Further Perspective on Author Branding — You Are Forced To Choose Who You Are

And of course, to not choose is, in fact, a choice. 
 
One with consequences that are just as defining for your career as a writer.
 
This is a follow up to my most recent post, entitled “We read (INSERT YOUR NAME HERE) because…”
 
Several who commented online, and a few who contacted me directly, had a knee-jerk response.  They didn’t want to write from within the confines of a brand.  They perceived doing so as selling out, and or sacrificing some of the joyous freedom of writing what they please, how they please.
 
Nothing wrong with that.  But there are consequences to that knee-jerk.  Because it is a choice.
 
Branding is nothing more than a requisite step in the process.  If one doesn’t wish to proceed down the path, if they want to remain where they are, then feel free to ignore that particular step.   Remain a decathlete in a game that pays only sport-specific athletes.  If you claim you want to play professional football — and virtually everyone reading this website wants to earn and cultivate a readership for their stories; in other words, to turn pro) — then you’re going to have to put down that javelin and stop jumping over those hurdles and line up with how the game is played.  With a helmet.
 
I hope you’ll take it as the clarification it is meant to be…
 
… without the slightest intention of making anyone right or wrong.  Consequences are often non-judgmental, they just are.  Nothign wrong with trying to write a book in every single available genre you can name.  Have at it.  Just make sure your career goals, your vision for the outcome, aligns with that choice.
 
Imagine your kid wants to be a doctor. 
 
She or he will go to medical school, sure, and for the right reasons.  But when she’s done, she says she wants to be a surgeon, an OBGYN, a heart specialist, a chiropractor, a shrink, and, when they feel like it, a shaman.  Fair enough.  That’s some serious joy and freedom.
 
Usually a vision this scattered is coming from the mouth of a 11-year old who is a big fan of Greys Anatomy, which is fine.  Dreams have to start somewhere.
 
But the question, in light of that choice, at some point (like, the second year of medical school) becomes: what hospital is going to put you on their payroll?  Or, when you’re in private practice, who will be your patients?
 
The issue of branding only kicks in at the professional level. 
 
Until then, write what you want.  But when you cross the threshold and you’re writing for money, trying to build a career, and you have a publisher investing money in you (or, just as validly, you’re investing your own money toward the objective of building a career), you now face a choice
 
To brand, or not to brand?  That isn’t the question, it’s the key to moving forward.  Like it or not.
 
Below is my personal response to one of the writers — a very good one, too — who wrote me on this issue:
 
Dear xxxxxx:
 
I think my response begins with something I put into the post itself: a writer needs to decide who they are writing for, and why.  If they are writing for themselves, for their own experience and pleasure and fulfillment, then by all means, swapping genres and brands and styles is perfectly okay.  It’s okay because, for the most part, the outcome of the manuscript, by definition, is a lower priority than the experience.
 
To say otherwise is to not understand the reality of this proposition.  You can’t claim to desire commercial success but remain immune to the realities of commercialism.
 
That said, it can work, most likely as a one-off, and within a short window.  Any one of those diverse projects might catch on with a publisher, might even sell well and begin a career for the writer.
 
And right there is where the choice must be made… again.
 
Because the publisher won’t want you to change up the game.  If you sold a romance novel, and you’ve been offered a two book contract, rest assured that the publisher doesn’t want a mystery as your second book, or a thriller, or a time travel piece.  In fact, they’ll ask to review the “logline” of the second book before the contract goes through, just to ensure that you’re going to stay within your new “brand.”
And once again, you get to choose.
 
I’ve heard from several writers on this topic as a result of the last post.  One mentioned writing from a formula — I think that writer didn’t fully understand the message here.  Being known for something, having a brand, isn’t remotely formulaic.  Nelson Demille’s witty, layered dialogue is the very antithesis of formula, as is Grisham’s approach to showing an underdog hero battling the complexities and dark corners of the legal system.
 
So in addition to choosing, the process involves understanding.
 
Writing is the very essence of freedom.  At least it should be.  If you want to maintain that freedom completely and totally, then it’s totally available.  Heck, you don’t even have to finish a manuscript to experience it.  Just don’t expect an outcome that includes a career with money and fame, because in that realm you’re not alone.  Your publisher is, in effect, an employer.  Your books are the product, and they are, by definition and expecation and dead to rights, involved in quality control AND marketing.  In fact, they’re running it all. 
 
For the latter (marketing), branding is critical.
 
