I’m thinking of working on a mini-thesis on the role that imprints play in publishing and was just curious as to your opinion as an agent. I’ve queried some publishers as to how they use (or don’t use) imprints, and it seems all over the place – some have imprints that are run completely separately in house, some focus on one imprint for a genre or have many, or use them very rarely (personally, I’m coming from a fantasy/sf/horror reader perspective).
As a reviewer and wanting to one day work in the publishing industry, I pay a lot of attention to imprints, how they are marketed (again, very differently!) and the kinds of works each one publishes, but the general public seem to vary a lot on whether they care a little or not at all. What do imprints do for industry, for authors and do you think consumers actually care?
Before I answer, I'll quickly explicate 'imprints' - because, as you point out, many folks don't know or don't care about them. An imprint can be compared to a line of clothing or accessories. Let's say our publishing company is Tom Ford. Tom Ford Perfumes would be the literary 'imprint'; Tom Ford Lipsticks may be the more commercial imprint. And then there's Tom Ford Sunglasses, which is the non-fiction sports-focused imprint. And Tom Ford When-on-Earth-Will-He-Do-More-Women's-Clothes, which is the aspirational imprint.
Tom Ford diversifies and differentiates his brand by releasing assorted lines of product (PS: he's very good at it). Hypothetically, publishing companies do the same, with imprints - except they don't. Almost universally, publishing companies deny that they're building brands (and we could say that imprints are also brands), while at the same time envying Penguin for having one. 'No one cares about our brand' they say, casting green eyes at Harlequin. I have no idea why they do this, except possibly that they're nervous about booksellers criticising them for building their own brands at the expense of the booksellers'. But any publisher who is not currently thinking about building their brand - whether or not they use imprints to do it - is not going to survive in the digital space, when brand will possibly be the only way they can cut through to the reader/consumer. Certainly, the author's brand does this already - to the point where most readers probably think the author is their own imprint.
To date imprints have been useful mainly to booksellers, so they know where to shelve things and, hopefully, how to sell them - Picador means one thing, Pocket Books means another. Quite often this is not passed on to the consumer, so that usefulness stops with the bookseller, rendering the brand an intra-industry tool. Some imprints have made an impression on readers, but not many - and this is something the publishers have done either on purpose or accidentally on purpose. I don't really understand why you'd create a brand and then not do anything with it. So maybe it's just because they don't know what to do with them. Where's Don Draper when you need him?
In the years ahead we may see the disappearance of many imprints and concentration on the publisher's brand, hand in hand with the disappearance of bricks-and-mortar booksellers and concentration on online purchasing. Publishers are very well placed to deliver e-books, in particular, to consumers. Once they realise they can do good business that way, they'll no doubt spend more time building their brands. At that point imprints will either be properly developed brands or they won't exist at all.
I'm sure some of you think 'Oh, nasty marketing talk! Books - literature! THE ARTS! - are above this!' Sorry, they're not. If someone writes a magnificent book and someone else publishes it, and neither one of them tells anyone about it, that's just stupid. In a world where there are increasing amounts of information vying for everyone's brain cells - when there are more and more wonderful stories around to read - readers need help navigating their way to the stories that they're going to most like. That comes from trusting a brand, particularly when the authors are new. Once you trust an author's brand, fine, you'll keep reading their stories. But before the author has a brand, you need to trust either the publisher's or the bookseller's brand. The imprint should be a brand that you can trust, except they're not treated like brands - just silos. We'll see how long that lasts.