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.”


(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.


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.


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

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

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