Monday, November 29, 2010

How Much Does the Publisher Matter to Readers?

Much of the commentary about the National Book Award for Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule earlier this month focused on the ideas that the win was both a huge upset and also a coup for small, independent publishers. The novel, which Gordon nearly gave up on after it was rejected by several larger publishers, finally found a home at McPherson & Co., a tiny literary press that had only planned to print 2,000 copies of the novel before its NBA nomination.

But this got me thinking, in general, how much do readers really care about who publishes a novel? Sure, everyone likes rooting for the underdog, it's always fun when a David slays the Goliaths, and I certainly understand that some readers enjoy supporting small, independent publishers in the same way that I enjoy supporting small, independent bookstores. But when all else is equal, does a novel's publisher really have any influence on readers' purchasing decisions?

To me, as I suspect for most readers in most cases, the answer is 'no'. Quick, without looking, can you name the publisher of your favorite novel this year? I couldn't — I had to cheat. And when I did, I discovered that the publishers for some of my favorites this year are all different. (See below for a list, if you're interested.)

Of course,  bigger publishers try to force themselves to matter more to readers by spending obscene amounts of marketing dollars on their darling authors — something smaller presses just can't afford to do. And oftentimes, publishers have "imprints" or divisions that focus on particular types of writing. But to me, the big publishers all seem to cancel themselves out in these ways, and I really can't (or don't try to) distinguish between any of them. Is Little, Brown known for a particular type of novel? Does Simon & Schuster publish more womens lit than other houses? I have no idea. (And frankly, don't care.)

For me, the one exception to the rule that publisher doesn't matter is McSweeney's Books. McSweeney's is the San Francisco-based publishing house founded in 1998 by author (one of my favorites) Dave Eggers. Probably better-known for its quarterly literary journal, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, than its books, McSweeney's publishes an eclectic mix of young talent and established writers, including Eggers' own books. So I'd been reading a few somewhat mixed reviews (but the positive ones were very enthusiastic) about Chicago-based writer Adam Levin's 1,000-plus-page tome The Instructions. You're always hesitant to pick up a novel it's going to take you several weeks to read if you're not positive you're going to love it. But when I saw the book at B&N, and noticed it's published by McSweeney's, that was it — I pulled the trigger. I figured Eggers wouldn't lead me astray. And so far, so good — I love it!

But again, that's the exception. Generally, for me, the publisher doesn't matter one iota. How about for you?  Do you even look at who published a novel? If you do, what are the circumstances? Do you go out of your way to support smaller houses? 

Bloodroot by Amy Green, published by Knopf; Room by Emma Donoghue, published by Little, Brown; Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, published by Farrar, Straus Giroux; Let The Great World Spin (paperback) by Colum McCann, published by Random House; and Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr., published by Viking.


  1. Really agree. I really don't know enough about particular houses to be able to do much publisher-specific buying. One exception to that though is FSG; I once read a long article about them with a list of their authors, and, much to my surprise, an astonishing number of my favorites were listed. So I do look twice at things I haven't heard of, especially debut novels, if FSG is the publisher. This tactic led me to pick up ALL THE LIVING by C.E. Morgan last year, and I loved it.

  2. Publishers are known to book buyers for retailers and wholesalers. Therefore, distribution is different for publisher-to-publisher comparison.

  3. Penguin always catches my eye at a bookstore. Other than that, I'm firmly in the "don't know, don't care" camp. ;)

  4. A similar situation happened in Canada about a month ago when the Giller Prize winner was announced:

    Lately I seem to be drawn to anything Europa Editions has published, but apart from that I don't pay attention to a book's publisher.

  5. I generally don't care about the publishers but it will sometimes sway me when I'm browsing for a new book. If I'm unsure, if it's published by Vintage, I'll probably buy it and take a chance. I also have a weakness for the orange and white Penguin editions.

  6. I don't ever really notice the publisher, unless it ie Melville House which happens to be the only publishing house I am interested in ... not really for any particular reason. I think I read something cool about it once and automatically started liking it, though I can't remember what that cool thing was.

  7. The publisher doesn't sway my purchase, but I do always glance at it, just because I hope to someday get a job in book publishing. Penguin is one of my favorites, but other than that all the big houses sort of seem the same. Also, after every one of my book reviews I include the publisher at the end, because I think they deserve some sort of credit for the book as well.

  8. I could care less who publishes a book, but unfortunately the smaller guys often will not capture my attention unless I've read about it on the blogs. (Beautiful things, blogs are. No marketing dollars needed.) There are some newer imprints out there that are getting my undivided attention, though, that are getting a reputation for excellence (the Amy Einhorns and Reagan Arthurs for example).

  9. @Ape - Interesting how everyone who's commented seems to have that one go-to publisher they prize above all. And I will now look twice at first-time FSG authors as well...

    @Mark - Not quite sure what you mean there - can you explain that a little more?

    @Kathy - Ah, yeah - Penguin is a good one, too. They have a very distinct design.

    @Suzanne - I'll have to look at Europa's catalog. That's not one I've heard of before.

    @Sam - Vintage - yet another favorite. I love how everyone's saying they don't care, except for (that one). This is interesting!

    @IngridLola - That's funny - maybe it's Melville = Herman Melville = smart books like Moby Dick?

    @Brenna - Nice - another vote for Penguin. Yeah, I try to be cognizant of the publishers, too - but I suck at it. Good idea on leaving the publisher at the end of reviews, too!

