Imprints: Research Your Book’s Market as You Write

By: Lisa Silverman

If you’re serious about getting your manuscript published, whether it’s a literary novel, a true-crime book, or a genre romance, it’s a good idea to find out who exactly might publish it. “But that’s my agent’s job," you might say. True. But it’s also your job, and your responsibility to your career as an author, to be well-informed about publishing houses. Gather any knowledge you can about who’s publishing what—whether you have an agent or not.

Most publishing houses, especially big ones, are divided into “imprints," which publish under a separate name, often in a specific genre. They usually have their own set of editors, though some editors acquire manuscripts for multiple imprints. Some are much more narrow than others—for example, books published under the imprint that shares the name of the house (Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc.) usually cut a wide swath: fiction and nonfiction; literary and commercial. But each publishing house also has more specific imprints, and creates new ones on a regular basis. Random House, the world’s biggest publisher, lists no fewer than fifty-five different U.S. imprints on its website. And that doesn’t count those that produce audiobooks, large-print texts, etc.

Visit Random House’s website, and the websites of as many publishers as possible. Even if you think it’s not the place for your genre, you may be surprised. Most publishers list their imprints, along with brief descriptions, and often a specific imprint doesn’t fit the overall image of that publishing house. Houses create new imprints to follow book industry trends: for example, following the success of such authors as Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter, several new politically conservative imprints appeared, including Crown Forum at Random House, Sentinel at Penguin, and Threshold at Simon & Schuster. Also, imprints are popping up all over the place to cater to the fast-growing market of Latin-American readers, such as Rayo at HarperCollins.

After you consult the publishers’ own lists, bypass their marketing lingo and look at their products, in bookstores. Browse Amazon, or go into your local Barnes & Noble, and head for the section where you think your book belongs. If you’re writing a commercial mystery series, it will most likely be published as a mass-market paperback (until you become a household name and graduate to the hardcover ranks). Browse the shelves, or scroll down the Amazon pages of books similar to yours, and make a list of the imprints you see. Most likely a few will appear over and over—the major publishers—and you’ll see a few others, perhaps smaller houses or new imprints. If you’re in the mystery section, about one-fourth of the books’ spines will say “Berkley Prime Crime"—Penguin’s mass-market mystery imprint.

Once you have an agent, if they’re at all competent, they’ll know to submit your genre mystery series to an editor at Berkley who acquires for their Prime Crime imprint. But let’s back up: if you see a particular type of mystery filling the shelves (or missing from them), keep that in mind when devising your own series idea. But don’t follow trends blindly: remember that the books now on the shelves were acquired as long ago as two years, and the trend you see may already have passed.

An even more helpful goal is to be able to ask a prospective agent the reasonable question, “What are some imprints you might submit my manuscript to?" If you’ve written a commercial mystery series, and they don’t mention Berkley (or the other major mystery imprints), perhaps that agent isn’t savvy enough, or simply isn’t the right one for your manuscript. If you’ve done your homework, you’re better equipped to make in informed decision.

The same holds true after you’ve signed on with an agent. Refrain from sending them a list of places you want your manuscript submitted. That’s like saying, “I don’t trust you to do your job." Few things annoyed me more when I was an agent. And please, I beg you, don’t contact an editor who received your manuscript through an agent, unless you know the editor personally. Following up is part of the agent’s job. However, it is (or should be) perfectly acceptable to ask where your book has been submitted and why a particular imprint isn’t on the list.

There’s one terrific reference book for info about both publishers and agents: Jeff Herman’s Guide, which is updated every year. It needs to be, since its long list of book agents and book publishers is ever-changing. It provides company contact info, names, submission policies, and genre preferences of both agents and publishers. If your agent mentions a publisher/imprint to you that you haven’t heard of, look them up in the guide, search for them on Amazon, and Google them.

In short, it’s always best to be as knowledgeable as you can about the industry. It can help you focus your manuscript, especially if it’s in a commercial genre. It’ll help you find an agent. It’ll help you work with your agent to market your book to the right places, and identify whether your agent is doing the best he or she can with your manuscript. You don’t need to have insider contacts or shell out the dough for a subscription to Publishers Weekly. Just do a little browsing of the Internet or the bookstore, and reap the benefits of your homework!

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