Home » Agents » Publisher As Prestige Brand?

Publisher As Prestige Brand?

28 February 2013

From agent Wendy Lawton:

I was recently talking to a client about traditionally published books vs. self published books. She worried that with so many under-edited and half-baked books* making their way to the market, readers might get frustrated by the lack of excellence and ultimately give up on books. “How does a reader identify professionally written and professionally edited books so they know what they are getting when they order a book?”

Good question, right?

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the publisher’s name on a book is going to become more and more important as a sign of a certain level of quality. I believe it could become as recognizable as Louis Vuitton to handbags, JimmyChoo to shoes, and Harley Davidson to motorcycles. I’m saying that publishers need to start thinking about branding their books more prominently. The way it stands now, I’m guessing the average reader couldn’t tell you who published the last book they read.

. . . .

I think publishers need to start thinking of their brand as an identifier– a mark of distinction. When you see the Bethany logo on the front of an inspirational novel, for instance, you can be sure you’re in for a satisfying read that’s been edited, copyedited and professionally designed. And yes, I said front cover. With all the books sold online, the front cover is often the only cover shown.

Wouldn’t it be fun to begin to recognize the distinctives of each publisher?

Link to the rest at Books & Such Literary Agency and thanks to Mira for the tip.


72 Comments to “Publisher As Prestige Brand?”

  1. Nah! Nobody looks at the publisher’s name. People buy by the author’s name.

    • Not nobody — there are people who look for the Baen publisher name. But Baen is filling a particular niche, and you can pretty well lay out some common traits of “a Baen book.”

      But it’s not “quality.” Heck, Baen editing, especially in its early days, was, bluntly, kinda pathetic. (Mostly copyediting, but layout in one anthology my spouse got was… Well, stories were put in out of chronological order, and I think there were internal inconsistencies, indicating no editorial guidance.) You knew which authors handed in clean drafts on their own because those were the ones with few typos.

      What they provided and provide is a type of story, and they built their name on that, and they reached out with the Baen free library, the Baen forums (having well-run forums is a big thing, I think!), and general Baenitude.

      DAW still has some of its “feel” left, I think. The others… Meh. Gray Publisher Goo.

      • Jim Baen’s unofficial motto was: “Bringing SF back where it belongs: the gutter.” 🙂

        Baen books span the entire spectrum, from Hard SF to urban fantasy and the ocassional science fact and advocacy title.

        But the prototypical Baen title is fun, well-written, adventure SF. Lois McMaster Bujold is just about ground zero for the brand. Anybody curious, check out their free Library for the upcoming release of BOUNDARY from Ryk Spoor. Another prototype of the BAEN brand. (Plus a rare example of Paleontology SF. 🙂 )

        The problem is that it is very hard even for genre imprints to build a brand, much less maintain it for decades the way BAEN has. Even less if the imprint is embedded in a giant multinational. Once upon a time, Doubleday and DelRey, for example had their own strong identities for hard SF and Fantasy respectively but those days are gone. Small and medium publishers and niche imprints have a better chance of getting there but those aren’t the publishers most pundits are thinking of when they make their pronnouncements.

        • I thought the Gutter was where Paranormal Romance tended to land?

          (And before anyone thinks that’s snidely snarky, I add: “Get your mind out of the gutter! You’re blocking my periscope!”)

          I would say that Weber is actually Baen Ground Zero. Bujold started with Wars In Space (and on alien planets, sortakinda) and sort of branched out all over the place from there; I wouldn’t actually think some of her later books would be things Baen would’ve taken as a first book. On the other hand, neither did Baen try to direct one of their golden geese back onto the “Straight and Narrow.” They pretty much trusted her to bring her fans along anywhere she wandered.

          Flexibility and theme-building… The publishers who’ve lost that have lost something valuable.

    • Very few people look at the publisher. People in the business do. Aspiring and midlist authors seems “publisher-obsessed”.

      But the people who buy books? Unless it’s Harlequin or a very few other genre specific brands (like the publisher of Dungeons and Dragons books, stuff like that), buyers/readers don’t care much about who the publisher is.

