The Same But Different

I haven’t blogged much in recent years about writing and publishing, mostly because I’ve been so busy doing both. While it’s really satisfying to have the rights back to all of my work, becoming my own publisher has meant a lot more admin work. I still think about writing, publishing, and the balancing act of being a working writer, but haven’t composed many essays about it of late.

Today, it’s time for a change. 🙂

Last week I was interviewed by Aime Austin for her podcast, A Time to Thrill, last week and we had the most interesting discussion. Maybe it’s due to C-19 and staying home from conferences, but I haven’t had such a good chat with another author in a long while. I don’t have a publication date for the podcast, but one of the topics we kicked around a lot was author branding, delivering to reader expectation – or providing a consistent reader experience – and “the same but different.” The balance between creativity and commerce has always been one of my favorite writerly topics – how much should books by any given author be the same and how much should they differ? It’s a balancing act, and a question with no right answer. There might not even be a right answer for any given author, but a choice that changes over time.

What has changed is the market, as it always does.

I sat down to write something on this topic today and, on a whim, had a peek at my old blog posts. I wrote several posts about this in 2009, probably to coincide with my being the Writer-in-Residence at Toronto Public Library. They’d been unpublished for a while, but I’ve republished them and will give you links at the end of this post. They were written when I was still traditionally published, before indie-publishing really got started, but many of the questions and issues remain the same.

The core concept is that readers want to know what they’re going to get when they pick up a new book by an author whose work they’ve enjoyed before. That’s fair. How much is the same and how much is different will vary, from expectation to expectation, from reader to reader, from author to author, even from series to series. I tend to define it pretty broadly, but there is always an audience for books that are very very consistent. This was the key to category romance – that ALL the books were comparatively similar in structure, tone, and content – so that an avid reader would likely enjoy all the books published in that imprint each month. There certainly are indie-built authors who have established a strong author brand based on delivering books that are very consistent, in terms of trope, tone, characterization, etc. and there are readers who love this. My own sense is that this niche has grown. Maybe after two years of a world-wide pandemic, we’re less interested in unpredictability. (?)

The challenge for me as a writer is that I love the variety of stories and of characters, and don’t want to write a similar story each time I begin a new book. I want to explore something new each time. I need a new adventure each time I put my fingertips on the keyboard. On the scale of the-same-but-different, my books would chart further down the line to “different”. Frankly, I think this is the point of being a writer. Of course, there has to be some consistency, which is why I write in linked series. Plus I know that for me, repeating a success, even if that means a better delivery to reader expectations (and more sales) is a path to burn-out. I’ve learned that I need to play to continue to create.

It may just be my nature since, as a reader, I prefer this strategy, as well. If I look at the books of Agatha Christie, a favorite author of mine, her body of work in the mystery genre divides into two broad categories: the mysteries that are often considered the foundation of the cozy mystery sub-genre, featuring her continuing detectives, most often Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and the standalone stories that aren’t linked to anything and often have a different structure. (Yes, I know she also wrote romances and plays.) And Then There Were None is a fascinating book and one very different from her other mysteries. I think it would be very sad if she hadn’t stepped outside the boundaries of reader expectation to write that book. Even within her mystery series, there are outlier books like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which introduced me (but not Hercule Poirot) to the fascinating tactic of an unreliable narrator. This book definitely didn’t deliver to reader expectation, as she was kicked out of a mystery writers’ club as a result of its publication. It’s one of my personal faves. As a reader, I want authors to write beyond their established brand. It only makes sense that I want to do that as an author, too.

As mentioned above, I’ve written about the question of striking this balance before as it’s been an ongoing challenge for me. Here are two posts from 2009: Branding and An Alternative Branding Strategy. Here’s one from a couple of years later, in 2011: Author Branding.

Since those posts were written, indie publishing has appeared on the scene and grown like mad. There have been a lot of other changes in publishing, too. Let’s look at two big ones. Though they have always been a factor at online bookstores, the importance of algorithms to the performance of individual books in the marketplace has grown exponentially. Part of this is due to more sophisticated algos, part to targeted advertising, part to changes in consumer behavior including more online shopping. We talk a lot in writing circles about the ‘one-click-auto-buy’: that’s driven by authors consistently delivering to reader expectation, by reader confidence that the book will be exactly what they want, and it’s a solid formula for success in a digital marketplace. That decision to build on success with the shape of the content is a choice on the part of the author, whether deliberate or the result of his/her own ideas, and is increasingly common because it works. This means, in a way, that some audiences are developing very firm ideas of “how these books go”, which just reinforces the trend toward similarity.

Secondly, the evolution of AI means that more and more genres and sub-genres of fiction will be generated automatically by software. I believe the first to fall prey to this change will be those niches where there is little room for variation and the structure of the book is tightly defined by expectation. If we can specify how the book has to go and what should happen when, then the generation of new books that match the pattern can be automated. In these niches, readers are often voracious and there’s a demand for more new content all the time. AI will likely service that need. (Are we there yet? Probably not quite, but it’s likely the technology will be there soon. I’ve been fascinated by the development of AI-generated imagery, which has improved by leaps and bounds over the past six months.) On the flip side of the coin, human writers in those niches may be the first to find themselves losing audience to AI.

There’s a great quote from Neil Gaiman that I always come back to when I think about author branding: “There are better writers than me out there, there are smarter writers, there are people who can plot better – there are all those kinds of things, but there’s nobody who can write a Neil Gaiman story like I can.”

He’s not talking about what happens on what page, or what story elements are always included, let alone what tropes. His work is filled with variety and creativity, and his books, independent of genre or sub-genre, are always excellent reads. I find that success in variety very inspiring.

So, I’m continuing to write my Deborah Cooke and Claire Delacroix stories. The great appeal to me of going indie was the opportunity to follow the stories wherever they led, regardless of what I’d written and published before, and to tell the stories that I only I could tell. I know I have to play in order to keep writing. That means I’ll continue to struggle to strike that balance between consistency and variety, but I hope you’ll enjoy the books that result. Maybe some of them will be “keepers” that you return to over and over again, precisely because they surprised and delighted you by straying from the expectation of “how these books should go”.