The Shatzkin Files

Should trade publishers start ditching their B2B imprints for a B2C world?

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I spent last Friday at the On Copyright 2012 conference staged by my clients at Copyright Clearance Center. CCC is an organization dedicated to generating revenue for content creators from what is referred to as “secondary” licensing, or uses that are not core to the publisher’s revenue stream and which are often impossible to manage from an individual publisher’s point of view. CCC has the interests of copyright-holders at heart and at the core of their enterprise, but they also live on the cutting edge of digital content consumption where mash-ups, fair use, and the reality that piracy often happens because rights are too difficult to license can’t be avoided.

I’ll admit that discussions of the nuances of copyright itself leave me mostly befogged. Fortunately, this event was much more about the practicalities of the marketplace than about the theories of the law.

The most engaging and interesting speaker of the day was Robert Levine, author of “Free Ride”, an analysis of content and the Internet that deeply questions the increasingly ingrained notion that getting paid for content is inherently contradictory with the growth of digital media. Levine is smart and open-minded about content models and DRM and piracy and enforcement. Indeed, one of the noteworthy features of the entire day was its willingness to entertain notions that might be considered heretical by copyright and old model zealots.

In fact, Maja Thomas, the chief digital thinker and strategist for Hachette Book Group USA, opened the door just a bit to the idea that DRM on ebooks might be counterproductive (at worst) or futile (at best). Maja’s background is extensive in audiobooks. She told the conference that she had been assigned to monitor the destruction of her audio business when DRM was removed from those products a few years ago. And, in fact, there was no destruction!

When the program ended, I dashed down to the front to introduce myself to Levine. He knew me before I said my name and “reminded” me that he had interviewed me during his research for his book. (Somebody else later told me, “oh yes, you’re in there.” I’ll have to read it…) I don’t know whether to blame the fact that my memory for these details is a sieve or that I do an interview or two a week with somebody about something and am seldom called upon to remember them later.

What triggered further thoughts for me (and, ultimately, the point to this post) was a discussion in that last panel, chaired by Michael Healy and including Levine and Thomas, about branding. There was a reprise of the frequent (and mostly accurate) meme that author brands are the ones that matter to consumers, not publisher names, with rare exceptions such as Harlequin.

I think that could be changing. Certainly the circumstances around it are. As publishers are challenged to think about and articulate the value they bring to the process, they often cite curation (publishing just the good stuff and filtering out all the inferior stuff) and editorial development (helping the author improve the work before it is published) as significant contributions. Thomas seemed to suggest that a lot of thinking is going into articulating a publisher’s value at her shop.

I have said for some time that the core value proposition for a trade publisher is “we put books on shelves.” That’s looking at it from the author’s point of view. From the consumer perspective, the curation function is seen to be performed by the bookstore and the hurdles that stores create to getting on those shelves assure that only well-conceived and well-edited books make it there. (There have always been exceptions, of course.) As the shelves for print books diminish and are replaced by virtual shelves that are not nearly so limited, books that might not have made the selection grade in a physical world are sharing space with the carefully (and expensively) selected and edited works of major houses.

And that brings us back to branding. Brands are shortcuts for their users, telling them in a name what they can expect from a product or service they haven’t sampled yet.

Publishing brands until the digital era were really shortcuts for the trade, not for the consumer. The buyers at chain and independent bookstores, the collection development team at libraries, and the editors of major book review media all believe they understand the difference between a Farrar Straus or Knopf book and one from a “lesser” house. That figures into the “hurdles” I cite above. Top publishing imprints found it easier to get placement and reviews and get their books in front of the purchasing public.

That fact (alongside the fact that big publishers grew by acquisition of smaller companies and often would preserve the name of the company they bought, which is how Knopf ends up a Random House imprint and Scribners is an imprint at Simon & Schuster, to cite two of far more examples than you’d care for me to name) started the proliferation of imprints we now see. It has been fueled by publishers’ use of imprints as way to attract and award top acquisition talent.

Imprints have dedicated editorial teams and usually some internal marketing resources, but their value as identities is diminishing. The point to them was always to provide useful branding for business intermediaries, not the end consumer. And, as they proliferate, their value for their original B2B purpose is diluted.

(It is currently fashionable to castigate publishers for their focus on the supply chain rather than the end purchaser. This fashion, along with the totally ignorant bashing of the convention of “returns”, is based on apparent indifference to the history and development of the business. When the entire imprint structure of publishing houses is built around B2B brand recognition and has been built up that way over a century, you’d think people would think twice before being reflexively dismissive of the B2B focus. It is really only recent developments that have turned it into a questionable idea.)

But times really have changed. Attention on the end user is rising; the intermediary structure is declining. And publishers should be rethinking their branding strategies, at the core of which are imprints, as they address the emerging marketplace realities.