Nothing wrong with choosing out of that game.  But be honest… writers who say they will never cave in to branding are also harboring a dream of making the A-list.  Which is a contradiction.
 
Tough truth.  It forces us to choose, to navigate reality.
 
Which is why I continue to believe that writing is life itself.  Not an analogy for life,  but as as a transparent Petrie dish within which we live it… exposed.
 
 Interesting to note, too, that this same dynamic — choices, consequences and the expectations of the commercial marketplace — apply to the complexities of craft.  Which gets just as much resistence from writers who seek to reject it in the name of freedom, while at the same time nourishing a dream that unfolds in the window at Barnes & Noble.
 
This, too, is a microcosm of life.  Some get it, some don’t.
 
Blatant commercial branding message follows: Need a hug?  Click HERE.

26 Comments

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26 Responses to Further Perspective on Author Branding — You Are Forced To Choose Who You Are

  1. The problem stems from the fact that a reader picks up a book because they know what to expect and that’s what they want.

    If you want a good, juicy romance do you pick up a Stephen King?

    If you want a creepy, goosebumps all over, mind bending horror story do you pick up a Nicholas Sparks?

  2. @Julie — so true. In this case, problem equals opportunity. Or more accurately than both of those words… that’s the way it is. So we choose: do we play, or do be remain true to something we believe, for better or worse, serves us better? For me, building on a promise to the reader through core preferences and storytelling abilities is a huge opportunity to explore, well, everything. It’s a quid pro quo kind of thing… give the reader what they want, what they expect from you (as a branded author), and they’ll allow you to take them anywhere. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Julie. L.

  3. Patrick Sullivan

    I think this whole discussion is why many writers use pseudonyms, or at least sort of (Ian Banks just puts his middle initial in for his science fiction works). This way if you REALLY need to spread out, you as a writer can, while you still build a brand around each name, where they all are associated with something specific (be it genre, a character, or whatever).

    The obvious downside to this is more work since you have to build up each brand separately, but if you make it an ‘open secret’ people who really just like your core writing can still find all of your other nom de plumes. Seanan McGuire does this where her original books are under her name, while her zombie series is under a known pseudonym so people can track from one to the other, without the small variation of Banks.

    Which is still a choice, obviously, but well done it still lets you brand. Just be ready to work even harder 🙂

  4. Art Holcomb

    I believe it all comes down to what you want out of your effort. There is room for both groups but let’s not mistake one for the other.

    The traditional definition of the word “professional” meant that you got paid for your work, although the internet has muddied that up a bit in recent years. It’s the definition I prefer, although opinions may vary. I’m careful about the difference between “professional” and “proficient”; both are likely well-qualified but only one is actively looking for commerce.

    In my career, I have sold TV scripts, optioned movies, sold comic book series, articles and poems; each is a different market. Each was written with a speific audience in mind. Some of it has been writing stories for established characters and some have been pure creations of my own. But each piece was created to find a specific target audience and the greatest tribute I can get for my work is when someone pays money to see, produce or print it.

    In the beginning, branding found me. I enjoyed writing science fiction. I got good at it and it began to sell. So I’m known for writing SF screenplays and comics, and that’s one audience. I don’t write mysteries (have enormous respect for those who do), but I also get paid for my writing articles and poetry. So my brand have followed me and I encouraged it and it’s led me to considerable reward. Branding is an easy way to think about a subsection of my work, but I publish pieces in a variety of topics – in each of which I might becomes branded as well. My career is rich and more profitable because I use branding when suitable. But I write anything that I want. That doesn;t change.

  5. Let me preface this comment by saying that I am almost entirely in agreement with this post. Like Julie mentioned above, I think you have to think about it from the reader’s perspective. For me, as a reader, there’s nothing I love more than finding a great new book — and then realizing the author has 3 or 4 more books of the same general ‘type’.

    But Larry, I guess I’m wondering where, in your opinion, ‘brand’ intersects with ‘genre’. Is brand just a more specific slant on genre — ie, one doesn’t just write techno thrillers, one writes techno thrillers that weave smart-ass characters with biting social commentary.

    Or can brand be above and beyond genre? I am thinking of some of the authors I love, and the reasons I love them, and I can guarantee I would follow them across genres if they asked me to. I think Tana French writes wonderful mysteries, but if she suddenly came out with a sci-fi, I’d still read it, because to me her brand is more about her subjects and writing style — I would expect even a sci-fi by her to include thoughtful characters, a deep sense of place and history, and the same sorts of ‘themes’ that come up in her mysteries.

