Marketing for the Future

In our turbulent and intensifying political moment, many might assume that brand construction should veer toward the apolitical, toward the most neutral territory of political representation possible. At first glance, this would make sense; it is obviously not in a company’s best interest to explicitly alienate any demographic on the basis of political ideology. Brands hold substantial credibility in the American consumer psyche, and the ability for individuals to connect to brands of course directly corresponds to sales. In the publishing world, this isn’t any different, and new titles are typically marketed in such a way that allows for maximum appeal across demographics.

Looking outside of the publishing industry, however, we see a different story unfolding and a new marketing technique trending. One of the most visible brands in the world, Nike, shook the world when they presented the face of the thirtieth anniversary of their “Just Do It” campaign to be none other than former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, former player for the San Francisco 49ers, was heavily scrutinized and threatened for his protesting of the playing of the national anthem before games, during which he would take a knee rather than stand. Despite the fact that this protest was rooted in combating police violence against African Americans, the act of kneeling was seen by many as a symbolic attack against American veterans. At first glance, it wouldn’t seem to be in Nike’s best interest to support Kaepernick directly, let alone make him the face of the company throughout its most notable marketing campaign.

As it has turned out, Nike’s support of Kaepernick has paid off. Make no mistake of it: Nike’s move to support Kaepernick was a calculated move toward further brand success, and it is exemplary of how a brand can simultaneously be on the front lines of a social justice movement and increase profitability. Nike recognizes that people do not simply look at brands for products and services, but as something that both influences and reflects their values. In true democratic fashion, The New York Times shows that two-thirds of Nike’s core audience is under the age of thirty-five and is substantially more racially diverse than previous generations, indicating that these social groups are very likely to respond positively to Nike’s support of Kaepernick. Nike also knows that this demographic and political correspondence isn’t going to change. While 78 percent of people expect brands to stand up for social justice issues, 84 percent of millennials expect brands to do so as well, and this is only going to keep trending this way. Nike’s campaign has resulted in high profitability despite an initial stock dip, and perhaps more importantly, Nike’s social media brand visibility has skyrocketed.

For the publishing industry, brand social responsibility is a very real thing, despite the fact that much of branding is not consumer facing. Being socially responsible means that we must look to the future, and we must anticipate not only what our customers are concerned with now, but also the relationship our brands will have with our customers in emerging social climates. Much like Nike gaining appeal and publicity through social media shares and searches, the publishing industry must look to social media and digital marketing tools in order to both analyze the social justice trends of today and forecast the trends of tomorrow. While it is important to respect our consumer base of the past, the consumer base of the future will no doubt be born out of the marriage between brands and social activism. This marriage is inevitable; brand consciousness and the social identities of individuals and groups are concretely intertwined in our digital sphere. Publishers—big and small—are thus left with the choice: jump out in front of this and market your brand for the progressive future, or at some point or another, lose relevance in your market.

Marketing with Politics: Femvertising and Doing it Right

Using popular politics for marketing a political book makes sense. My last post referenced this when Macmillan expedited the pub date of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. It’s not clear what spurred this decision, but expediting the pub date was a political statement, a middle finger to Trump, whose tweets made his stance on the book’s value and relevance clear. By doing this, Henry Holt and Company caused a scene that exploded all over news outlets, causing Fire and Fury‘s name to pinball around the internet. Whether this move was an intentional marketing tactic or not, it still served as one, and elated Democrats and furious Republicans bought it in kind.

But what about using politics to market non-political books? How can publishers cash in on socio-political trends along with the rest of the world, without sacrificing authenticity? In the interest of keeping this post a manageable length, I’m going to focus on feminism; on the ways feminism is used to sell us things, and how publishers can accomplish authenticity rather painlessly. This is an amazingly complex issue and this blog post can’t delve into it all, but the links in here should lead you down an endless rabbit hole that I’m just now leaving behind me, for a little bit, for my mental health.

