Could imprints get publishers' readers in a row?

Could imprints get publishers' readers in a row?

This story was originally written for our live #FutureChat on 27th February. Join us each Friday for #FutureChat with The FutureBook digital community at 4 p.m. London (GMT), 5 p.m. Rome, 11 a.m. New York, 8 a.m. Los Angeles.

You've heard it. I've heard it. Imprints are done. Right?

Maybe not.

Imprints are all around us -- and in fact growing in number and importance. To give some measure of this, I took a look at the preview section in this week’s edition of The Bookseller, titled “Paperback Preview”. The article features more than 200 titles ranging from poetry to literary, from memoir to true crime. I counted, across the nine pages of the feature, more than 50 imprints—some such as Tinder Press only recently launched, others such as Hamish Hamilton that go back decades. The point is the number of imprints—one for every four titles. If imprints are dead, someone forgot to tell publishers.

That's my colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller in his FutureBook Tuesday column this week, The imprint of meaningful things. And it may surprise some that he's not jumping onto the "imprints are dead weight" wagon. A lot of folks, after all, seem ready to toss those bits of sub-branding right away. 

Long a topic of debate

Industry consultant Mike Shatzkin posted Imprints in the 21st Century six years ago, in early March 2009. He wrote:

HarperCollins announced a new imprint yesterday. And once again, we see no evidence that the big general trade publishers understand how to attack their new challenges in the 21st century.

His specific interest in that piece was a then-new imprint that HarperCollins was calling the "It Books" imprint. But Shatzkin wasn't trying to get imprints to lie still while he backed the bus over them. Instead, he wanted publishers to think about how to use imprints to get readers. I'll excerpt him here:

The new It Books imprint is not defined by its subject matter so much as by its attitude and its approach. The subject matter is “pop culture, sports, style and content derived from the Internet”, broad classifications (like “crafts”, or “business”, or  “photography”) that make sense in the B2B world...But any four of these opportunities would not make one brand. They’d probably make four. So this new imprint can’t gather a coherent and enduring web community. One book’s audience will not lead naturally to the next. 

In other words, Shatzkin -- at least in that instance -- was saying that the problem was that publishers might not sort out how to choose and deploy imprints in ways that would generate reader response.

And that's where you find Jones:

For the trade the trick is to do the opposite of what you’d imagine, and turn these internal intricacies [imprints and their usage] to our own advantage: readers don’t need to make sense of this world, we do, and if in making sense of it we can deliver the right books to the right readers at the right time then we will have turned discoverability on its head.

This is an interesting proposition, especially when you liken, as some do, the current impact of imprints on readers to the way those same people watch television. Many of our Stateside cable and satellite systems offer hundreds of arcane channels. It's long been observed that many loyal viewers of popular shows can't tell you which network purveys them. All they can tell  you is, "Oh, I see Downton Abbey on Channel 509."

The argument goes, then, "Well, if they can't remember that they watched The Leftovers' first season on HBO, how are they going to attach the name Simon & Schuster -- let alone an imprint of S&S -- to books they like?"

And Jones isn't out to minimise the difficulty. True, he recognises the "keen historical and legal importance" that imprints can carry: "Without the [William Heinemann] imprint Random House would not have gained the rights to To Kill a Mockingbird -- and almost certainly 20 years on would not be the publisher of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman."

But the loss of traction for imprints today is inescapable. Jones writes:

In the digital world the impact of imprints is much lessened. While good booksellers will recognise the meta-data that informs each imprint (without actually having to read it), in online this skill is less useful. Web pages are curated by what is selling, what readers are searching for, and what promotions are proving most effective; if readers wish to drill down further they can do so by genre, author name, or simply by heading down the algorithm rabbit-hole...Some will argue that as this digital revolution continues these imperceptible links will necessarily disappear as connections become more linear.

Ah, but Jones is interested in another idea. What if imprints can become a key to the discoverability dilemma facing publishers and authors today?

The problem with the current discoverability debate is that it imagines readers as the explorers. But perhaps we need fewer explorers, and more guides.

'Editorial personality'

We turn, then, to Michael Bhaskar, former digital publishing director with Profiles, now publishing director at the new Canelo Digital Publishing, which he has co-founded with Iain Millar and Nick Barreto.

Bhaskar, author of The Content Machine (Anthem Press, 2013), is working on a new book for Little, Brown, in which he focuses on curation. And who is doing the curation, anyway? If it's the consumer (your marketing friends may have just blanched), then could imprints not be made useful as signals, beacons, rallying points, symbols, flags to gather the right readers for the right books...or "Follow me!" as mother ducks were quacking to their ducklings long before Twitter tweeted anything to anyone.

"In general," Bhaskar tells me, "I am thinking back to the origins of paperback imprints and where they stood vis-a-vis the market as a whole -- and how an ebook imprint like Canelo can fit in."

These are thoughts-in-progress, Bhaskar is still getting those in a row, too. Next week, he'll have a piece for us here at The FutureBook on the topic. For now, he's looking -- as Jones is -- at how the imprint parade got started. He's thinking about the "Penguincubator," in fact, the vending machine in Charing Cross Road in the 1930s. He tells me:

Paperback imprints were about speed and mass scale; solid design, good writing but above all excellent value sold in places where publishers didn't used to venture.

Penguin took off largely for two reasons.

  • Firstly because [publisher] Allen Lane insisted on the books being as cheap as a packet of cigarettes at a time, unlike today, when books were still relatively expensive.
  • Secondly because he got distribution into places like Woolworths that traditional publishers -- grandees like Jonathan Cape or Victor Gollancz -- wouldn't dream of selling. They then carved an identity as a distinctly paperback imprint, something people like Pocket and Pan also did. So I am thinking a lot about the ebook equivalent. 

Let's not forget that the sister concept has those ducklings keeping an eye on an important figure, Mom:

The other thing I am looking at is how the personalities behind imprints shape them -- and how this is likely to be more important. Therein it ties...into my curation theme. Editorial personality is, in a world where content is abundant, one of the driving forces behind imprints.

And it really is personal -- this is about the choices, quirks and taste of an individual. That is why it can't be replicated, why, in an age of algorithms, it has value.

If, as Bhaskar is saying, curatorial influence may lie in personality, then are the best imprints those known for just that? There's Knopf Doubleday's Nan A. Talese, for example, named for its editor-publisher, of course. (Always great to hear her speak, don't  miss a chance if you get it.) And there's Hachette's US Little, Brown new imprint Lee Boudreaux Books, named for the editor who was behind Josh Malerman's important debut last year, Bird Box, when Boudreaux was still at HarperCollins' Ecco Books.

Can readers of a given imprint, provided it's somehow presented with the appeal of personality, be led to "imprint" on that moniker and "follow" its output? 

if so, what's required to personalise the appeal? 

And is personality the only bonding factor that may make imprints worth their goose down? What other warm and fuzzy attractions might cause imprints to become handles, guides for curating-consumers to use in getting a grip on a market that's a mile high and two miles deep? Or are imprints better in the background, as guides for those who put books in front of customers, rather than the customers themselves?

Jones puts it this way:

The imprint is part of the answer. But first we should stop defining imprints for what they don’t do, and instead unlock what they can do.

Join us each Friday for our live #FutureChat with The FutureBook digital community at 4 p.m. London (GMT), 5 p.m. Rome, 11 a.m. New York, 8 a.m. Los Angeles.

Main image - Shutterstock: southmind