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Publisher Brands

GenericDo you ever think about particular publishers when you're looking for a book?  If you're like the vast majority of the book buying public this rarely if ever crosses your mind.  You don't care who the publisher is.  You might be interested in the author or maybe the series but publisher names are a lot like record labels; they aren't the primary (or even secondary!) brand on the product.

There's a great summary of this over on The Huffington Post.  One might argue that some of those publisher names/logos on the spine help lend credibility to the book.  I'm not sure I'd even go that far.  Is a book really more valuable, enjoyable or useful just because it comes from one of the big-name publishers?  I can't say there's a direct correlation, or certainly not all of the time.

In reality, the author, series or other element of the book is the brand that's being built and sold.  That makes it harder for some publishers to create a meaningful online presence, but then again, even those publishers can be successful by leveraging their author/series/other brands online.  Wiley is a great example.  Although the name is well-known in the industry, and even by a large number of current/former students, the real brands (and online draws) are For Dummies, Frommer's, etc.

So which model is better: A publisher that is itself a household brand name or a publisher that manages a number of author/series/other brands?  It depends.  It depends on the reach of each of those brands, whether the publisher really owns those brands and whether that ownership is outright or through a licensing deal.  Another factor is the extensibility and expected life of each brand.  Is the brand already maxed out and there are no additional ways to leverage and monetize it?  Is the brand at the end of its expected lifecycle?

So although most publishers themselves aren't brand names in the marketplace, they're still very much involved in brand management with their authors, series and publishing partners.



I'm in the industry, so not a typical consumer, But I think there is a sizable minority of readers who are conscious of publisher brands, especially now that book reading itself is an exclusive taste. B in the D, bookstores used to organize titles by publisher, and there was a time when the New Directions imprint meant a lot. City Lights is another literary publisher with a distinctive brand. FSG owns the serious internationalist brand these days. Dalkey archive gets the avant academic label. Etc.

I think there are many publishers with a distinctive brand.

Morgan Ramsay
Is a book really more valuable, enjoyable or useful just because it comes from one of the big-name publishers?

Just as music, movies, and video games can be more valuable because they're from certain producers, books can be, too. The effects of the corporate brand might be minute or significant and external or internal; however, the effects are always there. When you're thinking about branding, you can't focus on customers. They're not the only stakeholder group you have to worry about.


I think the publishing realm you are considering is a bit narrow. Does it matter in fiction publishing (maybe). Does it matter in general non-fiction publishing (maybe). Does it matter in trade and business publishing, e.g., legal publishing, accounting, programming, etc. (absolutely). Does it matter in academic publishing, e.g., was professor X's book published by MIT press? (maybe this matters too much).

Ask a web developer the brand value of O'Reilly Media?
Ask a lawyer what the brand value of West Publishing?

In these sub-domains of publishing, its almost ridiculous to ask the question. It seems clear that in specialized fields a publisher can be a very powerful brand (even more so than an author).


I agree with EBryant. Publisher name still matters in some areas. In areas like cooking, crafts, and literature, publisher name carries quite a bit of weight. If a consumer comes to trust the caliber of publications from a specific publisher, that publisher's name does mean something. I suppose it is a macrocosm of a successful brand: If a consumer knows what to expect of a Dummies book, and every book delivers on that promise, the consumer will seek one out when looking for a primer on a new topic. Same as I often seek out new fiction from specific publishers.


If publishers want to have a brand that matters in the mind of the consumer, then they have to be deliberate about delivering that brand.

My favorite example is Black Sparrow Press - the books have a long-term cohesive look and feel on the outside, allowing a consumer to identify the BSP brand on the shelf, and associate it with BSP books they already owned and, presumably, liked.

Branding is about consistency and repeatability of the consumer experience, and it is a constant challenge for publishers to deliver either one. Many publishers seem to approach their brand as some amorphous overarching concept - "We produce high-quality books for a literate audience" or something equally vague and meaningless. In no other industry would that be considered branding.

Just my .02


I also work in publishing. As such, I read a LOT. A ton. A lot for my editorial job, and a lot besides. I am constantly reading, and I still have piles of books waiting for me (no exaggeration!)

As such, I tend to be careful when choosing the books I read on the side. I read recommendations from friends and industry people, and new books by favorite authors. And if two books by unknown authors both catch my eye, one published by a major house and one published by an smaller house, and I am equally intrigued by both of them, I am 100% more likely to go with the one from the major house.

I just am. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense – but the publishing house can be a tiebreaker for me. It’s just the way it is.

Ellen Gerstein

You're getting a lot of industry people commenting here, so your results are skewing to people who are more conscious about the house as a brand in publishing. I'm very in tune with publishing houses - if I see new fiction, I will be more likely to take a chance on it if it comes from Knopf or a house that I know and respect, than if it comes from a house I have never heard of. Packaging plays a role too, but I do look at the spine to see who the publisher is.

Juliana Aldous

You are right on--brand management is the key.

Smart publishers manage brands regardless of whether the majority of book readers know them or not. Smart publishers also realize that while a majority of readers don't need to know the brand--booksellers and key influencers do.

Dumb publishers just publish scattershot and hope something hits.

As a smart publisher, branding serves as a "guide" for my publishing plan. That brand should be open enough to allow me to take risks, but at the same time keep me from making scattershot publishing decisions. I want to water and feed my proven brands, and keep testing new ones for future growth. I better know and understand my competitor's brands too so I know where I am in the marketplace.

As part of Microsoft Press I'm going to take advantage of as much of Microsoft's brand as humanly possible. It would be a sad day for me if we changed our name to ABC Press. But at the same time I drive each of my series for consistency. What is the value proposition? Who is the audience? Does the packaging reflect that? Is this topic best served as part of a branded series or is it author driven? Do the readers know and get what they expect? My three key end-user series--Plain & Simple, Step by Step and Inside Out are clear on their messaging, level, value prop and audience. If it is outside of those three series, then I better have an author who serves as the brand, or a plan for future brand growth.

If I'm an author do I care if a publisher is a successful brand manager? Yes, because I want to be with the publisher who can sell me. I want to know they have been successful in a similar area. Any edge that gives me as an author is a bonus.

So if I were planning to write a book on juggling, I'd want to approach Klutz. If I had a great idea for a humor book that would also make a good calendar or sell at the cashwrap--I'd approach Workman. If I wanted to write a Romance I would approach Harlequin.

By the way, how much do you want to bet that this exchange happens quite often. New technology user stands confused in bookstore aisle. Asks bookseller--which Vista book should I get?

Technophobe bookseller who hates the computer section says, "Here's a dummies book. They are good. Oh, and here's something from Microsoft. And some other stuff too."

Technology proficient bookseller who likes stocking the computer section says, "Well, if you are a beginner I would go with Dummies. But I would also pick up one of these books by O'Reilly, like the Missing Manual or the book by (insert bestselling author name here)."

So I do want that bookseller and technology influencer to know my brand!

Joe Wikert

The point has been made that we industry folks aren't the best barometer for this debate. Additionally, I tend to think the computer book sector is a bit different than most others. For example, I'll bet most IT professionals know the names of more publishers/imprints in this space than the typical sci-fi or business book reader knows on those shelves.

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