      My wife buys a ton of ebooks, and she couldn’t tell you the difference between Random House and Simon & Schuster if you offered her a $100,000 cash and 20 lbs of permanent fat loss no matter what she ate.

      Could a publisher decide to specialize in, say, thrillers and develop a brand around it the way Harlequin has with romance? Sure. And if someone does, they will make good money and be a great business to own longterm if it’s a genre with longevity (mystery, thriller, romance, biographies, history, etc.)

  2. This would require consistency of quality and content from publishers. Don’t see that happening.

    • Yes–especially after all the editor layoffs that have been happening lately. In the push for the next bestseller, and with fewer editors on the job, I’ve noticed that a lot of trade books in my genre have become more and more sloppy.

    • Heh.


      After I saw “…what would you suggest to separate the dreck from the divine?” I thought: refrain from publishing Snooki?

  3. Do authors and agents, most of whom already complain about low to minuscule marketing budgets for their titles, really want publishers to spend the money it would take to do publisher branding right?

    And if the publisher brand is what consumers look for then don’t you think that the publishers would simply use that as a further bludgeon to erode author rights and autonomy? “The reader wants a [Imprint Name X] book so if you want to write for us you have to conform to the brand standards of [Imprint Name X].”

    • I was in a situation like that, and it was horrible. I lost all desire to write any fiction and it took over a year to even be willing to try again.

  4. No, that’s a terrible question. It assumes that readers behave in a way that directly contradicts all available evidence. There is a segment of readers that care about “excellence” and “quality”, but not enough to sustain a Big 5 publisher.

    The biggest market for books is for good stories. Real people (as opposed to industry folks) will buy and read good stories that match their preferences in spite of a few flaws. No one will be happy buying a poor story because it is well edited.

    • While the agency the author works with seems to be fairly general, both her tone and those of most of her commenters seem to indicate they have fairly narrow interests (i.e. Christian publishing.)

      Given that fans of that particular genre have some pretty definite dealkillers, for them using a publisher as a guarantee that they won’t encounter things they consider unacceptable (excessively graphic things don’t happen or only offstage, language constraints are observed, etc.) makes some sense. It won’t work for large general publishing houses absent strict adherence to imprints and those imprints being much more prominent than the publisher in branding and marketing. And that won’t last long in today’s make-the-numbers market.

      • That’s just my point. You can get all the signaling that a “Christian” publisher gives by including one sentence in your book description or author bio. Write good stories in that genre and you will soon have as big a following as almost anyone else in the genre. Add in a little understanding of that subculture and you could make some serious money.

  5. I think this might have been tried in the romance genre… yeah some Canadian corporation. It might work if you have your authors follow a particular formula, but NO ONE has yet been successful at finding the “best-seller” formula. Good luck at that Big Pub.

  6. I have been reading badly published books since I can remember. If you look at music, movies, TV, books, there is only a small percentage that is actually good and a lot of garbage. That garbage has an agent, an editor, copy editor and publisher. It didn’t make me give up on books it just made me more choosy. Agents and publishers should be happy in that badly self-published books make people more likely to give up on self-pubs and stick to established name brand authors. Branding a publishing name would be a waste of resources. No one publishing house publishes all good books. There are too many editors with different tastes publishing different books that may or may not be good. And I have read more than one book, even a New York Times Bestseller, where the published draft seemed like a first rough draft. So, you can’t always rely on a big name publisher to do their job either.

  7. I was recently talking to a client about traditionally published books vs. self published books. She worried that with so many under-edited and half-baked books* making their way to the market, readers might get frustrated by the lack of excellence

    It’s hard to keep reading after this. I can do 20 min. on my nightmare experience with the editor at Alpha Penguin and the reviews on that book back me up, of course I wind up holding the bag for their extreme lack of professionalism.

    Does anyone want to seriously discuss the books that got Amanda Hocking her 2 million dollar deal? Even she was frustrated with the quality of the editing. And yet readers were so enamored of her storytelling, they weren’t deterred.

