Shameless Self-Promotion and the Wonderful World of Branding

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The Dark-Eyes' War by David B. Coe (Book III of Blood of the Southlands, jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As promised (or would that  be “threatened”?) I’m doing another promotional post today, to mark tomorrow’s release of the third and final book in my Blood of the Southlands trilogy.  The book is called The Dark-Eyes’ War, and it is, at least for now, the final installment in the long-running epic fantasy story arc that began with my Winds of the Forelands series.  I hope that you’ll all enjoy the book.  For those interested in trying to win a free signed copy, there is a contest up at my website (the contest ends today, by the way).  There are also sample chapters posted on the site, in case you want to check out the opening passages before you buy the book.

In the context of the release, I’d like to write a bit about branding, which is a word you hear a lot of these days in publishing circles.  Branding is not some cruel form of medieval torture, though at an emotional level it can often feel that way.  Rather, it refers to the marketing of an author, the association of his or her name with a certain type of product.  In other words, branding in publishing is not all that different from the branding of, say, Quaker Oats or Toyota or General Electric.

Let me back up for a moment and offer a couple of tidbits about the publishing business.  It won’t surprise any of you to hear that the business now is as competitive and unforgiving as it has ever been.  There are more ways for authors to get their work out there — small presses, PODs, vanity presses, etc.  But in the world of traditional publishing, things have never been tougher.  Whereas once publishers were less wedded to bottom-line decision making, now everything is about profit margin.  A book needs to sell, and it needs to sell fast.  Bookstores are constantly looking to move books, turn over stock, and get the bestselling books out there on the most prominent shelves.  For writers, the window in which their books need to sell has never been narrower.  If a book hasn’t taken off in four weeks, booksellers will stop pushing it and look for the next “hot” title.  That window used to be six weeks.  Once upon a time it was eight.

One of the most concrete manifestations of all these trends is the reliance of bookstores on previous sales numbers in their determination of how many books to order.  In other words, the way booksellers decide how many copies of  The Dark-Eyes’ War they’re going to order, is to go back to sales figures for the hardcover edition of the previous book in the series (The Horsemen’s Gambit) and then order 80% of the number of books they moved.  The sales of that last book have a direct bearing on the number of books I’ll sell of this one.  And since bookstores are always looking to minimize the number of books they have to return to their distributors (that’s where that 80% figure comes in) I’m already working at a disadvantage.  There is constant downward pressure on an author’s numbers built into the system.  Not good.

David B. Coe is more than my name.  It’s my brand.  “David B. Coe” is a mid-list author of epic fantasy.  His books don’t sell at the level of Robert Jordan or George R. R. Martin or Terry Goodkind (other epic fantasy “brands”) but they sell pretty well.  They tend to be fairly literary with an emphasis on character, decent worldbuilding, and multi-strand plotting.  They’re extended story-arcs, and each volume is a bit longer than the industry standard; they used to be much longer, but as fantasies have gotten shorter, so have “David B. Coe” books.  They’re published by Tor, and so they have a certain look — the cover art, map work, and production are recognizably “Tor-ish.”  They don’t sell hugely, but they do all right and they get good reviews.  Based on this, readers know what to expect in terms of writing style and quality when they pick up a “David B. Coe” book.  And bookstores know what to expect in terms of sales when they order them.

The new books I’m working on now — my historical fantasies — are very different.  They’re shorter, they aren’t set in alternate worlds, they involve mystery as well as fantasy, they are written from a single POV, and they each stand alone, though events in one book do ramify through subsequent volumes (a true serial as opposed to an extended story-arc).  In short, I wrote them, but they are not “David B. Coe” books in the branding sense.  Which is one of the reasons why I’m writing them as D.B. Jackson.  Tor doesn’t want a “David B. Coe” reader to pick up one of these books expecting one thing, only to find something else inside.  And neither do I.  I know that many readers wouldn’t mind, but some will, and that could hurt the series.  So this new project is being branded in a new way:  the “D.B. Jackson” way.

A brand can be a fragile thing; just ask Toyota….  If I write a lousy book or two, my readership will fall off.  And then my numbers will suffer and the bookstores will order fewer and fewer copies.  My publisher will see this, and offer me contracts that are worth less.  Or, if things get bad enough, they’ll stop offering me contracts at all.  Does that sound extreme?  Well, maybe it is.  But it’s the way things work now.  I can name several authors who in recent years have been told by their publishers “Sorry, we can’t publish your books anymore.  They don’t sell.”  So there is another reason why my new books are “D.B. Jackson” books.  “Jackson” doesn’t have an established sales record.  There is nothing in the bookstore computers telling the buyers at Barnes and Noble and Borders and Books-A-Million how many copies to order.  So they’re much more likely to listen to the marketing hype from Tor and order the recommended number of copies.  Put another way, “D.B. Jackson” is, commercially speaking, a clean slate.  And so my career just had its “reset” button pressed.

