On branding

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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I completed my first manuscript in the year 2000 — it was a western historical romance titled Pledged to a Stranger.  I revised it, queried a few agents, and then put it in a drawer.  Here’s the long story why: when I was a kid, it never occurred to me I could be an author.  Authors were like rock stars to me and I was a normal kid and thought normal kids from South Carolina don’t grow up to be rockstars or authors.  

And then I read an interview with Jude Deveraux who said she started writing her first book when she finished reading a book and thought, “I could do that.”  I had this total moment of shock — really?  It’s that easy?  Becoming an author is nothing more than… deciding to do it? (The answer is no, it’s not that easy but this was pre-internet days when learning about these sorts of things was difficult).

Right then and there I thought to myself: then I can do that too.  And since Jude Deveraux’s first book had been a western historical romance, I decided mine would be too.  I even began writing that book — I have a notebook with a first page all written out (and then I stopped writing because I didn’t think that kids in high school could write a book).

That’s a long story to say that the reason my first completed manuscript was a western historical romance is because one afternoon when I was a teenager I decided that’s what it would be.  Though I love reading romance, I’d never found myself drawn to the Westerns and I wasn’t someone who had a passion for researching the West.  But I didn’t let any of that stop me from writing a Western! 

Then one day, in the midst of my querying, I was standing in the romance section of the bookstore picking out a book and I thought about branding.  How I’d read all of Nora Roberts’ historicals but I hadn’t read any of her contemporaries.  I realized that if the first book I published was a western historical romance, then if I wanted to build a readership the second book I published would likely need to be a western historical romance as well.  I didn’t want to write another Western — one had been enough for me.

So I went home, I trunked the novel, and I sat down to figure out how I wanted to brand myself.  What kind of book did I want to write where I could build and grow a readership?  I thought about how I loved the funny contemporary romances (Jenny Crusie, Jane Heller) and how chick lit was just booming and how I fit so squarely in that demographic.  I began to write a RomCom but I found myself tending toward the darker side of things and I had to constantly wrench myself back to trying to be funny (I have notes in the manuscript along the lines of “move this scene out of the cemetery and to the beach — funerals aren’t funny” — much much later I realized that my natural voice is dark and I should embrace it).

I spend a lot of time thinking and talking with other authors about brand.  In the romance world, brand seems to be particularly important.  As a romance reader I know that once I find an author I like, I’ll pretty much read everything they’ve written… so long as it’s on brand.  Which is one reason romance authors often tend to stick to a particular sub-genre (and why so many authors will change names if they’re going to write in another genre or sub-genre).   

But does that stretch to other areas — is brand as important for a young adult author?  I have several friends who have submitted book proposals to their editors only to have them reject it and respond, “this isn’t what your readers would want from you,” or “you’ll lose your core audience.”  I’ve spent a lot of time wondering (a) if that’s true and (b) if so, should it matter?

Certainly there are examples of YA authors who jump all over the place in terms of what they write and have been wildly successful (Laurie Halse Anderson, M.T. Anderson, Libba Bray).  But there are always going to be exceptions to every rule and I’m more interested in the experiences of those that aren’t the exception.  

I realized that what it boils down to is this: if you like Hostess chocolate donuts and you walk into the store and they don’t have any, are you likely to buy another Hostess cakey-treat or are you going to buy a different brand of chocolate donuts?  To switch it to books — if you love Author A’s angel books, will you also read her shapeshifter books and/or her fantasy trilogy or are you more likely to read Author B’s angel books instead.  Is your brand loyalty to the author, or to the subject matter?

Because the YA boom is still fairly young, it’s been difficult to look to other author’s career paths for guidance.  Several of the first big series are just now ending and we’ve yet to see how those authors’ future ventures are fairing.  Many authors have had the clever solution of beginning new series set in the same world (Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series is set in her Mortal Instruments world which has the effect of pulling her readership from one series to the next).

