Sunday, June 19, 2011

Are Publishers Going to Become Brands Again?

Something a little different on Father's Day as I grab a brief moment of calm and quiet between coaching soccer games and grilling.  My thoughts keep drifting to the discussion of 'discoverability'.  How will a new author get discovered?  If they price their book above the waterline of $2.99, they feel they can't compete with the mass of self-published books.  Observed buying patterns suggest there is some truth to that.  Yet if they drop down below that point, they are now competing against tens of thousands of titles for the same dollar or three, and how is anyone to find their book?

It's a real dilemna that I think we have just begun to explore.  And when I turn around and look at my bookshelf, that contains many hundreds of books dating back to my childhood, an answer starts to pop up.  First a little history on me - timely on Father's Day.  My dad was a voracious reader and I got that gene, maybe even a super-mutated form of it.  He used to bring me to a used book store called Ben's Books (I think....I was very young) about once per month to peruse shelf after shelf of dusty used books, from which I could pick up a few each visit.  We also did occasional trips to the original Barens & Noble and the Strand.  As a result, I have some gems - including a 1914 printing of 'Tarzan of the Apes' and full harcover or paperback sets of much classic sci-fi / fantasy series such as Tarzan, Doc Savage and Tom Swift, plus many other paperbacks.  Thanks, Dad...and I mean that from my heart.

Now back to the present.  As I look over the spines of the paperbacks, I see the same names: Tor, Doubleday, Del Ray, Ballantine, Ace.  Today, as I understand it, most if not all of these imprints are either gone or gobbled up.  But they were names I knew and cared about and trusted back then.  I bought many books by authors I didn't know because they were 'Del Ray' books.  And then if I liked it, I bought more by that author.

Today, it seems to me the author is the brand as it always has been, but the imprint has a lot less meaning.  But maybe that pendulum will swing back.  I think the component there is too little of in the new eBook marketplace is curation.  I need someone reliable to tell me what to read.  Friends?  Sure, in this era of social graphing, that can and does work, but sometimes I'm looking for a book now, and my friends haven't posted a recent review.  So we have bestseller lists, and we know those work, but they can be gamed and manipulated and I'm not always sure I trust them either.  Personalized recommendations from Amazon are sometimes useful, but lots of new content will never find their way into those.

But now there are a whole slew of new e-publishers springing up that remind me of the old imprints like Del Ray.  Many should be and probably are looking for and signing authors that meet their criteria both for quality and sellability.  And some of those might be genre-focused, trying to develop a sense of trust with readers to the point that when they say they have a great new novel, it gets a hard look.  Me?  I'd be much happier to pay a premium for a book recommended that way than taking a $.99 risk on something pulled up from the sea-bottom (apologies to hard-working, self-published authors, but there is a lot of muck down there too).  Now I just need to discover those publishers and the rest will hopefully take care of itself.  It seems that should be a lot easier than finding the individual books.

Happy Fathers' Day to all the dads out there. 

I miss you Dad.

Alfred Lubart

Dan Lubart can be reached at
You can follow him on Twitter at @ebook_mktview


  1. You're in a real minority on this one. Goodreads recently did a survey on how readers chose books; the publisher's brand or imprint was a minuscule percentage of the whole.
    I agree that there is an issue with "slush"; I think the answer is review sites and sites like Goodreads or LibraryThing.

  2. I agree I'm in the minority. And I admit I could be completely wrong. But I'm not saying that's how it is today. I'm saying we might see a return to the imprint as a meaningful brand in the future as a result of the changes happening today.

    Here's the thing with review sites where the reviews are user-generated...they can and are gamed just as the bestseller lists are. Get some friends to write 'reviews' and 5-star your book and there you go. Seth Godin spoke about this recently in an interview I worry that as the financial incentive grows, so will the level of manipulation, rendering any non-curated lists less useful.

    So there is the concept of 'super-reviewer' or 'tastemaker' that establishes a certain sense of trust over time and that can work. But really, isn't that just another form of curation?

    I'm not saying that imprints will take over the game of discoverability, but I do think there is a greater opportunity and need for them as one important option in that game as the volume of content grows exponentially over the next few years.

  3. "Here's the thing with review sites where the reviews are user-generated..." : right but that isn't where most "indies" get their books reviewed. Most go to sites like BigAls Books and Pals, Red Adept, Motherlode, etc, etc.

    "'super-reviewer' or 'tastemaker' that establishes a certain sense of trust over time and that can work. But really, isn't that just another form of curation?"
    Thing is there are a lot of "tastemakers" so the "gateway" is wider. I think hardly anyone buys a book based upon the imprint - the brand is the author - not the imprint that "prints" the book. More so if it is an eBook.