The Life and Death of Imprints

One of the sometimes inscrutable changes that happen frequently in book publishing comes from the name on the book, the imprint. I was reminded of how strange these changes can be when I discovered quite a while ago that Bookcraft, once the name of the second largest LDS publisher, is now no longer in use.

The word imprint is generally unfamiliar, I think, outside of those who work with books. Librarians have long used the term to refer to the name on the book (in addition to the author and title)–the name of the publisher or printer of the book. But as the publishing industry grew more complex and professional, the term was used in the industry to mean a brand that was put on the book–something customers could use to identify the book’s genre or quality. Rather than identify the publisher, the imprint is often more like a marketing tool.

In my view, using an imprint makes most sense if there is a marketing need–if it helps sell more books. Given that science fiction is a separate genre with a separate audience, it makes a lot off sense to have a science fiction imprint, if you publish more than a few science fiction books along with a lot of other titles. On the other hand, it may not make a lot of sense for a publisher to separate books into fiction and non-fiction imprints if its audience doesn’t need them separated. Does the audience really need LDS fiction and LDS non-fiction identified by separate imprints? I’ve seen publishers sometimes create imprints for each of the categories or genres of books they publish out of the need to categorize and not because their audience will purchase more books due to the branding of a group of titles.

However, an imprint doesn’t always arise because the publisher analyzed the audience and decided that using an imprint will help the publisher sell more books. In some cases, publishers use imprints to reward key editorial employees–like a kind of vanity moniker (for example, Regan Books was an imprint at HarperCollins created for editor Judith Regan. The imprint disappeared after Regan was fired in 2006). Other times, imprints arise out of publishing mergers and acquisitions–as a way of preserving names or brands familiar in the minds of consumers. This is what happened with Bookcraft.

Founded in 1942, Bookcraft grew to become an important part of the LDS book publishing industry, long the second largest in the industry. But in 1999 Bookcraft was acquired by Deseret Book, which then grouped its offerings into four imprints: Deseret Book for doctrinal, historical and biographical works; Shadow Mountain for “values-oriented” books published for the national market; Eagle Gate Press for non-book products and specialty books and Bookcraft for inspirational, self-help, youth and fiction titles.

It may seem quite easy to create an imprint–after all, its just a name, and perhaps a logo–essentially a trademark. But the real cost for an imprint is in maintaining the imprint–acquiring new titles to be published under that name, marketing the titles in the imprint together, etc. At large publishers, this often means dedicated editorial and marketing employees. At smaller publishers, it simply means a commitment on the part of management, editors and marketers to nourishing the imprint. In every case it should at least require reporting and managerial changes to make sure that the imprint continues.

In retrospect, it doesn’t appear that Deseret Book followed the theoretical division of its titles into imprints that was announced after the Bookcraft merger. Initially books that were already slated to be published under the Deseret Book imprint were still published there, even when they no longer fit. Later, the number of books published under the Bookcraft and Eagle Gate imprints slowly diminished. After 2006 the company stopped publishing under the Bookcraft and Eagle Gate imprints all together.

Part of the problem may have been the dominance of the Deseret Book name. A publisher’s most important authors sometimes have enough power to spoil a neatly-categorized group of imprints, pushing to have their books in a particular imprint, usually because of some perceived prestige or belief that sales will be better with one imprint on the cover instead of another. While the company wanted to publish fiction under the Bookcraft name, some authors may have wanted their fiction published under the Deseret Book name.

As with most marketing issues, the most important factor is the perception in the public’s mind, which often comes from its historical position. In the case of Bookcraft, that perception may have contributed to its eventual demise. Historically, Bookcraft published the same kinds of books that Deseret Book did — doctrinal, historical and biographical as well as fiction–so the public didn’t have in mind the distinctions that were created after the merger. [Nor do I think most of the public even knew that the merger had happened.] Add to this relatively little need in the LDS audience for distinguishing between imprints, and maintaining Bookcraft as a separate imprint seems (at least in hindsight) like a waste of time.

The kind of informal, unannounced phase-out of an imprint that Bookcraft went through is not uncommon at all. Because of the lack of information about dropped imprints, industry guides like Literary Market Place even carry lists of imprints, discontinued imprints and the publishing companies that used them.

But just like they don’t always start from rational analysis, these phase-outs are not always because a publisher has decided that there is no longer a marketing need for them. Often, when imprints are connected to an individual employee, the imprint can disappear when the employee leaves. In other cases, the publisher just wants to cut costs, and consolidates the work of several imprints into one employee. In such cases the demise of an imprint can even sneak up on the publisher. When an employee handles multiple, similar imprints, he may simply favor one or a few over the others. Since the decision of which imprint to use on each book is made on a case-by-case basis (often because of what titles are acquired), an imprint will often simply not get any new titles, and eventually the imprint will simply no longer exist.

For any author or publisher worried about marketing their books, this issue could be helpful or important. While most consumers can’t always tell who the publisher or  what the imprint is on a book, there are many cases when it is important, because it often effects a book’s sales. And if it doesn’t its useful to know when worrying about the imprint is a waste of time.

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2 thoughts on “The Life and Death of Imprints”

  1. .

    What you said about imprints being connected to particular editors is something I’ve been noticing lately. Namebrand editors can get their own imprint, thought it’s not clear to me that readers care.

    For instance, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was published by Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Knopf (which is an imprint of Knopf Doublday which is an imprint of Random House) run by Nan A. Talese. I’ve noticed some other similar cases, but that’s the only one I can think of at the moment.

    I also wonder if imprints will become more attached to editors — to the point where they’re not really attached to publishing companies any more than the editor is.

    NAVELGAZING ALERT

    For instance, Peculiar Pages is my thing, a concept started by my wife and I nearly ten years ago (today is our tenth anniversary, not coincidentally) and brought to life by Fob (in the creation of The Fob Bible and Moriah’s B10 Mediaworx publishing company.

    But Peculiar Pages is still mine and, given compelling enough reason, there’s nothing to stop me from ditching B10 and shacking up with Nan under the Random House umbrella for future books.

    END NAVELGAZING

    All of which just makes me wonder — and thank you for prompting this new thought — if in the future, the brand that matters will be the editor/imprint and not the quote/unquote publisher.

    What do you think, Kent — could trends trend that way?

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