Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Distinguishable publishers

I respond to this New Dork Review of Books post about whether or not readers notice who publishes the book they're reading at a bit of a delay, but after starting to write a whole essay in the comments box underneath the post, I figured I should instead organize my thoughts properly and respond in kind.

Greg Zimmerman essentially wondered whether or not the publisher of the book you're reading affects whether or not you'll read it. It's a thoughtful, interesting post in which he concludes that there's one such publisher for him (McSweeney's), and later in the comments (after numerous readers named their own publishing favorites), that most readers have the one. Still, the ultimate conclusion seemed to be that readers don't actually pay too much attention to the publisher.

But I disagree. And I also agree.

Greg rightly raises the idea that readers can't name who published their favorite book of the year. This is true in the U.S. or Britain, where there are hundreds of publishers and publisher imprints to keep track of. It's true that most readers don't consciously pay attention to publishers. A reader won't reject a publisher because they're the same guys that published that piece of crap book last year. We're not aware enough for that. But to suggest that aside from one favored publisher we don't pay attention... I say: nonsense.

These are only three examples of publishers, but with each one it's fairly easy to identify the "brand" (so to speak). First up: Vintage. Easily distinguishable for me based on book shape, paper type and overall aesthetics, I have found that Vintage books are often good. And I have found that I'm also more likely to pick one up because of that previous sentence.

NYRB Classics
NYRB Classics: a little more obvious. This publisher makes certain its books all have the same general design and feel. Heavy cream paper, wonderfully distinct spines, brightly colored blurbs and titles and that most distinguishable title box on the front cover. So easy to spot on the shelf, even without the little trademark NYRB oval at the bottom. A 100% success rate with this publisher so far, and dozens of good words from various bloggers. How can I miss this one?
Lastly, one publisher that while not entirely identical in style (the way that NYRB books are...), every reader will always recognize. Who doesn't notice that small, often orange penguin peeking up at them from the spine? Who doesn't spot the placement of the penguin somewhere on the front cover, the words "Penguin Classic" stamped across the front, "Penguin Modern Classic" scrawled across the back, or even just the standard symbol glued anywhere on the cover? Always distinct, always obvious. You always know when it's this publisher, whether you like their translations and editions or whether you don't.

This game can be played with just about any publisher. The fact is that no matter what we tell ourselves, we recognize publisher brands. We typically know exactly who published a book as we hold it, turn its trademark pages, and bend its distinct cover. One only need look at how each reader has that favorite. And then another favorite. And then another.

Greg is right: most of us probably can't name the publisher of our favorite book from last year (actually, I can. Vintage: The Master and Margarita), but that doesn't mean we don't subconsciously care. I'll be more interested in anything NYRB or Open Letter publishes because I've had good experiences with them in the past. I know I love Oxford World Classics editions translations and annotations, even if their aesthetics aren't amazing. Penguin Classics can be a hit or a miss, but I do like Penguin's young adult imprints. Does this mean I'll buy every book by the publisher? Absolutely not. Do I take into account these things when debating whether or not to buy a book? Probably a lot more than I think.

A few more examples of easy-to-distinguish publishing houses:
Open Letter
Oxford World's Classics (old editions)
Persephone Books


  1. I am more hung up with the typeset than covers or publishing houses. Having said that I love Vintage Classics covers and the black label Penguin comes next.

    For example: in my charity shop, William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom" sits on the shelf week after week, it's an almost new copy and the cover is pretty. When I flipped the book, I was irritated by the fading and ugly typesetting.

    it makes or breaks it for me. I like clean and clear fonts. Not sure why not many publisher published books in Arial font?

  2. Don't forget Norton Critical Editions. I love 'em!

  3. A clever way to engage the argument. Nice.

  4. Great post!
    I do know who published my favorite book from last year, Norton (The Lonely Polygamist), but I don't necessarily recognize their books.
    Some publishers I do, and my husband will buy anything published by Soho Press, which is also very distinct in appearance.


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