Publishers seem to recognize that the competitive statement they need to make going forward is about quality, expertise, and investment in professional support for the creative effort. This will distinguish theirs from the swelling mass of self-published books which are usually sorted out today by their pricing. On the agency model, the Big Six books are $9.99 to $14.99 (a few bucks cheaper on the backlist) while the self-published books cluster around a band centered at $2.99.

That may actually work, for now. But what if big publishers want to compete at the lower price points but still make a “quality” statement? And some indie writers are trying to nudge pricing up a bit while publishers are experimenting with bringing them down, so what if we start to see both indie and branded ebooks in the $5.99 range? Can the big publishers do anything that would help them then?

I think they can, but it will be require a decision that is painful to make, considering their history. They should, for the most part, get rid of their imprints. They should brand every general trade book they publish for quality and professionalism, and that only requires one name per major house and could never benefit from more than two.

That is, knowing that a book is from the Random House family of books is all the quality branding the consumer needs. They don’t benefit from from the more nuanced distinctions between Crown and Knopf, and Random House scatters its consumer firepower to its disadvantage trying to establish multiple names in the consumer mind. (In fact, I’m not sure the big houses even try to establish all these imprints as consumer brands. If they’ve already abandoned that effort, they’ve taken the first step in the direction I’m trying to encourage here.)

If this idea is right, then each Big Six house should select one name (and logically, the single best known name they now have among consumers would be the most sensible choice), or perhaps two, and promote it. (The second name might make sense if there is an imprint already known for “quality”, like Farrar Straus or Knopf.) No other name should be promoted to consumers unless it is establishing a clear niche identity (Fodor travel books or science fiction, as examples). There’s no point establishing brand identity unless you expect consumers to return to it repeatedly, the way they return to stores to buy reading material.

Consumers can’t keep dozens of imprint names straight in their heads, but they can learn the names of six big houses, particularly if they’re starting with names they already know. Like the possibility that Random House should preserve the brand equity in Knopf in addition to building Random House as the general trade imprint, there are nuances to consider in other houses to best implement this strategy.

For example, should Penguin perhaps restrict the use of the Penguin name to classics and established backlist and use something different (Viking?) for everything else? Penguin, because of its publishing history, means something to some people, although I’d argue that not restricting the use of the imprint name to classics and the most distinguished backlist actually dilutes the meaning it might have.

Should Hachette, a name that probably has very low recognition to US consumers as a quality book imprint, be ditched as the brand? Should the company use Little Brown, the most venerable and best known of its imprint names, even though it has created an internal distinction between LB and its relatively new (and therefore mostly unknown to consumers) Grand Central imprint?

What’s the best known name the company now known as Macmillan has? Is it Macmillan? Or is it St. Martin’s or Henry Holt? Farrar Straus might have a cachet worth preserving at the high end, but it would be diluted if it were the overall brand. I suspect that should be Macmillan, but that’s not what they’ve ever called their books; it is just what they have recently started to call their company!

America’s biggest consumers of books can readily remember a few company names to signifying “quality”, and perhaps a few more to mean premium content. Knowing a book comes from an established company with a long list of previously-published titles that book readers are familiar with is the kind of signal people need to be persuaded to part with a few additional bucks for an otherwise unknown author. But that’s all we can ask the brand to do: signal professionalism and quality. The much more nuanced distinctions that the imprint names have been intended to communicate within the trade can’t possibly be delivered cogently to the public at large.

And since the public is now the brand target that matters, it is time to align brand strategy and the brands themselves to that reality.

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  • I agree with about 80% of this post. I do think that genre imprints benefit from imprint-level branding and smart genre imprints have been marketing directly to consumers – not just bookstores and the supply chain – for years.

    • The benchmark, as I tried to say, is whether you expect consumers to return to the brand repeatedly. That would make sense in some fiction genres. This post is aimed at Big Six publishers and their near kin.


      • Not sure it’s sufficient to market direct if you don’t sell direct as well. Amazon has a pick axe ready for knee-capping if pub’s go that route, I’m guessing.

  • Barry Eisler

    Mike, thanks for yet-another engaging and thought-provoking post.
    I agree that legacy publishers would do well to develop a direct-to-consumer marketing capability, but I don’t think trying to brand themselves around “quality” is going to be a useful part of it.  The notion of “quality” might be necessary for a strong brand, but I don’t think it’s sufficient — at least I can’t think of any strong consumer brands that denote “quality” and nothing much more.  A denotation of “quality” without more isn’t really a brand at all, and is more akin to a Good Housekeeping Seal or Underwriters Laboratories Seal.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only strong consumer brands in publishing are for focused markets:  Harlequin for romance; Tor for science fiction; Fodor’s for travel.  A publisher that tries for a brand more widely applicable than that is likely to come up with mush, and I think they’d be better advised to band together and develop the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal or UL Approved designation.  Call it the Legacy Publisher Imprimatur, or LPI.  Only approved books would carry it, presumably in exchange for a premium price.  It would fulfill the same trust/shortcut function as a good brand, but without any of the emotional cathecting that a real brand involves.

