One-Minute Book Reviews

March 5, 2009

Imprint Blight in American Book Publishing

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:16 pm
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The colophon of the respected Margaret K. McElderry imprint.

On this site I focus on the quality of the writing in books and generally avoid reporting on unrelated publishing news or gossip. But an article in today’s New York Times involves a trend that’s been on my mind for years: the proliferation of imprints at major publishing firms.

Many of the new imprints bear the names of their editors. And — to oversimplify a bit — they allow the editors to go out on a limb and buy books that reflect their tastes even if others at their firms dislike them. That freedom is in theory a good thing, because it allows editors to acquire worthy books that may be too narrow to appeal to staff members who might otherwise have to sign off on them. And some imprints have a longstanding reputation for high quality, such as the Margaret K. McElderry children’s imprint at Simon & Schuster.

But named imprints can also remove some of the checks-and-balances at publishing firms. And recently they have produced at least two books so tarnished by questions of credibility that they should never have been published in the form in which they reached stores: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (from Nan Talese Books at Doubleday) and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (from Sarah Crichton Books) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

I won’t belabor this point here, but if you’re interested in imprint blight in book publishing, I’ve put up a series of tweets about them on my Twitter feed. Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.


  1. Interesting story. I don’t think we have this phenomenon in the UK. Different imprints would mostly just be the names of the various grand old defunct publishing houses that have been gobbled up by the larger conglomerate. Don’t think there are any editors with their own imprints.

    As you say, should be good in theory, but it doesn’t seem to have worked out too well in those examples at least. I’d always assumed they’d have the same policies and editorial standards though – didn’t realise they’d have less checks and balances. Definitely food for thought – thanks for posting.

    Comment by Andrew Blackman — March 5, 2009 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

    • In the UK editors or publishers seem to go straight to forming their own firms, like Jonathan Cape, instead of getting imprints at others’ firms. But I’m not sure whether this has to do with the smaller scale of the firms or with a differences in the national character (British reticence versus American self-aggrandizement). Won’t it be interesting to see if this trend crosses the Pond?

      About the checks-and-balances: It’s hard to generalize, because each imprint is different. But editors at American firms, especially lower level editors, typically have to rally in-house support for books they want to buy. By contrast, an editor whose name appears on an imprint should be able to buy whatever he or she wants as long as it’s within the budget for the imprint.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 6, 2009 @ 2:12 am | Reply

  2. I never really understood what imprints were until reading this. Is Hachette Book Group at Little, Brown an example of an imprint, or am I still apparently confused? Thanks for the info.

    Comment by sarahsk — March 6, 2009 @ 7:12 pm | Reply

    • Hi, Sarah,
      Thanks for asking that. “Imprint” is publishing jargon that I probably should have explained.

      Hachette Group is not an imprint of Little, Brown. It is a conglomerate that is the parent company of the formerly independent Little, Brown, which was bought by Hachette.

      But Little, Brown does have imprints or subdivisions. One is Little, Brown Young Readers, its children’s imprint. Just about every major company has a children’s imprint.

      I don’t think Little, Brown has any imprints named for editors. But so many companies have those now that it might be just a matter of time before it does.

      All of this can get confusing at times even for people who cover publishing. When I was at the Plain Dealer, Random House had 41 imprints (including Knopf, Ballantine and others), and at any given time, I might have been able to name, say, 25 of them. RH probably has at least as many now. So I really appreciate your giving me an opportunity to clarify this.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 6, 2009 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

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