Publishers Are Squandering Their Cachet On Imprints

by | Sep 8, 2011 | Publishing Industry | 94 comments

“Demonstration on October 17, 1905” by Ilya Repin

As we move forward into a new digital era in the publishing world rife with self-published books, there is theoretically one area where publishers could offer significant value to authors in an e-book world: Cachet.

Despite what the publishing naysayers say, the endorsement of a publisher really does mean something to consumers. I’ve heard way too many people tell me they only want to buy books traditionally published to believe it doesn’t matter. People want the quality control, they want the traditional process, and I think people are willing to pay a premium for it. The mark of a known publisher could be a powerful differentiator in what will only be a more and more jumbled space.

But there’s one problem with this: Publishers are squandering their brands on imprints few people outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn have heard of.

What’s an imprint? Basically it’s the name on the spine of a book, usually a division or a group within a larger publisher. The major publishers are made up of literally dozens of imprints, and they’re not all ones that most people know.

People have heard of Penguin. They’ve heard of HarperCollins. They know Random House and Knopf and Doubleday and Harlequin and a few others.

I’m not going to name the ones people haven’t heard of because I don’t want to offend anyone, but you know who they are. Or rather, you probably don’t know who they are. Even ones that have been around for fifty or a hundred years – not all of them have name recognition. And that’s a huge problem.

Imprints matter to publishers and agents and somewhat to booksellers as they help organize the company into various divisions. You can get a sense of the “flavor” of a book by knowing who is publishing it, and agents know where to send projects.

But these distinctions matter next to zilch to consumers unless they’ve actually heard of the imprints and unless the publisher actively cultivates recognition of the imprints and what the “flavor” of an imprint means.

If a consumer hasn’t heard of Unknown Imprint but they have heard of the bigger company, why insist on putting Unknown Imprint on the spine and in the Amazon metadata? How are consumers supposed to distinguish between a book published by Unknown Imprint and a book self-published under Imprint a Self-Published Author Made Up?

If a self-published e-book has a polished cover and presentation, the only thing separating it from a traditionally published book is the imprint. And if the consumer hasn’t heard of the imprint (but has maybe heard of Random House or Penguin): Opportunity lost.

Publishers have cachet. Consumers want to buy books published by the major publishers. But consumers can’t and won’t do that if they’ve never heard of the imprint.


  1. .

    Agree. Publishers need to push their name so every reader says, "Hey, that's a Penguin book. It must be good!" By spreading themselves thin across imprints, they risk diluting their brand presence.

  2. Michelle Davidson Argyle

    Nathan, do you think it's a similar problem with readers not recognizing small press names, too?

  3. LilySea

    I've never given this much thought–perhaps because I know to look behind the imprint and find out who the "umbrella" publisher is. But it's true, most people wouldn't think of that or know to ask.
    Great example of the small ways you CAN judge a book by its cover (and even SHOULD).

  4. Mr. D

    Anyone who thinks a book is good just because of who published it would be easy fodder for Mr. P. T. Barnum.

  5. Ben Trafford

    You really think consumers buy books based on the publisher? I used to think so, too. Try this experiment:

    Talk to ten people who have nothing to do with the publishing industry. Ask them to name three publishers, and ask them to name one publisher from whom they'd be more inclined to buy.

    If your results are anything like mine (except that I asked 100 people), you will find that most can name one publisher, and about 10% can name a favored publisher.

    Publishers are irrelevant to consumers.

  6. H.F. "Pete" Grimm III

    I agree with your post 100%, Nathan. Brand sells. People will pay a premium for brand. As time goes on brand will mean a lot in the selection process of ebooks, IF publishers seize the moment and promote their differentiating qualities.
    The shift to electronic media muddies the water, makes what value a publisher adds to the reader unclear. Publishers need to make it crystal clear that they stand for quality products, quality in writing, editing, formatting etc.
    They need to become a much bigger part of the digital process. Today, there are individual bloggers (like you) who have a bigger effect on digital buying than most publishers. Publishers squander the value brands they have built over decades (some over centuries). They better hop to it quickly, or they will be left in the dust.

  7. Deep River

    Publishers are going to have to rework the way they market their brands.

    In 1995, Toyota spent around $100 million to launch the Tacoma brand. That's on top of their regular annual media budget. The planning and development of the campaign took months before the first message reached the public. Back then, media choices were limited to TV, radio, and print.

    The same disintermediation that is disrupting the traditional publishing model will make it possible to support a roster of brands targeted to smaller customer groups. The cost shifts from huge media budgets to less costly but more labor intensive management of social networking. Media planning and execution cycles shrink from quarters and months down to weeks and hours.

    Think of the shift in providing a daily evening newscast in the 1970s to round-the-clock news coverage with the success of CNN.

    A small publisher or imprint, backed by a focused strategy and a small team managing social media, could be very successful with a small audience and small budget.

    It all depends on viewpoint.

  8. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    "Consumers want to buy books published by the major publishers."

    I have to disagree with this. People are buying books because they like the author. They don't really care who the publisher is. Actually I never met with anyone who said; Now I'm going to buy the next Penguin book or the next HarperCollins book.

    In the 21st century a publisher is rarely a trademark of quality. Good authors used to be the trademark of quality instead. This is what publishers used to forget nowadays.

  9. Nathan Bransford

    Sorry guys, I don't look down on self publishing but it's not true that publishers don't mean anything to consumers. They don't matter to ALL consumers, but they do matter. Not just the people who do look down on self publishing either. I'm not saying people line up to get the next HarperCollins book, but tell someone you're published by HarperCollins and there's a difference there.

  10. Susie

    I wonder if there is a difference in perception between consumers who buy their books in a bookstore or buy online. My thinking is that perhaps, the brick and mortar–whether a large chain or a small independent–offers a sense of legitimacy and equality to all the books, so that the consumer may not think too much about who is publishing them. (the consumer may on some level assume that the bookstore has already vetted the book). Consumers who purchase online may be potentially more discriminating, looking more closely at who published the book before making a decision to buy.