    • One of the deep, dark secrets of publishing is that beyond a certain point (i.e. competently readable, which is obvious from the first few paragraphs) the only people who care about editing are writers and editors. Whenever I see a review on Amazon saying ‘this book needed an editor’ I assume they’re a writer rather than a reader and ignore it.

      On a business trip recently I re-read an old Clive Cussler novel from the 80s. The writing would have any modern editor pulling their hair out, but it sold about a bazillion copies at the time because he knew how to tell a good story that kept people turning the pages. As a reader back in the 80s, I had no idea how bad the writing was, because I was caught up in that story and wanted to know how it would end.

    • This paragraph put me over the top, too. She set up her straw-men clearly there. Didn’t really need to read further.

  8. Yet another “readers are stupid and need us to hold their hands through the book buying process” post. I’m really getting sick of these.

    • My thoughts exactly. I was getting the impression that Ms. Lawton believes that readers are completely incompetent when it comes to choosing good books, hence the idiotic idea to push the publisher’s brand to the forefront.

      If a reader buys a self-published book that is poorly written and poorly edited, they will not buy any more from that author. A bad book hurts the author, not the reader.

      Bad authors fade away because readers are intelligent enough to decide for themselves what is good.

      • She does. They don’t choose the books she thinks they should. The only explanation is incompetence.

  9. To add an angle on what others have said here:

    There’s a reason why readers don’t look to publisher brands. That’s because consumers aren’t looking for “quality” they are looking for personality. They’re looking for something that fits their taste. (And frankly, most readers would rather have lower quality that fits their taste than the highest quality that doesn’t.)

    IMHO, the only way a publisher can meet this requirement of the reader is to be a work-for-hire syndicate. Have a strong editor/publisher who injects his or her personality into the line.

    Syndicates will succeed in the new paradigm. Some might be individual names, like Patterson, some will be more like the old Stratemeyer syndicate.

    And maybe there is a second way: the Baen way. Again a strong central personality drove the company for so long, and have a taste identity. They also have an active fan community — forums, and all that — and they partly built that because they filled a need with ebooks long before ebooks were the cool thing.

    • Very good point, Camille. The books I love are books that have distinct voice.

    • Oh, clever!

      That’s because consumers aren’t looking for “quality” they are looking for personality. They’re looking for something that fits their taste.

      I hadn’t seen that angle. Thank you for pointing it out.

      Now I know why I have difficulty finding good books to read. I don’t know why I didn’t realize this before. I’ve said that each story is really an exploration of the inner landscape of the author. So, of course it’s about personality!

      I’m choosy about my friends. Why wouldn’t I be choosy about authors (and thus stories)?

    • (And frankly, most readers would rather have lower quality that fits their taste than the highest quality that doesn’t.)

      Heck, yeah.

      Though at a certain point of low quality, I throw the thing against the wall and write my own. 😉

  10. “How does a reader identify professionally written and professionally edited books so they know what they are getting when they order a book?”

    A: The s-a-m-p-l-e.

    A reader knows within a few pages at most if a work is quality.

    How hard is this?

    • At least one commenter on the OP claims that samples can be deceptive.

      It’s a theory: editors often charge by the page. I have the first ten pages edited, and my samples are golden. 🙂

      • I saw that. Mrs. “I got burned once because the sample wasn’t long enough, but I plunked down $7 anyway, and I only read reviews on Goodreads, because they tend to be more honest, even though I now think that all of those Goodreads reviews were completely dishonest?”

        She deserves to get burned.

      • It’s true that a book that’s been shopped to agents will tend to be polished on the first 5-10 pages, or up to 3 chapters.

        On the other hand, if you buy from Amazon, you can return the bloody thing as soon as you realize that the typos are mounting up. (And, frankly, you can probably tell the awkwardness even in the first pages. Heck, you can probably tell from the Book Description that it’s going to be painful.)

        Or, if you buy from Smashwords, you can see how big the sample is; my full-length books have a 50% sample available. Read half the book, then decide if you want to finish it!