    Anyway, FWIW, and thanks again.

    • Barry, there is no functional difference between your Good Housekeeping or UL idea and mine. The public can remember six big brands just as readily as GH or UL. And, thanks to the current climate, a joint effort such as you describe would be a legal-political non-starter.


      • Barry Eisler

        Mike, I agree that we’re talking about the same objectives, but I also think it’s important to note that if something does nothing more than denote “quality,” it’s not really a brand.  Brands involve differentiation (Volvo is safety; Porsche is speed), and your proposal for the Big Six is that they each create a “brand” that stands for the same indistinguishable thing.  If all six companies in an industry stand for the same thing, whatever that thing is, it’s not really a brand.

        That said, I understand your point — that at a high level the Big Six shouldn’t be trying to distinguish themselves from each other, but instead to distinguish themselves collectively from everybody else.  Maybe an example better than my reference to Volvo and Porsche would be Del Monte green beens vs the store brand.  I don’t know what Del Monte stands for, other than that it’s a relatively familiar name for consumers and so they might be willing to pay a premium for it.  Ditto aspirin, mouthwash, and other relatively interchangeable items you can find on a grocery store shelf.  The big company brands don’t really stand for anything except for “We’ve been around for a while, therefore you can trust us, and your confidence is worth a small price premium.”

        The question, I guess, is whether books are amenable to the same kind of simultaneously broad and minimalist branding exercise as green beens and aspirin.  If so, maybe legacy publishers can each develop some sort of designation that will, regardless of whether there’s a real basis for it, distinguish the quality of their offerings from those of self-published authors.  For the reasons several other commenters have noted, though, I don’t think it’ll be easy.  I agree with the comments here suggesting that if publishers want to develop real, effective brands, they need to think focused, not broad.  And if all they aspire to is a denotation of quality relative to non-legacy published books, they should have their lawyers check applicable antitrust laws and consider an industry-wide Legacy Publisher Seal of Quality, akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal.  I’m no anti-trust expert, but I don’t know of any aspect of applicable law such an exercise would violate.

        No matter what they do, publisher branding is apt be an uphill battle.  Until people start seeing movies based on which studio financed production, or listening to music based on which label produced an album, I expect whatever brand a publisher might develop will be eclipsed by that of the author.  I agree that legacy publishing has always been primarily about paper distribution — what you nicely call getting books on shelves.  Absent that, I don’t think consumers will ever care all that much about a broad publisher brand like Random House etc., though I could be wrong, too.

      • Travis Young

        Well, to use your movies example, I’m more likely to see an interchangeable action film produced by Lionsgate then say, Fox, because, in my experience, they (lionsgate) care about storytelling, or at least interesting art a little more then big explosions and one liners.

        I’m also more likely to buy a scifi book from Tor (Macmillan) then Baen (Simon & Schuster) for the same reason.  

        Also, when I worked at a bookstore had an easier time selling the same author, writing the same books, when they were with a publisher who did more/better marketing, or better covers.  I might be a rarer customer in that I could probably match about 80% of imprints to publishers off the top of my head, but…

      • Your last comment stamps you as a rare customer indeed.

        But, just for your info. Macmillan owns Tor, but S&S only distributes Baen. Either way, your imprint observations are of value to you.

        Remember that I said imprints matter when you expect people to return to them to purchase again. So, in true niches, smaller imprint branding does make sense. It just makes no sense for *general trade*.


      • Barry, there is one *huge* hole in your analogy between publisher brands and Del Monte because there’s a much bigger difference between *most* self-published
        books and *most* professionally published books than there is between Del Monte and the store brand.* *But, despite that, the Del Monte branding does enable charging a higher price. So, thanks for your example. I think it * really* proves my point.


      • Barry Eisler

        Hah!  Well, I wouldn’t say it proves your point, though I did offer it in support.  Because even if we’re right about Del Monte, a big question remains:  for purposes of this kind of minimalist branding, are books like beans?  As you note elsewhere in the comments, this is something difficult to measure, but I think we’re going to find out.

        Anyway, thanks again, Mike, not just for the original thought-provoking post, but for all the follow-up engagement, too.  Hugely enjoyable and informative, even when (maybe especially when) we don’t see eye to eye!


      • Seeing eye to eye is far less important to this blogger than encouraging an intelligent discussion. Truly hearty thanks to you and all the other smart people who join the conversation here. I feel like I’ve “curated” a very high-IQ readership!


