Publisher Imprint Report Card, Part V

_(This is the fifth 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,  Part III, focusing on Hachette, is here, and Part IV, focusing on HarperCollins, is here. Others will follow over the course of the month.)_

I’ve been saving the biggest behemoths for last because they take longer to discuss and because, frankly, they drive me a little crazy. So many imprints! So much redundancy! So much confusion! But of the two corporate bigwigs, I’d say Pearson has the edge of Bertelsmann and that’s only because the former isn’t about to run amok with weirdness like the latter will. In other words, we’re talking about Penguin Group today.

Penguin is the only American company where their flagship imprint is a paperback one, but of course that makes sense – Penguin means paperbacks, ever since Allen Lane got the idea to create the imprint more than 70 years ago. So that imprint has always had a good sense of what it is meant to be: quality, whether for literary fiction, occasional ventures into commercial fiction (like its mass market partnership with Grove/Atlantic to reprint mysteries and thrillers by Mo Hayder and Donna Leon) and non-fiction. Trade originals in translation or set in exotic climes. Call it accessibly high-falutin’, but when you see a Penguin paperback, you know what you’re going to get.

Plume, the other major trade paperback imprint, is a little more spotty. By rights it should be solely commercial, leaving anything vaguely prestigious to Penguin. So why is Hari Kunzru a Plume author? Why is David Benioff’s CITY OF THIEVES going to Plume (well, his last books did, and it is probably going to be a huge seller, but still)? And the book on the cover of the Winter 2009 catalog, Alex Wichtel’s THE SPARE WIFE…was originally published in hardcover by Knopf. Interesting. But a side point. Point being, Plume should be wholly commercial, but it’s as if it doesn’t want to admit that it is.

On the mass market side, for commercial fiction I know there is Berkley and there is Jove and I still cannot figure out why one book is published with one imprint and a second book with the other. Of course, it turns out things aren’t so simple, as Berkley is really a group holder for several imprints: Berkley Prime Crime for category mysteries, Heat (or is it Sensation?) for erotica, Daw (which is distributed by Penguin, not owned outright) and Ace for science fiction and fantasy (though there’s enough redundancy with those imprints, too) JAM for crossover YA, and the flagship for anything that will make money in decent quantities. In other words, holy hell Berkley, what the hell are you guys doing? This is a mess! No really, my head is going to explode. And if I’m confused I can only imagine how everyone else feels.

There’s also New American Library, or NAL. They aren’t quite the mess that Berkley is, but they overlap so much and have so many little imprints of their own that it’s kind of like alphabet soup after a while. Look at the mass market side: there’s Obsidian, for mysteries (okay) but there’s Signet and Onyx for commerical titles, paranormal, romance, on and on…and I don’t know why something goes to Signet and why something goes to Onyx. And there is another SF/F imprint, Roc! NAL Accent for commercial women’s fiction in trade paper, Caliber for um, military non-fiction? Westerns? You tell me. Eclipse for paranormal trade paperbacks, and the flagship name for reprints that the hardcover imprints didn’t designate in Plume or even Penguin. More overlap! So confusing. Oh and NAL does hardcovers, too, because sometimes they want to make all the money on a book instead of sharing it with other imprints run by other people. Did I mention the confusing part?

Now to hardcovers. Penguin Press is by and large upmarket, with literary fiction, serious non-fiction, some genre that crosses over (like R.N. Morris’s Porfiry Petrovitch mysteries, Jedidiah Berry’s upcoming genre-bender THE MANUAL OF DETECTION) and general quality that will almost always end up as a Penguin paperback. Viking is the most literary of the bunch on both fiction and non-fiction (when they try to do genre they suck at it and should stop), and after a bit of a slump their catalogs are, at least on paper, turning out to be more and more awesome of late. Putnam is (or at least, ought to be) 100% commercial, though the brand is aging and not always well. Consider that they publish Nora Roberts & J.D. Robb, Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton Robert B. Parker, Randy Wayne White, John Sandford, W.E.B. Griffin, Clive Cussler, Dick Francis and Stuart Woods, among others. A lot of people who still sell very well but whose heydays are long (sometimes looooooong) past. They are trying to inject some new commercial blood with Ariana Franklin, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and (by import) Robert Crais, because those aging bestsellers aren’t always going to be around. Moving in one layer is where it gets a bit more fun, because Marian Wood has her own imprint (publishing Grafton and Philip Kerr) and now, so does Amy Einhorn, late of Warner/Grand Central, who wants to hit “the sweet spot between literary and commercial”, whatever that means. One aging editorial imprint and one brand new. I shouldn’t compare, but it’s too easy. Advantage, for now, Einhorn, as she doesn’t have a track record yet.

Let’s cover a few of the little imprints. Sentinel does books for the conservative market; Portfolio does business. Tarcher is a hodgepodge of non-fiction that should really figure out what it wants to do. Hudson Street calls itself a practical non-fic imprint, but so does Perigee, kind of. Uh oh. Alpha is computer books. Celebra, not to be confused with the discontinued anti-inflammatory Celebrex, is a celebrity book imprint that I had never heard of until yesterday. And Avery is health and wellness.

And back to the bigger ones. Dutton and Gotham complement each other, which means Dutton should be fiction and Gotham non-fiction…but sometimes Dutton does non-fiction (Daniel Levitin, for example) because maybe it looks better? Anyway, Dutton is trying to be more blockbuster-driven (Harlan Coben, Raymond Khoury) and 2.0 trendy (Daniel Suarez, some CSI guy) and occasionally puts out fiction that might be thought of as literary-ish (Hari Kunzru) but I still feel like it hasn’t fully found its footing yet. Maybe in a year once all of editor Ben Sevier’s acquisitions play themselves out.

For an imprint abandoned by its creators, Riverhead is doing pretty well with its mix of bestselling commercial fiction (Khaled Hosseini) award winning literary fiction (Junot Diaz) and non-fiction that’s part memoir, part spiritual. They don’t publish too much and by and large publish books well, but their missteps tend to be when they tread into genre waters – which makes Walter Mosley’s new PI series a bit of a gamble, but one that could pay off well.

I am almost certain I forgot a few imprints (and am deliberately leaving out the children’s side and anything distributed by Penguin but not owned by them) which kind of illustrates the point. A lot of names. Some of them well-defined, some of them a lot less so. Some of them with great online savvy, some of them barely in touch with the Internet. A lot of hands that probably never talk to each other. A lot of chaff needing to be separated from the wheat. Bottom line: Fun times at Penguin – literal or sarcastic, depending on where you work or who you are published with…