Could imprints get publishers' readers in a row?

Image - iStockphoto: WillBrasil21
Image – iStockphoto: WillBrasil21

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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.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

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.

Mike Shatzkin
Mike Shatzkin

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 toTo 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.

Read More

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: #FutureChat today: Could imprints get publishers’ readers in a row?

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