The issue of authenticity arises because using feminism to market a book including a strong female character doesn’t necessarily tell us what the book is about. All it does is tell us that the book is filling a gaping hole in the literary canon, a term that refers to all the books in the world. The canon, according to the Women’s National Book Association is predominantly populated with cis, white males. Basically, the politics of Wolff’s book and the politics that helped sell it have the same content and message. Feminism and a fiction book featuring a strong female character do not. While the book becomes a tool for feminism by providing girls with a role model, the book is bereft of the politics and theory that spurr the movement—references to these happen inexplicitly and in the background of the story’s narrative. So, for example, the Hunger Games trilogy has feminist themes but isn’t necessarily about feminism.

In fourth wave feminism , this is where companies can get themselves in trouble. In an interview, Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates states that if a company uses the fact that feminism is #trending to advertise their products—if they “femvertise”—they must also make sure that the products themselves have the “principle of equality at heart,” or, at the corporate level, “embody that message by acting internally on issues from equal pay to parental leave.” Show us you actually care.

A non-literary example of this femvertising pitfall is Unilever’s Dove beauty products. The Real Beauty campaign focuses on women on an individual level, leaving viewers with a “feel good” message of empowerment. However, as Bitch Magazine co-founder Andi Ziesler mentions in an AdAge interview, Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also contains the company Fair and Lovely, which sells skin-lightening cream in South Asia. Ziesler says that if companies aren’t accountable on a systemic level, ads like Real Beauty “aren’t progress, they’re pandering.” Nosheen Iqbal of The Guardian seconds this statement, while adding the fact that this type of femvertising, which appeals to the individual, is easy to perpetuate with shares and likes and you-go-girl comments on social media. This is likely why advertisers like it; going viral means more visibility for their product. But it forgets that the root of the issue is systemic. So, by holding different values in its separate companies, Unilever is blatantly showing us that they don’t care about empowering women, they care about making money, and it just so happens that feminism sells in the States and perpetuating the idea that lighter skin is more beautiful sells in South Asia.

The individual attention and the feel-good messages are examples of good advertising, and companies shouldn’t be punished for good advertising. The problem arises when their values don’t line up with their ads.

In publishing, Henry Holt and Company made a political statement by expediting the pub date of Wolff’s book, thereby aligning themselves with a liberal, and therefore feminist, audience. However, Henry Holt is also scheduled to publish Bill O’Reilly’s newest book in the fall. For those who have forgotten, Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News—a conservative news outlet—for numerous sexual harassment claims against him by women. Henry Holt is standing by their man, (their cash cow), and his newest book is being published in September.

Publishing, an industry that’s 80 percent female, has the potential to push back on this superficial femvertising, but systemic sexism is present here as well. Although women make up 80 percent of the workforce, they hold only 49 percent of managerial positions. This is why women dominate the Indie publishing scene; they’re fed up with trying to claw their way to the top and are taking off on their own to create the type of work environment they want. Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press shows how feminism can be incorporated at a systemic level. “If men are putting things into the world that I don’t want to forward, I will say that we are a women-run press, I’m not interested, and here’s why. I don’t know if that changes their perspectives on submitting to a women-run press, but it’s an opportunity I have to use my voice and say, ‘This is not okay with me.'” It should go without saying that as publishers, we must make sure that our mission, our books, and our best practices line up with our advertising if we wish to be taken seriously. Forest Avenue Press does this, Henry Holt and Company does not.

Is it surprising that Forest Avenue Press’s Publisher is a woman, while Henry Holt’s president and publisher is male? Not at all.

The Success of Fire and Fury: What’s at Stake for Publishers

“In the course of the nineteenth century, as a consequence of the progress of erudition and of a concern for critical rigor, there happens a reversal which is confirmed in the twentieth century: the solicitations of knowledge win out over aesthetic preoccupations, and history leaves literature in order to become an autonomous discipline.”

Larousse Encyclopedia, “History and Literature”

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has been a huge success for the author and the publishing company. With 29,000 copies sold in the first two days after publishing and 191,838 copies sold after a massive reprint as of January 14th, the book is on course to outsell Trump’s own book, The Art of the Deal.

