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