Michael Bhaskar: Imprints, formats, and people

Michael Bhaskar: Imprints, formats, and people

Editor's note: Canelo's Michael Bhaskar spoke with The Bookseller's Philip Jones for Jones' FutureBook essay, The imprint of meaningful things, and then joined us for our #FutureChat on the topic of imprints. Since he's working on a book for Little, Brown on the subject of curation, we've asked him to come back to us with some thoughts on imprints as part of -- or not -- the digital publishing picture. Always deft at turning a phrase, Bhaskar drops his best clue when he refers to imprints as "unique assemblages of messy human tastes that really believe in what they publish." -- Porter Anderson

Does anyone really care about imprints outside of the book trade? Publishing tends to divide into two camps. There are those who believe imprints are useful mainly as trade signalling devices, a means of communicating to agents and booksellers but little more. And then there are those who believe imprints are, or more likely should, be public facing brands inspiring some degree of reader recognition and loyalty.

So the debate goes round and round. At this point someone cites Penguin and everyone else rolls their eyes, says ‘Yes, but...’ and wanders off.

Before we all do that, a few thoughts.

Imprints and format

Firstly, I think we’ll see a trend towards more specialised imprints. As part of a new digital publisher, an ebook and app imprint, I might say that but hear me out.

Imprints used to be clustered around format. Paperbacks were published by the likes of Pan or Pocket and hardbacks were the preserve of the older, grander houses -- people like Jonathan Cape or Victor Gollancz. For the most imprint and publisher were coterminous. The value of this arrangement was that each could specialise. Hardback imprints focused on editorial work and author relations; paperback imprints concentrated on taking that writing to a mass audience.

In many respects paperback imprints weren’t really about just the format. They were about getting books into non-traditional channels and pricing them cheaper. They were about different covers and new marketing messages. By differentiating format imprints could focus completely on making things work without any distractions.

With the consolidation of publishing starting in the 1960s and continuing into the present, these distinctions, between imprints and publishers, by and large, separated (with some exceptions like Faber). One conglomerated publisher contained multiple imprints and even where hardback and paperback had different imprints, there became one institutional infrastructure behind them. Imprints became a colophon, not a meaningful business distinction. They no longer embodied corporate identity but became tools for communicating parts of a list.

Does this make sense in the digital world? I’m not sure.

It protects publisher margins. But despite the best of intentions of everyone involved the ebook can often be the poor relation of the print version, which inevitably gobbles up all the resource and attention. Many argue that ebook sales are supported by print, and this is why rights should be bundled together. In our experience that can be true -- but it also works the other way. Sometimes it’s the ebook that drives a book’s success and only subsequently do the print sales take off, despite the ebook having much less production and marketing attention.

It’s very encouraging to see the recent announcements from Unbound and Penguin Random House and Made in Me and Pan Macmillan -- digitally based start-ups partnering with major houses to produce cross-format editions. It’s certainly a hopeful position for Canelo and suggests that there could be a happy medium in terms of imprint speciality.

Good imprints are specialists in format or content or both; but we’ve lost sight of the former.

Imprints and people

Secondly whether we believe imprints are signalling to the trade only or the public as well, we can agree they are signalling something. Or probably should be.

At the minute I am doing a lot of work on the idea of curation (stay! it’s more interesting than that). One thing that comes up, time and again, is that in an era of algorithmic dominance and extreme content proliferation, for want of a better phrase, the human touch of curation has a huge value. At their root this is what imprints are -- small and expert teams of selectors with quirks and personalities and tastes and networks. Branding consultants go on about how branding isn’t just about the external facing aspects of a company -- brand comes from everything. Good brands are brands because they are saturated in what they represent. They really live it.

All of which goes for imprints.

If we want to play up imprints, we should probably play up the fact they are unique assemblages of messy human tastes that really believe in what they publish. Many of the best imprints do this already. Regardless of whether imprints are directed at the public or at the book trade, if they are to have meaning and credibility it won’t be as a sterile marketing exercise but as a reflection of the colourful characters within them. Imposing an imprint from without is the kind of fakery that more than ever before gets found out; building from personalities within is a sure way of making something valuable in a context of abundance and automation.

Although I don’t have any answers about whether imprints should be trade- or reader-centric (probably both, if possible) I suspect that either way they will be more format-driven and more personality-based.

Michael Bhaskar is Co-founder and Publishing Director of Canelo, a new digital publisher. He is author of a book about publishing, The Content Machine, and is on Twitter @michaelbhaskar.

Main image: Shutterstock: Svietlieisha Olena