There are a lot of people out there whose advice would be to forget about brand and write what you love.  And certainly that’s worked for me (I wouldn’t have written The Forest of Hands and Teeth if I hadn’t thrown away the idea of brand to write what I love).  But, because brand is something publishers clearly have on their minds, I don’t think you can dismiss the idea of it entirely (or rather, you can decide that brand won’t matter to you, but you can’t dismiss that it matters to others).

One of the reasons branding has been on my mind lately is because my first middle grade book, Infinity Ring: Divide and Conquer, just came out in November (middle grade books are targeted to the 8-12 age range while YA is usually 10 and up or 12 and up).  It’s the second in a time travel series and is about the Viking Siege of Paris in 885.  So it’s absolutely nothing like my zombie books – lol.  This made it difficult to promote because I was pretty sure Divide and Conquer wouldn’t necessarily appeal to my established readership.  This meant not only building a whole new readership but also being cognizant that I didn’t want to push a young reader of my middle grade toward my dark YA.  That makes cross-promoting tricky.

[[and here is the part of the post where I was hoping to share news that I thought would be public today but it isn't yet and I don't want to delay posting this any longer so I'll just edit it later once the news is public...]] 

After all of that, unfortunately I don’t have any conclusions about branding except that it’s something worth thinking about when you career plan, even if you ultimately choose to not let it influence you.  I’m not suggesting that brand be foremost in your mind when you start out writing — there are many many writers out there who let the business side of things eclipse the creative side, especially early on.  And I know people who let their fear of “going outside their brand” keep them from really great opportunities.  Worrying too much about the market and your brand can have a crippling effect on writing and chasing the market rarely works.   

And really, at the end of the day there are dozens if not hundreds of things that vie for your attention as a writer and the one that should really matter is this: writers write.  

I’m curious what y’all’s thoughts are about brand: do you think it matters?  Does it influence you as a reader?  As a writer?

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16 comments to On branding

  • Nutshell version: I think branding is less important today than it used to be, because so many readers find authors through websites and online searching, making a specific place on the shelf less important than in eras past.

    Longer version: I can recite a list of authors who failed to break out in new genres, because they were known for one genre. But those authors were writing in a time when most books were sold in bricks and mortar stores, and the authors needed to fight the “Why would I look for an Author X book in mystery, when she’s always written SF before?” battle.

    Also, those authors were writing in an era that decreed one book per author per year, lest tender readers be overwhelmed by output. It’s harder to break branding if you’re invested in one book a year — there’s a greater risk for the author.

    I’ve changed branding four times in my career (traditional fantasy -> paranormal chicklit -> category romance -> MG traditional fantasy.) Now, I’m not a breakout success, and that might be because I’ve broken my brand. But I’ve been able to find hot genres, even as one after another wanes in popularity…

    My ten cents, or so :-)

  • Ken

    Personally, I find myself to be more loyal to an author than to a particular brand. I think that has a lot to do with a particular author’s voice. I figure that once an author has found their “Voice”, regardless of what they write, the voice makes it in. Case in point: Jim Butcher sidetracked from Urban Fantasy to Fantasy…not a big sidetrack, granted, but he also shifted from his usual first person narrative (ala The Dresden Files) to a third person narrative which, I think, increased the sidetrack-ishness. I picked up the Codex Alera series and I had no problem with the change because it was still Jim’s voice, filtered through different subject matter, but it was there.

    Am I influenced by brand? I think so, but it is also dependent on what I want. If I’m craving an epic fantasy, then only an epic fantasy will do and I’ll pass up lots of good stuff to get my hands on it.

    As a writer, honestly I haven’t given what I would call A LOT of thought to it. If my Sci-Fi story sells and I want to write a fantasy next (assuming I didn’t land a multi-book deal…oh, to have such problems :)) I’ll write a fantasy and, if I need to, I’ll do it under a Pen name.