    • Just yes, to this. It always amazes me when readers don’t sample a book before buying. Sure the sample won’t tell you if a story will hold up throughout, nor will it provide a guarantee you’ll get the ending you want, but it will show voice and the, uh, sophistication of the mechanics that will provide the underpinning for the story.

      I never (seldom) buy a new author to me without downloading the sample, or clicking that handy “look-inside” button.

    • Love the sample for ruling out. Quite right. You can usually tell after one paragraph if it’s going to be awful.

      Weary of reading samples looking for a buy. But that’s just me. Fussy reader.

  11. The comparison to handbags is ridiculous. Reading preference is a highly personal thing. Jonathan Franzen is a “quality” writer by pretty much any definition, but I can’t stand his work. There’s no way a publisher can build a “brand” in the way she’s suggesting. It won’t work. Readers follow writers and types of stories, not publishers.

    This only ever sort of worked in romance (as Eric said above) and that’s because Harlequin has a locked down formula so that anything with their name on it was the equivalent of a Big Mac. In other words, you knew what you were getting regardless of the writer.

  12. I agree that publisher branding can be effective.
    You can spot an O’Rielly Media book based on the cover art; and I’m not the only one that has a positive impression of the quality of the material.

    Authors have changed from one edition to the next in some cases, but “Learning Perl” is still commonly referred to as ‘the Llama Book.’

    Ha, I just noticed that books in their online store even have a ‘Colophon’ tab.

    • Nonfiction Self-Help is a unique category, and O’Reilly is a unique sub-segment of that field and also is unusually disciplined in their branding/product development. A good case study, for sure, but likely of limited use for fiction and creative nonfiction/memoir where, as Camille notes, what is being sold is a story and the story is felt by the reader to be an expression of the individual author’s experience and personality.

  13. At least she isn’t suggesting that readers also want to see a book that’s been professionally agented…

    I’m a little dissapointed – that would have been the cherry on top of this little confection of mental flatulence.
    (too much?)

  14. I think we should all chip in and buy Ms Lawton a clue, or donate one of ours perhaps–we’re quite evidently richer in that commodity than she. So c’mon…pass the hat….

  15. I can see this branding working for smaller presses or highly specific imprints, but not a big general publisher. Tastes are too broad to guarantee that mark of content quality holds true for everyone. As for quality of presentation…eh. The readers who care more about how a book looks are not my target audience. Also, I think self pub writers are taking presentation more seriously than big publishers right now when it comes to formatting ebooks…so I’ll believe tht louis v of books when I see it and not before.

    • Branding might be working better than we think. When I hear about A Shore Thing, I think ‘Oh yeah, one of Simon and Shuster’s quality products’.

      Big houses have to produce a lot of brand busting stuff in order to afford putting out the books that change lives but don’t make a lot of money.

      It’s not a formula for building your brand.

    • Certain non-fiction imprints are associated with certain topics and fields (Bison Books of the University of Nebraska is US West, new as well as classic reprints; the Werhauser series of environmental histories from the University of Washington Press), but I doubt many readers will look for Random Penguin or think other than “it has a penguin on the spine. Must be from Penguin.” (Which raises the fascinating diversion of what exactly does a random penguin look like, anyway?)

      • Penguin actually used to have a very strong and recognizable brand identity in the UK, both for classics reprints (when I hear the word Penguin, I still think of classics) and for modern classics and crime fiction. However, that strong brand identity has long since evaporated – even when I was at university, it was already mainly limited to the classics reprints. And of course, classics reprints are largely superfluous in the age of Project Gutenberg and the free public domain e-book.

        • The Penguin Classics line had an equally strong brand on this side of the pond — in those days. The trouble is, you can’t publish new books as part of that brand, because, by definition, a book that hasn’t been published yet is not a classic. Take all the books ever published; narrow that down to those that were reprinted; narrow it further to those that stayed in print for many years, and for which there was still demand when the original copyright expired (or that had never been in copyright at all). The books that fit those exact criteria? Those were Penguin Classics’ slush pile. The books they actually printed were a Gideon’s band compared to the army they had to choose from.

