To Brand Or Not To Brand

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First of all – hello everyone!  It’s a tremendous pleasure to join you here at Magical Words – I’ve followed this blog for quite some time, and I’ve been inspired and edified by so many posts here!  I am thrilled to be an occasional guest post-er, and I look forward to learning more from this community.

On to business…

I’ve been reading a lot lately about author branding, about why it’s a great thing, about how every author worth his/her salt will invest tons of time, effort, emotion, and hard-earned money in creating a brand, including reworking our websites and all of our extensive print and electronic promotional material to reflect that identity.

And I’m skeptical.

Full disclosure:  I was a trademark lawyer in a former life.  I know a lot about trademarks — brands — and how they function to indicate the source, sponsorship, or origin of a particular good or service.  I know that brands are valuable to their owners (who can take marketing shortcuts, exhorting consumers to “Buy Branded Good” because it’s a known entity considered superior to Generic Good.)  I also know that brands are valuable to consumers, who can take purchasing shortcuts, guaranteeing that the Branded Good they buy is of a known, familiar quality.

An example of branding, related to publishing:  Years ago, I worked in a bookstore.  We had one customer who came in on the first Friday of every month to announce, “I have to take the red eye tonight, and I need a book.  What do you have that is good?”  The first time I waited on this customer, I offered a dozen options before she spied a book on the New Releases table:  Jackie Collins’ HOLLYWOOD WIVES.  “Here,” she said.  “This is what I asked for.  Something good!”  I mastered the formula before the next red-eye:  Jackie Collins = Good.  When my frequent flyer eventually ran out of Ms. Collins’ backlist, I was able to transfer her to other authors who wrote glitzy romance.  Ms. Collins’ brand helped Ms. Collins and my bookstore-employer to sell books, and it helped my customer to buy books.

Alas, as a speculative fiction author, I’m not at all convinced that I can — or want — to brand myself.  Bear with me for a little trip down Memory Lane, Publishing Edition.  My first novel (THE GLASSWRIGHTS’ APPRENTICE, followed by four sequels) was a traditional fantasy, set in a caste-bound society that functioned without magic.  My second bite at the apple (SEASON OF SACRIFICE) was another traditional fantasy, set in a world overflowing with elemental magic.  My third publishing gig was the Jane Madison series (GIRL’S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT, followed by two sequels), a contemporary comic fantasy romance with a chicklit flavor (say that three times fast), about a librarian who finds out that she’s a witch.  I’m currently in the middle of the As You Wish series (WHEN GOOD WISHES GO BAD will be in stores on April 1) about a genie who grants wishes to theater professionals, and it is very similar in tone to the Jane Madison books.

Recently, I queried many of my readers, asking them what word they thought of when they thought of a “Mindy Klasky” novel.  A handful of readers who had read only my traditional fantasies said “dark” or “grim” or “ambitious”.  The vast majority of my readers used “fun” or “clever” to describe my Jane Madison and As You Wish series.

As thrilled as I am to hit the “fun” nail on the head for my current books, no one in his right mind would call the Glasswright or Sacrifice books “fun.”  And as appropriate as “dark, grim, and ambitious” are for my traditional fantasies, those words have nothing to do with my most recent five publications.  I’m trying to picture my website now:  Mindy Klasky:  Ambitious Clever Dark Grim Fun.

Um, maybe not.

In fact, at the moment, I’m hard-pressed to think of a speculative fiction author who has published more than five books and who can be summarized as a single, coherent brand.  I think that branding might work better in genres other than speculative fiction.  Each of John Grisham’s thrillers covers similar ground and presents a similar feel to readers.  Same with Danielle Steel romances.  With Jodi Picoult’s literary fiction.  Obviously, branding worked for my Jackie Collins fan, years ago.

So, what do you think?  Are readers of speculative fiction served by authors’ attempts to brand themselves?  Can you think of a strong-branded, oft-published speculative fiction author?  (I’m sure there are plenty out there – I’m just drawing a blank…)  Is there something about speculative fiction, as a genre, which makes it different from other genres, for branding purposes?

Or should I just go back to my writing closet, and forget about all about this branding stuff?

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25 comments to To Brand Or Not To Brand

  • Welcome to MW, Mindy, and what a great post to start off with! I think a lot of the branding advice really points to the idea that an author needs to get his/her name out there and get it associated with quality. Fans of Octavia Butler or Nancy Kress know that they don’t know where the author will take them, but both have been branded as quality, so many readers are willing to take the chance. Some in the SF/F field do get branded to a certain sub-genre. Harry Turtledove means alternate history. David Brin means Hard SF. William Gibson means cyberpunk. All three have written outside of those specific sub-genres but that’s how they’ve been branded. At least, that’s how I see it.

