Publisher Imprint Report Card, Part I

It is not news that the publishing industry is in flux and in dire need of some new directions and definitions. It is not news that there will be more changes, more angst, more doom, more gloom, and so on and so forth. What might be news is that the teeth-gnashing starts and stops, gives way to cosmetic changes that seem to accomplish something or other, and then a year later when it doesn’t, people forget or move on.

Which brings me to publishers as brands. Right now, common wisdom is that authors are brands and publishers are not – no matter how hard ex-HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman banged that proverbial gong. Common wisdom is nowhere near so black and white, otherwise why would certain small press outfits like Soft Skull, Akashic, Hard Case Crime and Tachyon have clear publishing goals recognized by those who read their books (Soft Skull: offbeat, underground. Akashic: crime anthologies, literary punk. Hard Case Crime: retro-pulp fiction reissues and originals. Tachyon: smart SF/F that’s not always easy to classify.) Conglomerates could, and should, learn from their less financially mighty cousins, as they should from the larger splintering of mass media, that their imprints should mean something to the reader. Sometimes that means staying with the status quo; other times it means doing away with the imprint altogether.

So what follows, probably in four or five parts, is a highly subjective, data-free look at what publisher imprints mean to me and what they should mean to everyone else. First up, after the jump, are all the imprints under the corporate umbrella of Macmillan.

What’s interesting about Macmillan US is that its name change is recent and yet old school – and far more accessible a name than was VHPS (for its German corporate overlords, Von Holtzbrinck Publishing Services.) But a name change and new snazzy website can’t hide that underneath the shiny surface, their imprint management is a confusing mess. So let’s go through it one by one:

Henry Holt has been in the news of late because they finally appointed a new editor-in-chief, former HarperCollins executive editor Marjorie Braman. Now, Braman’s credentials are fine, but does she have the mandate and the balls to do what one publishing source recently told me, to “rip things up and start all over again”? Because they have to or else they should let the name go off and join Rinehart and Winston in the imprint graveyard. The easy thing would be to blame the fortunes of Jed Rubenfeld’s THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER, famously acquired at auction for $800,000 and a big money-loser, but I suspect the problems started before then.  I think of Holt and…I think of scattered ashes. They are woefully understaffed on the editorial side, especially with Sarah Knight’s recent defection to Shaye Areheart Books to take over Sally Kim’s job, which had to be a major blow because she was acquiring books that might have turned the imprint around. Jennifer Barth’s earlier defection to Harper meant she took some of her authors (like Alafair Burke) with her. Paul Auster is a name, and his new book MAN IN THE DARK is getting a great deal of critical attention, but he and his wife Siri Hustvedt (also published by Holt) work with Frances Coady – publisher of Macmillan’s paperback arm Picador (and more on them later). They have a couple of extra imprints they acquired from other houses, Metropolitan and Times Books, which add to the brand confusion because the former does some random fiction titles (why? Beyond editorial taste?) along with occasional blockbusters by Naomi Klein and the latter does…well they don’t live up to their name and work exclusively with the New York Times anymore.

But back to Holt and my biggest beef with them: their recent expansion into paperbacks. I’ve asked people at the company and no one can explain why with any conviction, so I’ll say it again: why bother? Sure, it’s nice to publish Catherine O’Flynn’s staggeringly good novel WHAT WAS LOST as an original, but Picador could have done that – and probably more effectively. Mary Swan’s THE BOYS IN THE TREES was a good book, but again, Picador could have handled it fine. And after some fanfare when Knight acquired Paul Tremblay’s THE LITTLE SLEEP, the winter catalog has it coming out from Holt as a PBO. Well, okay….but that doesn’t signify confidence to me. It signifies confusion because the book’s biggest advocate jumped ship. Picador has a fledgling crime line; Tremblay, too, would have been better off with them. 

Bottom line: Braman has an enormous task ahead in redefining Holt’s purpose. I wish her well, but it doesn’t look good at all.

So now, Picador. They’ve got it: quality paperbacks, literary fiction, memoir and narrative non-fiction, and their crime titles fit in with their literary sensibility, which is erudite but not totally stuffy. I think they could keep stumping for further brand authority, and would really love to see them make their mark with crime fiction, but the odds look pretty good on all fronts.