  • Carrie, I am such a brand-worrier and have been for my whole career. And I am so wanting to write a 2nd series set in Jane Yellowrock-Land, and also write a one-ff to finish up the Rogue Mage series, (all brand-driven) and then … I can hardly believe that I am about to say this. I want to write a thriller with very little paranormal in it. Again. After nearly ten years of not writing a non-fantasy book. If I do that, branding is going to take a stomping. Will my editor let me do that? I don’t know. Can I sell it without the Faith Hunter name? Do I even want to? I don’t know. But I do know this. I am going to spread out my contracted books over a longer timeframe so I can write on spec, an extra, uncontacted-for book every 18 months. I want to make writing fun again instead of just a market-driven experience. I don’t *want* to be so brand-driven, consumer-driven as I have been for the last 20 years. I want to have fun with this stuff again. Even if I lose something (sales) as a result.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Like Ken, I consider myself largely author-loyal (which is why different pen-names for different works drives me absolutely batty, even if there are good reasons for it sometimes). That being said, the core of where I *look* for new books is in the Fantasy/Sci-fi section but if an author I like has written outside of genre, I’ll very often follow them there. Also, I did my most voracious reading in highschool before I had decent internet access and got most of my books from the library, and there was this awesome thing called a card catelogue for when I was hungrily looking for more books by favorite authors…(sorry for the snark, but again, the different pen-names thing drives me nuts)

  • As a reader, I tend to be equally brand and author loyal. For the most part I’ll follow a favorite author no matter what s/he writes, unless it’s a type of book that I truly have no interest in. My interests are pretty varied, though, and in addition to reading favorite authors I also love finding new authors in brands I like. (This is why my TBR pile is actually several bookcases rather than a pile.)

    As a writer, my varied tastes have actually created a bit of a problem. I think I mentioned this here before, but my WIP is mystery/scifi, and used to have some paranormal fantasy elements as well. I took the fantasy out when I realized how confusing people found it when I started describing the book. Even now I worry sometimes whether the book should be classified as a mystery or as science fiction. Of course, I try not to worry too much about that, at least not until I’ve actually finished writing it!

  • I have to admit that I came to the notion of “branding” very late in my career. For the longest time I wrote epic fantasy, because that was what I liked. It was what I read the most of and it was what I had long dreamed of writing. Only when it occurred to me to write something else — THIEFTAKER — did I start thinking in a serious way about “my brand” and what that meant. I wish that I had known all about this stuff early on, not necessarily because I think I would have done things differently, but it would have been nice to spare myself the steep learning curve.

  • sagablessed

    It is a double edged sword. Donaldson tried to branch out but went back to the world of the Land because his ‘Into the Gap’ series was not a big success. But Mercedes Lackey branched out early. Norton branched out all the time from YA to epic to sci-fi.
    To be blunt, I think the whims of the market are capricious at best. There is no telling what would happen if an author moved into a new area. Some readers will like it, some won’t. Yet I feel the name, rather than the genre hold more importance than anything else. If an author is good, then readers are more likely to take a chance.

  • Razziecat

    I guess I’m in the “author loyalty” camp more than the “genre loyalty” one. Example: I’d heard so much about Lois McMaster Bujold’s books (Miles Vorkosigan series) that I finally tracked them down, and enjoyed them enough to see what else she’d written, which led me to her Chalion books and “The Hallowed Hunt”, one of my all-time favorite fantasies. Her “Sharing Knife” series is different from both of the previous series. She seems to have done well with all of these, and it makes it easier to find an author’s work in all genres when they only use one name (although these days one can find out about works written under other names by keeping up with an author’s blog ;) ) For myself, I refuse to worry about branding until I’m actually in the “published” camp; it may never be a problem I have to deal with.

  • quillet

    As a reader, I’m far more likely to be loyal to an author than to subject matter…but then I have many reading interests and will follow a good author to almost any section of the bookstore. I’ve followed some authors from Fantasy to YA or Sci-Fi, from Suspense to Lit, from Murder Mystery to Historical Fiction, from Romance to Supernatural Thriller… There ~are~ some sections I won’t go, and a few others I’d check out only grudgingly; but for the most part I’ll read anything by an author I like.

