Why Imprints Don’t Matter

I spoke at Book Expo America last week in New York. In case you are not in the publishing business, this is our largest U.S. trade show. I spoke on the topic of “Customer Focused Publishing: How Thomas Nelson Moved Away from Imprints and Closer to Customer Wants.”

Customerfocusedpublishing.001-1

(If you are a member of Publisher’s Lunch, you can click here to watch my presentation on video. I have also asked the BEA organizer to upload it on YouTube.com, but I have not received a response. Also, the video does not show my slides. If you want to see those, click here (12.7 MB) to download a PDF of my slides. I created them in Apple Keynote, but the PDF will enable you to view them on any platform. If you want to view the two video clips I showed, you can view them here and here.)

My assignment was to justify why we eliminated our twenty-one separate imprints and are now focusing on the Thomas Nelson brand. In the eyes of some, this action amounted to heresy, since imprints are such a staple of traditional publishing.

Based on a suggestion from Allen Arnold, our fiction publisher, I decided to help my audience see this from outside their current frame of reference. The truth is that most us in the industry are so caught up in the matrix that we have difficulty thinking clearly about imprints and their value (or lack thereof). It’s like asking a fish to think of a world without water.

In order to assess the value of imprints, I suggested to my audience that we attempt to answer three questions:

  1. Do imprints matter to consumers?
  2. Do imprints matter to retailers?
  3. Do imprints matter to authors and agents?


The Consumer Perspective

Publishers can argue all they want about the value of imprints to consumers, but all they need to do is look at a similar industries to get their answer. Let’s start with the recording industry. Most of us are music consumers to one degree or another.

According to the Recording Industry of America, the top three biggest selling record albums of all time are:

  1. Eagles: Their Greatest Hits, 1971–1975 by The Eagles (29 million copies sold)
  2. Thriller by Michael Jackson (27 million copies sold)
  3. Led Zepplin IV by Led Zepplin (23 million copies sold)

Here’s my question for you: Off the top of your head, what record label distributed each album? (No Googling, please.) I have listed the answers at the bottom of this post.* How many did you get right? Only one person in my BEA presentation could name one label. My guess is that this is pretty representative of the culture as a whole.

The bottom line: Not only do you not know, you don’t care. If you own one or all of these albums, it’s not because of the labels. It’s because you like the artist or that particular album.

And if people can’t remember—or don’t care—about the top three albums of all time, what do you think the chances are of them remembering the top ten albums this year? or the top 100? Obviously, the results don’t improve the further you go down the list.

Still not convinced? Let’s look at even a more pervasive form of media: movies. According to IMDb, “the earth’s biggest movie database,” the top three all-time USA box office movies were:

  1. Titanic ($601 million)
  2. Star Wars ($461 million)
  3. Shrek 2 ($436 million)

Here’s my question: Off the top of your ahead—again, no Googling—what company produced each movie?“ I have again listed the answers at the bottom of this post.** How many did you get right this time? Again, of those in my audience at BEA, only two people could get one movie right.

The bottom line is the same as record albums. Not only do you not know, you don’t care. If you went to one or all of these movies, it’s not because of the companies that produced them. It’s because you liked the actors, the storyline, or heard the buzz.

So, clearly, with rare exceptions, consumers don’t care about record labels, film production companies, or imprints. For the most part, they just add irrelevant clutter.

The Retailer Perspective

But what about from the retailer’s perspective? Surely, industry professionals—people in the biz—care about imprints, don’t they? As it turns out, not so much. I have personally met with almost all of our biggest retail accounts in the last year. I can tell you with complete confidence—none of them care.

Don’t get confused at this point. They do care about specific companies. Some really like HarperCollins. Others speak highly of Chronicle books. But all the ones I’ve spoken with think that the imprints under these company ”brands,“ if you will, are just needless clutter. ”Publishers are just talking to themselves,“ one of them commented to me. ”Nobody cares.“

Several months ago, I met with two buyers from one of the biggest bookstore chains in the country. After I had described our plan to eliminate our imprints, she said, ”Imprints add zero value to our business. Thank you for eliminating the clutter.“

All the retailer really wants to know is where he needs to go to order or re-order a title. If he has to think, ”Three Rivers Press … hmmm … is that an imprint of Random House or Penguin?“ As it turns out Three Rivers Press is an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, which is an imprint of Random House.

It’s not bad enough that companies continue to multiply imprints. Now we have imprints giving birth to imprints! Maybe that explains why Random House has more than eight-five separate imprints.

Do retailers, who are already struggling to keep up with hundreds of thousands of books (U.S. publishers released almost 300,000 new titles last year alone), really need more complexity? I would argue they don’t. Anything we can do to simply the business model, takes cost out of the system.

The Author and Agent Perspective

”Well,“ someone may argue, ”authors and agents do care.“ Well, maybe. Of the three groups, this is the one that I’ve found has the most knowledge of and affection for imprints. For those who care, imprints are sometimes like fraternities or sororities. They feel emotionally connected to the imprint.

