You Can't Judge a Book. by Its Publisher; Do Publishing Houses Still Care about What Kind of Books They Are Known For?

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID SEXTON

DOES it matter in the least to readers who publishes a book? Do readers even notice? All the evidence suggests not. Joanna Prior, the marketing and publicity director of Penguin, recently commissioned some "brand research" into the role of the publisher in the buying process.

The results were unequivocal.

"Punters think that publishers are 'money men' as opposed to 'providers of creativity' (which is how they see broadcasters). In a hierarchy, publishers come below record labels, film companies and TV channels in terms of being seen as providers of creativity and art.

At the same time, the visibility of the provider's identity in the experience of the product is lowest in publishers, when compared with record, film and television companies. Publishers also score the weakest when you ask who has the most control over the character of the end product. Publishers generally have virtually no recognisable identities - because the 'brand' is invisible in consumers' experience of the product."

Well, that's clear enough, once translated out of the barbaric dialect of marketing. Readers simply don't pay any mind to who has published a book. If they do think about publishers at all, they don't think of them as part of the creative process of book production, merely as making money from it.

It wasn't always so. In the past, many imprints won great loyalty and affection from readers. Dent's Everyman's Library, founded in 1906, for example, was essential to many ordinary readers, as was the near contemporaneous World's Classics, begun by Grant Richards and soon taken over by Henry Frowde for OUP. In the Thirties, Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club wielded enormous influence, every title being carefully considered by its adherents.

In 1936, Allen Lane published the first 10 Penguins for sixpence each and changed the market for books. The non-fiction Pelican series followed a year later, Puffins for children shortly after that. Penguin Classics, and eventually Penguin Modern Classics, went on to become the much-loved core of every serious reader's library. As a result, Penguin is the one imprint that everybody recognises and credits.

"The logo does have meaning to the consumer and engenders an immediate response - nostalgic, warm memories of childhood", as Joanna Prior summarises the research. So Penguin does buck the trend, whether or not such affection still has any relevance to its current output. In fact, many people use Penguin as a synonym for paperback, as they do Biro for ballpoint pen.

Some literary houses have enjoyed genuine cachet more recently. For many years, even after TS Eliot's death, any volume of poetry published by Faber & Faber had immediate status. No longer. Fiction published by Jonathan Cape, in its heyday under the editorship of Tom Maschler, had a head start over the competition - and when Sonny Mehta was running Picador, the imprint seemed to make any title worth investigation, as every bookish sixth-former in the Seventies will recall.

But the independents of whom the same could be said have been steadily disappearing. …