Penguin Random who? Any house is fine, thanks

John Doe doesn’t care who published his next great read. Yet, industry experts agree that publishers of any size should care about enforcing their brand.

In 2003, it was mainly the familiarity with the author’s previous works that made readers snatch titles off the bookshelves. Jump ahead two years to 2005 and a compelling topic or a discount price are still among the most important factors that prompts readers in Canada to buy a book. According to the same study, the name of the publishing house is the least important of eleven reasons to purchase a book [1].

One could have assumed that this would have changed by 2013, given that said bookshelves, especially in independent bookstores, have lost importance as a sales channel and the Internet has shortened the distance between the reader and the actual product, cutting out the middlemen between publishers and their readers through direct retail possibilities.

Traditionally, the publisher’s name mattered to bookstore owners as intermediaries because of their business relationship, including punctual delivery of titles. In this case, his list is the essence of his brand, giving him “a presence in the minds of booksellers, avid readers, critics, and reviewers,” as industry expert Rowland Lorimer describes it [2].

With titles immediately available through a more direct retail channel such as Amazon, a publisher’s brand might have become a more important reason to buy, but online retail rather replaced than removed the intermediaries. Amazon, more than any other retailer, is able to dictate terms regardless of which publisher the corporation is dealing with.

Hence, it’s no surprise that a survey of about 3,000 readers showed the publisher doesn’t matter to about 40 percent of them and another 26 percent don’t pay attention to this aspect at all. Even with the vast variety of new branding opportunities that the Internet offers—review platforms like Goodreads, social networks, and other valuable additions to their marketing mix—customer awareness of publishers hasen’t really changed.

Due to small sample sizes, all of these surveys are mere spotlights hinting at, but not fully representing, the actual situation, even though they do give the impression that the publishing house is one of the least important reasons for readers to buy. When choosing a book at the point of sale,  be it online or at a bookstore, it’s not surprising that topic, author, and price are what the reader is looking for. What is surprising is that these factors apparently aren’t associated with the publisher who actually shapes each of them through acquisition, editing, and marketing.

Brian O’Leary, founder and principal of Magellan Media, argues that publishing houses have to focus on the context of the content they generate and think past the container that they are trying to sell. Even though these thoughts refer to content creation, the same advice could hold true for publishers’ brands as such, defined as the “special relationship and bond” forged with their customers [3]. The association of a publisher’s name with a great reading experience can provide context for customers when they consider buying a copy. It can shape their expectations and enjoyment of the book.

Mike Shatzkin, Founder and CEO of the consultancy The Idea Logical Company, emphasizes that publishers need to “rethink the way they build and define brands.” According to Shatzkin, brands should be built in a more audience-centric way, specializing in subject areas rather than having a broad spectrum of titles in one list.

Long gone seems the era in which somebody like the entrepreneur Allan Lane could revolutionize the book business by uniting a variety of genres under the name of one large publishing house and its imprints, even more so because, as Shatzkin’s article suggests, Google, Apple, and Amazon can leverage economies of scale a lot better than any publisher. While these corporations determine which titles readers find online, publishing houses and their imprints should focus on verticals to become the go-to source for specific industries, such as Cool Springs Press, which serves the lawn and garden business.

In Lane’s case, Penguin also had the advantage of, through its success and popularity, becoming synonymous with an entire format—the paperback, referred to as a “penguin” even when it wasn’t published by Penguin [3]. In that sense, Penguin truly was a B2C (business to consumer) brand, immediately recognized by their format and colour-schemed branding. As Shatzkin points out, most of today’s publishing houses are B2B (business to business) brands, forging a “special relationship” with their distributors and partners rather than with their readers [4]. Harlequin is a current example for B2C success: “In Harlequin’s case, the audience finds them!” Hence, if the product offer is consistent, the name itself can become a means for readers to distinguish its books from other houses, which is what publishers should be aiming for.

Of course, there are many other aspects to a brand that shape its offering and its overall perceived value. Writers, for example, have their own considerations when it comes to branding themselves. Series can increase reader loyalty, as Lee Child, a successful thriller writer, points out. On a reader–author level, brand consistency matters just as much as for a publisher. Lee says that there are “two components of loyalty: one is the author and the second is the subject. If you like the author but you’re uncertain of the content of the next book, that’s an obstacle.”

When it actually comes to pushing one’s brand through marketing, what about smaller houses with a low budget? How can they distinguish themselves from the Penguin Random Houses that can outperform them through economies of scale? The former chair of O’Reilly’s TOC conference, Joe Wikert notes that they often have a stronger, though not bigger, following than the Big Five. What’s more, this can enable them to build a more effective direct sales channel than their bigger competitors. It turns out that size doesn’t matter in this case, but branding does.


[1] Rowland Lorimer & Lindsay Lynch (2005): Latest Canadian National Reading Study.

[2] Rowland Lorimer (2012): Ultra Libris (p. 29). ECW Press.

[3] (2010) Penguin, Puffin and the Paperback Revolution. BBC Radio 4.

[4] Richard D. Czerniawski & Michael W. Maloney (1999): Creating Brand Loyalty. The Management of Power Positioning and Really Great Advertising. AMACOM (American Management Association).