Several years ago in a very large conference room I heard Mike Shatzkin give his “The End of Trade Publishers” presentation. Despite working for a trade publisher, I thought it was terrific. In my opinion, Mike didn’t get everything right, but he sure was shaking the right trees. He placed great emphasis on consumers and “communities of interests” or “verticals” and that piqued my interest*. I became enamored of presenting books in these consumer-centered verticals, believing strongly that in the battle for digital discovery, they could represent very sharp arrows. Some niche publishers, like O’Reilly, were already consumer verticals — they seemed well-positioned for the future. Large, general trade houses like the one employing me struck me as less so.
General trade publishers did launch a handful of these consumer-oriented web verticals in the following years — most to at least modest success in terms of visible reach. Examples I happen to be familiar with from my time at Random House include Word & Film and Suvudu. There were others — both there and at other houses. Most of the sites are lovely, well-trafficked, active, etc. Just today, Avon Romance launched a consumer-geared vertical imprint site. (SciFi, Fantasy, Romance, and Mystery are the poor imprints who always get the “make a vertical” finger pointed at them, being at once categories and imprints). The site sounds good (except it only features Avon authors and titles but that’s just me).
It struck me then, as it does now, that if publishers are trying to connect directly with consumers, these sites and their initial success would seem to be central and positive — something in which to invest. And, yet, there aren’t any big name verticals. No killer verticals. No “wow” verticals. They all somehow feel like hedged bets. And I think that’s what they are. And, again Mike tells us why, though this time he is discussing efforts publishers choose to scale versus those they do not.
So it is a point of pride that editorial decisions and the publicity and marketing efforts that follow directly from the content be housed in smaller editorial units — imprints — within the larger publishing house.
Imprints are deliberately not scaled. They are designed to offer a personal face back to the agent/author community and on a B2B, book-by-book basis to retail. They are autonomous for the most part and only “come up against scale” when it is time to deal with back-office functions, distribution, printing or sales. Marketing — which is where I place verticals — is still for the most part structured per imprint. And the budgets by title.
Therein lies the rub. Content verticals require cross-imprint, cross-title collaboration or outside help (like a magazine publisher). So, what we tend to get instead of consumer verticals are imprint sites. Sometimes good ones. But imprint sites nonetheless. Is this a bad thing? Unless your imprint is a consumer category, yes, it is a bad thing if your goal is to reach consumers.
And now is when we have the argument over whether imprints are consumer brands. Here’s my two cents:
- I’ve never seen a significant budget line devoted to B2C imprint branding
- If imprints were consumer brands, consumers would already be flocking to the sites and we wouldn’t be having this dialogue
There is more that can be said but, generally speaking I would guess that Suze Orman’s site is larger than all her imprints’ combined and I can see that in the past year, more people have searched for “mystery books” than “penguin books” (not to pick on Penguin; it’s just always cited as the obvious consumer brand).
I have nothing against imprint sites. In fact, they are important for B2B and B2C reasons. These are companies and need to feel alive and out there. But, when placed next to verticals, which have the potential to offer books in a context consumers understand, they pale. And I would think that investment of time and energy on publishers’ parts would reflect this.
I actually think it will in time. So, can publishers scale verticals? Not how they are currently structured. But here’s a prediction: as marketing moves inexorably to digital channels, and the line between sales and marketing blurs and becomes a line to the consumer, houses will find themselves with small armies of hybrid sales/marketers who create consumer demand. One of their chief tools will be content verticals — their own, or those created in partnership with others.
What do you think?
* Here is a different presentation where Mike focuses on publishers and verticals.