This is ironic considering the Trump Administration’s attempts to halt Fire and Fury‘s publishing; an eleven-page cease and desist order was found on Macmillan’s Henry Holt & Co. desk, sent by Trump’s lawyer. The order accused the publisher of defamation by libel; however, despite threats to sue, Trump never followed through, and the backlash sparked even more reader interest than before. It even sparked interest (and possibly confusion) in a previously published book by the same name, which experienced an uptick in sales. In response to the cease and desist order—and perhaps as a way to avoid a lawsuit and make a political statement (a great marketing tactic)—Henry Holt & Co. expedited the book’s pub date to appease salivating readers chomping at the bit to get the inside scoop on the White House.

Trump insists the book’s contents are untruthful, a claim supported by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who says the book is “trash” and filled with “mistake after mistake.” Even the New York Times, a periodical that skews left, called the book “liberal catnip” in a review by Jonathan Martin.

Fact-checking isn’t the publisher’s legal responsibility, however—it’s the author’s. Many publishers only minimally fact-check—unless it’s an imprint of Crown Publishing, the company probably doesn’t have the money or workforce to fact-check and instead makes the author sign contracts saying the contents of the work are true to the best of their knowledge.

I’m not sure whether Wolff is right or Trump is right, but I do wonder whether Henry Holt should be held accountable or not. Publishers used to be the curators of literature for the public, but now with the internet and self-publishing, anyone can make their work available to the public. For free (for now). Instead, publishers now attract authors because of their social capital and their ability to let the books they publish see the light of day through the multitudes of paper and e-ink present in the ether. Although the publisher is not legally held accountable for fact-checking, they are responsible for their own reputation.

Regardless of whether Wolff’s book is libel or an accurate portrait of Trump’s White House (my guess is we won’t know for a while), by expediting the pub-date and moving forward with Fire and Fury, Henry Holt was able to do something that’s becoming harder and harder these days—something that the American Association of Publishers holds in high regard: exercising and protecting our First Amendment rights, the backbone of US democracy. And so what if the driving reason behind publishing was to capitalize on a money-making trend? Henry Holt isn’t alone.

Even with this silver lining, I’m left wondering—surrounded by shouts of “FAKE NEWS” and threats to net neutrality—whether we’re on the brink of experiencing that same mantra that keeps public school history teachers employed. We’re told that we learn history so we can make sure it doesn’t repeat itself. But there’s this tickle in the back of my brain when I read certain words written by Jonathan Martin in his book review:

Then there is the sheer outlandishness of the Trump era: When most anything is plausible it is also printable, but that does not necessarily mean you are getting it right.

I read that, and I scratch my head, feeling a strange sense of Laroussian déjà vu, wondering if the people in these history classrooms fifty years ago were busy daydreaming of money and power instead of paying attention. Publishers, exercise and protect our rights, but let’s also be wary of these traps.

Politics in Publishing

“Books are not published in a vacuum,” wrote researcher and professor Philip Altbach in 1975. His article, “Publishing and the Intellectual System,” discussed a variety of social, political, and economic trends that directly and indirectly affect the publishing industry. But trends in current political events speak to Altbach’s statement as though the quote were tailored to them.

In recent months, it has become difficult to point to a sector of American society that isn’t touched by political turmoil. Our recent presidential election and the mirroring Brexit vote across the pond mark deep and shifting partisan divides that show themselves in business, sports, educational communities, and the arts. Rather than being distinct from these communities and their conflicts, the publishing industry—because of its very nature—must both contain them and be contained by them.

Of course, the relationship of politics to publishing is nothing new, especially in the United States. Don’t believe me? Google Benjamin Franklin. However, our present epoch of the celebrity memoir lends itself beautifully to political crossover. In modern times—where everyone is not Benjamin Franklin—almanacs have gone out of style, fame sells books, and politicians and pundits can advance their personal brands and agendas while providing the publishing industry with highly marketable and successful books.

And those brands and agendas run the spectrum of partisan politics. Consider Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father, Bill O’Reilly’s A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity, or Elizabeth Warren’s A Fighting Chance. Then remind yourself that these books stretch far beyond memoir into genre fiction (e.g., Glenn Beck’s political thrillers), and even children’s books (e.g., Rush Limbaugh’s time-traveling history lesson).

