task can be demanding, as I found when launching The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, a 600-page opus judiciously edited by the admirable Peter Pierce, which assembles chapters by more than a score of scholarly contributors. My  speech then appeared (with only minor changes) as a review in the e-journal Transnational Literature. You can read it here.

Old-style celebratory launches still happen, and can create a buzz of excitement around a new book. I enjoyed the party that UWAP put on a few months ago for Amanda Curtin’s fine new novel Elemental, with Janet Holmes à Court as the launcher.  There was a lively crowd at this event, as you can see from images on Amanda’s website here:

In the future most writers may have to do their own launching – even if it takes the simple internalised form of a hopeful benison within the book itself! Precedents for this go back at least as far as Edmund Spenser, whose Shepheardes Calender (1579) carried a dedicatory poem beginning ‘Go, little Book; thyself present / As Child whose Parent is unkent…’ But closer, no doubt, to the mood of our own times is the ‘Envoi’ in which Ezra Pound mocked such traditional launching gestures; Pound’s pastiche opens with the sardonic line ‘Go, dumb-born book…’