Thinking B2C: Is Scaling Back Imprints Enough?

In a post on Monday, Mike Shatzkin advised publishers to reconsider the number of imprints they currently have as they shift focus from B2B branding to B2C branding. Shatzkin reminds us that imprints were originally used to brand titles to buyers, librarians and media—not consumers. Having an established imprint helped a book get its foot in the door and increase the chances of wider media coverage and stocking.

It seems that somewhere along the way some of us forgot this. It isn’t that uncommon to hear a publishing professional discuss an imprint’s impact in terms of reader brand recognition, even with new imprints. But it’s hard to imagine new imprints making any impact on purchasing decisions. It takes years to build brand recognition and loyalty—and we’re not talking about something you use everyday like paper towels, we’re talking about books which aren’t necessarily bought as frequently or consumed as quickly. And unless the branding is highly visible on the cover, like Penguin Classics, imprints aren’t that noticeable in-store and online.

Imprints are still powerful B2B brands and their cachet is often used to sway an author to sign on. But as authors start to question what publishers have to offer (which is plenty, I’m not questioning that) and the retail landscape and dynamics change, it makes sense to reevaluate the multiple imprint strategy. Regular folk don’t have much loyalty to publishers or imprints right now (with a few exceptions, mostly in genre fiction). As Shatzkin puts it:

America’s biggest consumers of books can readily remember a few company names to signify “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.

Agreed. I’ve written before about the online marketplace and self-publishing presenting publishers with a branding opportunity. But Shatzkin makes a good point about concentrating efforts on effective B2C branding. (This is relevant not only to B2C selling, by the way. It helps books on physical and virtual shelves too.) With so many imprints and publishers from across the world selling into the Canadian book market, why dilute your branding efforts across multiple imprints? You may need to stick to one or two brands.

On the other hand, this seems difficult for larger publishing programs. Is it realistic to build a brand that tries to signal excellence in thrillers and narrative non-fiction, for example? Or even historical fiction and chic lit? Lots of publishing houses produce books in many genres and under many categories and these are meant for different audiences. Is it enough to signal quality then? Is the reader looking for their next book searching for quality first, or are she looking for a certain kind of read first and then looking to narrow things down in terms of perceived quality?

Publishers who have focused on certain verticals seem to have the upper hand here because they have lists that are more cohesive to readers and can leave packaging to communicate specific subject matter and series. But a list that includes military histories, hockey books, thrillers and literary fiction have a hard time appearing cohesive to readers. Perhaps a bit more thought needs to go into how to truly be customer-centric. If publishing programs aren’t customer-centric, it makes it difficult to market them as such.

So what should they do? Should publishers limit themselves to a brand that signals overall curation and quality, invest more in distinguishing imprint brands that resonate with their audiences or refocus their lists?

What do you think?