    Would love to hear your (or other readers) thoughts on this! 🙂

  6. Sure, we can write across several genres. However, if we aren’t pretty solid in one, with several publications (traditionally-published or not), we probably won’t get read so widely.

    If someone’s favorite genre happens to be a certain subset of Romance and we’ve supplied that demand with 4, 5, 6 works that fit that expectation, we might be able to “convert” them also to try out out our Max-Brand style Western writing. But, if we’ve got 4, 5, 6 works across 4, 5, 6 genres, we’d best not expect a whole lot of cross-polination.

    Once you’ve got a decent brand in one area (genre), you can branch out. Sure, you can use a pen name and all that. Some of your brand will rub off on some people and they’ll follow you just as avidly (and recommend you!) in your 2 other genres.

    I, for one, will tend to buy an author when they’ve got several works available. That says to me that they mean it and I might just happen onto a new author whose work I can drool over.

    Tolkein and others aside, those who have the most books available will probably have the wider audience. Their brand will tend to spill over between genres.

    Go write lots of great stuff.

  7. You’re on a roll here, Larry. Thanks for being real with us. I appreciate it.

    Branding is also necessary to build a successful writing platform. It is not a “selling out” it’s a “selling in” you are trying to make it clear to your readers what you are all about. That’s what branding is.

    You need to ask yourself the question: “Why do people come to me?”

    Why do your readers come to you? To laugh? To think? To be inspired?

    Find out what that is. Then create your brand around that. Branding is just a practical thing in my opinion, it helps readers know why they should keep coming back to you.

    That is all. It is to your benefit. Be a smart writer. Figure out what your brand is and see how that branding helps you soar.

  8. I think that, whether we like it or not, we need to work on branding, or at least stick to a particular genre until we have established ourselves. Once you are a bestselling author, you can take risks or whimsical jaunts where you write a novel outside of your personal brand or regular genre. Because even if it doesn’t turn out all that great, the bulk of your loyal fans will forgive you for it and buy your next book. But unless you have a large, rock solid fanbase, you risk undoing your hard work. Just my two cents. God bless!

  9. Are my comments disappearing because of something I’m doing, or are they waiting for moderation?

    Fully support the message here. Branding is essential for any professional (Air Jordan, anyone?)

  10. (Ah, it /was/ something I did.)

  11. I have a friend who is making this mistake. She’s self publishing and epublishing short stories and novella in numerous genres and under her name and a pen name. I tried explaining the problems with this, but she doesn’t get it. In the end, I decided it doesn’t matter what she does. It’s not going to affect MY goals.

    Great post!

  12. Pamela Moriarty

    Hi Andrea: Another Tana French fan here! Yes, I would read anything she wrote, just as I’ve read everything Ian McEwan wrote, Margaret Atwood, and, yes, Stephen King, among others, just because I think he’s a darn good writer. That’s my criteria. Not so much the content as the quality of the writing. Having said all that, I considered the question Larry poses here, “We read Pamela Moriarty because….” Not sure how to answer that. I’m still reeling after studying “Story Structure–Demystified” which I downloaded two days ago, like, “Oh, a story has a recognizable structure? It’s not this magical entity that appears on the page straight out of my right brain and bingo the publishing world will clamour to print it and pay me well for the privilege?”, I’m talking four novels, a memoir and a dozen short stories written in the past six years. Now, I’m being smacked upside the head by the above question. OK. Pick myself up off floor, roll up sleeves, get to work on properly structuring my stories and, at the same time, figuring out why people would pay good money to read them. Man!

  13. Commercial fiction is commercial fiction. It has its requirements at all levels. From story structure to cover design. Commercial fiction is commercial fiction. I’m mystified that the push back continues.

    Unless I have no clue or missed the point, which is always likely in my case, this blog is about writing and selling to and in the commercial fiction market.

    There is absolutely nothing that succeeds, which means repeated sales for years and years that is not branded. Be it soap or a writer. In an authors case it is usually the name that becomes the brand.

    One phenomenon that occurs today– the brand lives beyond the life of the author.

    Blake Snyder of “Save the Cat” fame has become Blake Snyder Enterprises. Mr. Snyder died age 52.

    His legacy is not only being carried on but advanced. My guess is his family is probably glad for the effort. Had he ignored branding, there possibly could have been a different out come for them.

