I recently took a workshop on branding for authors. There were a lot of good points, and new ways to think about marketing oneself, and I’m still sorting out what that means for my own marketing initiatives.
One thing that I struggled with in this workshop is my own knee-jerk reaction to the notion of branding authors. That’s because good branding is specific, the more specific the better (or the stronger), but that means defining the author by a narrow slice of his or her work.
So, why is that a problem? Let’s take a look.
One of the assumptions of branding is that the author can be relied upon to deliver to a slogan. “Uptown Chick-Lit for Downtown Grrrls” for example. (I just made that up, and it proves just how lousy I am at this kind of thing.) So, implicit in that is the idea that every book the author writes delivers to that slogan, that the author should look as much like a downtown grrrl as possible, that the author’s website and materials should echo the tone of this slogan, and that all marketing and promo efforts bind into the theme.
Similarly, if the author does something radically different – “Bloody Tales of the Tomb 19” for example – that should be released under a different author brand (probably a different author name) and be supported by a different website and materials. And when the author does novellas or takes on other work, that work should be tied into the existing brand and echo its themes. This is all very tight and neat, and there is something appealing about it as a career strategy.
While I think that it’s smart for authors to write a number of books in the same sub-genre before branching into other sub-genres (if the author ever does that – some remain in the same niche happily for their entire career) particularly at the beginning of that author’s career, I’m not sure that this strategy holds up over the long term. There are a couple of reasons for this.
1. The idea behind this is that books are products and that people buy products when they know what they will get from that product. So, Colgate toothpaste is always Colgate toothpaste, no matter when you buy it. You can count on it to be the same.
While books are products ultimately, writing a book is not the same as making toothpaste (or making widgets). Publishing is filled with people who would love for authors to be widget-makers. I suspect that any editor or agent you ask would prefer for authors to be able to predict how long it will take to write a book, to always be right about that schedule, to always deliver a consistent product that consistently appeals to the author’s market audience. They would like consumers to be predictable too, to always buy the same number of copies of any given author’s books, maybe tell their friends so each book could progressively sell more copies. That would be predictable and neat.
But it wouldn’t have a whole lot to do with the world as we know it.
It would also be easier if authors didn’t have dry spells, didn’t get derailed by real life, and didn’t have crises of faith. It would be easier if authors didn’t try new directions or learn new skills or even if their writing abilities didn’t change over the course of their career.
Other people like the idea of authors as producers, too. It’s not uncommon to be asked “how long it takes to churn out a book”, or if you are “still pumping them out”. These questions can come from friends, relatives, the media, and are all predicated by the assumption that books are products, which need to be produced in a reliable and timely matter.
Unfortunately, the writing of books isn’t that predictable. Some stories are harder to tell. Some characters are uncooperative and uncommunicative, while others talk so much that they have to be edited hard. One thing I’ve learned over my career is that each book is different and that the process of creating each book is different. Writing books is not at all like making widgets. There are days when I wish it was!
So, not only do I think that writing books is not like making widgets, but I think that it’s healthy for authors to resist any argument that suggests the two processes are the same. It’s important for authors to resist the many influences urging them to become widget makers – including the urge to consider oneself as a widget maker.
2. The key to the difference between toothpaste and books is that toothpaste is marketed as being exactly the same every time. Books, OTOH, are marketed as being the same but different. People don’t want to read the same book over and over again, yet how much variation they will find acceptable within linked books is always a squishy variable. This is one of the great challenges of writing a continuing series – keeping it fresh, while still delivering to the core concept.
It’s also one of the reasons why books later in a series will be longer, and will often take more time to write.
For example, even within an author brand – like my Dragonfire series, for example – the books are individual and different. There are people who prefer Quinn over Donovan as a hero, and vice versa, because their characterizations are different. Readers have personal preferences.
Compare this to other products, like, for example, Diet Coke. If you love Diet Coke, it is partly because every bottle of Diet Coke is the same. That’s why it’s comparatively easy to produce Diet Coke – once the factory has the formula, they set up the equipment and go. They can make identical bottles of Diet Coke all day and all night long. Diet Coke lovers do not say that the bottle they had last Tuesday was much better than the one they’re having now. There is no variation – unless you move between world markets, where tastes are different and the formula is adjusted accordingly – and so production is simplified.
3. This branding model also assumes that the author is completely in charge of all marketing and branding decisions. Um. Not so. One of the benefits of having a partner, like a publisher, is that the writer has access to the expertise of that partner – it also means that the partner has a say in how the book is presented in the marketplace.