  11. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    "I'm not saying people line up to get the next HarperCollins book, but tell someone you're published by HarperCollins and there's a difference there."

    It's maybe a difference for writers and professionals, but for the audience it's really matter and it's not important at all. Honestly, why would they care? The story is created and written by the author not by the publisher. For the readers it's really matter who is going to publish the next novel of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.

    Maybe I'm wrong in this, but as I written, I never met with anyone (Standard readers, not writer-reader hybrids), who ever cared about the publisher.

  12. Sasha Barin

    I'd buy the next GRRM book regardless of who published it.

    On the other hand, if I was "just browsing", and had a choice of 1 out of 3 books by new authors, I'd buy the one with a logo 🙂

    Brands do matter. I don't have time to read all 3 books, I'd rather be sure someone read it before me.

    Istvan, you do have a point in case of established authors. Nathan's argument, I think, mostly applies to "first time reading this guy/gal, is he/she any good?"

  13. ginny martyn

    While I agree that brand matters, I will say that I've taken a leap into some self-pub books and didn't notice that big of a difference. Sorry. To consumers, especially in markets like YA and Romance, I just don't think it matters.

  14. Caroline

    I don't really care who the publisher is, honestly. I buy solely based on my acquaintance with the author or the subject matter.

    Interestingly enough, I am hesitant to self-publish because I wouldn't have an imprint or publisher behind me. It does lend cachet and a safety net–more than if I were to join the thousands of people who are self-publishing.

  15. Ishta Mercurio

    I agree. With the exception that if a book looks polished, has a professional cover, and has an awesome blurb, then I'll buy it and think about the imprint later.

    I have often wondered why publishers bother to put the imprint on the spine, since many of them are small and don't have brand-recognition. Does anybody know why they do this? Why not just mention the imprint in the front matter, or in the acknowledgement section?

  16. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    "Nathan's argument, I think, mostly applies to "first time reading this guy/gal, is he/she any good?"

    I also wouldn't bet on this as a good advertisement is also capable to make a difference. However in that case it's a game of trust. If the reader gets a good first book from the author as it's been advertised, the reader will be faithful. If not, the writer may look after a different job.

    I know few self-published writers by myself and they're selling well (Better than many traditionally published writers.). And they also present quality to their readers since their first book. The key is quality. If you have quality material, it's really matter who is publishing it.

  17. Megg Jensen

    Yeah, Nathan, sorry but I have to disagree with you here. I've worked/volunteered in libraries for more than twenty years and spent three years managing a used books store.

    The average reader could care less who published a book. Yes, if you say, "My book was published by Harper Collins," there will be recognition in there.

    But no one goes into a library or bookstore, finds a book that looks interesting, and then looks for the publisher before buying or checking it out. It doesn't happen.

    It's quite possible most of your friends are really well-read and well-educated about the publishing industry. Talk to the average person and they won't have a clue who published the last book they read – even if it was Harper Collins.


  18. Michelle Davidson Argyle

    I agree. I think publishers matter to a portion of consumers. I've found that out more and more in my career. I'm always surprised by how many non-writing readers recognize certain publisher logos. It's also a huge difference in saying you're self-published and with a publisher no matter how ugly that might seem to some writers.

  19. Lexi

    Given the proportion of uninspired books mainstream publishers put out, I think they are lucky consumers don't register their names on the spine.

    I'll never buy another book by TV presenter Sandi Toksvig, given how amateur Flying Under Bridges was, but which opportunist publisher was responsible? I've no idea.

  20. D.G. Hudson

    I don't buy a book because of who published it, and I never look for a book by a particular publisher.

    Shouldn't the publisher be transparent except to the distributors & the supply chain?

    Are the people who say they only buy books by reputable publishers industry insiders?

    Cachet is important, but that brass ring is elusive. First you have to catch a publisher.

  21. Susan Kaye Quinn

    Is it possible for publishers to recover this "squandered" opportunity? Yes, by building brand, just like any other company. But then authors are supposed to build brand, too, and arguably, authors have more going for them in building brand because they are by definition a unified force (vs. a company with many authors). It's like the difference between Procter and Gamble and Pampers – which brand do you invest in? The author (Pampers) or the company (P&G)?

    P&G succeeds in doing both to a limited extent. But the consumer looking at the shelves is going to shop for Pampers first.

  22. Jill Corcoran

    I absolutely agree with this!

    Publishers need to make their brand matter. With digital pub and just seeing a cover, I think publishers should put their name on the cover because it is way too much effort to click thru and try to figure out if a books is self-pubbed or traditionally pubbed.

    Great post!

  23. Nathan Bransford


    Susie said it better than I did, but I think there's a difference between libraries/bookstores and online. Libraries and bookstores are pre-curated and people don't have to think about the publisher because someone has already decided which books go in the bookstore and there's an assumption of a certain level of quality there. But it's different now when someone hears about a book and is thinking of getting it on Amazon.

    I also feel like consciousness about publishers is a relatively new development. Now pretty much everyone has a cousin or aunt or someone they know who has self-published, and I think more people do want to know whether it's published or self-published.

    This is just my own experience, but it's not limited to people who are very familiar with books and publishing.

  24. Doug

    The series is the brand. The reason the Harry Potter series was a success wasn't because it was published (in the US) by Scholastic.

    Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is now on its third publisher. Has anybody noticed?

    Some series continue to attract large sales even after a change in authorship (Archie McNally, Wheel of Time). Dorchester's experimenting with a return to book-packaging series written by multiple authors under a common pseudonym (Gabriel Hunt).

    Yet, sometimes the author is the brand. There are some authors whose names are big enough that they don't need series. Stephen King and John Grisham come to mind.

    I don't know how I'd characterize James Patterson, but he's definitely a brand.

    The situation can be different for publishers outside of the 'Big 6'. Harlequin does romance. Baen does sci-fi/fantasy.

    For the smaller publishers, the imprint can be the brand. Readers will continue to recognize the Hard Case Crime imprint after its recent move from Dorchester to Titan. Another move from Dorchester with a different approach: will readers recognize that Don D'Auria's Samhain Horror imprint is quite different from the usual romantica fare published by Samhain?