    Not all readers will, though. Some people (judging from comments I’ve seen on the net — which, admittedly, is not the best place to look for sane opinions) seem to get very angry when an author they like DARES to write in some genre of which they disapprove. O, the betrayal! And some people only want to read one genre and won’t look at anything outside it. But…I don’t think I’d like to let readers like that hold me back as a writer. I’d rather write what I love and hope for the best. Idealistic and naïve of me? Probably. But I’d rather be happy than rich. (That’s if I couldn’t be both. ;) )

  • Gypsyharper

    I’m definitely in the author-loyalty camp. If I find an author I like, I’ll pretty much read anything they’ve written regardless of genre. Thankfully, as Mindy points out, the internet has made it much easier to find everything an author has written – even if they cross genres. I consider myself to be mostly a fantasy/science fiction reader, but I also love mysteries, thrillers, romance and YA. I get bored reading in the same genre all the time, and my idea file suggests that I’m the same way as a writer. My current WIP is a paranormal mystery, but I also have ideas for epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and maybe even some horror. And I still have at least one more idea for a musical. I can’t really see myself writing anything that doesn’t have at least a touch of the supernatural or paranormal to it though.

    I am a little concerned about getting “stuck” in the first genre I publish in. Or losing readers who only like “that” genre and not “this” one. But like Razziecat, I’m trying not to worry too much about it until I have something I’m ready to shop around.

  • Count me in on the author-loyalty band-wagon. I’ve read pretty much everything Mike Resnick has written, from science fiction to fantasy to alternate history to historical fiction. I’ve followed other authors from romance to science fiction to horror and vice versa. Part of it, I think, as Ken said, is voice. I figure if they tell good story, it doesn’t really matter which genre they tell it in. They’ve earned my trust that they’ll continue to tell good story.

    I’ll admit I’m a voracious reader, and, although I generally gravitate toward Fantasy when I’m searching for new authors, I also enjoy the classics, horror, true crime, military thrillers, etc. When I see something outside the “normal” genre by a favored author, I’m intrigued. And excited. I ~want~ to see that new place through an Old Friend’s eyes. If Chevy can make eco-friendly mini-cars AND 4-door duelly 1-ton trucks, why can’t authors do both, too?

  • I think authors are way more important than genres. Genres have conventions, but you can’t trust genres. If you know an author though, you get what they think is a satisfying story or a well developed romance, and you can trust them. I have ONE romance author that I read. I have ONE mystery author that I adore. I have a hundred authors that I would follow to the moon. And then I have the set of books that I ‘like.’ “Oh, I liked that, it was okay.” Sometimes it is the world and the characters that I love, but if there’s an author that can make me love those characters, I’ll suppose that her other characters are going to be pretty interesting too.
    But I think that’s the thing. If I love a book, I will chase that author. If I just like a book, I will glance at the next book by that author, but neither the author nor the genre will sell it to me. It has to be the book itself that calls.

  • I would follow an author into any genre I like and read. Unfortunately, if I don’t know the other names of the author, I won’t. If it’s a requirement that the names remain separate, I’ll never know unless I happen to be at a convention and see them there as their alter ego. On the flip side, if it’s a genre I’m not interested in, I likely won’t follow. Someone who writes epic fantasy going into sci-fi romance or supernatural horror, or steampunk, for some examples, I’ll likely follow. If they dropped into police procedural or mystery or contemporary romance, I probably won’t.

  • Author loyalty is big for me as well. I will follow an author into whatever genre they choose to explore. However, Genre and branding is usually how I find authors to begin with. So its an important part of being a writer. I would guess it helps an Editor or Publisher as well to have a clearly branded author.

  • I don’t want to be branded. I hear those red-hot irons HURT!!!!

  • I myself like the authors and will support them fully but sometimes I forget the genre has switch which means the voice will change a bit. It does take time to adjust to a new style of writing as it does reading it.