This may be about an author’s brand – it’s not uncommon for an editor to be interested in a project but not in the author’s current brand. Enthusiasm is a rare and powerful commodity – would you turn down editorial enthusiasm if an editor wanted your project very badly but wanted it to be published under a new and different author name of yours? Some would, some wouldn’t. Opportunity comes in all shapes and forms.
Similarly, the package (or the cover) of the book is usually within the sphere of the publisher’s influence. The publisher might not agree with the author’s chosen branding, or might not consult with the author over the cover. The most powerful element of the book’s marketing is the package – it’s the one thing that every single potential buyer sees – so the author’s marketing efforts should coordinate with it. Not having its creation and design beneath the author’s control (or influence, at some houses) makes this a tough objective to achieve.
4. The final danger comes from the market itself. Markets change. Constantly. And those authors who want to earn their living as authors need to be nimble in terms of addressing market trends.
A strong brand is, in a real sense, a pigeonhole. One of the interesting things that happens in publishing is that publishing professionals believe what authors tell them – either in words or deeds. So, if you only write Chick-Lit vampires, many editors and agents will believe that that is what you do. They might believe that it is ALL you can do. Or all you want to do.
Once upon a time, I was talking to an editor of mine about the changing historical romance market. Sales of medieval romances were slipping but she loved my books. I told her that I thought it would be fun to write a western. She was shocked. She insisted that I only wrote medievals – which was what she was buying from me – that I only could write medievals. That was in her mind what I did. I thought this was pretty funny and told her that medievals and westerns were pretty similar, in that they both featured heroes on horseback fighting for justice. She was unconvinced. By writing a number of medieval romances in a row, I had inadvertently created the impression that that was all I would, could or did write.
And I didn’t even have a slogan to drill that home – like that wonderful quote a reviewer later gave me “Delacroix is the queen of medieval romance!” Imagine if she’d seen that.
The market is always evolving and mutating, with different subgenres, tones and kinds of stories becoming less or more popular. I’ve talked about romance as a mirror of popular culture a number of times – that percolates through to the kind of heroines we want to read about, the kinds of heroes, what we perceive to be romantic situations, the balance of description and dialogue in a book, as well as the setting and the tone. This is why I would resist the urge to define myself by some segment of my work.
The other side of this is that authors who do build lasting careers are those whose readers follow them across subgenres. By necessity, the work of those authors over 10, 20, 30 years will change, both in terms of their skill and interests, and in terms of what is perceived to be marketable. Fans of those authors don’t define the work by a narrow niche – they follow the author for more broad reasons, like great heroes, satisfying endings, dramatic dark moments, heroines “just like me”, etc etc. But that kind of broad stroke is less effective as a brand – reader trust has to be built over time, and over a diversity of work.
So, I don’t think it makes sense over the long term to make sure everyone identifies you as an author of one particular sub-genre – chances are pretty good that one day, you’ll have to modify that or try something different. If you don’t create the message that that’s the only thing you do, then that repositioning will be easier.
I don’t think that there are any shortcuts to building a loyal audience, or a group of readers who will continue to read an author’s work. I think it comes over time, with consistent delivery to reader expectations of the genre – mixed with a little magic to make the stories fresh and the characterizations sparkle in your own way.
What do you think about author branding? Do you as a reader expect an author to write the same kind of work for the duration? Or do you have favourite authors whose work you love regardless of what sub-genre they write?
Tomorrow we’ll talk about an alternative branding strategy for authors.
Branding makes me want to pull my hair out. Kind of like knitting (knotting). 😉
I don’t pay much attention to branding. I just want a good book with the best story possible within the pages.
Hmm, now you have me thinking if some of my auto buy authors (Kay Hooper, Lisa Gardner, etc) have brands.
I think I need a pot of coffee and then think.
Thanks for the great post, Claire/Deb.
Branding is essential for certain products. Who really calls the stuff we pull out of a box to catch a sneeze, “tissue”, as in, “Hey, hand me a tissue!”. Nope they are all Kleenex…. which is branding. We can say the same for “gelatin” versus “Jello” and others that I bet you could think of.
Books are not products that can be branded. Are we going to call up our best friend and say “Hey… get me a Delacroix while you’re at the bookstore?” That would be awkward because we know each book is separate and unique and must be evaluated on it’s own rights. So is the same with the author. I will always gravitate to some authors because they consistently have a book that I enjoy. They could write fantasy, sci-fi, western, whatever and I would buy the book to read it and consider the point of view given. It’s the writing that draws me, the creativity of the story, and the ability to draw me into the world the author created that is the success of the author.