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?