          All that, as you say, has gone by the wayside. I, for one, never had much use for Penguin’s new-book imprints. I suppose they were about as good or bad as most other large publishers’ — which is to say, not good enough to build a brand on. Nowadays, when I get most of my classics in free editions, Penguin’s brand (for me) has redefined itself into five ugly words.

          • The trouble is, you can’t publish new books as part of that brand, because, by definition, a book that hasn’t been published yet is not a classic.

            No, no, I have a nice Ace fantasy in my library that I’ve treasured for years, because its cover says “THE BELOVED FANTASY CLASSIC – FIRST TIME IN PAPERBACK!” It’s the 1983 paperback edition of a 1977 hardcover, the middle book in a trilogy by an author I’ve never seen before or after. Went out of print immediately after. A reasonable adventure, damned by its cover copy … I’m guessing the copy writer mistook it for The Two Towers.

            • I’m guessing the copy writer mistook it for The Two Towers.

              Since we’re talking about Ace here, maybe it was the cover copy for The Two Towers. After the lawsuit, they needed to recoup their losses, so they waited till the hoopla died down and then reused the copy on a different book.

          • I wondered whether the Penguin Classics was a good example of a brand with value, but decided the question was moot. In its hey-day the Penguin Classics were exploiting an over looked market: second-tier classics for which existed a demand. More people would like to read, say, Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks than know enough Latin to read it in the original. (And then there is the problem of understand his Late Antique Latin, which is far more difficult than Julius Caesar’s. let alone Vergil’s or Ovid’s.) However, Penguin had competition for classics in English from Oxford University Press for British authors & Library of the Americas For American, & from the Loeb Classical Library for Greek & Latin ones. They had to find those sweet spots, & when the series started (the late 1940s or early 1950s, I surmise) there were many.

            However, the number of these second-tier classics might be large, but they were finite; after a point, they would need to publish works which needed to be marketed. A lot more readers fluent in English are familiar with the names of medieval poets than, say, the classics of Urdu or Swahili. Most of the Penguin Classics titles I can recall are translations from European languages with a few from Chinese & Japanese.

            Short of some scholarly excitement for little-known Thai or Romanian authors of the 19th century spilling over into the general population, I doubt we’ll see many more Penguin Classics; from what I’ve read, the costs of translating a book — especially for exotic languages — is far higher than buying the rights to a new one, so there’s no incentive to add new titles to that imprint.

  16. Here’s why branding won’t sell more books for publishers: they don’t make anything.

    Publishers don’t even “produce” in the Hollywood sense. They do packaging and (perhaps) fine-tuning. Do people appreciate good packaging? Absolutely. Will they buy a great product wrapped in a crumpled brown paper bag? Absolutely.

    Editing is a factor in a book’s quality, at least in terms of finding typos and clarifying language. The rest is presentation and distribution. If the Big 5 want to build a brand, they need to build one attractive to WRITERS. They are doing the opposite by shrinking advances, writing restrictive contracts, and seizing rights.

  17. It’s quiz time! Without using Google, tell me what company published Michael Chrichton’s Jurassic Park.

    See, An author’s name is a bigger brand than who published them.

  18. I’ll admit, branding has worked on me in the past.

    I remember seeing the yellow spines of the old Dell line from across the bookstore and just knew I’d be thumbing through them before I left. If I see a Tor spine logo I have a good idea of what genre it most likely is and am usually prompted to pick it up just to see.

    How about the yellow frame of a NatGeo magazine? Or maybe the size and font of a Readers Digest?

    This may not happen anymore, but it use to. Like Jim mentioned, I dont really see the publishers doing these things today.

    Maybe I’m just older than I thought.

    • How about the yellow frame of a NatGeo magazine? Or maybe the size and font of a Readers Digest?

      Magazines are a profoundly different product from books. You can’t buy a magazine based on the name of the author, because (with rare exceptions) it hasn’t got an author. The tone and personality of the magazine are determined by the editors’ choice of what pieces to buy and print.