This is, potentiall, the good side of branding.  Those authors I mentioned before, the ones whose numbers are too low — they’re not finished forever.  Only their brands are.  They can press the reset button, too, by rebranding themselves under a new name.  Branding works in other ways, too.  An author like Faith, who has enjoyed success in a number of genres, rebrands not to save a dying career, but to have several successful brands going at once — kind of like Honda also making cars that are marketed under the Acura brand.

What does all of this have to do with my release?  Nothing, really.  And everything.  I’m writing as D.B. Jackson now, and I’m hoping that “his” books will be enormously successful.  But I want to maintain the “David B. Coe” brand as well, because I have more epic fantasy that I want to write eventually, and I like publishing under my own name.  So sooner rather than later, I’ll be using that brand again, and I want to keep it viable.

So I’ll be out there pushing these new books, working on “David’s” numbers.  I want to keep my customers happy, and I want to keep the sellers interested.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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23 comments to Shameless Self-Promotion and the Wonderful World of Branding

  • I’m curious if you know how somebody like Dan Simmons got away with genre-hopping several genres yet maintaining his name. Obviously, now, it is no longer an issue for him since he has succeeded in just about every genre he has tried, but how did he manage to do it in the first place? I guess (now that I’m writing this), the real question is: how much say does the author have in the branding?

  • Oh, almost forget, best of luck with the latest book release!

  • Many thanks for the good wishes, Stuart. I’m not certain how some marketing decisions are made. Publishers, or perhaps more specifically, editors seem to have a sense of what books will sell in big numbers and what books won’t do as well. I would guess that Dan Simmons’ books were expected to do as well as they did, that they were marketed from the start as groundbreaking and genre bending. But the books that can get away with that are few and far between. Most of the time, booksellers and publishers prefer to have books that are easily categorized, easy to shelve, and easy to pitch to one reading constituency or another. So to this extent, branding is a business level decision, as opposed to a choice authors make. On the other hand, many authors write under different names by choice in order to maintain different “careers” in different genres. D.B. Jackson was a mix of these. Tor made it clear that they would buy the books as alternate fantasies in my name, but that if I rebranded and wrote them as historicals they could market the books and the name more aggressively and give me more money. I chose to go with the pseudonym. My choice? Yes, but influenced by publishing business decisions.

  • Congrats on the new series, David. I hope it really takes off. Your post is all too true, harrowingly, excruciatingly true, in fact. I used to think that once you became successful as an author, that was it: get your foot in the door and things just get bigger and better from there. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Every book is like stepping onto a bridge over a chasm, and it creaks at every step. Best of luck making it across. I’m sure you’ll make it.

  • Thank you, A.J. That’s been one of the biggest shocks for me as a professional, too. I figured that once I established myself I wouldn’t have to worry about “job security” anymore. But that worry never goes away. I’ve spoken with lots of writers who are more successful than I am, and they have the same fears and insecurities. This is not a business for the faint of heart….

  • Whoowhoowhoo, Go David!
    You are so right. It is not a job for thin-skinned person. You have to pick yourself up every day and move on. And changing names and brands is just part of it. As for the writer who doesn’t have to, well, goody for him (she said with green-eyed jealousy.) lol

    I’ll post a link to your release on my sites today. And if you have snippits to post for the new brand, I’ll make space available for that too. Hugs, David / DB!

  • Thanks, Faith! I appreciate the links. I don’t have any excerpts yet from the new brand. That first book is still very much a WIP. But any links today or tomorrow would be most welcome.

    Certainly for the midlist author, surviving on a single brand/name is very difficult. But as you say, if you go into it understanding that this is part of the game, it’s not that big a deal. In some ways, it can even be fun.

  • David, I got a gander at the first lines of the book…
    Killer! I love them!

  • Oh — linked to the yahoo group, and all 3 FB pages already.

  • Again, many thanks, Faith. I’m grateful for the help. The first lines of the book that you read are gone, replaced by a new opening that is similar in some ways, but set in Boston instead of my alternate world and, I think, less cumbersome than that first version. When I’m more settled with the wording, I’ll send you the first few paragraphs.

