The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Mysterious World of Textbooks

When the Imprint Isn't the Brand

BooksMichael Hyatt's post entitled Why Imprints Don't Matter should be required reading for anyone in the publishing business.  (It's also an interesting read for the casual observer or anyone who likes to read books.)  He uses this post to explain the thinking that went into his recent decision to collapse many of the imprints at Thomas Nelson Publishers.

The message that jumps out at me in all of this is simple: The imprint isn't always the brand.  In fact, it's rare that the imprint has any effect on the brand.  As Michael rightfully points out, hardly anyone knows the labels on the bestselling albums/CDs of all time.  The same goes for the studio names behind the top movies; heck, if I were leaving a theater right now, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you the name of the studio who produces the movie I just watched!  We may not want to admit it, but the same rule often holds true for book publishing as well.  I'll bet you can name the authors of the last 3 books you read, but can you name the imprints?

This is definitely a mirage that's often only seen by those of us in the book publishing world.  We tend to talk about imprints and draw distinctions between them but our customers don't see it that way at all.  They know of a title, an author or some promise that accompanied the book, but not the imprint.

There are exceptions, of course.  Further, the rules of what defines an "imprint" vs. a "series" are often blurred.  For example, in Personal Finance For Dummies, is "For Dummies" an imprint or a series?  Some would argue it's both.  Either way, For Dummies is one of the biggest brands out there in the publishing world, so it's an exception to the rule.

Why is this a big deal?  Far too often we publishers get caught up in believing that our customers will think book X is different from book Y, mostly because it's in the ABC imprint and not the DEF imprint.  When the customer picks up both books though, they can't tell the difference.

The key is to do what Michael Hyatt is suggesting: Step out of your publisher role, put yourself in the customer's shoes and see the brands as they see them.  What's the real brand?  Is it the author (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell), the title (e.g., Harry Potter...) or some other why-to-buy message (e.g., 1,000 Places to See Before You Die)?  Can you name the imprint for Gladwell, Harry Potter... or 1,000 Places to See Before You Die?  I can't.

P.S. -- It's rare to get this sort of behind-the-scenes look at how a major decision was made within a large corporation.  That's the beauty of the blogosphere though, right?  Kudos to Michael Hyatt for making not only the decision to implement this dramatic change but to openly communicate the the logic behind it through his blog.


Morgan Ramsay

Well, brands aren't logos. Logos are identification; they're basically bookmarks. When someone sees a logo, they flip to the relevant page in their mental reference. A blank page presents the "reader" with a number of options, from the choice of writing a new page to dismissing the product or organization based on purchase criteria.

A strong brand would dominate one or more pages in the reader's mental reference. On these pages are written user stories about experiences with the product or organization. The goal of the branding process is to engage consumers, serving to facilitate the generation and expression of powerful user stories. Brands are almost completely developed by consumers. I guess they're like children in the sense that parents have control (usually from birth to early development) until their children strike out on their own.

Bob Meade

I agree Joe. Imprint and publisher brands don't mean much to cutomers like me with the notable exceptions you've made.

Mr. Hyatt has been setting a great example for corporate blogging for a long time now.

Michael Miller

This emphasizes what I've been saying for about forever. With the exception of Dummies and Idiot's (and maybe D-K, O'Reilly, and a few travel brands), the publisher/imprint is unnoticed by and irrelevant to the average consumer. What's important is the author or the topic or the title. That said, imprints can be valuable internally, to help the publisher focus on specific topics, markets, customers, or approaches. Better to have a small focused staff at an imprint than a large homogeneous publisher's staff trying to be all things to all people.

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