The imprint of meaningful things

The imprint of meaningful things

Whither the imprint? Publishing imprints are part and parcel of modern publishing businesses, yet many question their use and effectiveness, particularly at a time when publishers are looking to build brands that consumers can recognise. If you work in the trade, chances are you will have heard of “famous” imprints such as Jonathan Cape and Black Swan: but if your only connection to publishing is through reading, you probably won’t have heard of them. No-one buys a book because it has Allen Lane on the spine (so they say).

Yet 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.

Imprints do slightly different things. Some imprints denote the parent company, as in Penguin Press, while others, such as Gollancz, have helped define a whole genre. Some are divisions of divisions (Virgin Books, part of Ebury, part of Penguin Random House) - while others are company-wide monikers, Bloomsbury or Simon & Schuster. Some are specialists, in paperback publishing for example such as Windmill and Corgi; while others publish only in one genre, such as Rough Guides. Some are more loosely defined than others: Abacus began as a non-fiction imprint, but is now as well known for literary fiction, from Douglas Coupland’s Generation X to Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. Some are simply the company, such as Granta, or Alma Books.

Not only do imprints do different things: their names come from different places, some are simply invented, others are quirks of history. Patrick Janson-Smith’s Blue Door imprint was reputedly a reference to the film Notting Hill; Blackfriars, Little, Brown’s digital imprint, was so-named because of the proximity of its offices to the famous London bridge; Harper’s Borough Press was launched a year before HarperCollins moved into the Borough neighbourhood; while Bluebird, Carol Tonkinson’s new imprint at Pan Macmillan was described thus by Tonkinson in The Bookseller two weeks ago, “A bluebird in an American bird, and so am I.”

There is also little sign that the growth in imprints is arresting. Just last week The Bookseller reported that Head of Zeus was to launch a new imprint, Apollo, dedicated to resurrecting out of print “forgotten masterpieces”. Here the connection between the imprint and parent is not so much the content (Head of Zeus has a reputation for publishing digitally first highly commercial series), but the publisher’s affection for Greek mythology—Apollo being the half-brother of Athene, the Greek Goddess who sprang from the Head of Zeus. There is an announcement about a new imprint, or list, featured in The Bookseller almost every week.

Imprints can be of keen historical and legal importance. Often an author is connected to the imprint (or publishing division), rather than the ultimate parent company — both emotionally and contractually. When Reed Books was sold to Random House in the late 90s, one of the imprints that went with it was William Heinemann, publisher, of course, of Harper Lee. It may feel somewhat arcane legally, but without the imprint Random House would not have gained the rights To Kill a Mockingbird - and almost certainly 20 years on would not be the publisher of Lee’s prequel, Go Set a Watchman. Many years ago The Bookseller published a separate supplement entitled "Who Owns Whom": it showed a family tree of imprints and parents, with some half-forgotten names tracing their ancestry into the 19th Century. The feat was complex back then, to do a repeat would require at least double the workload.

The family tree was the right expression of this, however. In the physical world imprints are the connectors. They hold authors in, but also attract new talent. An upcoming literary author may be attracted to be published by Jonathan Cape (alongside Ian McEwan, A L Kennedy, and Salman Rushdie) over Penguin Random House. Moreover, within the big corporate groups, imprints can act like organisational charts that means books (and staff) don’t get lost: they help agents, authors, rep, and booksellers find their way through the intricate threads that make up modern publishing, but more importantly they help the books get out again. Imprints are the maps and guides that help insiders navigate publishing: they help ensure books get to the editors that can most nourish them, and then they help these titles get onto the shelves of bookshops. The reader need know nothing about this to make it effective. In the high street, an Abacus title might get additional prominence simply because its stable-mate is Nelson Mandela, Donna Tartt and Iain Banks: there is a perception of quality there, even if the lineage is obscure.

But 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. The infinite map of publishing can be displayed on any website, whether the routes to individual titles are visible or not. Publishers often do themselves an injustice by removing the imprint altogether from the digital file: a good bookseller will recognise The Girl on the Train as a Doubleday book, but online the book has many publishers: its digital file is sold under the Transworld Digital banner, its audio file as Penguin Audio.

Some will argue that as this digital revolution continues these imperceptible links will necessarily disappear as connections become more linear. Sales of The Girl on the Train are hardly being hindered by the fact that it appears to have three different publishers. But to imagine that an imprint is useless just because the connections are not visible, is like believing pipes are unnecessary to running water—the pipes don't make the water run they simply get it to where it needs to be. What got The Girl on the Train in front of the right people at the right time was its publisher.

For the trade the trick is to do the opposite of what you’d imagine, and turn these internal intricacies 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. The problem with the current discoverability debate is that it imagines readers as the explorers. But perhaps we need fewer explorers, and more guides.

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.