Book-industry watchers were surprised last fall when religious publisher Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tenn., announced plans to wipe away its portfolio of 21 separate imprints -- including well-known brands such as Rutledge Hill and WestBow Press -- and bring all of its titles under the Thomas Nelson banner.
The reorganization, called the One Company Initiative, went into effect April 1. The company expects to cycle its old imprints out of the market in the next two years.
Company CEO Michael Hyatt, who refers to the strategy as "customer-focused publishing," believes most imprints have little value in the marketplace, and in fact represent a waste of resources that would be better spent on author- and topic-based marketing efforts.
"They don't mean anything to anyone," he told Ad Age recently. "Imprints simply add another layer of noise in trying to reach consumers. With rare exception, consumers don't care about imprints."
Internal discussion about dropping the brands began more than two years ago, when sales plateaued after a period of substantial growth fueled by acquisitions. The company began tracking sales in consumer categories such as Bibles, fiction, juvenile and gift books, and eventually decided to reorganize its sales and marketing efforts around those categories found to be most successful.
"The marketing is much more on target," Mr. Hyatt said of the new system. "Categories typically share the same audience. So our editorial and marketing teams can learn the field, including the main reviewers and gatekeepers."
Such a system dovetails better with booksellers' thinking, Mr. Hyatt argued, and reduces redundancies and needless internal competition, as salespeople can specialize in topics (such as health and fitness) that were once duplicated across multiple marketing teams.
Still, Mr. Hyatt's move isn't likely to spread across the publishing world. While many in the book industry would agree with Mr. Hyatt's assessment of consumers' attitude toward imprints (with some notable exceptions -- think Penguin Classics' orange spine), it is, arguably, beside the point. When used wisely, imprints are valuable as a means to focus on a certain demographic and position a title for sales reps, buyers and retailers.
'By publishers for publishers'
"Imprints are a tool created by publishers for publishers, but this does not minimize their importance," said Seth Gershel, a book-industry consultant and former executive at Simon & Schuster. "Imprints work to properly position the book in the minds of those working at the publishing house and helps them to clearly focus on the book's attributes and market positioning."
With hundreds of books released each year, imprints allow more titles to stand out, he says.
"If it's all bulked into one list, what might have been a lead title in one imprint becomes title No. 12, and doesn't get promoted as heavily."
"Traditionally, imprints were formed more as a way to create different opportunities to sell to accounts," agreed Ellen Archer, senior VP-publisher at Hyperion. "The different imprints allow reps to position the books to key buyers. If there's an embarrassment of riches on the list, then the buyer has more of a chance to spread their bets across a larger list of books."
"There are certain publishers who are trying to brand themselves with a lot of disparate titles," she said. "You've got to have a focus -- that's where imprints can help."
At Hyperion, the publishing arm of Disney, discussions recently centered on marketing to the over-35 female demographic. A company best known for its nonfiction books about celebrities decided its best chance of reaching that group was to create an imprint -- Voice -- with a distinct focus and personality.
The strategy centers on market feedback from "advisory counsels" of professional women, a new website and a small, tightly focused list of around 12 books a year. "The list itself will explain what the focus and the personality is," Archer said.
"People say you can't brand an imprint. My feeling is, let me prove you wrong, because I don't believe it," she said. "I would argue that other imprints are not successful because they are not targeting a group in the way we are."
While some titles marketed to women will remain under the Hyperion brand, Archer imagines Voice as a source for edgier releases and up-market fiction -- "smart books for smart women." One of the imprint's first releases, "The Feminine Mistake," a controversial take on the working-mother debate, would not have fit well in Hyperion's portfolio, she said.
This example raises an issue familiar to those who track the historic contrast among movies released by Disney's various film divisions -- whether, without separate brands to harbor edgier releases, companies with a strong corporate identity might become risk-averse.
A few weeks after announcing its "One Company" initiative, Thomas Nelson tightened its editorial standards for authors, requiring them to assent to the tenets of Christianity's most widespread confession of faith, the Nicene Creed.
Previously, the company's Ignite imprint, among others, occasionally had featured books by authors whose theological perspective may not have passed muster under the revised standards.
"We were publishing products incongruent with our mission," Mr. Hyatt said. "Ultimately, the power of a brand is in its promise. We wanted our brand to mean something."
"It makes a blander list," Ms. Archer said of having everything under one brand, while acknowledging Thomas Nelson is publishing to a very different audience. "That's antithetical to what the marketplace wants right now, when edgy, provocative books are gaining traction."
Mr. Hyatt pointed out that all of his company's recent moves are supported by market research, something most book publishers cannot claim.
"The biggest problem with [book] marketing is research," Mr. Hyatt noted. "Very few publishers research anything. Publishers operate by intuition. They stand in the proxy of the market and unilaterally decide what the market should be reading.
"If you don't start with research, and if you don't create products that people really want, no amount of marketing razzle-dazzle will save you." James Sturdivant is a freelance writer who frequently covers the book industry.