An Alternative Branding Strategy

Yesterday, we talked a bit about author branding. Today – perhaps inevitably! – you’ll get my take on all of this marketing stuff.

First, a goal because everything you do in this business should derive from what you want to achieve. So, we’ll work from my goal to develop this strategy – your own goal may be completely different, which means your strategy will be different, but you’ll be able to see by example how this works.

My own objective is to build a resilient author brand in the marketplace, one that encompasses all the diversity of my creative interests but provides a guarantee of quality to my readers. It must be resilient and robust, a brand for the duration. I don’t ever intend to retire!
Implicit in this goal is the concession that all decisions are not mine to make. And actually, I’m quite happy to not have all the burden of decisionmaking on my shoulders – I really like having two partners in publishing (my editor and my agent) and I welcome their input, ideas and experience. As much as I wish I knew everything, I know that I don’t!

Also implicit in this goal is an understanding that the market will always be in flux. There will always be some subgenres of romance that are popular, some becoming popular and some losing popularity. There will always be changes in reader expectations, some gradual, some abrupt. Just as the market is on the move, an author has to have the ability to respond to those changes – to reposition, to be nimble, to try something new. I love this facet of the romance genre, but in order to respond to these changes, it’s important to leave doors and windows open to change.
So, how have I gone about building my brand?

1/ Start with “the same but different”

Reader loyalty is established by publishing a series of books that have certain elements in common. Those books might be a linked series, they might feature siblings, they might have the same setting, they might share the same tone, they might be in the same sub-genre. There’s room to wiggle in this definition, to define what is the same and what is different, but they are books that belong together. A reader will read the first and want “the next one”. The connection must be obvious. They may be sold on the same contract. They may be packaged the same way. They may be released on a set schedule – every six months, for example – they are “a set”.

Strategically, then, an author needs to think in sets. Particularly early in your career, I think it’s important for a romance writer to not write “one-off” books. In other genres, this might not be true, but the building of author brands in the romance section is keyed to frequent publication schedules. Think in sets, let’s say sets of six.

I choose six on the assumption that you write two of these books a year, and have them published at six month intervals. If you write more slowly, say a book every nine months, maybe think in fours. If you write more quickly, perhaps a book every three months, think of a second set of six, with the objective of two overlapping contracts with two different houses. The notion is that you plan for roughly two contracts in succession or three years of writing with your sets. This is long enough to find out whether the series is working, and to establish some reader loyalty even if it isn’t an enormous success. If it is wildly successful, of course, you’ll want to continue past those six books, charting out six more. If not, you’ll want to reposition the brand with six different books, maybe in the same subgenre.

So, write six paranormal romances set in modern America featuring vampire heroines. Write six sexy funny contemporary romances in a Chick-Lit tone. Think in sets and contract in sets.

When you first start out, of course, you are unlikely to sell a linked trilogy immediately. It’s also hard for newer authors to anticipate what themes will be favoured by editors – actually, this is true of all authors to some extent – and it’s common for an editor to like the concepts for books #1 and #3 in a proposed trilogy from a new author. You can, however, sell three books that are part of the same set or of the same type – three Regencies, three futuristics, three werewolf books – and should think that way.

As an aside, I had an interesting discussion last weekend at the TPL Opening Reception for the residency with Chris Szego from Bakka-Phoenix Books, who was catering the signing. We talked about books ending with hooks instead of resolutions and she brought up the issue of reader fatigue. At some point, continuing conflicts need to be resolved, otherwise the reader may feel that he or she is being strung along. So, if you have continuing subplot threads, you might want to think about planning the arc of their resolution over a trilogy – I did this with the Dragonfire series, for example. The first trilogy is about the Pyr successfully concluding three important firestorms, one featured in each book. The second trilogy is about the Pyr eliminating the Dragon’s Blood Elixir – in the first book, Delaney intends to destroy the source, in the second book of this trilogy, Niall is eliminating the remaining shadow dragons, and in the third book, the only Slayer who knows how to create the Elixir will be hunted by Rafferty. The trilogies are two separate sets, but part of the whole. In that way, the series can continue with another linked trilogy focussed on another mission – but if it doesn’t, there will be fewer loose ends left unresolved.