  • Hey Mindy!

    I think that genreing is a hard thing to subject oneself to. I do work in a book store and I see the value of branding. Many authors brand their little brains out, and it always sells.

    I’m unpublished, but I am learning the ins and outs of our wonderful world of words every day. I do think that branding is an important part, but your post poses interesting questions.

    This is a great post, sadly, I don’t have any answers for you, but you’ve certainly given me something to chew on for the time being. Thanks!

    Happy writing
    Hinny

  • Hi Mindy! Welcome welcome welcome! I can say this about your work — no techno-thrillers, no ninga-thrillers, no glitzy romance, no, well, no lots of things. Which brings us to fantasy. You write high quality (what Stuart said) fantasy. It fills lots of sub genres, but there is an element of fantasy in everything. And I am glad you are here with us!

  • Hi Mindy and welcome. Great post. I am also skeptical of branding, particularly for those who (like me) straddle genres/reading ages. Maybe it just seems an insurmountable problem so I choose to think it won’t help. If I was just writing one kind of thriller or something, perhaps. How do you get the ‘Jackie Collins=Good,’ brand? I could live with that.

  • Mikaela

    I think that the smart thing to do is to work on getting a “brand” that is more subtle. Namely, the one that tells a reader that the author always tells a good story. How to succeed with that? No idea! 😀

  • Welcome, Mindy! Great to see you here. Thought-provoking post. I do think that there are authors in fantasy and SF who have branded themselves effectively, but most of them have done so with a single, long-running series that defines their work and their careers — Anne McCaffrey, David Weber, Larry Niven, Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Jim Butcher to some degree, George R.R. Martin — he’s written lots, but the Song of Ice and Fire books have come to be his defining work. Others have branded themselves by subgenre: China Mieville and Rachel Caine come to mind. And still others have done it with the quality of their work while ranging among subgenres: Neil Gaiman and Guy Gavriel Kay are examples. I do feel that with my first eleven books I have branded myself, although not with nearly the success of the authors I mention above. David B. Coe books are serious (as opposed to light-hearted) epic fantasies, set in alternate worlds with a panoply of point of view characters and complex, multistrand plotting. I wouldn’t presume to say that my brand carries a promise of quality, but I do think that up until now, for better or worse, people have seen my name on a book and have had a strong sense of what they’re getting. As it happens, this is a brand I’m looking to shed, because I’m ready to write something different, but that’s another matter….

  • Other comments have covered a lot of what I had to say. I think that there are many authors who have set up useful and comprehensive brands in speculative fiction. See the examples given above, most of which I agree with.

    However, for many spec ficcers, I Mikaela gives some of the best advice. I know that I write in a lot of genres, including various YA versions of those genres, which certainly makes it hard to come up with a good brand. Of course, I have plenty of time to think about that, on the raod to first publication. (And posts like these really help!)

    There’s also the issue of pen names/nom de plumes/pseudonyms, which several authors use when they cross genres. Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm for example.

    I also think you can establish a brand of unpredicatbility, or fence-hopping, as long as you keep in mind what Mikaela said above.

  • Stuart –

    Thanks for your welcome, and your thoughts! Your response makes me realize that “branding” needs to be tied to another great 21st-century business-speak favorite – “granularity”. Octavia Butler wrote “social speculative fiction”. Certainly, that awkwardly-coined-by-me three-word phrase captures what Butler wrote. But does it adequately warn the reader who loved PARABLE OF THE TALENTS that she’s getting a fairly different kettle of fish when she starts at the beginning, with KINDRED?

    Similarly, Nancy Kress started out writing fantasy. If a completist reader loved PROBABILITY MOON, will that reader be upset jumping all the way back to PRINCE OF MORNING BELLS?

    I suspect that your point is right – authors get branded in certain ways, and then there are outliers, specific books that fall outside the core brand. Coca-Cola connotes carbonated beverage products, but they also serve up orange juice.

    (By the way – I think that Butler might be the closest to an absolute answer here. Each of her books explores race and gender and sociology in very similar ways, even taking into account the scope from time travel to apocalyptic SF to adventure SF to vampires…)

    Thanks for making me think more about this!

  • Hinny –

    Thanks for jumping in on this topic! Could you share with us some concrete examples of how authors’ brands sell more in your store? Is it like my Jackie Collins example? Or something more?

    Given my native skepticism (::wry grin::) I’d love to hear more specifics!

