Author Branding

A few days ago, Teresa Wilde posted a link to this blog post on the FF&P listserve we’re both on. I wish I’d seen it sooner. This author, Maureen Johnson, is talking about not wanting to be an author brand, right here.

I also dislike the idea of author brands. I thought this was because I just didn’t get it, so I’ve taken workshops about branding. I still dislike the idea of summarizing my work – which is my life – into a punchy little slogan of six words or so. The whole idea gives me the creeps. It feels restrictive. (This is not a popular perspective in these workshops, btw!)

I also dislike the “sell sell SELL” mentality that Maureen mentions in her blog. I’m an author. I want to write books. I want to write lots of different kinds of books. I don’t want to live in a box that says I have to write *this* kind of books forever and ever nor do I want to move through my life entreating everyone I meet to buy my books. Talk about becoming a bore.

BUT, the fact of the matter is that if you are an author, you will be branded. That’s because it works for marketing those books. Anyone who has sauntered through the paranormal romance section in the past couple of years, for example, will take one look at this cover art and know at least that they’ve seen something similar before. If they’ve picked up my books, they’ll guess it’s a new Dragonfire title – and they’ll be right. This is branding – albeit graphic branding – doing its job.

Graphic branding is what publishers do when they package books, in order to communicate to readers quickly about the book. They do this based on bunches of data and expertise, and their understanding of what the book is about. When a series is doing well, the graphic branding will be used to draw readers’ attention to a new installment in that series. When a new author is launched, a great art director will use imagery that is evocative of other similar books in order to tell the reader what to expect – in order to entice the target reader into picking up the book and maybe buying it.

There’s a tipping point, though, between the book being readily identifiable as part of a series, and covers looking so similar that readers are sure they’ve read the new release in the past. “The same but different” is a constant conflict in publishing. How much the same? How much different? Where’s the balance point? It holds true for linked books themselves and also for cover art.

Maybe because publishers are editors, the notion of brand typically slides into the question of content. So, it’s not unusual for an editor – or a publisher – to believe that what an author has sold to that editor or that house so far is the only kind of work that author can do. At the very least, that editor might believe that author should continue to do that only kind of work for the foreseeable future. So, if you sell vampire romances to a house, they will expect more vampire romances from you – not cookbooks. Some editors will be open to werewolf books from you; others won’t. Because I sold a medieval romance first in 1992, I had many editors who dismissed the notion of my – for example – writing a Regency romance, or a western, or – what was in my head? – a contemporary romance. They were all sure that the only thing I could possibly write (or should write) was a medieval romance. I thought the ideas were all romances and the setting could change. I didn’t know anything about branding in those days. The likelihood was that no one wanted to risk the market stability of my author brand – but we didn’t talk about branding then. Publishers just did it.

This need for things to be the same over and over again is problematic for many authors. Most authors write lots of different stuff. Most of us like to splash around in different ponds. We might prefer one pond over another, or our taste in swimming holes might change over time, or we might like to switch between a couple of different ponds – but we generally do not only write one thing over and over again for the duration of our career. And this is good, because markets change and it might – just for example – become pretty much impossible to get a vampire romance published one of these days. Everything is fluid when you make your living creatively.

(Just as an aside – the other truth is that truly stable author brands are developed on the basis of a variety of work. If an author consistently delivers a similar story with a similar kind of emotional weight, readers will learn to rely upon that author for a story they like, independent of the book’s setting. These are the great brands which are most resistant to changes in the book market. They’re very hard to build in this market, though, because many publishers don’t want to take changes on allowing diversity within a brand. It’s not a coincidence that most of the vital author brands in the romance section were developed when category romance was a very very vital market segment. Those authors wrote dozens of books that were published on quite an aggressive schedule. Not only did readers develop an idea of what to expect from those authors, those authors were able to refine their own ideas of what kind of stories they consistently told or preferred to tell. There is risk in diversifying a brand – readers can be very vocal if a new book isn’t perceived to deliver on what they expect from an author. There’s another balancing act there! Maybe we’ll talk about building diversity into an author brand another day.)

When an author brand works, the house wants to keep it working – so does the author! The purpose of branding is to create some order in the bookstore, to make it easier for the customer to get the kind of book he or she wants and come back for more – instead of leaving the store empty-handed in frustration or confusion. There are always lots of books and none of us have a lot of time to make a choice. And because covers were the main (or most visible) expression of branding, publishers quite naturally took ownership of that part. They were paying for the package, and for the art director, so it made sense. (The other, less visible, expression of branding was editors choosing not to buy, for example, a Regency romance from a medieval romance author. Ha!) Author branding was seldom discussed explicitly but it was implicitly managed by the publishing house.