    • I think this is right, Barry, but also not sufficient from a customer point of  view. I think the main challenge in branding publishers (or imprints) is that the customer doesn’t care who published it, they care if it suites their needs. Now if Fodor’s marketed other pub’s travel content, and retailed it, you might have something. But, then there’s the problem of Amazon and what publishers’ kneecaps would look like if they went into direct sales in a meaningful way. I don’t see this direction as a way out.

      • I agree that people don’t choose books by imprint. But if you’re deciding between two novels between unknown writers and one of them is branded by a “real” publishing house, that could tip the scales. That’s the point I’m trying to make here, which I believe aligns with the real branding challenge and opportunity publishers are beginning to face.


      • I’ve already mentioned this in a comment to another Shatzkin Files blog post, but last year at a family reunion I asked the husband of a cousin — a guy with a Nook who reads a lot of science fiction — what publishers he reads, and I specifically mentioned Tor.  He had no idea who publishes anything he reads.

        A small sample, I confess.  But Amazon’s success peddling cheap ebooks of unknown provenance requires us to accept that readers like my cousin’s husband are not uncommon.

        What I *should* have asked him is how he chooses what he buys.  Is it based on price?  Reader reviews?  Both?  We should bear in mind that shopping for a sci-fi ebook is infinitely easier than shopping for a printed book in a bookstore.  It it proves to be lousy the buyer likely spent 5 minutes browsing from the kitchen or bedroom and paid $3.99 or less.  Lower hurdles reduce expectations.

        I agree with Mike that shopping for a George Washington bio will give the edge to one published by Random House over one published by a retired farmer from Nebraska, but that could change.  If the retired farmer from Nebraska becomes, say, a Tea Party favorite he could sell thousands despite his sloppy research and questionable claims.

        I wonder, too, about how the putative average ebook reader feels about “quality” in general.  Do they respond negatively to plentiful typos and sloppy sentence construction the way I do, or does that low low price cover a multitude of sins?

        In the end I admit I’m not a branding optimist.  Does anyone care which studio made the movie s/he wants to see?  I’m not sure it’s any different with books, or that Random House has any better chance than 20th Century Fox.

      • Right. Most people have no clue about who publishes what. But professional versus amateur is a new issue. That’s why I’m suggesting a new approach.

  • I’m going to agree with Barry, here. Let me explain:

    McDonalds is a success because, with very few exceptions, the customer experience is identical everywhere. They’re an exceptional brand because a burger bought in Idaho tastes about the same as a burger in Maine, and the service style is very close to identical as well.

    Likewise, certain imprints have done an *exceptional* job retaining a singular editorial voice throughout there work. Baen is a brand not because the name is well known, but because someone who likes one Baen book is likely to enjoy most if not all Baen books. Harlequin is famous for having a massive variety of imprints (or “series”), each one with a distinct editorial voice and tone: if you like one Harlequin Nocturne, odds are good you’ll enjoy most of them.

    “Penguin” is almost useless as a fiction brand, because they produce such a wide variety of products that the consumer has no idea, from the name alone, if they will enjoy the book or not. So instead, fiction readers rely on author names.

    Brands only work when the brand produces a consistent, reliable experience for the end user. The lack of same among major publishers is the primary reason why they do not have effective brands today.

    In short, removing imprints is probably the *worst* thing they could do.

    Instead, I’d suggest they open new imprints. A lot of them. I’d centralize things like accounting, book production, art, etc, across the company. But I’d follow in Harlequin’s lead and run up a few score imprints, each connected to the big company in a way which still lets the line carry that big company’s “oomph” for bookstores – but divided in such a way that the reader knows that if they liked ONE book from the “Penguin X Imprint” line, they’d likely enjoy pretty much everything else from that line.

    It’s the reason author brands are primary in fiction today: consistency of reader experience is king. Publishers cannot build effective brands without that (in fiction and other consumer books – for certain other classes of books, it’s a very different story, of course).

    • It takes a certain minimum amount of effort to establish a brand. Proliferating them, except in very tight niches, would be futile.

      I specified a *very* limited agenda for the big brands: to establish that they are about big company quality. That’s it. If there’s a point to distinguishing “professionally published” books from “self-” or “indie”, that’s the way to do it. I think there will be a point to doing that; there might be now. If there is such a point, my idea is valid.

      I already acknowledged that niche brands to which you want people to return (Fodor’s, Tor) make sense. This is about branding general trade.


      • If I am reading this right, you’re postulating that major publishers could present themselves as being worth more because they represented a higher level of quality than “all those other books”.

        The problem is that for consumer books, “worth” and “quality” are highly personal. The book “Twilight” was in the top 10 most loved and most hated books on Goodreads – at the same time! One could very easily find a million devoted readers who would swear it was the best book ever, and another million who would swear it was the worst trash ever published.

