Publishing Imprint Report Card, Part VI

_(This is the sixth and last part 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, Part IV, focusing on HarperCollins, is here, and Part V, focusing on Penguin, is here.)_

Before I get to the biggest corporate behemoth of them all, a word on why I’m ignoring some of the other majors. Norton is a large independent that seems to know what it’s doing with regard to mixing serious non-fiction, literary fiction and other smart titles that cross the academic/commercial line. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt just survived a rather brutal merger of its educational and trade offerings, but the sense I get is that the end result, on the trade side, might be a leaner, stronger, more focused publishing house. And everybody else in the game is smaller in terms of how much they publish and the money they have the potential to make.

So. Random House. The “run amok with weirdness” crack of the previous post? Has to do with what the recent departure of Ed Volini, longtime COO of the company, might mean. If he was just leaving it would be one thing. But his positions are being eliminated outright, and everybody who reported to Volini will now report to CEO Markus Dohle – who of course, took over that position from Peter Olson about three months or so ago.

The prevailing wisdom is that when there’s someone new at the top, reorganization down the line is bound to happen. It wasn’t quite the case with Olson (beyond the Random House/Ballantine merging and Ann Godoff’s firing, but let’s face it, it ended up working out pretty well for all parties concerned) but the probability of change and culling seems greater with Dohle.

In fact, I almost feel sorry for him, because even though from an imprint standpoint, Random House appears to be an overly redundant, disorganized mess that is way too big for its own good, there aren’t that many options for what to do. Keeping the status quo doesn’t seem like a very viable prospect. Sell some of the divisions off? Well, their parent company Bertelsmann already got rid of its Direct Publishing arm, so there’s a selling mood in the air. But at a time when Reed is practically begging people to take its magazine arm from them – to the point where they are practically paying prospective new owners to do so – I don’t see too many enthusiastic takers for one of RH’s chicken legs or thighs. Merge unprofitable divisions with more profitable ones? That seems more likely, but perhaps not for some time.

But let’s go through the (many, many, many) imprints, shall we?

Let’s first look at the flagship division, Random House Publishing Group. Random House (or Little Random) is the generalist imprint, with literary-ish titles that become bestsellers (Charles Bock’s BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN, Curtis Sittenfeld’s AMERICAN WIFE most recently), serious non-fiction, and a number of authors who have been around forever because they are still being edited by Kate Medina (or, until he retired, Bob Loomis.) Both hardcover and trade paperback lines suggest prestige and earnestness, a strange mix of old school and new school. Ballantine is the commercial arm, one that is still trying to redefine itself because they had too many titles that weren’t doing so well, but getting closer to a clearer goal. That would be a mix of romantic suspense (Alison Brennan) thrillers (Tess Gerritsen, now Barry Eisler) commercial fiction (Nancy Horan’s LOVING FRANK, among others) and other titles that lend themselves toward mass market paperbacks. Del Rey is science fiction and fantasy and one of the best imprints for such. One World is for the African-American market. Villard is in an identity crisis, I think they make money but I really have no idea what their mandate is. And Modern Library is the classics arm.

Next up is Bantam Dell, the ne plus ultra of commercial fiction for the company. Lee Child, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel, Thomas Harris, you know the drill. And yet, can anyone tell me why some books get published as a Delacorte hardcover and others as Bantam? Or why some books end up as a Bantam paperback and others as Dell? You can’t? I thought so. Oh, it has to do with historical meaning? Yeah, and how many of those old imprints died out years ago? Would it be so difficult to pick a name and stick with it, since it will sell a lot of books anyway? And then there is Delta for trade paperbacks and Dial Press for hybrid commercial and literary stuff (Hannah Tinti, Allegra Goodman) and Bantam Discovery for paperbacks of a book club bent. There’s some non-fiction the Bantam Dell mix, but that’s not what I associate this division with at all. And Spectra is SF/F.

Next up is Knopf. You know what the flagship imprint stands for even if you are only dimly conscious of it. Uber-literary, super-serious non-fiction, but enough sense of what is going on that they still make a decent mint. Even when Knopf publishes midlist books they tend to be interesting, or imported, or generally really smart. When they publish commercial fiction, then it gets more dicey because sometimes they publish crime fiction like it’s the second coming when really it’s just another meh genre book. Also in this group on the hardcover side is Pantheon, and in my less charitable moments I think of them as Little Knopf. They have a clearer brand identity for graphic novels and I love what they do over there. Schocken is for Judaica and Everyman Library is for classics. As for paperbacks…Vintage is like Knopf, Anchor feels like a leftover imprint from a bygone era.

The Doubleday Publishing Group is a new name, with a new logo

(albeit one cribbing from Ballantine’s, which is kind of odd) and the

shiny newness is reflected in their imprint websites, increased

attention to internet marketing, and the like. But that doesn’t mean

there aren’t some branding issues. Doubleday, being the

flagship, gets the brunt of the potential bestsellers (Linda Fairstein

just moved over there, Andrew Davidson’s THE GARGOYLE, Jane Mayer’s THE

DARK SIDE for non-fiction, etc.) and some literary fiction that can

cross over more commercially (Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead) They

are hit and miss on midlist and I suspect they will publish fewer and

fewer such titles from here on in. Broadway is weird. I can’t

understand their focus at all, because it should be of a celebrity bent

(Judith Regan would know what to do with them) but then they publish

random midlist fiction titles? Wha? That their name was taken out of

the corporate division title is telling. Spiegel & Grau is

still new but it’s basically Riverhead 2.0, with the same literary-ish

sensibility (Sara Gruen, Adam Langer and Janelle Brown number among

their authors.) The problem is that means there’s too much

intra-competition with Doubleday editors for the same sorts of books.

And Nan Talese is the stuffy literary imprint, even when some

of its offerings are unstuffy.On the paperback side, S&G get their

own, Doubleday sometimes farms things out to Anchor and sometimes keeps

it in-house, but there’s room to develop a really strong mass market

and trade paperback division (or just steal Anchor outright.)

The Crown Publishing Group is in transition. They lost Steve Ross to Collins. They lost Sally Kim to Harper so she could start her own imprint. They cannot do midlist and genre to save their life. So what do they do? Well, the imprints with clear focus – Crown Business, Crown Forum, Clarkson Potter – cover business, practical non-fiction and how-to, respectively. Three Rivers mixes historical fiction, hardcover reprints, humor (WHY DO MEN HAVE NIPPLES?) and random genre stuff on the trade paperback side. Shaye Areheart had a great upmarket sensibility for fiction, especially by women (Tawni O’Dell, Lee Martin, Lisa Unger, Amy McKinnon, to name a few) but we’ll see how new senior editor Sarah Knight puts her stamp on what titles she’ll bring in. Harmony is the non-fiction version of Shaye Areheart, with a similar sensibility. So that leaves the flagship, Crown. And I really don’t know what it does anymore. A little of everything, which means a lot of nothing. Maybe it’ll be different in 12 months.

There’s lots and lots else going on at Random House – a big children’s division, a fledgling film department, information (most of which I suspect will have to migrate online, and fast) – but I’ve already spilled enough e-ink. So having gone through division by division, imprint by imprint, I think there’s going to be some serious pain in the company for the next little while, maybe even approaching SURVIVOR tactics, but it’ll be interesting to see what sort of mark Mr. Dohle makes as CEO. Many people will be watching.