Is the Era of Eponymous Publishing Over?

In Discussion by Roger Tagholm

Time was that publishers named houses after themselves and editors aspired to run an eponymous imprint. But with today’s corporatization, ego is out the door.

By Roger Tagholm

Jonathan Cape

Jonathan Cape

The history of twentieth century publishing is partly the story of men — almost always men — founding houses in their name. Jonathan Cape, Victor Gollancz, Andre Deutsch, William Heinemann, Michael Joseph, Alfred Knopf, [Richard] Simon & [Max Lincoln] Schuster, [George] Weidenfeld & [Nigel] Nicolson…it’s a long list, and goes all the way to [Charles Coffin] Little and [James] Brown in 1837 and the UK’s John Murray in 1768.

But what happens today? What names are publishers or imprints given? It’s one of those curious backwaters of publishing history that is fascinating to explore. Weidenfeld’s Alan Samson has detected various trends over the years. “We’ve had animals, most famously birds of course, with Penguin, Pelican, Puffin, Osprey, Black Swan…There was a typographic/journalism phase – Century, Futura, Headline, Fourth Estate — and a little obsession with trees — Quercus, Fig Tree. And we’ve had the move to places, or geography: Canongate [named after a part of Edinburgh], Atlantic, Portobello.

Alfred A. Knopf in 1935.

Alfred A. Knopf in 1935

“What you can definitely see is a move away from the personal, the names over the door – Andre Deutsch, Jonathan Cape etc – to something that reflects the more collegiate approach in which publishers now operate. You no longer have the editor/publisher who goes out to lunch, buys a book and tells everyone to sell it — ala Farar, Straus & Giroux. Now you might have publishers set up by people from other disciplines — sales, marketing, rights — and decisions are taken together.”

Perhaps there is less ego now, with everyone realizing that a successful book is something more than one person feeds into. HarperCollins has already marked its forthcoming move to Southwark by announcing The Borough Press, Borough being the area’s alternative name. It will publish “exciting and intelligent fiction with a broad appeal, bringing stand-out writing to a wide readership.”

Publishing Director Kate Espiner came up with the name, but it’s not ‘Espiner’ or ‘Espiner Books’, as it might once have been. She said: “The Borough Press is named to reflect both the spirit of the imprint and its new location — proud of a rich and varied past, whilst concerned with a thriving present and a bright future.”

With its towering neighbor, the Shard soon to be a daily presence, one could also imagine HarperCollins using Shard as an imprint for dystopian, dark-edged fiction — unless, of course, there is a copyright issue on the name

Similarly, when Hachette moves, it might think the serious, monastic origins of Carmelite could lend itself to a Christian or MBS imprint, or to a small, literary fiction list, or even a range of upmarket, Moleskin-style stationery.

The Penguin Random House US imprint Villard Books is named after Random’s former home in a brownstone on Madison Avenue (a building that itself is named after the journalist, railway promoter and financier, Henry Villard). Somewhat confusingly, New York’s St Martin’s Press, is named after London’s St Martin’s Lane, off Trafalgar Square, the former home of sister company Macmillan. And who can forget Random House’s short-lived imprint Turtle Bay Books (1991-1993) founded by Joni Evans and named for th mid-town neighborhood in New York City that then housed Random House. It fostered the talents of, among others, Julie Grau, who is one half of one of the few eponymous imprints to launch in recent memory Spiegel & Grau (also a Random House imprint), along with Reagan Arthur Books at Little, Brown US.

Of course, the issue of whether imprints actually mean anything to anyone outside the industry is frequently raised. They certainly remain important to publishers since new imprints pop up (and occasionally close down) with great regularity. In the last 12 months, we have seen Amazon Publishing in the US announce both StoryFront, a short story imprint, and Waterfall Press, for Christian titles. Penguin India has announced Blue Salt, for crime and thrillers with a Bollywood connection; Bloomsbury UK is starting Sigma for popular science; and Simon & Schuster US has the superbly named Simon451 for SF and fantasy (the first imprint to take its name from book title?). There are closures too, though; HarperCollins UK’s Blue Door will swing shut for good this year.

But note, none of the above is named after an individual. However, just to prove that publishing can’t be too neatly summarised, former Hachette Littératures editorial director, Guillaume Allary, has just launched Allary Éditions in Paris.

That’s French style for you.

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).