Imprints: An Endangered Species

Last fall, we first announced our “One Company Initiative.” Among other things, this called for the elimination of our 21 publishing imprints. This was effective as of April 1. From this point forward, we are publishing all of our books under the single “Thomas Nelson” imprint.

Dinosaur Bones

Now it looks like at least one other publisher has followed suit. In today’s edition of Religion BookLine (published by Publishers Weekly),

Cook Communications has announced the company will return to the name of its founder. All of Cook’s U.S., U.K. and Canadian divisions will be rebranded as David C. Cook, who founded the company more than 130 years ago to distribute Christian literature in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire. With the exception of Honor Books—the gift books imprint Cook acquired in 2002—all of Cook’s current book brands—including Victor, RiverOak, Life Journey, Faithkidz and NexGen—are in the process of being phased out, and all of Cook’s fall titles will carry the David C. Cook imprint. As part of the reorganization that began one year ago, 20 positions have been eliminated through consolidation of departments and functions, and 65 new employees have been hired.

I do think this is the beginning of a trend. I have met with most of our biggest retail customers in the last 90 days. All of them congratulated us on the elimination of our imprints. As a buyer at one of the country’s largest bookstore chains told me, “Imprints add zero value to our business. They only produce clutter and confusion. I have told the other major publishers that they should follow your example.”

From my first-hand conversations with retailers, it’s clear to me that imprints don’t mean much to them. There are too many. No one can keep them all straight. Speaking as the CEO of one the larger publishing houses, I couldn’t even keep our own imprints straight. If you work outside a publishing company, you don’t have a chance. Multiple imprints only add another layer of confusion to an already complex and convoluted industry.

Worse, with rare exception, imprints mean absolutely nothing to consumers. When was the last time you or anyone else you know walked into a bookstore and said, “Hey, what do you have new from [insert an imprint name].” No one does this. They might ask about a specific author or a specific category, but they never ask about the imprint. They probably can’t even tell you what imprint their favorite author publishes under. Imprints make a distinction without making a difference.

If it doesn’t matter to retailers and it doesn’t matter to consumers, why do we need them? I would argue that we don’t. The only people who care are usually the publishers who lead the imprint and a few authors who have an emotional attachment to the their history with that imprint. But this means nothing to customers. The sooner we start focusing on what matters to them—and the more we invest in that—the better off we will all be.

Reality is that the market hates inefficiency. If something doesn’t add value, it eventually disappears. It becomes extinct. This is true in the natural world. It is also true in a market economy. That’s why, in my humble opinion, we will see more and more announcements like the one today from Cook Communications.

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  • http://www.hackman-adams.com Linda Adams

    Mike:

    Why did the publishers start imprints in the first place? Was it orginally a form of marketing to get readers to buy more books?

  • http://nashbiz.blogspot.com Scott

    I could not agree more with your strategy.

    Imprints really only work if there is a singular theme, focused style and unique culture behind them. In the current business environment, a lot of imprints like this have become impractical under a corporate umbrella. That leads to an imprint being one in name only. It leads to confusion.

    I come from the music world so that flavors my perspective, but I think the issues are similar. To give an answer to Linda’s question, here is the big picture on why I don’t think imprints are very relevant.

    Before the internet, imprints were an efficient way for a consumer to filter through their choices. If a record had the Sun Records, Def Jam or Windham Hill label, they would pretty much know whan kind of record it was going to be.

    Now they have the internet THE ULTIMATE FILTER. Why rely on a name or a logo when they now had a better resource! They sould search, read reviews, and ask friends instead of relying on what the imprint was. They didn’t have to trust you! (Not that they shouldn’t)

    So now that you have a consumer with those skills, it is better to avoind confusion with many names, and focus on developing great content. Way to go. You know your market!

  • http://growyourbusiness.typepad.com Cliff

    As a retailer, I cannot agree with you more. No one cares about the imprints as it relates to books.

    I would, however, note that there are some instances where imprints matter. One is in Sunday School curriculum. Another is in Bibles to some extent. For example, we have had many customers that distinguish Nelson Bibles from others.

    Beyond that, I think publishers should focus on branding authors, producing customer-centric titles, and creating book covers that scream “buy me”!

  • http://writingchristiannovels.blogspot.com Katie

    I understand the reasoning behind the death of imprints, but I’m still mourning WestBow.

  • http://goodwordediting.com Mark Goodyear

    Great post. I agree that the imprints weren’t very helpful to consumers.

    Katie’s comment makes me wonder, though. Will this also mean the death of developing niches in Christian publishing–like edgier genre fiction and more literary fiction? If WestBow doesn’t exist as a formal imprint, will its vision still exist within Thomas Nelson? Will its vision still be defended?

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Linda,

    I am not sure I can list all the reasons imprints were created. Some of it was the result of acquisitions. Big publishers bought small publishers and left them intact, believing that there was brand equity in the imprint name. Sometimes publishers wanted to reward—or attract—particularly successful acquisitions editors by giving them their own imprints. Still others wanted to use a name to identify a new literary venture or category. There are probably many other reasons, but these are the three that come to mind from my experience.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Katie and Mark,

    Yes, the WestBow vision will live on, because the publisher, Allen Arnold, lives on. He can pretty much do whatever he wants. But now, the time he used to spend building the WestBow brand can be spent exploring consumer needs and new writers. He is the captain of all-things-fiction.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • ColeWake

    I think the question that we need to ask is ‘why did imprints fail?’. If consumers don’t care is it because they haven’t been trained to care?

    Thomas Nelson had a heck of a lot of imprints, and sometimes they would be publishing similar books. These imprints became diluted and their value as unique brands shrunk. It makes sense to combine those.

    However Thomas Nelson also had some unique imprints that published things the others didn’t. With these there was still a chance to create unique and powerful brands that consumers would acknowledge.

    The imprint publishing system is broken, but not because its a bad idea. With the right content strategy and marketing pushes imprints could still be a very valuable tool for selling books.

    (imprints also provide brand-buffer for those important titles that make some people angry?)

  • Hunter Baker

    I can think of one imprint that draws my attention and that is Harper San Francisco. I definitely have a sense of what that brand means and gravitate toward many of their offerings.

  • Tim McGuire

    Well, one positive attribute of imprints is that they help prevent the mega publishers from becoming quite as bureaucratic as they would be without them. This can benefit not just authors and employees of the publishers, but also retailers and readers in that it helps increase the possibility that titles will be acquired, edited, marketed and sold with more individuality than they would be otherwise.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Tim,

    You make a good point, but I don’t think this is a result of imprints, so much as it is good organizational design. Our publishers now have categories with the same size teams and decision-making authority they always had. Only the names have changed. For example, WestBow Press is now known internally as the Fiction division.

    Thanks,

    Mike