In her lengthy interview in the New York Times on February 6, HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman was all about expansion; she said she was in the process of beefing up her direct-to-consumer marketing program and focusing on her digital audio plans. She even said she would be up for acquiring a major publishing house (like Simon & Schuster).

But what Friedman didn't say is that while HarperCollins may be expanding in some directions, it is contracting in others. Last week, PW learned that the house is in talks to dismantle its U.S. imprint, Fourth Estate, which was launched a scant three years ago. Christopher Potter, the U.K.—based publisher, is negotiating an exit, insiders say. The fate of editorial director Courtney Hodell—as well as that of some of the books in the pipeline (like new works from Pulitzer Prize—winning author Michael Chabon and ABeautiful Mind's Sylvia Nassar) remains unclear.

In its short life, Fourth Estate landed several high-profile, high-ticket books—including Carol Shields's novel Unless, which launched the imprint here, and two Chabon novels for around $3 million. Shields's book, and Chabon's Final Solution, have been successful, but not blockbusters. Still, insiders say the demise of the imprint is more about politics than economics—Ecco publisher Dan Halpern was unable to square his commitment to his own imprint while serving as a copublisher of Fourth Estate, which went after the same kind of high-end literary titles.

There's a fair amount of disgruntlement about all this, especially in the literary agent camp, but I wonder if Harper isn't right to close this conflicting imprint. (Interestingly, though, this week the house launched a new one, Smithsonian Books.) Everybody else is increasing theirs: the Penguin Group (USA) has launched a handful of new ones, including Penguin Press, Portfolio, Gotham, Sentinel and Hudson Street, the first three of which have shown promise, if not (with the exception of Gotham and its superstar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves) profits. Simon & Schuster has started Spotlight Entertainment and Downtown Press. And just last week, Warner announced a "just don't call it chick lit" paperback imprint called 5 Spot.

It's enough to make you think publishers never got the memo that business is really, really bad.

Business has been bad, of course, at least for some kinds of titles (literary fiction, anyone?) and for some houses. But in its own intuitively counterintuitive way, publishing has decided to damn the torpedoes and speed right ahead: more imprints, more titles, more, more, more. They may tell you it's in the spirit of branding. I submit it's more "throw it at the wall and see what sticks."

Talk of branding aside, having lots of imprints is often more about a house's personnel than about its personality; would Ann Godoff have signed on with the Penguin Group as just another editor of, say, Viking—no matter how highly titled or paid? Not when the brass could just create another imprint and put her in charge. Ditto Bill Shinker and Adrian Zackheim, who had impressive pre-Penguin publishing lives and preferred to have their own shops.

But having a bunch of brilliant editors running a bunch of imprints can sometimes cause more dissatisfaction and confusion than it's worth. Agents aren't clear on who buys what, for one thing. And since imprint editors aren't allowed to bid against each other anywhere but at Random House, agents often end up with house bids anyway. (Never mind that editors jump between imprints all the time, just confusing things further.)

I'm all for the idea that we need more options when it comes to placing projects, and I understand that all these imprints were a reaction to the conglomeratization of independent publishing houses. I also know that separating types of books by imprint can be clarifying, at least internally. But most publishers now have so many imprints that they're less, not more branded, to the outside world. It's as if the pie has been sliced into so many tiny wedges you can't even tell what flavor of pie you've ordered anymore.

While I think Jane Friedman's suggestion that some day consumers will ask for a HarperCollins book the same way parents ask for a Disney film is borderline delusional, I do agree that it's in everybody's best interest to simplify the publishing and distribution process. If we're going to continue to increase the number of books we release every year, why not do it within the imprints we've got? Creating a new publishing house every time a new editor or genre comes along seems to be the opposite of simple. It's confusing. It dilutes resources. It creates unnecessary fiefdoms.

Only rarely does it help books.