What’s In A Name?

Last week, we started to talk about what lessons and practices can be carried from traditional print publishing and which ones are less useful in a digital publishing environment. I saved the topic of author brands—i.e. the name an author uses on his or her work—for its own post this week, because it’s such a nice chewy topic.

First of all, when we talk about author brands, we’re talking about marketing. An author brand isn’t very different from any other kind of marketing brand—it’s a shorthand, telling the potential reader what to expect from the book before he or she reads it or even reads the copy.

Authors and pseudonyms
Many fiction authors don’t write under their legal names. There can be a lot of reasons for this, so here are a few that I’ve heard over the years. This list is long, but not exhaustive:
• The author’s name is hard to spell or pronounce, therefore potentially hard to remember.
• The author’s name is long, so it will appear smaller on the book cover than a shorter name.
• The author wishes to protect his or her privacy by writing under a pseudonym.
• The author is actually more than one person, and the partners think it would be simpler for branding if their work was published under a single author name.
• The work is work-for-hire, contracted by a legal estate specifically to be published under an existing author brand (like the V.C. Andrews novels published after that author’s death) or by a publisher to create a brand or series to which the house holds ownership of the author name. (Like the Nancy Drew series. There is no Carolyn Keene, although initially the series was written pseudonymously by Edward Stratemeyer.)
• The author’s name is too similar to that of an existing published author (presumably a successful one) or a famous individual.
• The publishing house contractually required the author to use a pseudonym.
• The author is too prolific for the publisher’s expectations, so is published under multiple names.
• A published author is writing a new kind of work in a different genre or subgenre, or relaunching his or her career.

This last point is the one we’ll focus on today and it falls into two neat divisions.

1. Splitting the brand
As mentioned above, author brands are just like other marketing brands, in that they tell potential consumers what to expect before they buy. What happens when what the author is writing has changed? There are two schools of thought on this: one is that the author should consolidate all work under the name author name or brand, and the other is that different categories or kinds of work should be delineated by different author brands. There are pros and cons to both of these strategies and they go in and out of fashion as a result. Right now, there is a greater tendency to use one brand for all work, whereas 10 to 15 years ago, the tendency was to “split the brand”.

Splitting the brand means that I write historical romance as Claire Delacroix and contemporary romance as Deborah Cooke. Each name is believed to be more evocative of the era (Delacroix sounds historical while Cooke sounds contemporary) and represents a certain area of my work. As I have tended to write for two different publishers simultaneously, it also has made contract clauses easy because the divisions between the two houses were about different kinds of work. Each house could build a graphical branding for my work that was evocative of the contents, without worrying about what the other house was up to. The lines of division were clear, which meant the two brands could be well-managed. That’s one big advantage of splitting the brand, even if it’s split under the jurisdiction of the same publisher.

The weakness in the strategy of splitting the brand is shown in the passage of time and the evolution of certain market niches. What we read also goes in and out of style. In about 2003, the historical romance market, which had previously been very robust, shrank dramatically. The survivor in that niche was sexy Regency historicals and very little else sold well. When a brand has been closely defined and tightly managed, it’s not very resilient to these kinds of changes. I had wanted for years to write historicals even in other periods but couldn’t place them as I was perceived to be a medieval romance author. Medieval romance was my brand. When my niche disappeared, so did my ability to sell my work.

This is a bit of a subjective call, and so Tor was open to the possibility of my writing urban fantasy romance as Claire Delacroix. Their thinking was that the sensuality and worldbuilding was similar to my medievals (and maybe the grit, too!) and that the books were set in a not-now time. They perceived my fallen angel series to be consistent with my brand. They did graphically brand the series differently to show even my established readers that these books weren’t medievals.

I actually saw Dragonfire as being more consistent with my existing brand, but NAL didn’t want to publish those books as Claire Delacroix titles and asked me if I’d use another author brand on them. I knew NAL would do a good job of publishing them (they publish a lot of paranormal romance) so I trusted their call and agreed. Dragonfire became Deborah Cooke books.

Behind all of this is the risk of “tainting the author brand”. This usually means that an attempt to diversify goes badly wrong and leaves the reader uncertain what to expect from an author. The author’s sales often  plummet as a result—even if readers like one niche of the author’s work, they may be cautious in reading more if they’ve been disappointed even once. A diversified brand is more robust, though, so there’s a balance to be struck.