These precedents have done little, however, to soften the recent backlash faced by publisher Simon & Schuster after their Threshold Editions imprint offered a six-figure book deal to Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart editor and banished Twitter troll. Authors and media condemned the publisher for amplifying hate speech and offering substantial compensation to a man who is essentially famous for saying mean things about people on the internet. But in a sea of liberal and moderate publishers, conservative-leaning imprints command their own market, and Yiannopoulos’s book deal may indicate the emergence of a new audience shaped by decades of its own underdog narrative. This audience is alt-right adjacent and highly controversial, and it recently celebrated a presidential victory.

The Yiannopoulos book, reported to be an autobiography titled Dangerous, was eventually pulled by Simon & Schuster in the wake of controversial comments from Yiannopoulos regarding sexual relationships between young boys and older men. However, it remains an example of the ways that books become ammunition in sociopolitical struggles. In the progressive-leaning fields of education, arts, and literature, it is difficult to reconcile the market for such a book with a progressive moral imperative. It is important to remember, though, that books bleed both ways. Even as the arguments fly back and forth about whether the political movement that raised Milo Yiannopoulos to fame created a cultural imperative to spread its word, we also use the cultural collateral of books to laud a progressive political mind. In the days before the 2017 inauguration, a New York Times article presented a nostalgic retrospective examining President Obama’s literary tastes—books he read and appreciated during the last eight years. It’s written with clear partiality, comparing Obama to Lincoln multiple times, but it also reads as liberal literature for dummies, referring to the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, as well as books by Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, and Junot Díaz.

Whether arguing the merits of Dangerous or celebrating Obama’s literary mind, we are placing books and the publishing industry at the center of an old debate that calls for free speech versus hate speech, that pits conservatives against liberals, and that values classics over best sellers. But the thing about the publishing industry is this: books and politics have both been around for a long time, and as long as we have them both, they’re going to interact. To crudely paraphrase Gandhi, we are tasked, then, with creating the content we wish to see in the world. If we don’t, we’ll be denying Philip Altbach’s truth, attempting to publish books in a vacuum.

Bloody Wednesday

Ahhh, Independence Day. A holiday intended to honor and celebrate America’s brave beginnings and illustrious history. A holiday of opposing emotions. And much like Thanksgiving, for many of us it may be filled with food, family, and fun. But also like Thanksgiving, it acts as a strange facade for a history that is far more complex and sometimes entirely and deliberately buried and forgotten. Michael Munk’s book The Portland Red Guide offers a slice of this complex history. Specifically, Portland was a quintessentially patriotic American city in the truest sense of patriotism, and its citizens exercised their right to free speech often and loudly. While “Keep Portland Weird” is one of the notions associated with the city nowadays, Portland was actually quite weird and wild far before the current stereotype came into, and fell out of, fashion. It was fertile grounds for various social movements and political change, and the Portland Red Guide honors the real history of what was once a blue-collar town:

The main purpose of the Red Guide is to offer a respectful rendering of the mostly forgotten people, organizations, and events that challenged the dominant powers of their day in the name of justice and equality—of which the victory of the 1934 strikers is a remarkable exception to a long list of defeats. An informal guide to Portland’s radical past, the Red Guide links notable radicals, their organizations, and their activities to physical sites associated with them. It honors those that the mainstream histories of Portland largely ignore. (Michael Munk, Portland Red Guide)

On July 11, 1934, one of the most pivotal events in Portland history took place in what is now Pier Park. The hundreds of laborers from Portland’s riverfronts, who spent long days for little pay unloading and loading the ships coming in and out of Portland’s busy docks, had been on strike for nearly a month. They won a victory in what was ultimately a class war between wealthy businessmen and blue-collar workers. It led to the formation of today’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which has among its members such organizations as Portland Locals 8 (Longshore), 40 (Checkers), 90 (Walking Bosses), 5 (Powell’s Books) 28 (Kaiser Permanente Security), 50 (Astoria), 12 (North Bend), and the Columbia River Pensioners Association.

Thinking of the striking laborers at Pier Park that summer eighty-two years ago (where for a long time you could still find bullets embedded in the douglas firs around the park), their bravery and courage for fair hours and wages and the right to create a union speaks more to me of celebrating our country’s freedom than the stories of rich landowners in the thirteen colonies trying to gain freedom from the British monarchy. The protesters on Bloody Wednesday exercised their right to speak out against social injustice and create communities for change and equality. I’ll light a sparkler to that.