  • Emily

    David> Congrats on the new book coming out and the new series.

    I really appreciate all of the stuff on the publishing world.

    That being said, it is absolutely terrifing to watch from a distance. I keep thinking “don’t worry about it now… just put your head down and write…” because that’s got to come first anyway. I’ve thought about “branding” (part of thinking about whether or not I’d publish under my real name or something else) but not much…

    But, again, thanks. Watching this makes me aware of what’s going on in the publishing world, makes my expectations realistic, etc… It also reminds me of acadamia. There’s a certain kind of branding there, too. “Am I the kind of prof that is a Research I, publish or perish kind? Or am I the midlevel school that expects some publishing? Or the 4-4 load, small school, emphasis on teaching kind?” (Turns out I’m the 4-4 teacher, which is what I like best.) But there was a lot of discussion of that choice when I was on the market, too.

  • Dino

    I am picking up my copy of The Dark-Eyes War when the bookstore opens at 9am in the morning.

    The sample chapters I read on your site were excellent, as usual.

    Looking forward to getting it signed next week.

  • Emily, thank you. Branding is something that you can put off thinking about while working on that first book, but not for too long. You want to be able to tell agents and editors who the audience for your book might be, how it could be marketed, what niche you feel you can fill in the market. It’s not that they’ll necessarily buy into everything you tell them, but they’ll want to see that you’re thinking about this stuff, that you’re aware of the business end of the equation. And yeah, academia definitely has it’s own branding issues. In fact, they’re worse in a way, because you can’t really change your name mid-career and try something new. Making those decisions — liberal arts or research institution, teaching emphasis or research emphasis, etc. — can set you on a path for the rest of your professional life, particularly in the sciences, which is where my wife works.

    Dino, many thanks, my friend. Looking forward to seeing you at the signing. Hoping the weather will improve before then….

  • Great post, David. It’s always fun to read about branding in publishing. A lot of people seem to get worried by it, which I think is unecessary; but on the other hand, it makes a writer wonder how their career will be divided up.

    As an unpublished writer who enjoys dabbling in a wide array of SFF sub-genres, it can cause a little anxiety to see how even within the single genre of fantasy, pseudonyms can be and are a not uncommon issue when a writer moves from one sub-genre to another, eg, your pic to historica fantasy move.

    I’ve heard other stories about the issue of doing widely spaced standalone stories, where a writer doesn’t have a good oppurtunity to buld up a recognizale band. It might be good in terms of the number of copies bought per individual book, as you mentioned, but it does create a situation where it can be hard to build up momentumand a name. Considering how hard it isto build up one name in a single sub-genre, it’s pretty daunting to imagine having to build up multiple names in different areas.

  • Thanks for the comment, Atsiko. Branding is not something writers should worry about to the exclusion of actually writing. The story is the most important thing, and we worry about the rest when the time comes. That said, there is no underestimating the importance of it. For those of us who write a lot and want to move between sub-genres, it it something that we have to consider as we ponder how best to market our work. But branding is a funny thing. For some authors the branding actually defies genre classification. For the situation you describe — an author who writes a lot of eclectic stand alone novels — that can be the brand. “Bob Writerguy, who writes everything, whose books are idiosyncratic and hard to define.” That kind of brand won’t work for everyone, but it will for some.

  • Oh, I know what comes first. 😉

    But you’ve done a nice job answering my hypothetical, thanks.

  • Happy Book Release Day Dave! May your book soar on the charts and many good things happen for you!

  • Thanks, Atsiko.

    And many thanks for the kind wishes, Hinny. I’m grateful.

  • Dino

    Read the first 50 pages while at lunch today and hope to have it finished Thursday.
    What better way to spend an off day than with a great book.

  • Well, that put a smile on my face. Thanks.

  • David,
    An interesting post. Often a pseudonym sounds like a bad thing, but in this light it doesn’t. I believe Steve Farrell also alternates names depending on the genre so that his Stephen Leigh sci-fi fans don’t pick up a S.L. Farrell fantasy book.

    Congrats on the new books. I hope they sell by the score.
    NGD

  • Steve Leigh is one of my best friends in the business, Dave, and he is a great example of someone who has benefitted greatly from using a variety of pseudonyms. And that’s a good thing. He’s a terrific writer and he deserves all the success he’s enjoyed, and more.

    Many thanks for the good wishes. I hope they sell by the score, too!

  • Dino

    200 pages in and I have to say that this is my second favorite of David’s novels, after Bonds Of Vengence.

    Thank you once again David.