  25. Matthew MacNish

    Would you suggest they get rid of imprints altogether? I'm not agreeing or disagreeing, just curious.

    I hate to make another music analogy, because it seems like that's all I ever do over here, but with record labels I really love how you can count on a certain sound from a certain imprint, regardless of who the artist is.

    It would be nice if books worked that way, but I think you would have to be extremely knowledgeable about the industry to recognize (and know the flavor of) more than a few imprints.

  26. Deep River

    For the folks who say the publisher brand is immaterial: You are correct, but only because publishers do not have a consumer marketing brand strategy.

    Simply establishing a name is not a brand strategy. A brand is a basket of expectations of the consumer who consumes the brand. It takes an active effort and careful planning to establish those expectations.

    A good example is bottled water. Water is water is water, but consumer loyalty to certain brands is fierce. Even though the brands are chemically indistinguishable, many consumers will insist that their preferred brand tastes better. In my Beloved Florida, consumers of Coca-Cola's Dasani brand prefer it to tap water, even though Dasani is tap water purchased from the City of Jacksonville.

    The difference is in the consumer expectations of the brand. The consumer expects the Dasani bottled tap water to taste better than the same water from his home tap, so he experiences "better taste" when consuming the Dasani brand.

    Of course books and authors are not bottled water. Loyalty to a certain author is based upon the author's work. But an effective consumer marketing strategy by a publisher would enable a publisher to leverage loyalty to one author to sell works from other authors.

    The key is to associate the expectations of the experience of reading one author with expectations of enjoyment of reading a new author.

  27. Nathan Bransford


    If I were in charge a major publisher I'd do a brand awareness survey of the imprints and only keep the ones with sufficient recognition. Then I'd rebrand the others "Major Publisher Children's Books, Major Publisher Business, Major Publisher Wellness," etc. etc.

  28. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    Doug. Yes, the author is the brand and sometimes the title / franchise (Such as Star Wars, Star Trek, StarCraft, Mass Effect, etc, etc… so what you can't connect to one specific author.). But I never heard that the brand would be the publisher and only the publisher as they love to advertise it sometimes.

  29. Cathy Yardley

    I have mixed feelings about this. I think that, if anything, publishers don't have enough cachet. Readers I've talked to also don't know/don't care who publishes a book. They'll look at the quality of the cover, maybe the design inside, but they're not going to assume that a Big 6 has more cachet than a small press. I think they figure if it made it on a bookshelf and the cover/printing looks decent, it's not complete amateur hour. The only publisher that I've seen that does active branding is Harlequin, often emphasizing line recognition over individual author. I think some small publishers might be able to use branding to their advantage, but it's a weird issue.

  30. Hiroko

    Such is the pain of self-publishers. 🙁

    I'm not a social butterfly or anything, but for all the people I know, they don't read anything that doesn't have a major publisher behind it. It's not that people will recognize all the names of a publisher and their imprints, but the fact that the imprints/publisher exist behind a book is enough for the average reader. Again, it's yet another wall self-publishers have to try to break down.

  31. Terin Tashi Miller

    You're right, and Michelle is right.

    It's indeed "ugly," but true. One of the first questions in many contests is "name of publisher." It even, I suspect though don't know for certain, is indicated in the ISBN number of a book.

    And I'll admit, as a writer, I would still prefer to have the cachet of a "known" publisher to help attract readers.

    That said, many small imprints were around–far more than now–during the literary flowering between WWI and WWII, as I mentioned in another post. Perhaps that's what will happen again–and readers will have to rely more on reviewers than publishers or even an imprint's cachet to guide them to great writing?

    And then, as in the past, writers will have to pay a reviewer (as the publishers have)…and it all gets ugly again…

  32. Amy

    Too true. The imprints mean nothing to me, but the name of a major publisher means something.

  33. Deep River

    To a certain extent, Nathan, I'd agree with your suggestion of identifying which imprint brands should be retained and which should be dumped.

    But based upon the excellent comments many have made, I'd expect that few imprints have sufficient brand awareness to make such a survey reliable.

    Publisher brands have never really been marketed as consumer brands. Authors have always been the forefront, and lacking any branding effort by publishers, consumers have had to rely on their familiarity with authors rather than publishers.

    Since the cost of developing a brand is relatively low for something as highly targeted and personal as fiction, it would be better for publishers to work on developing communities of loyal author fans… then work on drawing those communities together under the imprint brand.

  34. Megg Jensen

    Nathan –

    I get what you're saying. But doesn't the majority of the buying population continue to shop in bookstores or check out books from libraries? eBooks are still a smaller percentage in the grand picture.

    As for online sales & self-pub – sure, branding might make a difference. I always look at a book a little harder if I know it came through Harper Teen.

    Some of us indies also have our own publishing imprints (I belong to DarkSide Publishing). We do hope to snag readers through brand recognition. All of our titles are YA or MG, but they run the gamut in genres.

    So maybe we're doing what you suggest traditional publishers should do? Consolidate. Create recognition through quality offerings. Make readers aware not just one author, but the whole body of work put through the publisher. That's what we hope for.

    I just had to giggle for a moment when I realized you might be suggesting the same model for traditional publishers. Good thing our members have a strong background in business and marketing, not just in writing and editing.

    By the way, can I say that your blog continues to be one of my favorites? It's the only one I regularly read. Even though I'm self-pub, I seek you out more regularly than I do Konrath (*gasp* Blasphemy!). 😀

    Megg Jensen

  35. Megg Jensen

    Oh, and pre-curated books in libraries & bookstores is a whole other blog post, my friend.

    Barnes & Noble is paid for shelf-space. That's not curation. That's retail advertising space. Smaller, indie bookstores pride themselves on connecting readers with local authors (usually pubbed very small presses). I know, I used to work at one of those stores.

    How many librarians read every book they put in circulation? Not many. I know some of who do, and they take great pride in their collection. Most (again, not ALL) libraries are put together simply through bestseller lists and catalog choices.


  36. Megg Jensen

    Oh, and the use of 'my friend' wasn't mean to be condescending. I really do think you're a cool guy. 😀

    (shutting up now….)