  14. @Pamela, Story Structure is what brought me to Larry’s posts (and his books) and it’s completely changed the way I write. My first (unstructured and running back and forth over the plot trying to iron out the inconsistencies) took about three years to write. My most recent took six months..

    And if I could beg Larry’s indulgence, his story structure (demystified) applied to a fantastic 60-second Jeep commercial :> http://www.tonymcfadden.net/?p=1285

  15. @Tony – thanks for sharing this 60 second spot. I love it when the universal principles of storytelling show up in small things, small stories, like some TV spots. Here are two more killer examples of that:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p916yeFa2Xk

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLTIowBF0kE

    Cut and paste these into your browser… watch and learn… and enjoy.

  16. This is the stuff that takes me down every day, Larry. We can’t be the ‘everything’ brand just because our lives seem to take everything we have to live them right, so why not write that way? Because it doesn’t work.

    I think you’re saying ‘find the thing, the idea, that you can live with forever’ and that’s the brand.

    An example from the music world, Kenny Rogers. He started out young and rockin’ with ‘Just Stopped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In,’ then went middle aged country and ‘The Gambler,’ then got the bad plastic surgery and stopped singing.

    The brand was good in rock, better in country, then ruined. Re-branding seems like something to avoid. You go from ‘That Guy’ to ‘What Happened?’

    Thanks,

    David

  17. Alicia Moore

    Hi there,

    Sorry to leave an unrelated comment, but I couldn’t find any contact info for you. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in a guest post. Please drop me an e-mail.

    Thanks!

    Alicia Moore

  18. Lisa DiPrete

    Hello all.
    I’m a marketing/brand strategist and writer; Larry is 100% correct. Commercial success means sales, which require a solid author brand.

    Your brand is the full experience a reader has when interacting with your work: airtight story structure (!), voice, characterizations, format, artwork, genre(s) and yes, your persona. Readers will seek you out via blogs, interviews, social media, YouTube clips, etc (your platform). Yes, it’s overwhelming, especially since we’re also producing creative works that readers relate to enough to care about us.

    So, how does a writer ‘story engineer’ an author brand? Stop and think about who you are. Think about the life you want and the way you want to be regarded as a writer in that world. Develop a vision and mission for yourself. Then, make career decisions based on whether they support your vision. This may require compromises, however, as many above have said, the more successful you are the more you’ll be able to extend your brand.

    Branding is work, but it can be fun. You’ll probably learn something about yourself in the process. Branding doesn’t mean selling out, losing originality or being trapped in a creative maze. You can be a brilliant, creative and well branded author: Neil Gaiman comes to mind.

    Best to all,

    Lisa DiPrete

  19. Pamela Moriarty

    I don’t know if this is the place, but I would like to say ‘thank you, thank you’ to Larry Brooks. I was one of those seat of the pants writers, who wrote, revised, rewrote ad infinitum and still couldn’t get the result I wanted. I read articles and attended workshops and seminars and writing groups. I got useful bits and pieces. None of them helped. I thought perhaps I just didn’t have what it took. And then I came upon this site. I spent an entire day reading all the posts. I downloaded STORY STRUCTURE-DEMYSTIFIED and spent the next two days studying it. I saw how structure was missing from my work! I had the bits and pieces. I just had no idea how to put them properly together. I am in the process of applying story structure to a short story I wrote recently. I immediately realized I needed to move a scene halfway down the story to the beginning and rewrite the ending. There’s more work to do but what a difference those two things made! I haven’t felt so hopeful and encouraged about my writing in a long time. So, thank you, Mr. Brooks. This writer is very grateful.

  20. Todd Hudson

    I’m a little late to the party here but I just finished reading this post. Great stuff. In college, I wrote by the seat of my pants but took a creative writing course where we were required to write Villanelles, and, frankly, I don’t know when I felt so much freedom writing. It’s strange, but when the structure is set, you’re free to ‘go crazy’ within the structure.
    At any rate, now I’m in the ‘business sector’ in Marketing, and your truths on branding are unavoidable: the brand is the definition of who you are (at least to your customers/audience), to a large extent.

  21. Nick

    I guess I’m still having trouble conceptualizing what a “brand” can be. Can you give a list of various best-selling authors of today and history, and what their “brands” are?

  22. @Nick — sure. Actually, sort of did that in the post previous to this one (title of this one is, “Further Perspective..” – further, that is, from the post that preceeded the one you’re commenting on here. Read the Comment thread, too, folks are chipping in their favorites.