But even here, I have found that nearly every author and agent is willing to set the imprint aside when they understand that the imprint is really competing for the single most illusive and expensive commodity on the planet today—consumer attention.

Every dollar spent to promote an imprint is a dollar not spent to promote what consumers really care about: authors and topics. Publishers have to get to the point where they are willing to acknowledge, It’s not about them. It’s about the consumer.

Arguably, the imprint at Thomas Nelson that had the most vocal, loyal authors was WestBow Press. Along with Allen Arnold, I was involved in giving birth to this imprint, so I had great affinity and affection for it. Our company was started on 7 West Bow Street in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1798, so it tapped right into the core of our heritage as a publishing company. In addition, it had a really cool logo that connected with authors in all kinds of metaphorical ways.

Recently, Allen said,

With the WestBow name and imprint representing such a clear, strong identity, I expected more push back (or at least grumbling) from authors and agents. Not the case. I was struck by how at the end of the day, authors and agents simply want to be with a world-class, respected publishing house that can demonstrate above-average success via best-sellers and growth for their authors. More than a division imprint with a cool name or a neat logo, they want a team focused on delivering consistent, strategic success.

Summary

The problem is that insiders are often the ones least capable of seeing things from an outside perspective. It’s difficult to get outside of our own paradigms. But it’s imperative if our industry is going to be ready for the brave new world of niches, collaborative creation, and digital distribution. The world is changing, and we must align with it.

Do I think that imprints will entirely disappear? Probably not. But publishers had better have a reason—a very good reason—for keeping them in place. Like the natural world, the market hates inefficiency. If something doesn’t add value, it eventually disappears. I would rather kill these things off intentionally now and focus on what really matters: helping consumers discover relevant content.

Note: This is the last time I plan to write on this. However, while my BEA presentation was fresh on my mind, I thought I would capture the content.


Answers:

*1. Asylum, 2. Epic, and 3. Atlantic.

**1. 20th Century Fox, 2. Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, and 3. DreamWorks.

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  • http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2007/06/when_the_imprin.html Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog

    When the Imprint Isn’t the Brand

    Michael Hyatt’s post entitled Why Imprints Don’t Matter should be required reading for anyone in the publishing business. (It’s also an interesting read for the casual observer or anyone who likes to read books.) He uses this post to explain

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    I have to say, I was sorry for the WestBow imprint to go away. It was a cool name and the little guy with the bow was very hip. He even went Hawaiian once just for me. LOL But I found that when I told anyone I wrote for WestBow, I would add “Thomas Nelson’s fiction imprint” and the light bulb would go off in their eyes.

    You’re right, Mike. I think authors were the only ones who paid attention. Many aspiring authors wanted to write for WestBow because of who they were and the types of books they put out.

    It’s been a good move, I think. Now if you’d even thought about taking my team away, then you would have heard me scream. LOL Allen and the fiction team are the powerhouse behind WestBow and I still have them and you at the head of that world class publishing house. It doesn’t get any better than that.

  • http://camys-loft.blogspot.com/ Camy Tang

    This is an interesting topic. As a reader, I never noticed imprints in mainstream romance unless the imprint had a distinctive design to the covers of all their titles in that imprint, like Zebra Regencies, Signet Regencies, the various imprints under Harlequin/Silhouette.

    But if the covers didn’t have that uniform design pattern, as a reader, I didn’t pay much attention to imprints before I became a writer. I pay much more attention now, but that’s mostly for information on the market, not because I’m interested in any particular imprint over another.

    The decision to get rid of the various Thomas Nelson imprints seems like a good one. Simplicity, right? I don’t quite understand why anyone would fuss about it, especially if it wasn’t their own publishing house.

    Camy

  • http://www.michellesutton.net Michelle Sutton

    When I go to a library or bookstore where there is no distinction between secular and Christian book sections, I figure out that a book was written by a Christian author by checking the imprint. If I see the Waterbrook logo I know what that means. That’s the quickest way for me to find what I want.

    I suppose it would help authors who are trying to sell to the general public and not just sell to a Christian market because in some settings the books will blend together, and unless you know the author, you won’t know what you’re getting until you take it home and read it, or unless God or faith is mentioned on the back cover. But that’s just my take as an avid reader and book addict. I’m sure most people could care less.

  • http://www.noveljourney.blogspot.com Gina H.

    I too was sad to see Westbow’s name go. It was who I dreamed of writing for one day. Why? Because of the quality of the books put out under the imprint. However, I quickly got over it and now I understand why it was done. You explained it well. Thanks so much.

  • Deb Kinnard

    I figure, the multiple-imprint issue was costing money. After all, it does no harm otherwise, so why fix it if it ain’t broke?

