Nobody knows who published Stieg Larsson. By this, I mean no normal customer—even a Larsson fiend—could tell you the publisher. This matters because readers follow particular publishers, and this silent relationship is a rich source of whole genres. For instance, Picador can take chances because it has a following of customers who expect edgy, often unpleasant tales, such as Ian McEwan stories in the 70s, and Emma Donoghue's Room in 2011.
Few other imprints have kept their audience so carefully. Pan, with its satyr flautist logo, gave us Ian Fleming and lurid thrillers. Collins, with its fountain logo, meant wonderful non-fiction. These two names have lost their discrete identity, but customers would still get their wallet out if they suddenly reappeared.
Instead, we have HarperCollins, Time Warner, Review, Indigo, Transworld, Hachette, Headline, Profile. As Churchill said "you must have euphony": a publisher name must sound good, like Chatto or Canongate, and should have an identity born of something other than a meeting with HR. I know that takeovers happen and that, to keep an editor from flouncing out, he is often given his own imprint—perhaps because the young m.d. was his fag at Eton and cannot sack him. But these forgettable names mean nothing to the public and are not identified with a genre.
This lack of publisher authority on some book covers has created a vacuum into which clutter has surged. There is the pretend "sticker", allied to a daytime TV programme, perhaps advertising junk chocolate. Customers complain about these almost as much as they do about film tie-ins. Even the most ardent fan of "The Duchess" doesn't want to carry around a copy of Amanda Foreman's book fronted by a bug-eyed Keira Knightley. Straplines abound: Macmillan's "Aer Lingus Irish Crime Award Shortlist" was particularly regrettable; "Classic FM Book of the Year" is the kiss of death.
The publishers' web address is unnecessary: a six-year-old can Google it. The blurb is often double the length that any customer would read. The ill-placed large barcode offends—art publishers sensibly hide these inside or reduce them to a few millimetres in height. Then there is the corporate guff. I thought Waterstone's 2007 "What's your story?" motto was the pits, but I see that Vintage, a wonderful imprint, bears the patronising "Love to Read? Love Vintage".
The imprint should be the message, with a resonant logo. At great cost, Hodder has abandoned its historic chess piece in favour of an "H" doing the splits. Image power is shown by the way we talk of "a ladybird", or "a penguin". The image need not be expensive: the original Penguin was drawn by an in-house amateur. Combine the image with passionate publishing and you have, for instance, T&H and its dolphin. Customers love being loyal to an imprint. This loyalty is good for sales, and makes for a rich, exotic literary landscape.