Friday, July 15, 2011

The author as brand (30 Jan 2009)

In my post about volunteer criticism yesterday, I complained about writing online degenerating into self-branding via vectors like Facebook. At the Big Money, the Slate business site, Jill Priluck makes a related argument about the book-publishing business:
Paradoxically, the proliferation of digital media that is arguably the biggest threat to traditional publishing also offers authors more opportunities than ever to distribute and promote their work. The catch: In order to do that effectively, authors increasingly must transcend their words and become brands.
Without support from publishing houses and their marketing budgets, Priluck suggests, authors can become preoccupied with brand building rather than writing. Self-conceived writing professionals of course have incentive to turn themselves into a brand and their writing into "branded content" -- they want to make a living. But noncommercial writers online face the same dilemma; the Web offers the possibility of a measurable audience, and the temptation is always there to write what increases the numbers (Gawker style) rather than write what one thinks. If as Priluck says, authors "trade depth for instant gratification, visibility, and higher advances," then so do nonprofessionals who are just writing for attention. Just as Facebook and Twitter seem to suggest that the purpose of friendship is to have the most friends or followers, the purpose of writing becomes maximizing readership, the content itself is merely a means to that end, which is always the content's ultimate meaning.

Is it possible to have "online presence" without it becoming a brand. Probably because of the centrality of marketing discourse in our culture, branding has become the all-purpose paradigm for all sorts of social behavior, a phenomenon whose recent explosion seems directly traceable to the way the internet lets us quantify the extent of our influence while dramatically expanding our reach. But brands are like distillations of our essence that discard the better part of our spontaneous personality -- we simplify who we are to something that is consistent and capable of being instantly communicated -- like an epitaph. And we consent to let the nature of our identity be openly traded and renegotiated in an open market. As Priluck puts it, "When authors are beholden to a brand, they ally themselves, almost like actors and athletes, with agendas and meanings that are well beyond their control."

We heedlessly commit ourselves to thinking of ways to improve our brand without worrying about the fact that it means we are always for sale.

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