  19. I’ll disagree with all of you. Successful branding of an imprint would be, over the long term, very successful: it would help new writers find an audience quicker & easier, it would encourage readers to take risks on new authors, & it would build a solid backlist creating a steady cash flow that would keep the imprint in the black.

    But there’s one very good reason this won’t happen, except in specific cases: in the corporate world, business units are judged on their last quarter’s performance. If that unit doesn’t make enough profit — or doesn’t have the right executive with enough clout protecting it — that unit is history.

    I’ve seen a lot of these editor-specific imprints over the years. They last a few years, then vanish. Maybe the editor got burned out, maybe she/he couldn’t find enough quality manuscripts to publish, maybe the editor lost her/his mentor & was re-organized out of a job. Or maybe the editor passed on a crappy book which turned out to be a major best-seller. (I wonder if anyone lost his or her job once J.K. Rowling became a major bestselling author.)

    There simply isn’t enough security in the business for someone inside a corporation to build up a brand imprint so it becomes a positive thing.

    David above mentioned O’Reilly Media, & it is a special case. Not so much because it occupies a niche (which helps) but IMHO Tim O’Reilly uses it as a tool to secure his status as a techie pundit. O’Reilly Media also hosts various tech conferences (& I’ve been told at least one such conference operates regularly at a loss). So even if O’Reilly Media should publish a lot of bombs & loses a critical amount of money, Tim O’Reilly as the owner, will continue to publish quality how-to books on computers & technology, & not replace that line with a series of books on, say, YA fantasy.

  20. “How does a reader identify professionally written and professionally edited books so they know what they are getting when they order a book?”

    Wow, That one is a toughy! Gee, I dunno, maybe with a professional quality cover, blurb, sample and good reviews and word of mouth from any one of a half million sources. Y’know, kinda like how professional quality books have always stood out.

    “I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the publisher’s name on a book is going to become more and more important as a sign of a certain level of quality”

    Then maybe you want to have a rope tied around something else first.

    Seriously…publisher prestige branding? We’re going to dust off that old anti-indie/pro-trad meme now? Are things that dead over at Books & Such that they have nothing else to post about this week?

    Of course, traditional books are “Louis Vuitton handbags and JimmyChoo shoes” while indies are ” under-edited and half-baked books”.

    When in the last hundred years has anyone ever walked into a bookstore and asked to ONLY see the Random House Section?

    Asking the average reader to name publishers is like asking the average moviegoer to name more than 3 directors or 1 screenwriter. Try it sometime.

  21. When I read this, it struck me as someone who’s very much invested in the survival of traditional publishing brainstorming on how it could survive the beating it’s been taking in the markets. And that’s understandable; maybe, as has been pointed out above, it might work in the small subsection of ‘Christian’ publishing, or other limited markets.

    She’s not wrong in saying quality is a problem. (I say that as someone polishing an MS for submission but doing research on self-publishing ‘in case’.) I’ve seen several readers (on Goodreads and elsewhere) say that SPA books are too frustrating to deal with, mainly because of vast glut on the market and lack of quality–even with such tools as screening through excerpts and descriptions. Those readers are probably the ones the person above is targeting; but the print books they’ll buy have already been “branded”–by virtue of having made it to print. Other details will most likely register as irrelevant.

    • This, yes. However, if Ms. Lawton wants to be frank and open with the public and her blog readers, she’d need to note the larger Christian fic houses have lately been punching out poorly written, badly edited junk. If she wants examples, I can give her specific titles–once I go look up the publishers’ names.

      The C-fic trad market overall has been contracting, not growing. There are only 4-5 publisher options left now for writers in this market. Were these houses to try to “brand” in the way she discusses, you’d have them trying to do “A House contemporary romance”, “A House Western romance,” then thriller, mystery, cozy mystery, SF…every publisher would trip over themselves trying to be THE brand in everything they publish.

      What would it look like then? Why, pretty much what the C-fic market looks like today–only a lot more sweat and effort in it, and still no benefit to the book buying reader.

  22. Does any reader who isn’t a publishing insider ever connect the words, “publisher” and “prestige” in his/her mind?

    • Yes. Real estate agents, when the client is a major publisher looking for office space. (Assuming that the real estate agent also reads for recreation.)