Then came the internet, and so much changed. Authors began to have websites, and those authors who didn’t have strong graphic branding (or whose work fell into broader camps than the publishing house’s art department had defined, or whose work varied, or who wrote different things for different houses) developed their own branding. Hmm. If that wasn’t enough, authors who were not yet published began to develop branding for their work and displaying that branding on their sites and running those slogans in their signature files. This, in many camps, has become to be perceived to be a sign of being serious about your writing and/or professional. Over the past few years, it has become a persistent message – and a progressively louder one – that an author must take charge of his or her own branding or be doomed to fail.

I would rather just write books, myself, but that business model seems to be going the way of the dodo bird.

What do you think about author brands?

Do you think at all about author brands?

Do you read authors who write more than one kind of book or use more than one setting? Or do you prefer a certain subgenre of work from a certain author? Do you read only in one subgenre?

Indulge me – I’m curious!

7 thoughts on “Author Branding

  1. Wow Deb, what a way to welcome in Wednesday, which is put in the humpday box :). Okay all kidding aside.
    I dislike branding to a certain extent, but in saying that I also tend to sway to only certain sub-genres of romance ie, paranormal, fantasy, contemporary, suspense. I don’t like a lot of historical romance (I did love yours though) because most of the heroines are like 16 and I just find that being a woman of a certain age I don’t like kiddie porn, I don’t mind historical paranormal or fantasy as the characters only look young but are in fact eons old, so that’s okay.
    Okay now here’s the however, depending on what I’m in the mood for I’ll look under specific groupings if I’m looking for a new author. I usually tend to go to my faves like you 🙂 for the most part and I also rely mainly on word of mouth from friends for new authors.
    I know personally more than one author who has stopped writing a series because the publisher says they won’t support another one, so what’s an author to do in that case. I’ve also had an author say that the books that I really liked in a certain sub-genre didn’t sell well and almost put her out of business in that particular sub-genre and therefore had to reinvent herself there.
    I do read some authors in different genres and there are some that I like in one genre and not another so that theory doesn’t really work for me.
    I can’t imagine being a new author trying to establish her/himself in today’s rocky climate and when the only way they can publish is to self pub or epub then they get stuck there too.
    As a reader I think it’s a shame that so many great authors bow to the whims of their publishers, editors, publicists etc. It seems a shame when they “sell out”, and I know that you know this personally as you were a victim of this yourself. I also applaud you that you pulled yourself up and persevered, and look how that turned out.
    Whew, at least my brain is clicking along now.
    Take care Deb


    • Well, Deb, saying that an author is “selling out” by listening to the advice or expertise of agents and editors is a bit harsh, I think. They all have a lot of expertise and experience, and different houses are better at selling different things at different times. They’re being good partners by sharing that information – although transitions are often very hard for everyone!

      I’m intrigued that there are authors whose work you like in one genre and not another. Hmm. You’re blowing my theory about diversified brands right out of the water!

      I’m quite excited about publishing and possibilities this year. The tide is finally turning, I think, and I believe there will be growth – and when there’s growth, people take more chances on new things. That’s good news for all of us, whether we’re readers or writers!

      Glad I woke you up. ;-D


    • Well, Deb, it’s always a choice. You can change and make the deal, or not change. Maybe that means making a deal somewhere else, or pursuing another avenue like selfpublishing, or maybe it means doing something else. I think it’s really important for everyone – not just authors – to acknowledge when they make choices. We are all active protagonists, right?

      I’ll try to wake you up again tomorrow, but no promises…



  2. I’ll read just about anything, if it catches my attention (don’t look at my bookshelves, they are scary).

    Just because I’ve found a wonderful book about vampires (or whatever), doesn’t mean I want to read all the vampire/etc. books put out by authors A through Z.

    It’s the author’s voice that gets me buying the books, not the branding.

    Do I pay attention to author branding? Can’t say I do. I pay attention to the story they write, the story that gets me lost for a few hours and gets me looking for something else from them.

    Hopefully that made sense. 😉



    • It does make sense, Kristen, and ties in perfectly with my theory of brands that contain diversity. With those brands, the reader follows primarily because of the author’s voice, but also because of the kind of story the author likes to tell. The setting and details are less relevant.

      Once again, we’re thinking the same way!



  3. Kristen, my bookshelves are scary too. You say that you’ll read what catches your attention and I agree that just because I love one shapeshifing Dragon series 🙂 doesn’t mean I’ll like another. But my question for you is, how does the read catch your attention, if you’re in a bookstore they shelf them by genre, also an on-line bookstore, or do you just look at the new release shelf, have favorite authors or listen to friends advice.



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