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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