    • I do in a very specific sense.

      Once upon a time, there were certain presses that would print de luxe editions of books, most often literary classics. The first name that comes to my mind is William Morris & his Kelmscott Press, but prestige editions of books (as in fine printings) continued well into the 20th century. FWIW, this is one of the futures for the physical book.

      But the big publishing corporations have no interest in producing “prestige” editions because it costs too much. The other day I encountered the name of Eleanor Morris Caponigro who was described as “one of the finest book designers of the past 50 years”. The writer who mentioned her went on to state that Caponigro has found “her skills are no longer in demand, as publishers really don’t care about typography or design anymore, especially if it will add 20 cents to the cost of the book.”

      I’d define a prestige publishing imprint as one who employs people like Capnigro to produce its books. I guess that definition could include a lot of indie writers…

      • But the big publishing corporations have no interest in producing “prestige” editions because it costs too much.

        More to the point, it sells too little. If you drove down the price of ‘prestige’ editions to where they could compete with mass-market editions, what would you have? A mass-market edition with higher production standards. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but it takes the prestige right out of the equation. There’s no prestige in having the same old edition of a book that everyone else can buy. Prestige editions are highly profitable precisely because they are marketed (and priced) to appeal to snobs.

        I shudder to think what a big ‘prestige’ publisher would look like. Probably something like the Franklin Mint, with all its terribly kitschy products flogged off in ‘limited’ editions — limited to just so many copies as they can find buyers for. In other words, it would look a lot like your average comics publisher.

        You know what? Having worked that out, I’m still shuddering.

        • There used to be a book club that did exactly that: leather-bound, impressively printed versions of the literary classics like the novels of Dostoyevsky & Tolstoy. Unfortunately, they used the cheapest editions of the English texts they could find, & the books were basically little more than furniture to impress guests with.

          I used to see the occasional copy of these versions in used book stores. (I haven’t seen their ads in a couple decades.) Collectors consider them barely a step or two above those ubiquitous Reader’s Digest books, & the bookstores often priced these printings accordingly. (They were hardbound copies, so they weren’t entirely worthless.)

  23. So they’re going to have a name brand chief editor, who will act as spokesperson and guarantee that every novel that gets through his or her phalanx of editors will be of a certain quality?

    It seems to me that if they want it to work this way, they need to come up with people who can get up an evangelise the way certain figures in the tech industry do.

    They’re also going to run into a problem when an author within the brand gets tremendously successful but whose quality goes to the dogs. As a fantasy fan, I’ve seen some of those come along. Will name brand chief editor really tell the mega-successful author to go back and rewrite, even though the book as-is would make a zillion bucks? Because if they aren’t willing to do that, who will trust them and their brand?

    And that’s just assuming the brand is about quality, rather than quality + content.

  24. Wouldn’t it be fun to begin to recognize the distinctives of each publisher?

    It would be a hoot! WOO-HOO! A “Gallery Book”?!?!? You can’t be SERIOUS!

  25. The only time I look at the publisher’s name is when I’m downloading a Kindle book from the library and I have to do it via USB. When I find out it’s Harper Collins–it doesn’t make for a favorable impression.

    The author is the brand. I will never care who the publisher is. I will follow the authors I like no matter who publishes them. Publisher’s should be glad about that because I mostly have negative feeling about the big six. Knowing the publisher would more likely be a reason not to buy a book.

  26. As a reader, there are more places online to discover books than I know what to do with. I have never had a problem finding good and interesting stories, and have found more books online–both trade and self-published–than I ever have from going to the bookstore. I think that, for the most part, industry professionals are the only ones who care about who publishes what.

    As for publishers being a brand, I’m not so sure about this. In general, even before I got into the publishing industry, it was the author I followed, not the publisher. One of my erstwhile favorite genres has become so homogenized on the bookshelves that I would hate to see what would happen if publishers actively tried to brand themselves a certain way.

  27. Somebody with great taste, great organizational skill, and a great business model could probably still be a great publisher.