  37. J Scott Savage

    Great post, Nathan. Another thing I've noticed is that when I said I was published by Shadow Mountain (an independent based out of Utah) it was hard to get much respect when it came to scheduling school events, libraries, conferences, etc.

    Just in the last month, since I signed a book deal with Harper Collins, I've had those same people coming to me.

    It's a tough world no matter what path you take. But being able to mention you are with a large publisher definitely makes it a little easier.

  38. Deep River

    "So maybe we're doing what you suggest traditional publishers should do? Consolidate. Create recognition through quality offerings. Make readers aware not just one author, but the whole body of work put through the publisher. That's what we hope for." – Megg Jensen

    That's exactly what I'm suggesting publishers should do to develop a consumer brand.

    Doug mentioned Baen Books, and it is an excellent example. Looking for more of David Drake's "Lt. Leary" series, I found Elizabeth Moon and David Weber through Baen's website. I've never paid attention to publisher brand before, but when I'm in the mood for space opera, I check Baen's web site first. My expectation is that Baen authors put out good product, especially when I discovered that Baen publishes Asimov, Heinlein, and several other authors I like.

    The same is true for publishers with a diverisifed portfolio. Hunting my local library for more Horatio Hornblower style naval fiction, I stumbled across Robert Macomber's series set in Civil War Florida. Having learned something new about consulting publisher websites with Baen, I checked out Pineapple Press and bought a history of the Florida Keys and a variety of Florida non-fiction.

    Both Baen and Pineapple Press are now my "go to" sites along with Amazon, all because I have a certain expectation of what those publisher brands will deliver.

  39. Leah

    When the world's biggest booksellers are not bothering to sort or prominently label books based on publisher at the point of sale–their web sites–it has a huge impact on consumer awareness. Or in this case, lack thereof.

    I see no evidence that most readers can distinguish between publishers at any grain finer than self-pubbed vs. not-self-pubbed (and even that, not often). The indie/micro/university/e-presses, once differentiated by their physical distribution limitations as compared to the Big Six, are now on even footing in the digital marketplace.

    I completely agree with Nathan that large publishers *should* capitalize on cachet to distinguish themselves in this crowded bazaar. And I don't think that will happen by de-emphasizing imprints, but rather emphasizing the connection with their parent publishers: "Grand Central (An Imprint of Hachette Book Group)" or "Minotaur (St. Martin's/MacMillan)" should be prominently displayed in product metadata. Currently, Amazon just lists the imprint itself.

    The irony is the dissociation of a specialized imprint with its parent press was once a selling point, a means of distinguishing itself as an independent voice separate from its corporate backing, but now the reverse may be more desirable: that corporate backing is a guarantor of quality control.

  40. Mira

    Cool discussion and post! Love the differing opinions.

    In terms of your recommendation that publishers drop imprints to strengthen their brand name – absolutely!! I shudder to speculate on the internal politics that would trigger, but I agree that it would be absolutely the right move.

    In terms of whether consumers care about publisher names, I think it's speculative at this point, and it would be good to have some actual research on this. Otherwise, we could go back and forth, but either side could be right.

    My personal speculation falls in the middle. Excluding writers and insiders who are part of the publishing culture, for the general public, my speculation is that this is a class issue. I suspect that the upper class and upper-middle class care about publishing cachet, since those classes tend to be trained to recognize cachet.

    The cachet given to a publishing label has not been earned through general advertising, but is instead is a concept of "expert elitism". That will appeal much more to the upper classes.

    If publishers want to create brand recognition in other classes, they need to advertise in a way that will appeal to them. And, imho, they should have started doing that years ago, but they didn't because they prefer their elitist status, to be quite frank.

    So, the above is speculative, and a gross generalization, individuals within any class will be individuals and I truly hope I'm not offending anyone other than publishers who prefer to remain elite. I'm okay with offending them.

    Thanks so much for the fascinating topic, Nathan!

  41. Anonymous

    Consumers need to get over the whole brand thing and learn to step outside their comfort zone. They might be pleasantly surprised.

  42. Anonymous

    I see this all the time with Romance and I wonder. It's so bad it's hard to tell who's publishing anything nowadays.

    And, like you said, I prefer buying what I know, not what I don't know. I've been taken several times on books that were poorly written and I won't do it again. I'd rather stick with the "brand" I know.

  43. Deep River

    "And, like you said, I prefer buying what I know, not what I don't know. I've been taken several times on books that were poorly written and I won't do it again. I'd rather stick with the "brand" I know." – Anonymous

    Ahh… rem acu tetigisti. You have touched the matter with a needle.

    That is the basis of brand loyalty. It gives a marketer leverage to launch a new product, to support a premium price, to raise barriers to competition, and to build intangible value in the company.

    At present and in general there really isn't any such thing as publisher brand – not in the way brand is used to grow a publisher's market share or revenues.

    But building brand loyalty is a two-way street. For long term success, publishers must deliver a consistent experience that their stable of authors are better.

  44. Taylor Napolsky

    Regarding ebooks, readers determine quality in authors, regardless of if they have a publisher. You just have to look at how many books the author has out, the quality of the cover designs, the number of reviews they get and the ratings they get.

    In this way, authors develop their own brand, so even an author without a traditional publisher can have a rep that is better than the traditionally published.

    Readers certainly won't balk at buying a lauded indie author, just because they have no real publisher behind them.

  45. jesse

    Good point.

  46. Caleb

    The experiment of asking 100 people to name a major publisher is misleading. There is a difference between being able to name a publisher by heart and choosing between a traditionally published book and a self published book.

    Given that choice, all other things being equal, more people will choose the traditionally published book. They may not know the names of the publishers by heart but they'll recognize the name when they see it and the name will remind them (perhaps subconsciously) of previously published quality books.

  47. Darley

    You're right. It seems like the big publishers are making a mistake. If brand loyalty is a factor then they should be careful not to sabotage it.

