Publisher Imprint Report Card, Part III

_(This is the third in a multi-part series examining publisher

imprint brands in an informal, opinionated manner. Part I, focusing on

Macmillan, is here, and Part Ii, focusing on Simon & Schuster, is here. others will follow over the course of the month.)_

Unlike the other major corporate publishers, which are in various stages of brand identity reorganization, Hachette Book Group has just thrown off the shackles of its previous name and owner, Time Warner (as well as that horribly dated Warner logo), and embraced its new European corporate overlords. If I expanded this series to look at publishers’ UK arms, the landscape would be quite different (since Hachette owns Orion, Hodder Headline and Little Brown UK, leading to some imprint overlap, confusion, problems with Amazon, etc.) But on the US side, Hachette as publisher looks a lot more streamlined than Time Warner ever was. But there’s still a ways to go.

Little, Brown goes first. I like Little, Brown because most of what they publish, they clearly want to make money and do. James Patterson makes lots of money. Michael Connelly makes lots of money. Stephenie Meyer makes lots of money. Alice Sebold still makes lots of money even if THE ALMOST MOON disappointed, but blame the book, not the push. Malcolm Gladwell not only makes money, he’s a mid-size business, and OUTLIERS will only extend that business. That means there’s room to gamble on first time authors with gargantuan advances (Elizabeth Kostova, check. Josh Bazell’s BEAT THE REAPER, ask me early next year) or an author who looks midlist but turns out not to be (Dan Simmons, Kate Atkinson) or award winners who also earn out and then some (Joshua Ferris, Daniel Woodrell, George Pelecanos, though he’s a trickier case.)

Bottom line for Little, Brown: their brand is smart, whether in their commercial choices – say what you will about James Patterson, and much ink is spilled on quality vs. sausage factory and the like, but it is one of the greatest author-publisher relationships going at the moment and both sides know it – or their less commercial ones. There are very, very few titles they published that make me shake my head in bewilderment. With the exception of Gladwell, though, they aren’t as strong on non-fiction. (Which explains why James Patterson is putting his name to a non-fic title this fall, which should sell accordingly.) Should they be? Maybe a bit more, if only to add a bit more muscle, but once they are already being selected about what they acquire overall, maybe not.

Where Little, Brown can grow, however, is on the paperback side. Back Bay works pretty well as a trade imprint, though when they attempt originals, the lack of enthusiasm really shows. Mass market? Warner did it really well and Grand Central is trying to, but sometimes I see the L,B logo on a mass market title and it just doesn’t make sense (on a trade, though I don’t notice them all that much, it looks like it’s a bit more service-oriented, which is fine enough.) Smart commercial = trade. Mass market commercial = GC. The distinctions work better this way for me.

So yes, Grand Central. Their choice of fiction lead titles the past two seasons kind of say it all: CHILD 44 good, Martina Cole’s US debut…not so much. But maybe now they have learned what other houses knew a decade and a half ago: Essex doesn’t sell in America, otherwise Jordan and Kerry Katona would be riding high on the bestseller lists here as well. But back on point: Grand Central is commercial, whether with fiction (thrillers, blockbuster fiction for women, romantic suspense) or non-fiction (Michael Moore, the book about Dewey the cat that is destined to sell in massive quantities this fall). Midlist go home, which is why Mysterious Press shut down and they aren’t so great at category or even straight single title romance, even with the dedicated imprint of Forever. Literary fiction won’t work unless there’s a clear commercial hook, so they can do reasonably well with Joshilyn Jackson and pin high hopes on Tiffany Baker’s THE LITTLE GIANT OF ABERDEEN COUNTY. 5 Spot lost its focus when chicklit imploded, and publish fewer and fewer titles each season, so if it isn’t on a deathwatch, it should be.

Science fiction goes directly to Orbit (which is still too young to assess fully, but they are more fantastical and space opera-ish than the harder SF edge of, say, Tor).  business books have their own imprint, as does Wellness, as does Inspiration/faith with the recently rebranded Faithwords. Springboard I still can’t quite figure out as it feels like they have leftovers of the late Bulfinch Press but also some other stuff that screams coffee table. Center Street is even more of a mystery, or maybe it’s because I’m not their target audience. And Twelve, of course, is a brand into of itself, though because it’s Karp’s baby, it reflects his taste almost 100%. Which means non-fiction gets on the bestseller lists and fiction kind of tanks unless it’s Christopher Buckley, who’s writing for a non-fiction audience anyway.

Bottom line: from a branding aspect, Hachette generally knows what its imprints do or what they ought to be doing. Even before they were Hachette they got into online marketing before everyone else. All the main fiction imprints with attached (and short!) mission statements are on Twitter. They want to make money but have enough room to absorb the occasional flop. But in the unlikely event James Patterson decides to jump ship, things might be very, very, very different for the company….