        That’s an extreme example, but it is a good demonstration of the problem publishers face in branding. To one reader, a given novel is high quality – to another, that same book is garbage they think should never have been printed. Building a brand name in consumer books which is anything but niche is problematic, perhaps impossible.

        You postulate that the problem with publisher branding is that there are too many publisher names for avid readers to remember them all and associate them with quality. I don’t think that’s the case: avid readers readily remember the names of *scores* of their favorite writers. It’s not the numbers that make publisher branding hard: it’s the lack of a unified editorial voice and focus, the lack of *consistency* (from a reader’s point of view) in the enjoyment they get from reading books from a given imprint.

        Quality, to a reader of consumer books, is “how much did I enjoy this book”. Unless that is consistent, branding is impossible, and a perception of consistent quality will not exist.

      • Kevin, you’re looking for the branding to accomplish more than I think it can or will.

        Let me try it this way.

        I don’t think the imprints that publishers have now, in their proliferation, accomplish *anything* with the consumer. Only a few names are widely known; the rest could be called XYZ Publishing for all they mean to most people. I am also limiting my concern here to “general trade” books; those that don’t fit into a branded niche like Tor or Fodor’s.

        Increasingly, the challenge for publishers will be to signal people “this is a book put out by an organization with resources and a long professional history” not “this is a book I decided to publish myself because my mother told me it was really good”. On a virtual shelf, the two are hard to distinguish. I’m trying to solve *that* problem, not any other.


      • More than it can? In several niches and in general Christian fiction, it does.

        I still prefer Bethany House books to other Christian fiction. Why? Because I know that it will meet a very specific set of standards for me. I dislike the Revell imprint because I can depend on it NOT meeting my characterization standards. They all have a similar feel. Sometimes, I can just look at a book’s cover and guess which imprint it comes from.

        I keep lines straight in my head very well. And what happens when self-publishers have built their PUBLISHING brands?

        I agree thoroughly with Kevin. Branding can only do what you make it do, but every brand can choose what it becomes known for, even editorial consistency.

      • If you stick to reading within genres, and you obviously do, the nichier formula works.

        I was talking about “general trade” books, which is where the branding by imprint today doesn’t make a lot of sense.


      • Liana Mir

        Christian fiction covers all genres, including general trade. The only difference is that it’s Christian. Christian is NOT a niche; it’s a separate side of the industry.

      • There are definitely niches *within* Christian.


      • The problem is that Random House, Penguin, and all the rest ARE “XYZ Publisher”, as far as most readers are concerned.

        The publishing name has historically *not* been a mark of quality, because readers don’t care if the publisher has been around for a hundred years or a hundred minutes; nor does the reader care if the publishing company has ten million dollars or ten in the bank.Readers simply care about one thing, for consumer books: will I enjoy this book? THAT is quality, to a reader. Nothing else matters.

        If the answer is not consistently a yes, then that publisher does not produce consistent high quality books – from the reader’s perspective.

        Every book a publisher produces which does not appeal to a given reader dilutes that publisher’s brand to that reader. Because most major publishers produce some books which appeal to a given person but other books which will not, they have very weak brands.

        Imprints which have a very narrow editorial focus, on the other hand, have very effective brands. As has been pointed out a few times, Harlequin’s imprints and lines are excellent examples.

        Focus and specialization create branding and a perception of quality. The more broad the books a publisher or imprint releases, the weaker their brand will become to consumers.

      • Kevin, I have really answered what you’re saying repeatedly already.

        I think it is a short answer to your last point. “Depends on what the brand is trying to accomplish.” I’m talking about a distinction that *never had to be made before*! There will be “known reputable” publishers and there will be “everybody else.” The big guys have the resources to avoid being “everybody else” if they focus them.


      • What I’m saying is, I don’t believe it is possible for publishers to generate such a distinction without specializing. The only publisher brands which have any meaning at all to readers are those of specialized imprints.

        There’s a reason for that.

      • OK. One more time. People looking for general reading will increasingly be choosing between self-published books and professionally published books. Only with familiar brands will they be able to tell the difference. In niches, the familiar brands might be niche brands. But, in general, the purposes of big publishers is *not served* by trying to establish multiple general brands.

        It seems to me like such a simple point, but I am obviously having a hard time getting it across.


      • I wonder if part of the confusion here is that quality is in the eye of the beholder not the content creator or publisher (when they’re not the same). I wonder if a new type of intermediarywill spring up, one that will deliver value to readers by discerning/delivery quality within genre while delivering value to content creators in the form of paying readers.

      • I think it is up to each reader to decide whether big publishers add value or not. They clearly think they do. If they believe that, they should brand that. If enough readers agree (and I actually think they do, but nobody knows), they’ll benefit.

        Your point about a new kind of intermediary is certainly surfacing a real possibility.