  • Faith –

    Thanks for the welcome! (And, especially thanks for saying that I write “high quality”! ::grin::)

    I agree that the “no” message serves a function. I once considered owning and operating a bookstore that did not shelve by genre, so that customers could browse and discover new treasures. I was soundly discouraged in that venture by every single person who had ever worked anywhere near a bookstore. I worry that defining myself by what I’m not prohibits my natural audience from finding me!

    (I think that book covers go a long way in distributing the “no” message, too. I can tell at a glance that a whole lot of books out there aren’t my cup of tea. It’s trickier, though, to figure out if some of them *are* what I’m looking for!)

  • A.J. –

    Thanks for the welcome!

    I think that those of us who straddle genres and reading bands are always going to be the lead rebels against the branding craze. I have a couple of irons in the fire for works that are *really* outside my current area, and I worry about how my promotion will shape up. (Picture hot, explicit romance, marketed next to sweet middle grade fantasy…)

    Buckle your seatbelt, I keep telling myself. I could be in for a bumpy ride!

  • Mikaela –

    I agree that it’s easier to fit into a “broad” brand (the word that I’d use instead of “subtle”. It’s easiest to market “Mindy Klasky: Great Read!” and avoid communicating specifics. The problem is that that type of branding doesn’t distinguish Mindy Klasky from a hundred thousand other great reads out there.

    I suspect that the trick is “balance” – as it is in most things!

  • David –

    Thanks for the welcome!

    I’m intrigued that you brought up Jordan – he was the first author I looked to, when I started considering the issue of spec fic branding. I absolutely agree that the Wheel of Time have a distinct market presence. But I also remembered that Jordan wrote lots of Conan books as well – a rather different niche.

    I suspect that my desire for a comprehensive brand is too strong — most of us experiment with other forms and different genres. I should accept a box that captures some high percentage of what I do.

    Then again, I look at your example of Gaiman – he absolutely resists any effort to put any substantial percentage of his work into a single box…

    I like your definition of your brand a lot. It makes me rethink my notion of searching for one to three words; a strong descriptive explanation carries a lot of strength.

    (Of course, all of this would be easier for me to handle if I stopped bouncing from sub-genre to sub-genre. Sometimes, I think that my attention span is shorter than my cat’s! But, like you, I have had reasons for each career shift I’ve undertaken…)

  • Atsiko –

    I am thrilled that you brought up pen names – I was going to work that concept into my main post, but I was afraid that I’d be running too long.

    While some authors choose pen names to duck out of a computerized record of poor sales, others use pen names to avoid confusing branding issues. (For example, I personally know three writers who use one pen name for erotica and another for middle grade work!)

    Yet another balance for us to strike — between having a unified appearance to the market and being “findable” by our readers!

  • Deborah Blake

    I think that branding works for authors who primarily write the same types of books over and over–Stephen King, for instance. You have a pretty good idea of what you are getting when you pick up one of his books (although he does occasionally vary things). BUT, if you are an author who writes in a variety of genres, as many of us do today, I think it may hurt more than help. If you write some comic fantasy/romance and some darker urban fantasy and then add the occasional YA (my plan, in a nutshell), the best you can hope for is that the people who like your writing will follow you wherever you go. As I will you!

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Hey, Mindy,

    Great post. Thanks for cross posting the link on your blog.

    I am entirely in agreement with you.

  • I just want to mention, I would totally buy a book from an author described as “Ambitious, Clever, Dark, Grim, Fun”. Don’t count that website remodeling out quite yet!

    On pen names running to long, it’s something to consider for next time. It’s really a fun subject.

  • Hi Mindy! We’re thrilled to have you along!

    Mindy said While some authors choose pen names to duck out of a computerized record of poor sales, others use pen names to avoid confusing branding issues.

    The ridiculous part of this is that the only “person” we’re fooling is a computer algorithm. Hardly anyone with a pseudonym is really hidden anymore, so the point of pen names has become a bit lost. Even those who make heroic attempts to hide their writing identities are soon outed, thanks to curious readers with excellent Google-fu.

    Or maybe I’m just grumpy because I’m working on a book without any pirates in it, for which I might have to change my name, and I don’t want to. *grin*

  • As a 3 name writer, I have another comment on branding. My 45 – 85 year old, mystery-based demographic readers (mostly white, female, with at least 2 years of higher ed) HATE (that is not too stong, trust me) my dark urban fantasy. HATE it. I’ve had them refer to UF as crap, trash, weird stuff, satanic, black arts, witchcraft, evil, and did I say crap?

    I had to go with another name for fantasy, just as Jackie Collins — had she written fantasy — would have needed another name or risk pissing off her readers. (Gwen’s readers would have gasped at that word, BTW.)