    I think James Patterson is the poster boy for this… you know EXACTLY what you get when you buy his stuff, every time out. He occupies a clear niche. And that’s good, that’s why people buy him. L.

  23. Branding should be a clear reflection of who you are as a person. Branding should not limit you, it should liberate you. If you are having trouble finding a personal brand, then you are having trouble with knowing yourself. If you have trouble finding a brand as a writer, you do not know who you are as a writer.

  24. Larry, thanks for another elegant article.

    Lisa, thank you for an excellent comment. That’s a lot of what I was trying to say in my last one as I ruminated on exactly that question – who am I and what parts of who I am do I want to keep public? It seems like part of the task of Branding is to write a short readable biography and then keep telling versions of it and related anecdotes to fill it out.

    That and discover what all of my books have in common, including what they have in common with my favorite books. That’ll let me label the new brand accurately. Terry Pratchett always delivers a happy ending, often with Gilbert and Sullivan loony setup, but the beat and causality are perfect. The tragedies aren’t placed at the end, it’s comedy.

    King always delivers a Big Scare whether or not it’s got a happy ending. He does memorable scary monsters and scary situations. He’s that guy that asks “What if the married couple doing bondage drop the key and he gets a heart attack while she’s chained to the bed?” or “What if the rabid dog is a Saint Bernard?”

    He had a hard time selling his masterwork, The Dark Tower series. He had to contract for some other books in order to get it accepted. He put out some of his books under Richard Bachmann as a pseudonym and even made up Bachmann’s life story for them – and Bachmann did not get the fame King did. To me they’re all good – he’s that skilled. I have my favorites among them and there are a few I didn’t like but they’re tolerable compared to authors I don’t like. His masterwork is among my favorites.

    It’s not Horror, but Epic Fantasy is also known for memorable monsters.

    I don’t think Branding is exactly the same as Genre. Genre is almost a different kind of labeling – it’s got certain conventions as a group of books that the reader can count on and pick up a new author with that generic label. A Romance reader can count on it being a Love Story. It doesn’t deliver if the love plot isn’t the main plot. A Horror novel has to have a scary monster or scary situation in it, whatever that is, something way outside the bounds of normal scary things. It doesn’t need a happy ending but it does have to have something Scary in it. Sci-Fi has to ask What If? Fantasy has to have some type of fairy-tale element even if it’s just human beings far away in a made-up time vaguely resembling the mythic past, while Historical fiction has to be as accurate as the author can make it – or at least not screamingly inaccurate or it slops over into Fantasy.

    Genre writing is commercially safe. Fulfill genre expectations and readers who never picked up one of your books before will be satisfied that it did deliver a love story or a What If? or a scary moment. Branding can be within genre or it can Break Out and go beyond Genre.

    King broke out with his first novel. The Dark Tower series took his negotiating for years with his publishers, he was right that it was his greatest work and it sold like mad because he knows what King readers want. A big fat novel with interesting characters up against ludicrous odds that they may not survive without tragedy. He went way beyond Horror in it and way beyond the common length expectations of novelists too – that series is actually one enormous book in seven fat volumes.

    “A good long read” is part of the Stephen King brand right along with Something Really Scary and Interesting Characters. That’s regardless of genre. Cujo was Horror. The Dark Tower is pure Epic Fantasy. King is a brand name in himself.

    Richard Bachmann wrote shorter books. I look at the difference and that is the difference, right there. A good Bachmann book is a page-turner that might keep me up a little late but I’ll finish it before morning on a Friday night. That may well be why Bachmann didn’t take off the way King did, because his craft is just the same. His short story collections do sell just as well as his long novels because the style and craft is the same, they’re just little sample sizes of King flavor. Bachmann books are a different size and they sell once he puts his name on them because we find them easier.

    The thing is, his short story collections are a good long read at a story a night, same as a King novel is a chapter a night. Maybe he realized that, because the last time I saw Bachmann books they were bundled in King sized volumes.

    I think that a genre writer can easily create several brands by writing to Genre. Different pseudonyms, each with a recognizable flavor of subgenre, will all be about equally popular with their niche readers.

    Breaking out means going beyond that and creating reader expectations more specific to who you are and what you like to write. But there is no shame in a midlist career. It’s a good way of life and the world has a lot more GPs in it than world famous neurosurgeons.

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