      • You’re assuming there is such a thing as a general brand, or a general reader. I don’t believe there is any such thing.

        Each reader has specific tastes. Each reader has specific types of books s/he will enjoy. Each reader seeks out that type of experience from reading.

        Effective book brands are those which easily tell the reader “this is YOUR type of book”.

        Readers do not care who published a book.

        Readers do not care how long the publisher has been in business.

        Readers do not care if the publisher is in NYC or not.

        Readers of consumer books care about ONE thing above all others: will I derive enjoyment from reading this book?

        The only effective brand is one which assures the reader that is so.

        NO other branding can be effective in publishing.

      • That post is one of the most startling demonstrations of “proof by assertion” I have ever seen. It is mostly sweeping generalizations about things which are pretty difficult to measure and, as such, is pretty much impossible to contend with point by point. I won’t try.

        What you say is true. What you say is also not universally true. I pick my baseball history reading with great knowledge. I pick my fiction reading with very little. And I don’t hear about my fiction in any systematic way. I get on an author and read eight of their books. The next one I get onto might be a different genre. I have tried out self-published authors because I heard about them. In John Locke’s case, I read several because I liked them. That hasn’t happened with any other fiction author for me.

        So for fiction, I’m as general as a reader can be (and I’m good for 10 or 15 thrillers or novels a year — loved 11/22/63!). I am for American history too, where I definitely know that a major biography of George Washington from Penguin is something an author spent a million bucks and no self-published one would be.

        Attention. I readily acknowledge that the following statement is an assertion based on faith, not fact:

        Those of us who pay a lot of attention to all this aren’t most of the market. Most books are read by people who benefit a great deal by
        suggestions and brands. Most people don’t systematically learn about new
        authors as quickly as they need them to fill up their reading lives.
        They’ll need signals they don’t need now. That’s why losing bookstores is
        such a big deal.


      • Kevin O. McLaughlin

        Why would readers “need signals” they don’t get now?

        How is scanning your favorite genre online different from scanning on a bookshelf? If you want mystery, you click that genre instead of scanning that rack. If you want recent releases, you check the box for “released in the last ninety days. Want best reviewed, most popular, cheapest, or best-selling? Online, the bookstore tools can sort all of that. Want everything an author has available? It does that. Want to find books about dragons in contemporary fantasy published in the last thirty days and sorted by reviewer rating? It’s a few clicks away. Want to know what other folks who bought the last book you bought also purchased? It’s there on the screen.

        I cannot think of a single manner in which brick bookstores are superior to online ones in discoverability for books. There might be some; but I can’t think of any.

        Last note. Thinking about proof by assertion. If publishers did try to differentiate themselves from indie books with claims of curation and superior quality product, would that not also be proof by assertion? Saying something is so, as you have correctly pointed out, does not make it true.

      • To your last question, the proof wouldn’t be in the assertion but in the consumer behavior. Do people respond to having the distinction made clear by gravitating to the “branded” books? I think they would, but you’re right that the assertion itself doesn’t make it true.

        Two answers on the discovery question. One is factual. Codex, which does research on this kind of thing and is presenting at our Pub Launch conference at BEA on precisely this topic, can tell you for sure that people who buy online most likely do it knowing what they want before they buy. People who buy in stores are far more likely to make a “discovery” in the store. So it might be *possible* to discover as well online as in a store, but people, so far, *don’t*.

        The other is conjectural. As people are browsing virtual stacks, where the curation process didn’t weed out the books that either didn’t have the distribution muscle or the buyer appeal to get shelved, they might like to know which are the ones from the establishment publishers, or curators. I think they will. This is a signal they will need increasingly as the bookstores fade.


      • Mike, thinking about this more. I do understand what you’re trying to say. I just don’t think it’s something publishers can effectively implement, at least not as you’re describing it.

        You said people “will increasingly be choosing between self-published books and professionally published books. Only with familiar brands will they be able to tell the difference.”

        It’s not *familiar* brands which are key. It’s brands which are both familiar and *useful* to the reader.

        Random House is a familiar brand. Most readers will be at least vaguely familiar with the name.

        But Random House is not a *useful* brand, because it doesn’t tell the reader anything about whether or not they’ll like a given book with that branding.

        Brands are only powerful when they are both well known and impart useful information about the product being branded.

        For readers of consumer books, again, “useful” is completely tied up in “will I like this book”.

        Publishers could probably make their brands more familiar by absorbing imprints. But they would become less useful at the same time, less meaningful to the reader, and therefore such a move would actually hurt the publishers doing it.

        Yes, publishers are going to need to push back against self published brands, which are growing more powerful daily.

        No, they can’t do that by making their brand *less* useful to a given reader who is trying to determine if a book is something they want to read.

        Make sense?