    @Sandy - That's a good point - we're like the small house's de facto marketers. I'll definitely check out Amy Einhorn and Reagan Arthur - thanks for point them out.

  10. I have to admit that I am not fissed. I like the Penguin editions that only cost $10AUD (becuase that's crazy cheap for a new book in Australia) and I think that Allen and Unwin often publish good Australian books - but other than that I don't care at all - its the book not the publisher that counts.

  11. Before I started blogging, I hardly ever noticed the publisher of the books I was reading. The only exception would be for classics, where I might choose to collect particular editions by a favorite author (all Penguins or Oxford World's Classics). But that was only important to me because I would be choosing from several editions.

    Now that I'm blogging I do notice the publisher a lot of the time, and I'm much more aware of various imprints than I used to be. But I still don't find that I'm driven to read a particular book because of the publisher, except, once again, in the case of classics. I do follow publishers like Persephone Books or New York Review Books who reprint little-known classics. And if I spot a green Virago book in a used bookstore, I'll always take a look at it.

  12. I may go out of my way for smaller or specialized publishers when there are multiple versions available if their prices are in the same ballpark, but generally I'm like the others and don't care that much.

    Competent editing is much more important, and I don't know a good way to verify that before actually diving in. (Sorry to mount that hobbyhorse, but have read two books lately that botched important things that should have been easy to catch. Both books...coincidentally?...published by Pantheon.)

  13. Occasionally I will pay attention to the publisher but only because I know which are generally the ones that publish historical fiction which is mostly what I read. This usually just helps me add to my WL though. The only time it influences my purchasing decisions if if I see its by sourcebooks because they release a lot of great HF that has been out of print for awhile. Other than that I could care less who publishes it.

  14. Before this past year blogging, I never even considered who published the books I was reading. And still it means very little to me. I don't overly care about publishers or even authors...I just like books.

  15. This is an interesting post. I try not to judge a book by it's publisher... which led me ultimately to focusing more on the indie publishers and smaller press houses. They were cranking out some of the best books I had read this year.

    Termites Parade and Those Who Watched Her Pass by were both published by Two Dollar Radio - I have two more books published by them waiting to be read for review. I have a feeling they don't know how to publish a poor novel!

    Graywolf press impressed the hell out of me by releasing both I Curse the River of Time and The Wilding... They are high on my 'gotta have' list. Tin House puts out some interesting novels (Agaat, Hot Springs) too.

    So I suppose my search for the next best book turned me on to the underdogs, and I've not looked away since :)

  16. Generally I don't pay much attention to who has published a book. However, I've recently tried to focus on reading more Australian work, and Scribe Publications (a small, independent) is starting to stand out to me. I haven't read one book from them that I haven't enjoyed and they have a reputation for being very particular about the work they will publish. Quite a number of their books have been winning awards so I'm finding now that if I see a book is published by them I am more inclined to read it.

  17. i don't tend to notice publishers, but like you i always go for the mcsweeney's stuff. if nothing else, i know their books will be beautifully designed. i also lean towards lady churchill's rosebud wristlet.

  18. @Becky - Agreed - book/author are the most important. Though I'm sure a publisher's editor can have a pretty important impact on a book - but far be it from me to try to figure out which publishers have the best editors! ;)

    @Teresa - You know, I thought about the blogging factor - but I really haven't noticed publishers anymore since I started blogging. I think I'm the exception there, though.

    @Dwight - Yeah, editing (and proofreading - typos in hardcovers drive me crazy) surely is critical - but again, how do you know (outside of Pantheon apparently) which houses are known for solid editing? No idea...

    @Holly - Source material is a good example of when the publisher would definitely matter! Good point!

    @Trisha - Well, I'd disagree with you about the authors not really mattering, but definitely agree with the "I just like books" part. ;)

    @TNBBC - I've noticed you advocating smaller publishers on twitter once in awhile. I've heard of both Graywolf and Tin House, but the latter only its literary journal - didn't realize it was a book publisher as well. I'll definitely have to pay more attention to the underdogs - thanks for the suggestions!

    @mummazappa - Interesting how the snowball starts gaining momentum quickly - once you've read and enjoyed a few, you DO start to notice the publisher. That's a great point!

    @Ellen - Beautifully designed, indeed - and I LOVE the "no dust jacket" technique.

  19. Interesting question. I do like certain publishers for older classics to include good commentary and notes--and I tend to make Oxford World Classics my usual choice these days. I search out Persephones and NYRBs and the like. But where it really matters to me is with academic presses. For example, if UNC Press publishes it, I trust that a book has gone through both a rigorous selection process and great editorial work. (The same is true for many other academic presses.)

  20. Publisher does not enter my mind at all when I'm choosing a book! I've never thought about it before. What a great conversation!

    I linked this at Kate's Library as part of my Friday Five!

  21. What an interesting question!
    As a librarian, I'm very familiar with the publishers... but I would guess the overwhelming majority of readers are not. And even though I know them, I don't care. Maybe an imprint will strike me as publishing the kind of books I like, but even that is stretching it to say I care. :)

  22. I've never looked at the publisher of a book I'm going to buy unless I'm looking it up online. And then it's more of an interesting detail than anything. I've noticed patterns over time, but those don't generally sway my opinion.

    There are a couple of publishers I like for particular types of books--for example, if I'm reading a classic or another older work, I'll be more likely to look for specific publishers, so I know I'll be getting version I want.