The Shatzkin Files


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.

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  • http://versoadvertising.com Tom Thompson

    Mike, thank you for this essential post for publishers. We developed the Verso Reader Channels precisely because of the shifting dynamics you write about. The Reader Channels is a hyper-targeted, vertical ad network specifically designed for book publishers that reaches out to 100-500 subject-specific sites per channel. With 15 channels available now, from military history to food & wine to parenting, the Reader Channels have quickly become integral components of marketing campaigns for niche titles and NYT bestselling blockbusters alike. It’s worth noting that while the industry has been slow off the mark historically, the Channels’ success suggests that many publishers, large and small, are indeed beginning to think along these new lines. You can find out more here: http://versoadvertising.com/verso_readerchannels.html

    • http://www.idealog.com/ Mike Shatzkin

      Tom, your presentation is very interesting and I think publishers should take it on board. Ideally, I’d be using your research in a different way, to do PR rather than advertising. But you are performing an essential service by organizing the web into sensible niches and, until the day comes that publishers organize themselves to conform to Web reality (not about to happen with the biggest ones anytime soon), they’d be well advised to look into what you have to offer. Thanks for the post.

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  • http://versoadvertising.com Tom Thompson

    Yes, Mike, I think you’re right about the potential for publicity here. I also think the walls between “publicity” and “marketing” silos are disappearing. To take advantage of this, we’re developing a geo-targeting component that should further refine these channels as publicity tools rather than a strictly traditional “advertising” device, making them effective on a market by market basis (to support local readings, for example, or spread word about a book’s particular, regional relevance).

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  • Marcus Leaver

    Imprints in the late twentieth century in publishing became internal organisational principles within some houses. We have all been slow to change and for the most part, have not. But we certainly need to. With the proximity to the end consumer now radically compacted we need to mean something, not as publishers but as intellectual property generators (sorry, not being hugely articulate), to all users on all levels in all channels. What I mean by this is authenticity. Generality no longer cuts it. Is It it? No, It is another organizing principle. Discipline, focus, an audience-first picture and HUMILITY may get us Publishers where we need to get to.

  • http://www.di2.nu/blog.htm FrancisT

    Add Baen to the list of specialist publishers who get it… (and Tor for that matter)

    I occasionally get confused by Tor imprints but they’ve got the basic idea right. And the overall ‘Tor’ness helps. Similar I think to the Harlequin imprints where you know perfectly well that Luna is Romance with Fantasy/SF , Spice is erotica etc. and that all are Harlequin.

    [Baen doesn't have any imprints and actually could benefit from splitting its output into a few easily recognizable categories (Baen Hard SF, Baen Military Sf, Baen Fantasy ...) ]

    • http://www.idealog.com/ Mike Shatzkin

      Of course, the companies that are niche-y to begin with (Tor and Harlequin being two) have a really focused view of their markets and can distinguish the niches within the overall category that they’re in. This would be even more dramatic with crafts or history, to pick two completely different subjects. The knitter doesn’t do beading and the Civil War buff could care less about the Renaissance. Publishers today work within store merchandising categories, primarily, which was a totally sensible way to think about it in the 20th century.

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  • Elaina

    Mike, I’m an M. Litt student in Publishing Studies in Scotland and this is precisely what I’ve been saying as the main focus of my dissertation. I’m looking at branding in the publishing industry and Harlequin/Mills and Boon was one of the examples that immediately came to mind as having a coherent and recognisable brand that means something to consumers. I’ll have a look at your examples too.

    I’m glad to see someone with your experience in the industry shares my view!

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  • http://dingbatpublishingblog.blogspot.com/ Dingbat
    • http://www.idealog.com/ Mike Shatzkin

      Your post definitely acknowledges the problem. What would add power to your argument would be citing a brand like Harlequin, which does what a brand must do: fulfill a “promise” to the consumer. Their readers know what to expect and “trust” the brand. Whether it would work in the ways you’re suggesting is not a slam dunk, but it sure is a step in the right direction.

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