      • Kevin, Random House *is* a useful brand if what you’re trying to determine is whether you’re choosing something that has some minimum standard of professionalism applied to it. Imagine it were a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, rather than a novel. And you could choose another biography of Theodore Roosevelt by some publisher you never heard of. Dollars to donuts the other one is some reprint of some old thing from 70 years ago and you * know* the Random House one isn’t.

        I think that distinction, in the aggregate, will apply to more and more decisions as bookstores disappear.


      • You really need to fix the threading on your comments, Mike. =)  Gets down to about a word wide far too fast. =)

        A bio of Roosevelt is not being purchased for entertainment; it’s being purchased for information.As such, yes, absolutely, having a “known” brand behind the work can matter. By the same token, I’d buy a marketing book self published by Seth Godin before I’d buy one published by someone I’d never heard of through Random House.

        Books bought for information are a  place where publisher curation still shines, and is unlikely to go away as quickly.

        But even there, we’ve already seen the results of crowdsourced vetting of information: it works. Wikipedia has basically won the encyclopedia war against Brittanica. In many ways, that’s a mirror of the self published crowd-vetted nonfiction book against the trade published book on the same topic.

        Once tools exist to better allow reader curation of information type books., I believe the majority of that role will move to crowdsourcing.

      • “Focus and specialization create branding and a perception of quality.” Think of UPS. Brown delivers. Nothing fancy. But you trust them to do what they do and they do it well. A package left Shanghai Friday and was delivered to a customer’s door on Monday. Amazing. Focus is on delivering the package. Perception of quality is that I trust their ability to make it happen. How do they do it. Who cares?

      • “How” is almost definitely among the brand characteristics that matters least to most consumers…


  • Great post, modest as you say. What I’d like to see is how anybody is going to wrestle that borzoi from Sonny Mehta’s mitts.

  • Wendy Steothman

    Interesting. I agree with much of this, but it assumes that every house maintain quality, a debatable assumption. And unfortunately, the distinctive personalities and interests of individual publishers have gone the way of the buggy whip in the pursuit of the brand name authors…Wendy Strothman

    • I am not assuming that every house will maintain quality, but I am going to assume that each house *believes* that “quality” is part of their value add.

      And I think the big distinction here is between books that are published by an established company that invests money and professionalism in their products and those done as self-published efforts.


  • Bob Mayer

    Hmm.  I almost think the opposite.  Use Harlequin as an example.  People DO walk into the bookstore and say “give me the next Blaze”.  They don’t care who wrote it.  They know what they’re getting.

    The first thing readers look for are authors they like.  Then?  Types of books they like to read.

    Should publishers consider grouping similar genres into imprints?  Then group those authors into aggregates for their blogs and social media?

    Tor doesn’t even really mean science fiction as I’ve had thrillers published under that imprint.  But if we had Tor MilSifi for example, where all the military science fiction is grouped from Tor, wouldn’t that help readers?  The argument against that is the same Random House used to publish my Area 51 series under Dell and not their science fiction imprint, so it would get racked in mainstream in the store, not scifi.  However, the Internet is a different beast.  Niche is key to success.  Finding your readers, not distributing to bookstores.   To go broader goes against the reality of search engine optimization and metadata.  The Tor means quality.  The MilSifi or whatever name they want to use gives you the subject matter.

    Frankly, few readers check to see who the heck the publisher is for an eBook anyway.  That little imprint on the side of a print book might have been important in the bookstore when the book was spine out (which we didn’t want anyway) but you have to literally search for who the publisher is on the content page in the eBookstore.

    This also will band together those similar authors.  Put them on an internal loop so they can disseminate information and how to cross-promote.  We do that at my publishing house and it has proved effective.  The focus has to be on authors, not publishers.

    • Depends on how much attention the audience is paying, Bob.

      If they’re paying a lot of attention *and* reading in the same genres repeatedly (and I know many do), then your formula makes sense.

      But I’m talking about “general trade” here. I think that’s different. And I think there’s a real limit to how many imprints can be successfully promoted in that context. It’s the practical limit I’m trying to address.
      But I don’t disagree with what you’re saying nearly as much as I disagree with what the Big Six are doing, since most of *their *imprints don’t follow your very sensible notions.


      • Bob Mayer

         I agree.  I think they’re still gazing at their own navels rather than focusing on connecting authors and readers.

      • Not so much gazing at their own navels as gazing at intermediaries that have diminishing importance in the overall scheme of things.


    • Jack W Perry

      Many publishers are now putting their logo on the ‘cover’ of an ebook. 

      • And the more they scatter that logo opportunity among disparate logos the less effective they will be.


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  • Enjoying the discussion, not really enjoying the one letter wide posts. 😉 Mike, you are one of a handful of people on the entire internet I’d bother to copy and paste a comment into Word so I can read the darned thing. 😉

    Quick comment on that last comment you made, which was “Codex, which does research on this kind of thing and is presenting at our Pub Launch conference at BEA on precisely this topic, can tell you for sure that people who buy online most likely do it knowing what they want before they buy.”