2. Starting over
Because of the way the print publishing machine works, it’s pretty common for an author to end up with less-than-compelling sales numbers. The author could have been unlucky in terms of cover art, competing titles, distribution errors, on-sale dates that coincide with major world events (wars tend to keep people from buying books.) He or she could also have tainted the brand, as noted above. Actually, when you look at all the things that can go wrong, it’s amazing that any books succeed at all. There are a lot of variables that affect the sales of a given book, but when things go awry, it’s often perceived to be easier to start fresh than to try to save or rebuild the existing author brand.

We all like new shiny things, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that publishers and booksellers are no different. In the publishing industry, there is special attention given to debut authors, and even though “you can’t be a virgin again” as one editor once memorably put it, an author can have a rebirth in the marketplace by using a new author brand. This is a strategy that has to be employed with care to work well in our digital age, with so much information online and accessible. Readers can feel tricked if they subsequently discover the original identity of the author and there can be a backlash. One of the first great backfires of this strategy was the launch of Josie Litton by Bantam, who turned out to be Maura Seger with a new author brand.

Then and Now
As mentioned above, it’s more common now for authors to put everything under a single author brand, using the graphics and imagery on the cover to distinguish the genres of their work. Those of us who have multiple author brands spend a good deal of time trying to get readers to connect the two. But there’s still a place for dividing the brand, and it’s one that’s getting a lot of action in our current marketplace. What’s interesting to me is that it’s authors doing it by choice. Authors are acting like publishers, using author brand for the same reasons as publishers, and also using it for a new reason.

Tainting a brand is still a very real concern. Depending what the author writes, his or her brand may be more open to diversification in certain directions, or not. As authors take control of their author brands, they’re looking at their market as publishers and making strategic choices about managing brands.

Let’s look at the four possible scenarios, although there are probably dozens:

Author A is a multi-published high fantasy author, who has always wanted to publish paranormal romance. She’s well-respected in her genre, but knows that her audience won’t follow her to the romance section. There is seldom explicit sex in fantasy novels, but often a good bit of it in a paranormal romance. Still, for creative (or maybe financial) reasons, Author A wants to give romance a try. If she chooses to use a different author name on her paranormal romances, she will be deliberately dividing her brand.

Author B has always written very sweet romances. Although she has published a number of books, the marketing support from the house has been tepid, at best, and she’s had some bad luck with cover art and distribution. On the one hand, editors tell her that the market requires more spicy romances; on the other, no one will buy one from her because “it’s not her brand”. Author B has chosen to write a 50 Shades variation that is edgy and gritty, partly to push herself and partly to show what she can do. She will choose a new author name because she’s essentially starting over: there will be no crossover of her previous readership to this new series.

Author C is well-established, multi-published and maybe writing actively for a publishing house. He wants to understand the digital book market and how to indie-publish,so he can make better choices about his future. He decides to publish new work under a new and different author brand. That way there’s no risk of Author C messing up the good thing he has going, but he can still gather information. The work in question might be in a different genre, but chances are good that it’s in the same genre in which he’s currently published. He might be testing the waters for an idea his publisher thinks is too risky, or marketing works in a slightly different niche, or marketing works of a different length. He might be indie-publishing a series that his publisher declined to acquire. He’s experimenting. He might be doing this with the awareness of his house and representation, or um, not. It’s possible that he will ultimately be able to improve his digital sales of his traditionally published books, by applying what he’s learned to his existing book list. It’s also possible that he will prove his idea to be marketable and viable—that might feed the interest of the house in this different work or alternatively, convince him to take all of his work indie. It’s an information-gathering mission, and even if it fails, he will have learned something from it.

This experimentation and testing of the market is the new variation. I’ll guess that the majority of the authors I know who are digitally publishing have chosen to add a new pseudonym to their list of identities.  The pseudonym in question is a test case. It might represent any of the options represented above—even Author B, who is starting over, is engaged in an experiment. Digital publishing and the portals open to authors mean that we can connect directly with readers in an effective way for the first time ever. That means that instead of taking someone’s word that a work is or isn’t marketable, we can run a test and find out. The readers hold the cards instead of the marketing department, and that’s pretty exciting stuff.

What about you? Do you have authors you’ll follow into any section of the bookstore? Do you give new authors a try? Or are you more likely to stick to your tried-and-true favourite authors?