Imprints in the 21st Century
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.
The difficulty for publishers, as readers of mine know, because I’ve written and spoken about it repeatedly, is that the “horizontal” infrastructure that has supported a general, subject-non-specific book publishing program for decades is disintegrating. General trade publishers have thrived for years on a “book-centric” ecosystem of intermediaries that reached the audiences with information about their books and the books themselves. The most important component of the ecosystem was, of course, bookstores. When I came into the business in the 1970s, there were easily 1500 or 2000 stops worth making to sell a general trade list besides the two big national chains and two big national wholesalers. Now there might not be 200. And the number is not growing.
What that means is that publishers increasingly have to reach their audiences directly through the Internet or through other channels that are not book -specific, but are subject-specific. Despite the growth of book-conversation-centric sites like Shelfari, Goodreads, and LibraryThing, that means finding people through niches of interest. Those niches might even be literary genres. But the promotion mechanisms aren’t for “books” so much anymore as they are for very specific genres of books or for subjects, and books are just part of the conversation. It’s hard work finding the subject-specific conversations in which a book can be promoted; we doubt most general trade publishers have the resources to locate them for each book, one at a time.
And what all that means is that the imprints that matter in the 21st century have to mean something to consumers, not to intermediaries. Which brings us back to what HarperCollins just announced.
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. No doubt the buyers at B&N, the collection builders at major public libraries, and the newspaper book editors that remain on their jobs, will “get” the connection among the books. They’ll expect Twittering, and smart use of Facebook, and, in general, books with “attitude.” But this isn’t focused enough to be marketed efficiently in an internet world . Pop culture is many niches. Sports is many niches. Style is many niches.
And “content derived from the internet”? It’s cool, and it comes with its own net platform (presumably.) 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. The web sites publicists find to post on, the “followers” they get from Twitter, the email addresses they get from a book promotion, will not translate into “equity” that can be used on the next book and the one after that.
There is clearly something about being a big general trade publisher that makes this hard to see, just as there is something about being a focused small publisher that makes it come naturally. For example, see Chelsea Green, a publisher based in Vermont whose focus is “the politics and practice of sustainable living.” Their marketing costs per book will go down over time as they gather larger and larger audiences that will be interested in most of what they publish. Another good example is Hay House, a mind-body-spirit publisher. These publishers, like Harlequin, have brands that mean something clear to consumers. And the same consumers can be sold book after book from these houses.
General trade publishers need to see, and apparently don’t, that their legacy brands are B2B. They should be exploited that way. They need brands that can work B2C, but it will require discipline, focus, and an audience-first picture of what to publish to accomplish that. This new imprint is not a step in the right direction, toward the future. While the intent is modern, the editors are tech-savvy, and the feeling is “hip”, the strategy is past tense.