  48. Bittersweet Fountain

    As many people have said, I think it all depends. In the end, I think I agree with Nathan in the whole keep imprints that are popular but relabel the ones that aren't as Major Publisher's Kids Books. For example, I've been in love with Tor books since I was 11. Go back and time and ask my 11 year old self who my favorite publishers are, I would've said "Scholastic and Tor." But what seventh grade me didn't know was that Tor is only an imprint. I didn't know until I started researching publishers in college that Tor was an imprint of Tom Doherty.

    Tor–by labeling books with the imprint–has brought authors to my attention. It's a brand that I trust. Re-label the books "Tom Doherty" and I no longer associate it with the Wheel of Time, Sara Douglass, John Scalzi, David Weber, and the dozens of other authors that I've picked up because they were Tor books.

    And that was as a teenage consumer. I think we need to give the average population more credit. When people find a brand they love, they stick with it. Tor is my brand.

  49. Krista V.

    While I agree with those who've pointed out that readers don't walk into a bookstore and ask themselves, "Gee, I think I'm in the mood for something from Scholastic this afternoon," brand recognition does go a long way for a debut novelist. And since that's what most of us are trying to become, we should care about this more than anyone.

    Consider two debut novelists. One went the traditional publishing route, and her agent ended up selling her novel to Scholastic (or one of its many imprints). The other decided to self-publish.

    In conversations with friends and family – and, hopefully, random acquaintances – Debut Novelist #1 can tell people Scholastic is publishing her novel. (And even if that doesn't ring any bells, she can add, "The same company who published Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.") Instant credibility.

    Debut Novelist #2 is going to have to explain what self-publishing is and how that works – and maybe even why one of the Big Six DIDN'T publish her novel. And while others might respect her go-get-'em attitude, that explanation isn't going to lend itself to instant credibility.

    So yes, I have to agree with Nathan that publishers aren't doing themselves any favors by slice-and-dicing their household names into unrecognizable bits. Heck, I've been following this industry pretty closely for more than three years now, and I'm only just starting to recognize certain imprints and remember which publisher they go with. Not the best way to build your brand.

  50. Sarah E. Olson

    I think the publisher only matters (at least for me) when looking for new authors online.

    The reason I look for a recognizable publisher: it means that more than one person, someone other than the author, someone who works in the publishing industry, has read the book and thinks it's good. As a slush reader for a SF/F magazine, I read a lot of terrible stories. The ones that get through me, and through editor, are usually pretty good because we weed out the bad stuff. Maybe you don't like the stories we picked, but believe me, there's a lot worse out there.

    Granted, I've read some books from publishers that I hated. Books that I thought were poorly written. But on the whole, they're high quality.

    Anybody, and I mean anybody, can publish a book on Amazon these days. A book that no one but them has read or edited. Maybe it's the first thing they've ever written. Maybe it's some of these writers who sent me their terrible stories, but they think they're publishable. And just maybe, they can get 200 of their best friends to give it a 5-star rating.

    THAT'S what scares me about self-publishing.

  51. Diana

    Speaking as a reader and buyer of books, I disagree that who the publisher is or the imprint of the publishers is that important in selling books.

    I buy a lot of books both fiction and nonfiction. I don't have to worry about weeding out the self-published books, because I shop in brick and mortar bookstores not Amazon. I rarely buy books from Amazon because I hate trying to browse through their site. It's time consuming and frustrating when one only wants to browse. If I browse at a brick and mortar bookstore then I come across books that I never would have encountered on Amazon. Books that I wasn't aware that I was looking for and wanting to read by authors that I had never heard of. It's like a treasure hunt and I always come away with an armful of treasure.

    I also borrow books from the library. I use the card catalog to get me in the general vicinity of what I am interested in and then I browse the shelfs. And find books that I didn't know that I wanted to read by authors that I have never heard of.

    The number of times the publisher has influenced my buying decision is almost never. I think there was a Jane Austen book that I bought several years ago because it was published by Penguin classic, but that is a rare exception.

    The author is the brand. When I buy a book written by one of my favorite authors, I know what kind of book that I am getting. The author can switch publishers and I couldn't care less.

    I try new authors all the time. I'm always on the hunt for new authors to add to my favorites list. Because the ones that are on my list can't write fast enough to fill my need to read. I never use the publisher of a new to me author as the basis for trying their book.

    It's only writers who know who the publishers and imprints are. The majority of readers who are not also writers probably couldn't tell you who the big six publishers are. I know a lot of people who read and we never discuss who the best publishers are or "hey, did you see the new release from Penquin?" We talk about authors and specific book titles.

  52. The Terrorland

    Future… future…. future of agenting and publishing….!!

  53. Kristin Laughtin

    I've been thinking this for a while, especially since I'm heavily into SFF and publishers are recognized by at least the profilic readers in that genre. I think, though, that this is going to have to be something publishers learn the hard way, and hope the branding will go stronger as they begin to compete more with self-published authors. As more and more of them enter the mix, and assuming it takes a while for the public to become fully trusting of them, they'll start paying more attention to the publisher names as brands and seals of approval.

  54. Bob

    As I noted in my last blog post, most readers don't care if the book is published by a goat. No one buys "the next Random House". It's authors who are brands.
    The Titanic is going down and those in steerage either already jumped off and gone indie or they're dead. First class can still eat caviar, but the ship is still sinking.

  55. Anne R. Allen

    You're making a very important point here, Nathan. As much as we'd like the general public to be educated about the self-pub revolution, an awful lot of them aren't. People who get all their reading info from the NYT Book Review, for instance. And people who only buy a few books a year, and once bought a self-pubbed book from that woman at church and it was so awful, they had to sit in the back pew for a year to avoid her.

    Also agree on the imprint thing. I recently brought up a book title at a party. "Was it self-published or did they have a real publisher" said Uninformed Person. "It was published by Grand Central," said I. "Not a real publisher like Random House or Little Brown?" said she. "I think Grand Central IS Little, Brown," said I. (Not even sure myself. Is Hachette owned by Little, Brown, or the other way around?)

    Uninformed Person shook her head and snorted as if I was trying to pull something on her. Everybody laughed at me. And these are book people. This info isn't on the evening broadcast news, so many older people don't have a clue.