2/ In your marketing, brand the series, not the author

If you’re doing six books of a certain type, you can brand that “set”. Initially, you can design your website to match that set. You might create a slogan for that set, if that’s your inclination. I think that all of the branding stuff makes sense applied to subsets of an author’s work – instead of to the author herself.

Your second set may be a variation of the first, which means you can continue with the same branding. Or you might have to create two separate zones on your website, one for each set. My point is simply that you don’t define yourself as an author of sexy vampire stories set in Victorian England – you’re the author and the source, but it’s the sexy vampire stories that get the wrought iron graphic against the twilight sky, the tagline or slogan, and the graphic identification. This leaves you positioned to do something else as well.

3/ Diversify

To avoid being pigeonholed, you need to prove to the industry professionals that you are capable of doing other kinds of work. That means placing different work, not just writing it and storing it away. It has to be published to count! Assuming that you are sufficiently prolific, after you’ve taken care of your first set, define a second one, market it and place it. Again, you should be thinking in a suite of at least six titles.

An alternative to this if you are not sufficiently prolific is to do smaller work than 100K books in other niches. Write short stories, for example. Write category romance, which is frequently a shorter book length. Participate in anthologies – digital anthos come up quickly and are often short in length.

While a new author brand is less robust and might require a bit more focus in the short term, over time, I think it’s wise to add more diversity. There’s a balance to be struck between being unpredictable and being creative, but at some point you must introduce the concept of your writing in other niches to avoid being niched yourself.

4/ Author Names

If you are writing two sets of work concurrently, you may be required to take a different author name for the second one. You just have to weigh the variables and make your choices. Will the link between the two brands (i.e. that you wrote both) be visible or not? We could have a whole post on the pros and cons of those respective strategies! For the moment, though, we’ll assume that you make the best choice possible and live with it.

My own suspicion is that you should only take a different author name if the new work is of a different genre – i.e. it will be racked in a different section of the bookstore. I think that romance readers are a clever bunch of avid readers – they know whose work they like and they follow authors between genres. They aren’t fooled for long by different author pseudonyms, and in fact, many of them will try new subgenres because a favourite author has travelled there.

OTOH, the one thing you don’t want to cast into doubt is the ending – so long as you write a romance, there will be an HEA. If you write a mystery, though, there might not be a romantic HEA in each book. For me, this is the big difference between the Nora Roberts and her J.D.Robb books – sure, the Robb books are mysteries and they’re set in the future and they’re more gritty, but the big difference for me as a reader is that there’s a continuing romantic relationship between Eve and Roarke over all of the books. There isn’t a different couple in each book working for their HEA. The structure is different, and as a reader, I need to know that – the use of a different author name tells me that. (I’ve no idea why she actually chose to use a different name, but am just reflecting on its meaning for me as a reader.)

5/ Think outside of the box

There are different ways to think of writing projects other than as work that will pay the bills. The fact is that a lot of opportunities may come your way that don’t pay very well but sound like fun. In a purely pragmatic sense, an author should decline these opportunities and focus on the paying work.

But there are several reasons to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. The first is to build some of that diversification into your brand. What if you have an idea that you don’t think will sustain for six books? What if you don’t want to write six books in a certain niche, but just want to play with that idea, or try it on for size? What if you don’t have time to write another six book suite?
Novellas are a great place to play, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t write novellas that adhere to my current booklength work. I do that on purpose. I try out ideas in novellas and short stories that I’m not prepared to write in book length, or that don’t fit with my current suite of work. It’s always possible that an editor somewhere will be interested in my take on vampires, for example. If not, I still had fun with the work and stretched in a new direction.

I don’t think there’s a lot of risk in this strategy, as anthologies are marketed differently. It’s possible that one’s loyal readers will pick up the antho, but more likely that new readers will be exposed to your work. I buy anthos for this reason, as a reader, to find new authors.

A second reason to take on less-well-compensated projects is to consider them as publicity. It’s great PR to judge a contest, to offer a critique for a fundraising raffle, to donate signed copies of your books as doorprizes, to contribute a short to a charity antho, to teach a workshop or participate on a panel. It gets your name into new areas of the market, puts your name and your work in front of new readers, and comes with a little gloss that you’re a good person, a team player, or someone who gives back to the writing community.
How’s that for a plan? Did I miss anything? What do you think about author branding, and how authors can make it work to their advantage? Have you done any branding yourself?