    Some bookstores in my area shelve fiction higgledy-piggledy, CBA and ABA mixed together in a big happy group. If I, as a customer, with my 3-seconds-per- potential-purchase to spend on choosing a book, don’t recognize the author, I look next at imprint. Imprint does in fact convey info to me as a buyer. Not being 100% aware of what every single conglomerate offers, if I don’t recognize the imprint or publisher as being me-friendly, I’ll just leave the book on the store shelf.

    I imagine my comment will not find favor because it’s not politically correct–not being totally supportive of whatever the large pubs want to do. But in discussing this, I have put n my constant book-buyer hat, and hung up my writer-chapeau…at least for the moment *G*

  • http://www.goodwordcards.com Peter Enns

    WOW!
    Makes me think. If the title of the book is strong, do I really need a publisher
    with a strong name?

  • Katie

    As a bookstore manager I am really pleased that you have decided to eliminate Thomas Nelson’s imprints. This will greatly help us in so many areas. Ordering and returning products will be a lot easier for the newer employees who aren’t as familiar with the different imprints. Our filing cabinets will be significantly less cluttered. There will be a lot less confusion in our accounting department. I sympathize with those who have attachments to the particular imprints but I am excited to see the change because of the impact that it will have on our business. I hope to see other publishers follow your lead.

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

    Peter,

    You don’t need the publisher for the “name” per se. However, you do need a publisher for (a) access to accounts and (b) fulfillment to those accounts. There are many other things the publisher adds as well.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  • http://marktaber.com Mark Taber

    I was all ready to buy the argument that imprint names don’t mean anything to consumers until I started to read the comments, which seemed to indicate that a few people at least look for imprint brands — whether it’s an imprint name or a cover design or a cool logo — in making an initial evaluation of a book.

    So perhaps it’s not that all imprints are meaningless, but that poorly defined imprints with no strong brand identity in the minds of consumers — that is, to say, most of them — are without value.

    And the imprints that do have a well-cultivated brand identity — e.g., a Penguin for literature, a DK for lavishly illustrated children’s books, a Rough Guide for down-to-earth travel books, an Oxford for language references, or an O’Reilly for high-quality technical books (all examples from my own bookshelves) — really do help consumers make buying decisions. I know they help me — especially when I’m buying a book sight unseen from Amazon or the like.

  • http://www.ashokrchandran.com Ashok R. Chandran

    As a buyer of scholarly books, years before I became an editor, I used to rely on imprints — as an assurance of quality. At a bookstore to buy a bestseller, people do not ask for the imprint, probably because they have by then got the assurance in other ways. But when ‘trying out’ an author, doesn’t imprint matter?

    Or is this fetish for imprint, a peculiarity of scholarly publishing because the authors invariably are also the consumers? I speak from my experience in India.

  • Wambura Kimunyu

    Hmm… I was involved in a discussion on this very subject recently. My take was, well, just the opposite.

    To speak from my experience: There was a time when I had a voracious appetite for literary fiction. I couldn’t get enough of it. Authors in this genre tend not to churn out multiple books within short spans of time so I found myself often in search of more than the best-seller list could provide. Also as time went by, I realised that oftentimes little known authors can churn out some real gems in this genre, if you know where to look.

    The challenge for me then became where to look.

    Over time, I began to distinguish between the different imprints and to have a strong sense of what ‘promise was inherent’ in them. I had a particularly strong affinity for Flamingo Books which (I think) was an imprint of Harper Collins. It came to be that it didn’t matter who the author was, if it was a Flamingo Book, I picked it up because I knew what to expect. I don’t recall ever being disappointed, although that might very well be me nostalgically romanticising a past that is now beyond my reach. But, on the whole, I was a very satisfied customer.

    And then, without warning (to me at least), Flamingo disappeared into thin air! I cannot begin to tell you how disoriented I was. Once upon a time, the editors at Flamingo provided a bridge for me between the known and the unknown. Then all of a sudden, they pulled that bridge right from under me. I do not exaggerate when I say that I went through a personal book-buying crisis.

    I continued to buy the established authors, of course, or books by those authors whose style I’d developed a taste for over the years, but unfortunately, I sampled fewer new authors and sheepishly migrated back to the (grossly inadequate, in my book at least) bestseller list.

    In the interim I have wandered into new genres as well as attempted to develop cautious new relationships with the other literary imprints that were long ago in the shadows of Flamingo, at least in my eyes.

    But still, as I see it, if you’re an avid reader, you’re going to want to read more than what’s on the bestseller list in the genre of your choice. Sooner or later, you’ll go searching for the hidden gems. When that time comes, imprints, (if they are successfully executed and not just pulled out of a hat, you understand), are the guiding posts to the treasure coves where those gems are to be found.

    And, if the longtail is the future of the book business, then imprints are going to matter more, not less. So I think the conversation should not be about whether they should exist or not, but about what would be/is the right way to execute them. Because sometimes i have a sense that publishers come up with an imprint because, well, that’s what we do right? Although I think in the long run the market has a way of telling these publishers what to do with their imprints.