    And because my Gwen books were so badly mishandled by my mystery pub (they shelved them on the romance asiles) I am considering yet another (4th) pen name when I dip my toe into the mystery water again. (As a kayaker, that sounds far more scary then you can imagine.) Sales figures count for an awfully lot, more now than ever before, with book stores ordering only 80% of a writer’s lowest previous sales. So branding — as you have already done for yourself — can be essential. True, that some can ride across that wave without turtling over, but it is increasingly rare.

    As to taking more than one penname, yes, one can mention on blogs and websites that one writes under more than one name, and even give the list where appropriate. If a computer number based on one name (when I have three or four) lets me keep publishing, lets me reach, yet again, for bigger sales figures, I’ll take it.

    So, put me in the yes column for branding. (Which conjures a dark image…) At leat for now!

  • Hey Mindy!

    To answer your question (as best as I can), I think branding goes a lot further now than it even had ten years ago (when I first started working for my company.) There are so many ways my corporation works with certain authors to brand themselves into full blown franchises.

    – The company does a lot of merchandising, including parties, posters, t-shirts, trinkets, candies, special drinks etc.

    – They do exclusive deals for certain pieces, or products.

    – Special displays unable to be ignored. Sometimes they work with the websites for special promotions, plus with the wonder of the “customer cards” there are coupons and promotions as long as the customer has the card and purchases a said book.

    Readers love to be emerged into the world and all of those little extra things pique their interest even more.

    Your Jackie Collins theory does still exist, but it’s bigger, it’s hard to say if just Oprah or the New York Times will help sell books (even though those are sure bets! :D) but with the wide span of the internet with websites, twitter, facebook, myspace etc… branding has grown ten-fold.

    I don’t know what ways are best, I think that depends on what the author is comfortable with, how they want to sell, and promote themselves.

    Thanks for asking! Hope this helps a little!
    Happy writing
    Hinny

  • Faith’s post squares pretty well with what I’ve heard about the state of branding and pen names right now. I do think that it is still possible to maintain a secure pen name, but you have to go to much more effort, and it makes public appearances such as book signings or conventions–which are more and more demanded by the market–a little trickier than they would be otherwise.

    I also think that readers who prefer a specific subsection of a writer’s work still find brand names useful. As a customer, I might know it’s the same author–and if my tastes are wide, this might encourage me to try a new genre–but I’ll also know whether it’s the same sort of material that attracted me to that author in the first place, or if it’s something that does not fall within the realm of my interest. The examples of mysteries vs. fantasies is a good one. Also, crossing between romance and one or more other genres might make a pen name valuable to an author in terms of branding.

    On the question of the vicious sales cycle, I think anything that can get a writer out of that rut is useful.

  • Deb – I’m intrigued by the notion that we authors are doing something different, today, than authors have done in the past. We’re trying to spread our writing resources across a greater field, switching genres, etc. (I know that there have always been *some* authors who do this, but it seems like there are more than there used to be.) I’ll have to ponder on the long term implications for that.

    Jagi – Thanks for stopping by!

    Misty – I fought a pseudonym tooth and nail early on in my career. In retrospect, my resistance was a mistake. (I didn’t mind the dual identity so much as I couldn’t face promoting another persona.) Now, I consider adopting one the same way I consider branching out to new genres – will this help my career? Now, stepping away from pirates – I can understand why that would make *anyone* cranky! 🙂

  • Faith – Your pseudonym comments are *very* intriguing to me. While strong reader preferences can be intimidating (and annoying and career-hampering), it’s also incredible that your readers care so much that they let you know – in no uncertain terms – how they feel. I do look forward to exploring this topic more!

    Hinny – Thanks so much for coming back with more details. Your bookstore sounds like an author’s *dream*!

    Atsiko – I laughed when I read your line about sticking with my so-called tagline… Public appearances are *another* aspect of this trade that I’d love to hash out. I love doing public readings, but I’m not so fond of sitting at a table, begging people to buy my books. I’m intrigued that you perceive the market to demand more public appearances, when the line I get from every single bookstore is that they can’t set up such events, mostly because they’re flooded with vanity press authors. *More* food for authorly thought…

  • More food for thought? I’ve gained enough brain-weight already!

    I’m not a published author, so I can’t speak from personal experience. But from what I’ve heard from publishers, agents, and many authors, fans are demanding more access, whether that be IRL at booksignings or conventions, or online, through blogs, SN sites, or whatever. There’s also a great deal more web presence from aspiring authors, which seems to be riding the coat-tails of the PubAuth trend. Whether this translates into more events for a particular author, I don’t know, but it seems like it’s true in general.

    I’m not touching the SP issue with a forty-foot pole.

  • Well, that’s a relief.

    Thanks for sending me to this website, Mindy! I love it!