With large publishers topping the book charts, we ask whether the big five are shaping our book buying habits, or if there's room for indies to break through
A good story. That’s what influences our choice to buy a book the most. Right? Some of the biggest-selling novels of all time just so happened to be attached to major publishers.
Indeed, any reading lover will be well-versed in the countless publishing houses that have embarked on bringing brilliant works to the market.
Whether it’s Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster or Macmillan, those names are usually associated with quality. Buying from one of those brand names suggests that its narrative, or collection of non-fiction facts, is going to be among the most well-crafted in the industry.
So in theory, perhaps a publisher does matter. Yet, there are also numerous examples of worlds and fictional landscapes that readers have leapt into with both feet, that are from independent publishers yet to make a name for themselves.
So why is it that certain brands resonate with audiences so much? Is it their logos that especially draw our attention, or their archive of work? And does who the book is published by ultimately make a difference as to whether we buy it?
Brands that resonate
Why a brand resonates with an audience is a key part of the puzzle. Every time you read a book that you enjoy, you likely look at the publisher attached to it. That name is a signal that they will produce other content that fits with that same style.
It makes a lot of sense to continue to purchase texts from a company that is telling the kinds of stories that you enjoy the most.
"It’s essentially the Disney effect. Disney has built a brand around a certain type of storytelling"
It’s essentially the Disney effect. Disney has built a brand around a certain type of storytelling. The name and logo thus represents that category of filmmaking.
The same in theory can apply to the likes of Penguin Random House and yet, in both the film and book world, studios and publishers work on a much wider range of genres.
However, major publishers are known for separating out their genre categories and thus creating a shared continuity throughout their publishing schedule that support a wider image of the type of content they want to produce.
We buy into that as readers, understanding that Wordsworth Editions’ republishing of classic texts, for example, are sure to be must-reads, while Orion’s biography section is just as strong as their fantasy hits.
From a psychological standpoint, consumer habits are thus based on trust. Trust that a publisher will be consistent in the books they deliver and that investing time in them is more reliable than an untested source.
The strength of the author themselves can also play into that. After all, well-liked authors are often signed to a book deal with a select few publishers, strengthening the brand further.
Credit: ajay_suresh, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr. Logos like Simon & Schuster's are instantly recognisable, and may draw you to certain books
Of course, a publisher would be nothing without its logo, which is a major call-to-arms for all fans of the brand. The top publishers in the world instantly recognisable imagery, which catch the attention while summing up the name of a brand in an instant. That thus builds our association with a given name.
The fun penguin shape of Penguin Random House is so iconic, for example, that it could not be confused with any other publishing business.
The same can be said for the bright red and blue fire of HarperCollins, the running man of Simon and Schuster or the red wave of Macmillan. Often a simple image is most effective in building an identity.
"A publisher would be nothing without its logo, which is a major call-to-arms for all fans of the brand"
Some of the best simply use just the letter of the brand instead. That demonstrates just how well known they are; as if they are the “M” of McDonalds, their whole ideology and tone can be summed up with a single image.
Pearson is one of the largest publishers ever and utilises a blue “P” to stand out. The same can be said for Hatchette, whose giant “H” is now a symbol of excellence.
The most common branding for publishers is far from interesting, simply printing the name of the company on the side of the book. However, it’s obviously effective, as consumers can easily understand who they are buying from.
The best way to study whether those brands actually resonated with audiences is by looking at what sold well in 2022. Using Amazon’s bestseller archives, something quickly becomes apparent. While series and authors are obviously influential, it’s all the top brands at the height of the list.
It Ends With Us from Simon and Schuster, Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? and Jamie Oliver’s One: Simple One-Pan Wonders from Penguin’s Michael Joseph, The Thursday Murder Club series from Penguin’s Viking, and the Pinch of Nom series from Pan Macmillan’s Bluebird are just some examples of bestselling texts.
Indeed, it’s clear that the major names discussed throughout this article are dominating the marketplace, based on this extensive list. Cassandra Davis, the Director of Cahill Davis Publishing Limited, spoke further on this issue.
She said, “I run an indie publishing house and I've definitely found that when trying to get the books stocked in bookshops, I'm up against titles from the big five publishing houses and their imprints. There's definitely more weight to a name like Penguin Random House than Cahill Davis Publishing!”
Indie publishers and indie bookshops
Independent bookshops are helping to introduce book buyers to lesser known indie publishers
There might be a place for independent book companies, with the occasional story breaking through and forcing people to take notice. In truth that’s far less common than you might expect.
Clearly a name and a logo makes a massive difference, as readers keep going back to those old favourites.
"Indie bookshops are more likely to stock an indie publisher's books"
Expert Cassandra Davis does provide a hopeful insight however. She notes that, “I have found that indie bookshops are more likely to stock an indie publisher's books, especially if the author is local to the bookshop.
"And, ultimately, readers are going to buy what's for sale in the bookshop, unless they're requesting a specific title they may have seen advertised or on social media.”
Thus, supporting local bookshops is a vital way to keep the indie industry alive and change these trends.
Banner credit: Oisin Prendiville, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
Read more: Why do we love retellings of old stories?
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