03/08/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Why Publishers Have the Blandest Brands in All the Land

Publishers love to publish books on branding, because it's such a hot topic in the business world today. The question you have to ask is why publishers don't bother reading the books they publish.

Every industry in the known universe rises and falls on the strength of its brand, except for one: book publishing.

With few exceptions, publishers have spent billions of dollars over the decades stamping their brands onto books. And yet those brands mean nothing in the minds of consumers.

For example... HarperCollins published The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries. Palgrave Macmillan just came out with The Edge: 50 Tips from Brands that Lead by Allen P. Adamson. And Free Press, a division, or imprint, of Simon & Schuster, offers Building Strong Brands by David A. Aaker.

Remarkably, even though these publishers are claiming enough expertise with brand-building to sell you advise on the topic, their brands stand for... well, exactly nothing.

I recently took part in a conference call during which an editor at one of the top New York publishing houses patiently explained to an author that the publishing house's brand means nothing; it's the author's brand that sells the book.

So they know it! But they don't seem to be overly bothered by that fact. And yet, in today's world, where even my cat has her own personal brand, it's astonishing that publishers would fail to capitalize on the fact that their name is out there on every product they sell.

Some publishers "get it." Regnery is a trusted brand in the area of conservative book publishing. If a right-wing reader sees that Regnery printed the book, he will buy the book, even if he has never heard of the author (or had no prior curiosity about the book's topic). The Regnery name is a guarantee of quality and worthiness to its market.

The same thing can be said of Amacom books, for business readers.

Similarly, a romance novel that says Harlequin on the spine is enough to get a romance reader to buy the book, whether she has heard of the author or not.

The only exception to the rule among the major publishers is Wiley, which has a solid reputation among business readers for its books. Indeed, Wiley has at least three current best sellers on the subject of branding: Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team by Alina Wheeler; Brand Against the Machine, by John Morgan; and my personal favorite, Positioning for Professionals, by Tim Williams. This shows it's possible for major publishers to have their names matter as much as or more than those of their authors.

So why don't publishers recognize the value of building out their own brands?

The answer is a business term called "stovepiping." The major publishing houses are divided into fiefdoms that seldom deign to speak in any meaningful way to any other fiefdom. Editorial rarely talks to Sales. Marketing never speaks to the production people. Design doesn't talk to Financial. And no one wants to talk to the lawyers.

The result is that people inside publishing companies throw their work over the proverbial wall with no regard for what will happen once their own work is done. The various departments are doing their jobs, but no one is doing the job -- burnishing the publishing company's brand into the consciousness of consumers by having it stand for something distinct and important.

You could get away without having a brand that consumers could readily identify back when publishers had it plummy -- before the Internet came and ruined all the fun. Not anymore.

It's always entertaining whenever a new person gets hired to run the editorial side of a major publishing house because they always say the same thing: "I'm going to spend some time deciding exactly what we stand for as a publisher."

Then they end up standing for buying whatever book proposals literary agents toss their way. Alas, that stand... is not a brand.