Why Do Publishers Close Imprints?

From Jane Friedman:

Imprints have long been getting closed, merged, reorganized, and reborn over publishing’s history, but this summer raised new frustrations and fears among authors about how and why it’s happening. In June, Penguin Random House (PRH) announced they would merge the long-respected Razorbill into Putnam Children’s (retaining the full team in doing so); in July, HarperCollins announced the closure of Inkyard and the layoff of Inkyard’s staff. Harlequin Teen (started in 2009) was relaunched as Inkyard in 2019, publishing both YA and middle-grade fiction.

We talked to three industry experts about what prompts imprint closures and what authors should expect if they find their imprint on the chopping block.

The most straightforward explanation for imprint closures: lack of sufficient sales. It’s only logical: Publishing is a business, and if the imprint doesn’t earn its keep, there’s only so long it can continue. “Publishing companies today look at imprints through the cold calculus of earnings,” says Paul Bogaards, a longtime Knopf exec who now runs Bogaards Public Relations. “The consolidation that is taking place across the industry—and the closure of imprints—is principally tied to economics.” He says that business managers across the publishing industry review yearly profit & loss statements, and if an imprint is consistently in the red, watch out.

Publicist Kathleen Schmidt, who has had a long career in traditional publishing, agrees. “If the acquiring editors of the imprint are bringing in projects that aren’t selling well enough as frontlist titles, chances are they will not backlist well. While there isn’t a specific frontlist sales number associated with being a profitable backlist title, publishers often know, based on similar books, which ones have the ability to sell steadily over time. If an imprint isn’t producing titles that will add to a publisher’s backlist, it becomes a liability. Additionally, if an imprint’s frontlist titles continue declining sales rather than remain steady or become profitable, it makes more fiscal sense to fold the imprint into an existing one. Often, when this occurs, the staff at the imprint being shuttered is let go.”

In the case of Razorbill and Inkyard, it helps to consider current sales trends: The children’s market has been declining. In 2022, children’s hardcover sales were down 12.5% versus the prior year and below their levels from 2020 and 2019. Circana BookScan reports that frontlist children’s hardcover sales fell more than 20% last year. Additionally, Barnes & Noble has been reluctant to stock children’s middle-grade hardcovers because they are often returned unsold to publishers.

Schmidt says, “Over the past two to three years, B&N has skipped buying many titles because they are no longer willing to take as many chances on debut authors and are being conservative with numbers on previously published authors with mediocre sell-through. Further, B&N store managers aren’t overstocking categories. The cuts in children’s titles are a good example of this. In the YA category, BookTok plays a big part in what B&N carries. Independent bookstores only account for a small percentage of book sales. Amazon is truly where sales are concentrated right now, and though they stock pretty much everything, it doesn’t mean it sells. Discoverability is a major issue there.”

Andrea DeWerd, who runs The Future of Agency and has worked in marketing and publicity at three of the Big Five publishers, says that sometimes imprints spend too much on acquiring books, and “the sales simply aren’t there” to back up big advances. She sees that as more of a risk with personality-driven publishing, where an important editor is given their own imprint due to connections or relationships that bring in high-profile projects (and often high expenses). While imprint closures can appear sudden, she says once you look back, you can often see the signs that it wasn’t working.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman