When was the last time you bought a book based on the publisher? When was the last time you even visited a publisher’s website? How many publishers can you even name? Do they even make a difference to you at all? Or do you follow your favorite houses like your favourite sports teams? Let’s take a few minutes to dive into whether or not publishers matter to us at all.
A few weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times about Amy Schumer’s new $8 million book deal (a dollar amount so psychotic it might warrant its very own blog post). In it, literary agent Russell Galen talks about how bidding wars happen between publishers, and specifically how Schumer’s $1 million advance just a few years ago ballooned into an offer eight times that size. It’s an interesting piece based on economics alone, but the kicker for me was when Galen started talking about how the publisher (Gallery Books) can possibly come out on top after such a gigantic advance.
“Even if you lose money in the short run, it helps your prestige,” Galen said. “If you are a big publisher, you need to show the flag, you need to make news, because it helps your entire list.”
But does it?
I may be wrong, but instinct and personal experience tells me that the publisher of a book barely factors into whether people buy that book. People care about four things: who the author is, what the book is about, how well it’s been reviewed, and how pretty the cover is. For the most part, I’d wager that readers couldn’t give two shits whether a book came from Vintage or Harper Collins or Simon and Schuster.
How then, does having a popular book help a publisher’s prestige? For agents and authors and people in the industry, sure. But for readers?
Let me ask you something. Think of the last really good book you read. Can you tell me who published it? Think of the third-last book you read. Can you tell me who published that? If you can, you’re a total book nerd. I can’t even tell you the publisher of the book I’m reading right now. The book I held in my hand less than four hours ago.
If it’s a local publisher, then that’s a bit of a different story. There’s probably a personal connection there. A deliberate attempt at reading locally. Disregard those books. That’s not who I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the heavyweights. The national bigwigs.
In truth, I think we do care (to some extent) whether a book is published by a large press or a small one. There’s a perceived legitimacy there. I’ve regularly turned down Advanced Reading Copies from small presses because I just assumed they wouldn’t be as polished as some of the larger press books I’ve received and enjoyed. I think that’s only natural. So yes, I think there is some merit to large house vs small house, but the thing that pokes a hole in Galen’s comment about organizational prestige is the fact that we don’t care what large publisher put out the book we’re interested in. All we care about is that a large publisher put out a book we’re interested in.
The reason being most publishers don’t really have a brand. I’m sure each of them thinks they do, but let’s be honest: most of them don’t. Harlequin has a brand. Del Rey has a brand. If you want romance or sci-fi/fantasy, they’re your go-to’s. But how can a company like Harper Collins claim to have a brand when, this month alone, they published a book by Jamie Oliver, a Game of Thrones-esque book by Wilbur Smith, a Back to the Future retrospective, and the biography of Kim Kardashian.
So do you care at all who publishes a book you’re looking at? Do you find out about new books or authors based on your interest in certain major publishing houses? Which are your favourites? Are there houses you try to avoid?
Fun Reading Challenge Idea
How cool would it be to start a Publishing House Reading Challenge (name currently in development #reallynotreally). There are a lot of different ways to go about it.
You could do a (digital) round table where each person is defending a publisher’s list based on certain questions (Canada Reads style, but with publishers instead of single books). You could read 5-10 books from several different publishers and compare/contrast to see who’s better. Do certain houses have certain trends?
Any other ideas?
Note: I’m not committing to this. It’s simply an idea. LOL.