Chatting with The Portland Red Guide Author Michael Munk

There was only one sunny day in January, and it was the day I took the train out to Milwaukie to interview Mike Munk. This was quite a privilege, as I’d read The Portland Red Guide last summer to familiarize myself with at least one Ooligan Press title before starting the master’s in book publishing program. It was, without question, my favorite book of the season, which was right in tandem with my also favorite-but-nevertheless-irritating phrase while conversing with friends: “Did you know …” then followed by whatever juicy tidbit I had learned from The Portland Red Guide. Many thanks to Mike for the interview and for his genuine interest in Oaks Park, the Inman-Poulsen house, old trolley lines, and all those little details of the Portland landscape that make this place an ongoing story.

How did your interest in the research and writing of The Portland Red Guide come about?

My friends were growing tired of hearing me tell them about every single bit of Portland history that I was finding. They said, ‘Listen … maybe you should just write it down?’ That’s what really got me going. They didn’t want to hear any more of these stories!

I’m a former academic; I did academic work in the east and wrote a book on the poverty programs. But when I retired and came back to Portland, where I actually grew up, I figured out that now that I’m retired I could do what I’m really interested in, which turned out to be radical history. The idea of doing it in Portland was inspired by living near the birthplace of John Reed. My idea was that in the same way that all the conventional historic sites related to the dominant narrative of history are considered to be inspiring places (Mount Vernon, etc.), why not try to stimulate people by introducing them to sites that evoke a different side of history?

If you were to tell someone new to Portland what site they should become at least somewhat acquainted with from Portland’s radical history, what site would you tell them to visit?

Most of the really crucial sites are around Skid Row, concentrated between 2nd and 3rd on W. Burnside, which was at the heart of social movement sites in Portland during the early to mid-20th century. I narrated a walking tour of that area for the walking tour company ‘Know Your City’, called ‘A worker’s history tour.’ Even though I was actually sitting in my own living room narrating it [laughs]. But yes, that area would be ground zero, right around SW 3rd and Burnside. There’s a photograph of that corner, which shows the original Wobbly headquarters on the 3rd floor. The building is still there—it’s the Paris Theater now. That’s sort of the concentration if you look at the maps in the book, the numbers are clustered around that area.

What would you say is a recent event that is linked to radical events of the past in Portland?

I wrote a piece for The Oregonian relatively recently about Occupy Portland, because the site they chose, at Lownsdale Square, in front of the county courthouse, that was one of the early sites for demonstrations and protests, and my assumption is that they did not choose it because they were aware of that history. So I wrote up a brief background on that park, which was once called the Plaza Blocks.

Is there any one person or event or period of time you wish had been in the book that you found out later or was excluded in the editing process?

Well, actually, the most common criticism of exclusion that I’ve run into was that I didn’t spend enough time on the 70s, 80s, and 90s. And I think that’s explained by what I was saying about the nature of the politics earlier. After the end of the McCarthy period and the destruction of the organized left parties and organizations, everything was fragmented. And it’s true, I spent less time detailing those individual movements because I have deep reservations about how effective they are politically. I guess I’ve given more attention to the integrated political parties. But that’s been a criticism of the book.

Do you feel like people now are less inspired and less motivated than they once were to enact real social change?

No, I think that there’s still a strong movement for social change. The big difference is that today it’s all fragmented into specific organizations. Identity politics, the environment, war—it’s all diffused, whereas in the past, when people wanted social change they joined political organizations that represented all of those issues and understood that they are all related. And that’s what the socialist and communist parties tried to do—to show that if you are a political organization, you deal with multiple issues, but if you get focused on only one of them, it weakens the whole; it fragments. Now we have dozens of organizations who compete for people’s time, energy, and money. To me, it means there may be the same number of people who are motivated towards radical politics, but their impact is so much less than it would be if they were united in a movement that was multifaceted—that deal with race and income and housing and so on. But that requires an ideology that explains the relationship. So I’ve always been a socialist because I think that these issues stem from a market economy, from capitalism. And that’s what drives the fragmentation.

For more information on Michael Munk and The Portland Red Guide, please visit his website.