Then we move to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, always interesting because they are a little fiefdom off on their own (literally – their offices are on 18th Street, not in the Flatiron Building with every other Macmillan imprint) and the most literary house of the bunch. But they have some brand problems now that might be exacerbated with Mitzi Angel’s recent appointment as editor-in-chief of Faber & Faber US. Before, Faber’s American arm struggled until it finally figured itself out and concentrated on non-fiction, especially music and history titles. But now Angel wants to turn it into the equivalent of her last job, the UK imprint 4th Estate. So how does that affect competition with Sarah Crichton and her eponymous imprint for more commercial fiction and non-fiction titles, or FSG’s Lorin Stein and Eric Chinski on the literary side? It’s too soon to tell, but I foresee some interesting editorial meetings.

I do wish FSG would have clearer goals with their paperback arm. Are they strictly for classics or do they want to have their reprint and original cake and eat it too? I guess there are some titles they could do better than Picador, but that seems pretty rare.

Next up, the double-headed beast that is Tor/Forge. Tor, well, you know Tor: It’s Science Fiction and Fantasy. They just redesigned their website. They are trying new things. They seem to be on the right track at face value (though toning down the garish retro-80s buzzkill covers would be nice.) Forge, on the other hand…oy. I think of them, I think of midlist authors in a career coma. Even the rare bestselling exceptions stir little excitement. I honestly do not know why this imprint exists anymore when you have St. Martin’s Minotaur pretty much covering all the crime and thriller bases. Because they have always been there? Because they will publish thriller writers whose careers have stalled out? (well, so will Vanguard, and I’d argue authors have a better shot at making money with them than with Forge, even with the minimum-to-nil advances.) Even more than Holt, this is the Macmillan brand in dire need of a brand ultimatum: shape up or die.

Which brings us to St. Martin’s Press, the company guided by a generalist principle from almost day one. Fortunately, they finally figured out that Minotaur was in desperate need of a brand rehaul, and I think the fruits of Andy Martin’s labor are starting to pay off for them (Cain, Chelsea.) Minotaur’s on the upswing but I think they need a really strong 2009, where some of their other big pushes pay off (Olen Steinhauer’s THE TOURIST, certainly deserves to sell in huge quantities)  and some tasteful pruning of the lower end of the midlist that isn’t making money, to make Minotaur’s retooling real.

Something else that might help would be to take Thomas Dunne’s name off of any minotaur titles they acquire, because I’m sorry, which imprint is it? Or is it St. Martin’s? Way too much confusion, please pick one (which would be Minotaur, of course.) As for Thomas Dunne Books, um, well….I think of small titles that make money on the library market? To be fair, Dunne’s been around publishing for something like 40 years and the “something for everybody” attitude worked in a world of single-digit television channels. Now, not so much. Will the name survive when Dunne retires? Somehow I doubt it.

The flagship imprint also has the generalist vibe – how could it not? – but at least there’s a more commercial feel to it. Street lit, paranormal romance, big-ticket thrillers (Evanovich, Finder, Lisa Scottoline as of next year) self-help and business. Less non-fiction. So maybe that’s the answer: put all the smart narrative non-fiction on the Thomas Dunne side, every other kind of non-fiction with the flagship, and even if it’s happening already, delineate this far more clearly.

As for paperbacks, I wish St. Martin’s had a separate name for the mass market line (so they could brand and break books out even more) and tightened Griffin’s focus on the trade side. Street lit and edgy crime fiction, good. Tom Perrotta? He’s too fluff for Picador, but where else can he go right now? And there are some Minotaur authors who seem better suited with Picador as their paperback publisher. Why not repackage Olen Steinhauer’s first five books to coincide with the publication of THE TOURIST next year (or the year after, when its paperback edition hits?) If Brent Ghelfi can be a Picador author, so too can Steinhauer…

Last, but not least, is Bloomsbury (well, there’s Palgrave, but that’s reference and non-fiction and science. Low-key, but okay.) While only distributed by Macmillan and not owned by the company, its offices are housed in the Flatiron Building which is why I’ve lumped it in. This brand should work – smart literary – but because it can’t make money, they are bleeding people, and they have this bizarre side step into humor books that aren’t actually funny, it’s not. Bloomsbury Press was a good idea as a serious non-fiction imprint, but no one seems to be paying much attention, so they need to work harder. And Walker had a hit with Kate Summerscale’s THE SUSPICIONS OF DR. WHICHER, which should (I hope) translate to more sales when it is published in paperback.

Bottom line for Macmillan: some room for growth, some darlings to kill, lots of tightening.