    I question their data, as I mentioned previously. If that were true, then why do self published ebooks dominate most fiction genre bestseller lists? Where are readers hearing about those books, if not at the online bookstores? The physical results we are seeing in sales do not back up their assertion. In fact, there is every indication that the value of discoverability in brick bookstores is fading (as it once seemed to impact ebook sales *very* heavily, but now all indications are that having a book on physical bookstore shelves has much less impact on ebook sales), being replaced by customers who browse for new books among the “stacks” online. I suspect their assertion *was* true – two years ago, maybe even a year ago. But it hasn’t been accurate for the last six months or so, and is becoming less so.

    You also said “As people are browsing virtual stacks, where the curation process didn’t weed out the books that either didn’t have the distribution muscle or the buyer appeal to get shelved, they might like to know which are the ones from the establishment publishers, or curators. I think they will.”
    Reader curation is already doing a fairly good job of weeding out books which folks don’t enjoy reading, and that will likely continue to get better with time as more tools become available. So the “sea of slush” meme is a dead horse.

    I’m inclined to think you’re right – *some* people will care. Much as there was a distinction between mass market “penny dreadfuls” and “proper books” in the 19th century, and between “pulp” books and “real literature” during the first half of the 20th, there is always going to be room for people who buy books for prestige value, and they’ll pay more for it. It’s a valuable market. But the thing is, given a choice between a good self published story for a buck and a good NYC published story for $12, most readers are going to choose the “penny dreadful” most of the time. It’s been true in the past – and we’re seeing it replayed again in ebook fiction today.

    For certain types of books, consumers still care about curation a great deal. I don’t want a medical handbook that wasn’t carefully vetted – typos or bad information there can kill. But even there, we’re seeing that user curation is proving extremely effective for information – Wikipedia trumping Brittanica – and so in the long run I am unsure centralized curation will remain important. Time will tell, there.

  • William Ockham

    There is a very fundamental problem with this strategy. I think we all agree that the current Big Six are NOT currently well-established brands. That means that it will take time and money to establish that brand (and I’m assuming, for the sake of argument that they can deliver on quality as defined in the post). The question a publisher has to ask is what is the risk that I will establish this quality brand and someone else can come in and undercut me by delivering the same quality at a lower price. Is the barrier to entry for quality publishing (defined mostly as curation and editorial development) lower than the cost (in time and money) for a Big Six publisher to establish their brand identity?

    I believe their is a real world answer to that question. The barrier to entry for quality publishing is much, much lower for one very important entrant: Amazon.

    Think about it. They are already doing this. They have hired away talent from NY (both editorial and authorial). They have a very (make that VERY) well-established direct to consumer relationship coupled with a high degree of trust in their ability to curate content. I believe it will be a whole lot easier for Amazon to create a publishing business that it will be for the Big Six to create a brand.

    I don’t know if this strategy would have ever worked for the Bix Six (it’s difficult to execute), but I know it is too late for it now.

    • There was no *point* to this strategy until *now. *Whether or not it will work is a separate question but there was no point to doing it 3 or 5 or 15 years ago.

      Agreed that Amazon holds the high cards, whatever is the game.


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  • Jimnduncan

    As a reader, I can say I pay zero attention to brand. Publisher is the last piece of information I’m looking for. Would I look for it if Pubs made an effort to tell me that’s what they were doing? Unlikely. When I want a particular type of book, I go to the bookstore or the internet and look within the specific shelf space or category where those books would be assigned. I browse content (blurbs/samples) and then I may look to see what others have to say. Ultimately, it’s either I like the words on the page or value someone else’s opinion that I trust.

    On the other hand, if books got reorganized within the selling space AND I was made aware that certain publishers were doing specific things, I might pay attention. If I was aware that say Random House had a dedicated line of crime fiction, and books were organized on the shelf or the estore by publisher and not type of book, that might work. If I had read a couple of books I liked by RH and I could go the RH section of the store to browse, I’d be much more likely to pick up more RH books. I will not browse a random assemblage publishers by book type and look for specific publishers. It’s too inconvenient.

    If publishers want brand, it needs to come far more from the seller’s end of things, but getting an industry-wide restructuring of how books are displayed to the consumer is likely an impossibility.

    • You’re a good shopper and I wasn’t trying to address how to sell to you. If you look at blurbs and samples and have a pretty high hit rate with that, * combined* with you can tell self-published from professionally published by price (whether you are employing that capability or not), that can work.
      But it is going to get harder to identify by price, there will be more and more slush in the marketplace, and being able to tell the pros from the amateurs will have increasing value. I was proposing a way to do that. Nothing more.


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