Publisher Imprint Report Card, Part IV

_(This is the fourth 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, and part III, focusing on Hachette, is here. Others will follow over the course of the month.)_

Like Hachette, HarperCollins has spent the last while reorganizing itself. Its reasons, of course, are different, because the company hadn’t been bought out by another company, nor had it bought anyone else lately, but some of the mechanisms are similar. More imprint streamlining; CEOs leaving and being replaced from within; greater attention to the Internet and its marketing potential; and the greatest focus on the bottom line. Some of the reorganization is finished – HarperMorrow on one end, Collins on another – and some hasn’t really begun yet. All of which means that HarperCollins is in the midst of interesting times, imprint-wise….

First, let’s look at all the imprints comprising the nomenclature beast that is HarperMorrow. It’s a catch-all corporate title derived from the flagship hardcover imprints, William Morrow and Harper, and you’ll never (I hope) see it on the spine of a book. But in a way, it also encapsulates the overlap problems affecting both those imprints and whether the names are just being kept for the name’s sake. Because both William Morrow and Harper publish big commercial fiction titles, historical fiction, mysteries and thrillers, and narrative non-fiction (though Harper does more on the non-fiction side.) So what’s the difference between the two?

There are small differences: Morrow really covers historical fiction and romance more than Harper does, and does more “category” mysteries, in that they publish long-running series that hit bestseller lists. But I’d  say the difference is that Harper takes bigger monetary risks that either pay off (Garth Stein’s THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, hanging onto the extended bestseller lists all summer) or fall flat on its face (Vikram Chandra’s SACRED GAMES. It sold copies, but nowhere near enough.) Next March that pendulum swing moves towards literary translation as Jonathan Littell’s THE KINDLY ONES hits shores. Harper hopes for a Roberto Bolano-like success; we’ll see what happens, but are they really going to be satisfied if this 900-page doorstopper only attracts a cult audience, however slavish?

Morrow doesn’t have to fluctuate so wildly with its choices; they seem better capable at building up from the backlist (Laura Lippman’s slow-growth success is a good example of this) or hitting on bestsellers without needing to spend a lot of money (the advance on MARLEY AND ME was fairly modest, especially in light of what it has since spawned). So at least on the hardcover side, Morrow seems to have a more consistent mandate for its imprint than Harper does (and something tells me that Jonathan Burnham, Harper’s publisher, will be watched very, very closely in 2009 if the money’s not where NewsCorp wants it to be) but flagship hardcover imprints only tell part of the story.

Morrow also includes many other imprints with more specific goals. Eos is science fiction/fantasy, and if there’s an author who sells really well (Neal Stephenson) with a new book out, they get published by Morrow in hardcover. The same thing happens with Avon, which has always been and always will be about romance on the mass market side (and so its major romance authors, like Stephanie Laurens and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, then “graduate” to hardcover with Morrow). Avon on the trade paperback side, however, is a little different and a bit more experimental. There’s Avon A, a recent imprint for contemporary women’s fiction (Meg Cabot’s work for adults as best example) and non-fiction of a self-help/how-to/breezy narrative bent that caters to women, and Avon Red, it’s erotica line. Both are still young imprints but even their logos make clear what they are trying to do and often accomplish.

Some hardcover imprints within Harper have their own little fiefdom. Take Ecco, which still thinks it’s an independent literary press that’s a repository for Charles Bukowski or Joyce Carol Oates and wants to be perceived as an even snootier cousin to FSG, but then they have a hit with EDGAR SAWTELLE and it confuses everything all over again. Every time I think Ecco’s on the road to nowhere they spread their little Phoenix wings and stay alive once more. Amistad is African-American fiction and benefits from the astounding the deserved success of Edward P. Jones. I’d say Rayo is Latino, but I’m not 100% sure that imprint really exists properly anymore or got merged into Harper. HarperOne was most recently HarperSanFrancisco, and though the imprint is still based out west the new name is better because it’s less about geography and more about spirituality and wellness. I mean, the slogan now is “books you can believe in”, which should say it all. And as for HarperStudio, Bob Miller’s much-discussed new imprint, their first announced buy was the next 10 books by Emeril Lagasse, which is a) absolutely perfect for the low advance/profit sharing model they are working with b) a harbinger of things to come.

Then we get to the paperback side, where all the hardcover imprints feed into. HarperPerennial, as a brand, implies permanency for a younger readership. That means putting what they consider modern classics (real or future) into trade paperback or publishing original works that might otherwise be difficult to classify except as “edgy”. So Chad Kultgen’s THE AVERAGE AMERICAN MALE works really well in Perennial but might not elsewhere; when David Wroblewski’s THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE eventually hits paperback, chances are good it’ll be in Perennial. Most of the “prestige” publishing Harper does in hardcover ends up here, and they especially kick ass with smart choices from other countries (Sarah Hall, Heather O’Neill, Ross Raisin, Emily Maguire, and Daniel Clay.) They also blog, podcast, and generally make a concerted effort on the Internet marketing side to further their brand.

So what does that mean for its other paperback arm, Harper? Good question. It isn’t quite the bastard stepsibling of Perennial, but also doesn’t quite skew so commercial as does Avon A (in other words, Jennifer McMahon’s work.) But all those other paperbacks have to go somewhere! At least on the mass market front Harper can be as commercial as it needs to be. But I’d like to see a more concerted effort to make HarperPaperbacks a more focused paperback imprint, especially on the trade side…not just be the landing pod for leftover softcover.

Now let’s move across the corporate callosum to the Collins Publishing Group, as they are newly christened with the Winter 2009 catalog. Four imprints, four mandates. Three of them – Collins Business, Collins Design, Collins Living – self-explanatory. As for Collins’ flagship imprint? They want narrative non-fiction and lots of it, and hired a number of editors and acquired a bunch of titles to make their wishes come true. We’ll see what successes result, but more interesting is what it means from an intra-competition standpoint. Because, as I mentioned earlier, Harper’s known for narrative non-fic, with Tim Duggan editing most of those titles. Does that mean extra pressure for Harper, or just another kick in the rear to make that imprint more focused? Again, we shall see.

Bottom line: well, it’s all about money in the end, but it’s also about where the American side of the company will be in a year’s time. The rebranding they’ve done has been for the better, but the jury is definitely out on Collins and HarperStudio, with some work to be done on Harper, hardcover and paperback.