    So thank you very much for this post!

  56. Nathan Bransford


    Yep – Grand Central and Little, Brown are imprints of Hachette.

  57. alexclermont

    I agree. Even though I'm somewhat interested in self-publishing I almost never buy self-published books. The fact that a book has been through the traditional process means a lot in terms of the quality, at least to me (and thousands of others).

    That name recognition means an awful lot and translate to sales.

  58. Meaghan

    I think a lot of people are missing the point- it's not THAT the imprint or even the brand name of the publisher matter right NOW. It's that they COULD matter- these are brand names that we've created and let fall to the background. In the brick and mortar model, this was ok (someone made a very good point about this being because a physical store promotes a feeling of "vetting"). In a digital world, where everyone can just print whatever they want, really taking advantage of a brand and image is one way publishers can really make their mark on the digital front.

  59. June G

    This is the first time I've seen a post on this and I agree wholeheartedly. Lots of my friends who don't write, have no idea of some of the imprints I mention. Many people don't unless they're a part of the publishing world in some way and most readers are not.

    If a book is good and gets the right marketing, that can make all the difference though, regardless of the name on the spine.

    Nevertheless, you've made some valid points. Excellent post and very well put.

  60. Adam Heine

    Of course people care about authors over publishers, and nobody goes to Amazon and searches for books by Tor.

    But they do search by genre, or follow Amazon's recommendations. And when they hit upon an author they've never heard of, the publisher is one of many factors that can go into their decision.

    I'd agree that, at the moment, who published a book is a small factor–maybe the smallest. But why should it be that way?

    Opinions aside, publishers go through a lot of trouble to choose quality books. If they marketed that fact, and changed the imprint names nobody knows to include the Big 6 name (like Nathan suggested in an earlier comment), it would go a long way towards not just increasing sales, but increasing the cachet that publishers provide.

    Imagine a world with TV ads for Random House, where bookstores set up a display just for Tor books, where publishers' cachet was so strong they could sell books directly from their websites (and people would actually go there to look for them!).

    It sounds almost ridiculous, but I don't see why it couldn't happen. What's the point of having a business name if nobody knows it?

  61. Victoria

    Well, I look for certain publishers when I buy. I know Piatkus is going to put out something I'll enjoy, because I've liked pretty much everything they've done so far… and I'll try a new book based on the strength of their brand. (Edgy, hot, a little dark…)

    I buy Orbit for Sci-fi and Fantasy and I know what I'm getting… (a little more bloodthirstiness than say, HC).

    I could name a few others, but you get the gist.

    I realise a lot of you are arguing that no one has bought using publisher style as a guide previously, and in your experience that may be true. I personally do, and I know others who do, so it can't be that uncommon.

    Regardless, the point that Nathan makes so well is that going forward, in a market under deluge, people ARE going to start looking more towards publishers for the best work available. And Nathan's point is a smart one… publishers should be building an identifiable brand for purchasers.

    (And by the way, as writers, it pays to be aware of an imprint or publishers style. When you get to the talking through submission stage with your agent, it pays to be aware of the market.)

  62. Victoria

    Well, I look for certain publishers when I buy. I know Piatkus is going to put out something I'll enjoy, because I've liked pretty much everything they've done so far… and I'll try a new book based on the strength of their brand. (Edgy, hot, a little dark…)

    I buy Orbit for Sci-fi and Fantasy and I know what I'm getting… (a little more bloodthirstiness than say, HC).

    I could name a few others, but you get the gist.

    I realise a lot of you are arguing that no one has bought using publisher style as a guide previously, and in your experience that may be true. I personally do, and I know others who do, so it can't be that uncommon.

    Regardless, the point that Nathan makes so well is that going forward, in a market under deluge, people ARE going to start looking more towards publishers for the best work available. And Nathan's point is a smart one… publishers should be building an identifiable brand for purchasers.

    (And by the way, as writers, it pays to be aware of an imprint or publishers style. When you get to the talking through submission stage with your agent, it pays to be aware of the market.)

  63. Simon Haynes

    A lot of the imprints are left over from large publishers buying small ones. The offices and staff are long gone, and only the imprint remains.

    Look at british comics in the 70's and 80's – the arrival of cheap home computers destroyed the market, and mergers were taking place every month. A larger comic would add 'and [insert smaller name]' to their masthead for about 12 months, and after that it would quietly vanish.

    If the title of the imprint is all you have left after you've bought out a competitor, you can bet publishers are going to use it as long as possible.

  64. Isabella Amaris

    @Mira – I think you're spot on. There's something disturbingly class-based when it comes to the idea of building cachet by publishing imprint.

    To put it bluntly, the beauty of the book comes down to the writing and the editing. These two are in themselves an inexact science; marketing, cover design, style etc are just as inexact in targeting reader markets, if not more so.

    To imply that, somehow, quality can be perpetually guaranteed by a singular publishing house for any particular genre of books they represent, thereby lending cachet to the books they put out, significantly downplays I think the often experimental nature of writing/storytelling (and editing to a lesser extent), not to mention the changing tastes of readers, and deifies the nature of the publishing house as something beyond a business selling/distributing books for profit.

    How to associate quality only with particular 'brands' of publishing houses when those same companies are essentially people who are unable in themselves to predict what readers want to read or what readers consider 'quality' with any accuracy anyway?

    If there really is a need for cachet as a filter system, better to outsource cover design and marketing while having 'editing houses' specifically imbued with their own cachet. Knowing the pesonal editing style applied to a book would be more telling of the book's quality than knowing who marketed it, who did the cover design, who distributed it and so on (ie, the 'whole package' the trad publishers are assumed to be).