    But it probably won’t happen right now.

  28. This agent is looking for a role for herself and her colleagues in the future.

    The way to “brand” a book is for the author to write good books and for readers to discover them over and over. Pristine copy is the goal, but good story-telling is far more critical for success.

  29. There has been successful publisher branding–but not in association with quality (which is, among other things, wholly subjective). Rather, successful publisher branding (as opposed to author branding) has always relied, as has been suggested elsewhere in this discussion, on the publisher guaranteeing a certain -type- of book, filling a fairly specific niche.

    Harlequin’s category-romance imprints are an obvious example, and one of the most successful publisher branding efforts ever executed in the modern publishing industry.

    Harlequin branded each of its category romance imprints with identical packaging across each imprint (only the illustrations differed, though their styles were still very similar; the design package was identical for all 25 or 80 books released each year in a given imprint). Harlequin also required almost identical -length- for each book in an imprint. It set strict parameters for the -content- of each imprint (ex. each imprint had a specific level of sexuality and explicitness, and each imprint specified what types of storylines, characters, and settings could be used there). This excruciating level of editorial control, guaranteeing a VERY similar experience throughout all books in an imprint no matter who wrote the book, was the key to Harlequin’s success in branding their books by publisher/imprint rather than author.

    It’s one of the most successful examples in the biz of publisher branding, and although there’s nothing wrong with it as a business strategy (nothing indeed–it made a LOT of money for Harlequin)… it’s clearly got nothing to do with quality or guaranteeing quality. It’s about guaranteeing a very specific kind of reading experience that some readers absolutely loved but which others consider unreadable drivel.

    It also was only successful, even for Harlequin, within a very specific range of books or audience. Harlequin had MANY failed imprints over the years. In particular, Harlequin failed again and against and still again in its repeated efforts over the years to expand its publishing-branding success beyond category-romance and into other types of fiction (chick lit, fantasy, mainsteam, women’s adventure, sagas, etc.). So what worked well in one sub-sub-genre of one genre hasn’t been successful on any sort of consistent or wider basis.

    Prime Crime may be another example of a program that’s done well with branding. Again, it’s not about quality (which is subjective), but about providing a very specific kind of reader experience or taste. In the case of Prime Crime, mystery series (and, IIRC, primarily cozy mystery series).

  30. I went to the blog last night to read the comments under that blog posting. It was remarkable how different the disccussion is at the blog, from the one here at The Passive voice.

    The blog comments appear to come from a large number of other Literary agents, and industry insiders. The thinking feels like 2010 thinking. One comment questioned if there were readers who actually dared to avoid traditionally published books and only look for self-published books, gasp.

    They appear to be completely unaware of the size and scope that indie publishing as how achieved, and probably totally unaware that this little blog entry was picked up here at the Passive Voice.

    They seem to believe they are doctors who are going to cure the patient with some new treatment.

    I believe this is an autopsy. The overwhelming evidence appears to indicate that the victim (traditional publishing) died from self-inflicted wounds.

  31. David, many, if not most, of the commenters on Ms. Lawton’s post are authors in the Christian fic market. We’re not a large group, and I know many of them. We tend to lag 2-3 years behind the general market in every change-area. So it’s not terribly surprising that the comments read as they do.

    Our large industry group just got around, two-plus years ago, to announcing that “an ebook is a book”. One wonders how long it will take them to realize “a self published book is a book.”

    The post didn’t come right out and say, “See, quality is why you need trad publishers, and publishers are why you need agents!” But it was there in subtext. Ms. Lawton is one of the group trying to convince writers to help hold back the tide.

    • Deb,
      That explains a lot then about the point of view. It appeared that they were largely unware of the entire industry of editors, book formating services, readers, and book cover artist that are now available to Indie authors. In many cases they are the exact same people who work with traditional publishing. I actually used an editor who is a subcontractor to Zondervan and Harper Collins. There was also no mention of authors self publishing their own back list of traditionally published books that now had reverted back to the author. This is another huge group of books now hitting the market.

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