Publisher Imprint Report Card, Part II

(This is the second in a multi-part series examining publisher imprint brands in an informal, opinionated manner. Part I, focusing on Macmillan, is here; others will follow.)

It’s been about a year since longtime CEO Jack Romanos announced his retirement and that longtime #2, Carolyn Reidy, would take his place at the top. The company had done rather well thanks to the now-quaint phenomenal success of THE SECRET (really, the thing dated about as quickly as the movie TITANIC, unwatchable as soon as it was released on video) but that’s old news. So is the company at a crossroads or still climbing? The answer, I think, is somewhere in between…

First let’s consider the flagship imprint, Simon & Schuster (or in jargon terms, Little Simon, which is different from Little Simon, the company’s flagship children’s book imprint.) Their strengths have long been history and narrative non-fiction, and most recently the success and controversy of Nicholson Baker’s HUMAN SMOKE certainly bolsters this. But Alice Mayhew isn’t getting younger and the majors are certainly encroaching on this well-worn territory. As for fiction, I like what they are trying to do with works in translation, but is S&S really the right place for it? Their literary fiction choices are odd, but usually in a good way. Commercial fiction, however, seems to be on the downswing; James Lee Burke, Jeffery Deaver and Mary Higgins Clark’s careers are aging and sales are sloping downward (Deaver writing two books a year is worrisome and it’s showing in the execution) and Robert Crais, despite selling really well, has switched to Putnam. Can they lure younger writers? Lisa Lutz, Megan Abbott and possibly Daniel Deep seem to be their choices, but it does seem like Little Simon could narrow their focus a little.

On the other hand, at least they have some recognizable brand identity. Scribner‘s is completely shot to hell. They publish Stephen King! But they have snooty literary fiction! They love Chuck Klosterman! And they are doing the Suzy Welch book?! Please, stop being so schizophrenic, it gives me a damn headache.

Free Press is also kind of weird of late. I think of them for serious non-fiction, military history even, but then they want to get in on literary fiction (Joseph O’Connor, Elisa Albert) and pre-empted Emily Gould’s book, which is decidedly not serious. Sticking to what the imprint used to do when it was an independent publishing company seems to me a better bet (because as I’ve said before and will say again, small presses can be branded.)

Atria also suffers from brand schizophrenia. There are three streams: commercial fiction (Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, John Connolly, Jude Devereaux, Zane) self-help/how-to, and works in translation, especialy Spanish-language, now that they’ve made it official with Atria International. But when they get outside what they do best, especially venturing into midlist, they get in trouble. I’m still not sure why they bother with outright literary fiction, and if they do narrative non-fiction it’s almost negligible. And on the paperback side it’s a bigger mess, using the same name for mass-market (okay) and farming out some of their trade paperbacks to Washington Square Press, an old imprint that’s lost all brand recognition, especially as Little Simon’s trade paperback side gets stronger.

Simon Spotlight should be the most tightly focused imprint: entertainment all the way. So why do they publish books like Ivo Stourton’s THE NIGHT CLIMBERS or any works of fiction not written by a celebrity? Beats me; they don’t do it well, they should stop. At least Howard stays on message with inspiration/Christian titles.

Touchstone has been changing their imprint identity the last few years, adding more historical fiction (good) and thrillers (mixed) but the problem is that there’s so much overlap with Atria and Little Simon on commercial fiction that it all kind of bleeds together. J.A. Jance could be Little Simon; Lyndsay Faye, whose Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper debut comes out in April, seems to belong in Touchstone but will be published by the flagship imprint instead. And by and large Fireside handles the non-fiction side – self-help, how-to, cooking, humor – but then Touchstone does a few. Shouldn’t there be more separation going on here?

Finally, there’s Pocket. Mass market paperbacks, commercial through and through. Sometimes they do hardcovers and sometimes they really, really sell, but mostly they stick to their imprint strengths, and if they could do with some pruning and greater attention to core authors, that’s fine too.

Bottom line: Carolyn Reidy represents more of the same. And while some of that works, they also need a lot that is different.