    The only integral service publishers provided to writers (apart from distribution) has always been editing. Distribution is now becoming democratised.
    I'm beginning to think more editors need to form companies of their own to build the quality of (and profits associated with) editing. There is a goldmine of quality-centred commercial enterprise waiting to erupt for editors. More so than writers or publishing houses, I sometimes think. I know that if I were a reader looking for quality goods, I'd probably pay more attention to 'editing' brands than 'publishing' brands, if that makes any sense…

  65. Isabella Amaris

    p.s. btw, I'm one of those readers who actually pays some attention to imprints/publishing houses ie I can pretty much identify who's publishing what. ultimately, that doesn't make me buy the book. Ie, I don't have a favourite imprint after all these yrs lol or even a favourite publishing house. I have favourite authors. And, yes, a favourite editor or two:)

  66. Isabella Amaris

    p.s.s. and the basic reason I pay attention to those imprints/publishing houses in the first place is cause I happen to be enmeshed in this industry. Not because I've found them to be a guarantee of quality/style. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Okay, shutting up now:)

  67. J.C. Martin

    Very interesting post!

    While I agree with you that many imprints are rather obscure (just look at the spine of the books on your bookshelf — even those by famous authors have imprints that make me go "Who?"), and that it might detract from the 'prestige', if you will, of being published with a major publisher. However, I think this is more of a problem in the world of online book purchases, as most people I know probably won't be looking at the publisher's name when shopping in a book store. If it made it onto the shelves, it must have passed some sort of quality control, and it must have been published by some pretty big-name publisher.

  68. Anna

    Provocative post, and I think Nathan's not far off the mark … in some cases. When I read a lot of scifi, I did notice when a book was published by Tor and when it wasn't. I pay attention if a book of poetry is published by Norton or Greywolf Press. But for most of my general fiction reading today, I pay attention to the author and the plot, not the imprint. And that's after spending a year thinking about publishing and paying attention to everything about the physical book.

    That said, publishing and imprints mean a lot in academia. You cannot get tenure in the humanities unless your book is published by a major university press or by a reputable mainstream press such as Norton.

    Historically, certain presses have held a certain reputation, good or bad. Minerva Press was known in Britain for publishing cheap gothic novels. But who published Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, arguably the most influential novel of the later 18th century? Samuel Richardson, at his own press. Ultimately, for readers of fiction, it's the book (and author's reputation) that matters, not the publisher's logo on the title page.

  69. Mira

    Isabella – thanks, but I think we may be saying slightly different things.

    Just to clarify – my view – I don't think cachet in and of itself is a class concept, it's more of an image thing which works to market products in a capitalist economy.

    I'm saying that publishings' current cachet is based on a "cultural gatekeepers" image, something targeted more toward the upper classes.

    They are trying to change that to a "quality gatekeepers" image, but they will need to reach the lower classes to pull that off.

    They would need to either do a huge marketing blitz or actually deliver a higher quality product. Since they can't reall control the latter, since the author is the one who decides whether they even approach traditional publishers or go the self-publishing route, they really should go with a marketing blitz. Or do something to entice authors.

    I'm not all that hopeful they will do either, based on what seems to be an entrenched inertia, but they might surprise us! Maybe if we tweak their noses enough on posts like these, they'll pay attention!

  70. Nathan Bransford


    I think cachet may be the wrong word because I agree that implies a certain upper-crustiness, but it's not what I mean. It's not about class. Harlequin does not market itself to "upper classes," but it has what I'm calling cachet because it's known for a particular type of book that its authors do very well.

    What I mean by cachet is really about trust – you're placing your faith in the publisher (or bookstore or library or restaurant or clothing store) that you're going to get a certain type of product and a certain level of quality. The more consumers trust a brand the more "cachet" (or whatever) the brand has.

  71. Anonymous

    I used to think that writers were the heros of the publishing world. Now, I've put away childish toys and see that it's the brand, whether that be publisher, imprint, or author. (Patterson is a franchise, btw.) I don't like that.

    I adore the freedom and low cost that's come to self-publishing and have been open-minded esp in romance genre to self-pubbed writers via Kindle. But lately, I've started to weigh in for publishers. Self-pubbed stuff can be SOOOO bad. It's not a given, but a pro editor / agent will weed out the dogs, not to mention zillions of typos and grammatical errors.

  72. Mira

    Nathan –

    I could be wrong, but I think we're using the word in the same way.

    I guess what I'm saying is publishing has earned that 'trust' with the upper classes, because publishers do market, in a subtle way, to those classes (trade magazines, prestigious book reviews, etc.) They have not marketed themselves (in any way that I'm aware of) to the middle or lower classes, so those classes don't have brand consciousness or trust with publishers unless they are industy insiders, read niche genres and develop loyalty to a label, or are simply individuals who care about publishers.

    This started because I was speculating on why people on this thread have differening opinions about whether the publisher matters. 🙂

  73. Nathan Bransford


    Still disagree somewhat. What about mass market paperbacks in supermarkets, Harlequin romances, etc.? Not every book is marketed as literary – they're not making TV commercials for Jonathan Franzen, they're making commercials for James Patterson.

  74. Matthew MacNish

    I hate time zones. I like to read the week in books before I leave work, because sometimes I'll forget to read it at home, and then I don't see it until Monday.

  75. Mira

    Nathan, sorry for the delay in my response – my work computer kept crashing at your site, but it's better now.

    You raise some really good points! Harlequin is a definite exception, and it helps that they print their names right on the front: "Harlequin Presents"

    And James Patterson is a good example of what publishing might do more of, only they could add their name:

    James Patterson's Publisher Presents:
    James Patterson

    That would help increase their visibility.

    I also want to quickly add that my discussion about class wasn't really meant to be hyper judgemental, but more explanatory about why publishers may be more visible to some than to others. It was also speculative, and I could be wrong!

  76. tamarapaulin

    I was just having this exact same discussion with my husband, and then I saw your post! He didn't know who TOR books was, even though their little logo is on half of his paperbacks.

  77. timdibulator

    I agree with what you're saying, Nathan. In fact, the only thing that keeps me from buying a self-published book is that it can't show that it has been vetted, edited, and proven by slapping the name of a publisher on it.

    There is nothing more annoying than purchasing a book and realizing it is poorly written, or worse, poorly edited. The major publishers let us consumers know what has been identified as quality.

  78. Lexi

    Krista, when I tell people I've written novels, they do sometimes ask who published me. I tell them I'm self-published. Then I mention how many I sold in the last year.

