Reader question: What’s an imprint?

Ingrid writes to ask:

How exactly does an imprint of a publishing company work? Are imprints more specific in subject matter or is there a deeper connection with the parent company?

Are your chances of getting published better with an imprint or does the sale of your work do better with a more well-known publisher?

I would like to submit my manuscript to a smaller company because I think that they will “get” my writing style, but this company is an imprint of a bigger one. Is it safer to submit to the parent company and hope for the best or will an imprint be more helpful and “reachable?”

First off, let’s distinguish between a smaller company and an imprint. Big and small publishers will both have imprints. You may have an advantage getting published with a smaller press because they’ll often be able to give more personalized attention from the editorial stage on through production and promotion—though that can depend, too. I’ll get to small publisher vs. large publisher in another post. First, what is an imprint?

An imprint is publishing speak for a brand. It’s usually not a separate company from the parent publisher; rather, it’s a way to divide books within the publisher that might just be on paper (editors and other staff might work across imprints; the books are simply branded differently depending on genre or audience) or might be a fiscal division of the company, depending on the size of the company and the way it’s organized.

For example, MacMillan reorganized last year so that all their children’s imprints (FSG, Feiwel and Friends, Holt, etc.) are in one division of the company, MacMillan Children’s Publishing Group. Now, I don’t know the company well enough to know whether the editorial for each imprint is divided into different departments underneath the group (I imagine so—the articles I’ve read mention that they’ll share art departments and production resources), but certain editors only work on Feiwel and Friends, and others only work on FSG. At least, that’s how I understand it as an outsider to the company—some editors could be working across imprints, the way that Sharyn November works on both Viking and Firebird books at Penguin. It just depends on how the company structures itself.

When I worked at Wizards of the Coast, I only worked on Mirrorstone books, not any of the adult novels, and not any of the game books (such as Dungeons and Dragons rule books). Mirrorstone was the imprint I worked on, but Wizards of the Coast was the company I worked for, which was itself a division of Hasbro, the toy and game company. There were departmental lines between the novels and the games (at least at first; this changed, as corporations are wont to do), and within the novels lines, editors were assigned to particular imprints. When the now-defunct Discoveries imprint was launching, all the adult editors worked on Discoveries as well as their own Wizards-imprint books, but Mirrorstone editors worked only on Mirrorstone. Here at Lee & Low, I only work on Tu’s books, and the other editors only work on Lee & Low books, not Tu.

Editors will pass manuscripts over to editors at other imprints within the company if something has been misdirected to us, but we prefer that a book be directed to the right imprint. Hence, if your manuscript fits a particular imprint, it’s best to submit to that imprint—if they take unsolicited submissions. Most of the bigger companies don’t take unsolicited submissions, and if the larger company doesn’t, usually the imprint doesn’t. Check their submission guidelines, which are usually linked on company websites. You also might poke around on Google, blogs, and Twitter to see which editors work for which imprints; if the individual editor has submission guidelines, you can then figure out whether your book might be directed to that particular editor. If the editor doesn’t post submission guidelines or specifically says they’re not open to unsolicited submissions, you’ll need an agent to submit to them.

As far as acceptance goes, the little imprints at bigger companies can be more selective than general submissions at the parent publisher, depending on what the imprint focuses on. A more literary imprint, for example, will cull “commercial”-feeling manuscripts. A science fiction and fantasy imprint will cull manuscripts that have no speculative nature to them. I run into this a lot—people will hear “multicultural fantasy for children & young adults” and only hear “multicultural” or “fantasy,” not both. A lot of the manuscripts I receive don’t hit the specific niche I’m working to fill, and so they’re automatic no’s. So unless you are sure that your manuscript definitely fits everything an imprint is looking for—AND you’ve checked whether they accept unsolicited submissions—it’s best to find either another imprint/publisher to submit to or find an agent, who can help you in targeting your manuscript to the right editors within a closed house.

The best chance of being published—whether with a big company or a small one, with the parent publisher imprint or a small imprint—is to write a good book that fits what they’re looking for. If a publisher only does picture books, they’re not going to want to see a YA novel, and vice versa.

But it sounds like you’ve looked at the books they publish and think that their sensibility is the right fit. The next step—after polishing your manuscript to perfection, of course—is to simply submit to them, if they’re open to unsolicited submissions, and see what happens. Publishing isn’t a crap shoot—your best chance at getting published is to submit widely after finding a list of publishers that your manuscript fits. Once you start getting bites, that’s the time to get down to brass tacks about which one will have better marketing, better distribution, which one has the editor you want to work with, and so forth.

The same goes for agents. Don’t just submit to your one “dream agent.” I’m not convinced there is such a thing in abstract, before you’ve started querying and talking to those who are interested in your work. Once you start getting deeper in the process, a lot of clues will come up in the interaction to help you decide if that’s the right direction to go. If you have the rare advantage of choosing between actual offers from a large publisher, another large publisher’s prestigious imprint, and a small publisher, that’s when you start looking at each company’s track record in sales, distribution, marketing, public relations, and so forth. Until that time comes, though, cast a wide net.

The question about sales I’ll leave for another post, because that gets back as well to the advantages and disadvantages of going with small presses vs. large companies, complicated by the imprint question. I’ll try to address that later this week.