    That gives me instant credibility, I find :o)

  79. Other Lisa

    This is a great post, and a great discussion.

    I absolutely agree that publishers need to leverage their imprint "brands" and ditch the ones they can't logically promote. I think there's a ton of opportunity for publishers, authors and readers if this is done intelligently.

    Imprints and publishers do mean things to booksellers, for example. I experienced this first hand last year when I did my mini-author tour.

    Publishers can and should use the advantages that they have and develop coherent brand identities for their imprints, and ditch the ones that don't work.

  80. Meaghan

    I think the point is less whether the publisher matters NOW and more that it COULD matter. I don’t think NB is suggesting that people walk into a bookstore thinking “I want a book from Random House” and go looking for only that. But that going forward in a market where anyone can produce content, what publishers will have to offer some assurance of consumer is quality control. It would be, as someone pointed out earlier, the same kind of assurance you would get from a book being in a bookstore- someone read this and thought “People will like it”. Not a guarantee that everyone or even you will like it, but enough that it’s worth testing out. I think it’s a valid point that a recognizable brand name will be crucial to publishers as we move forward.

    I think, however, that imprints still have the capacity to be relevant as their own brand/identities. Reading tastes are SO specific and targeted, especially within genre fiction, that imprints (at least some of them) within houses could benefit from being more recognizable.

  81. Daniel McNeet


    The title, the cover, and the summary on the back will cause the reader to open the book and read a page of two no matter the imprint.

  82. warlocketx

    Imprints are important for niches, much less so for best sellers and the like.

    I read mostly SF, and have individual preferences. When I go looking for a book (unspecified, just something to read) I will look first at those with the Baen imprint, because their selection process yields the "flavor" of SF I prefer. If I don't find anything that looks good based on cover, blurb, and the like, the next choice is Tor.

    A good presentation will override that, so I'm not wedded to either publisher; I'm playing percentages. When I was traveling a lot, and buying lots of books to while away the hours in motel rooms, it saved time in the selection process. This is what "brand" is all about.

    For big sellers and supermarket books, imprint is practically meaningless. That doesn't mean it couldn't be, but at the present state of marketing in the publishing business it is.


  83. Anna Murray

    The imprint doesn't tell me much when I browse for books to add to my Kindle. Amazon gives the consumer more value-added in the sample and "also boughts" when it comes to making book selections.

    Imprint alone can't tell me what type of reader is buying the book ("also boughts") or whether I'll enjoy the writing style (the Amazon sample feature), or whether the book is selling briskly (Amazon ranking).

  84. M. C. Arvanitis, YA Writer

    I agree with Anna Murray: The imprint doesn't tell me much when I browse for books to add to my Kindle. Amazon gives the consumer more value-added in the sample and "also boughts" when it comes to making book selections.

  85. Marilyn Peake

    You said that the name of a big publisher "theoretically" carries cachet with readers. Theoretically is correct. Once a reader knows how to search for great fantastic self-published books, the cachet of a big name publisher completely disappears. Recently, I've found more typos in books published by big name publishers than in the self-published books I've purchased, so the big publishers have lost their edge in regard to editing for me, especially since they usually price their eBooks at many times the price of self-published books. Big name publishers are also much less likely to publish edgy books; so many of them end up having cookie-cutter plots, which I find disappointing. I always search an imprint, by the way, so I find it easy to figure out who's the main publisher. That said, I still buy great books by the big name publishers, but it has nothing to do with cachet. I buy many more self-published and indie-published books than books coming out of the big publishing houses these days.

  86. janesadek

    I plead guilty to the above. If I'm standing at the bookstore with two volumes and I know nothing about the authors, the publishing house can make a difference to me.

  87. Melissa Douthit


    This is a good point you make but I have a feeling that as we get more into the digital revolution of the book world and publishers start dropping like flies, this name recognition is going to matter less and less.

  88. Janiel Miller

    If I'm holding two books with similar plots and unfamiliar authors–one published by Bloomsbury and the other by Big Bubba's Beer and Book Binding–I'm going with the publisher of Harry Potter.

    And for heaven's sake, give the imprints some cred by getting rid of half of them. It's like watered-down jello with little chunks of missed opportunity floating around in it out there.

  89. John

    On Amazon many of the large publishers are demolishing their street creds with the Agency model of pricing ebooks. Perusing the Kindle forums will show you that resentment runs deep and is growing deeper.

    I'm pretty sure the big publishers are doing more now to make sure the public views them as money-grubbers more than bastions of quality control.

    And as any new author knows, they really don't do much for you in terms of marketing. Much of that is left to the author–they have to make connections with readers and get the word out.

    Once you've done that, it's your name that matters. The author will be the brand in the mind of most readers. Reviews on Goodreads and Amazon will either add or detract from that name brand.

    Let's face it. The traditional model of printing and distribution is dying. Borders is the latest victim.

    I'm an avid reader and I probably couldn't tell you who the publisher is on half my books. I use Goodreads reviews more than anything else to determine what's worth reading and what isn't.

    I also download samples to my Kindle to see how I like it.

    Otherwise, indie, traditiona, it really doesn't matter to me so long as I enjoy it. And then I'll be yet another grassroots link to boosting or lowering the quality of that author's brand.

  90. Claude Nougat

    Great post, Nathan! The publishing world has changed for good and the last card publishers could play to re-assert themselves in front of the indie digital tsunami is surely "cachet" – and when they have too many (unknown) imprints, you are right, they are wasting that card!

    But for how long?

    Won't they wake up and regroup themselves around a few high-selling imprints? I know that's what I would do if I were a trad publisher…And when that day comes, it will be curtains for self-pubbed newbies!

  91. Anonymous

    Large multi-million/billion Dollar publishers are not stupid.

    If imprints mattered to readers and retailers, and ultimately selling more books, do you think publishers would use unknown imprint names on their books? Of course not. Penguin would have their name on every single book they print if it would help them sell more books.

  92. Nathan Bransford


    No room for improvement anywhere? Publishers are perfect as-is?


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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