The Author Branding Conundrum

This is a topic that’s weighed heavily on my thoughts lately, over-clocking my poor brain until I feel like I’m running around in glitchy circles like a robot whose circuits are fried. But after quite a lot of research, and  a few sound-board sessions with my trusted advisers, I think I finally have a plan. Or at least have my thoughts straightened out enough to discuss it intelligently. Maybe.

The idea of creating a brand is one most people are familiar with. Building name recognition, consumer trust, and recurrent sales for a product line are all foundational practices in marketing. And since books are products, branding is something every writer will have to face eventually. Unless you plan on being a One-Hit Wonder.

An author brand is one built around the author’s name and it’s entirely dependent on the associations people attach to that name. It can also be built around the books themselves, but for the purposes of this post, and because I’ll dissolve into an incoherent puddle if I try to explain every convoluted aspect of author branding, we’re going to stick to branding through name.

Author branding is everywhere in the publishing world, but most of us don’t really notice it. To see it in action, let’s take a look at some of the prominent names in publishing and the most common associations attached to them. Anne McCaffrey is synonymous with Light Sci-fi/Fantasy. Anytime you pick up one of her books, you’re sure to get something set within that genre. Maggie Stiefvater will almost surely be found in YA Urban Fantasy. Stephanie Meyer is most known for her YA series, but she’s also written an adult Sci-fi title that no one ever really hears about, called The Host. And J.K. Rowling will have a hard time shaking her fans expectation for the next Harry Potter when she debuts her new title for adults– The Casual Vacancy; a title that, from all accounts, contains nothing magic-related and would probably be more accurately described as a political/mystery/drama and likely shelved in general fiction.

What we learn from this is that author branding has a lot to do with expectations. Readers expect a certain style/genre/voice from an author, booksellers expect a title that’s easily presented with other works by that person, and publishers expect something that is easily marketed and sold. But what does that do to the author? It corrals them into having to conform and deliver what their audience wants if they want to be able to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. An idea that doesn’t sit well with a lot of writers, but that is sadly the truth of the situation.

Once you’ve established your brand, there’s very little chance to break out of it, to extend those creative wings and experiment in true literary fashion. Say someone who’s well known for writing Historical Romance suddenly feels inspired to pursue Horror, Mystery or Contemporary Fiction. If they are able to sell something so drastically different from their established brand, it will likely have to be under a pen name. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, in which case you can write whatever and publish it under your own name simply because you’re a superstar. But even J.K. Rowling is faced with the potential loss of sales/fans because she dramatically altered her brand, so you know it’s serious business.

Personally, I’m not a fan of pen names. I know there are plenty of people who use pseudonyms quite successfully, (Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb being the perfect example), but to me it just feels like a lie. I would feel like an impersonator if I had to publish under an alternate name. Like I had somehow stolen the identity of someone more brilliant than myself and taken credit for their life’s work. I know that’s not how it is, and that a lot of authors do it because of branding considerations, or a desire for anonymity. But what can I say? I’m vain. I want my name plastered on every title I slaved over. I want that small chance of bumping into someone and having them recognize me for my work. I want a whole shelf dedicated to the trophies of my prolific career. Is that so wrong?

So that leaves me with two choices– decide forevermore what my genre will be and never step outside of it, thereby ensuring I never get splattered with rotten fruit thrown by angry fans, or figure out a way to market my brand that allows me some leeway in my creative endeavors.

Until recently, I’d never given this topic much thought. It never really applied to me, as everything I wrote was most definitely Fantasy. Set in medieval worlds, darkly dramatic, and action-oriented, there’s a definite structural similarity between 75-80% of my 168 ideas.  But then, along came my nemesis– Unmoving — with a whole slew of Contemporary/Urban Fantasy plot bunnies trailing behind it, and suddenly, I found myself facing the branding issue every author dreads– crossing genres without being pigeonholed into one or the other.

By releasing Unmoving first, I would essentially be declaring myself to the world as an Urban Fantasy author. My droves of fans (a girl can dream right?) would be waiting eagerly for my next release, expecting it to be another Urban Fantasy. Publishers would eagerly accept my next submission, expecting more of the same, and booksellers would recommend me with other Urban Fantasy writers. Not a bad scenario, right? Except that I’m not really an Urban Fantasy author, aside from the 7-8 titles that would be considered as such. My other 160 ideas are most definitely not Urban Fantasy. And, when asked, I would classify myself as predominantly a Dark Fantasy author. So what happens when I want to write the Light Sci-fi title I have in development, or the Dark Fantasy ones that are my more standard fare after I’ve released Unmoving? Would they be unsellable unless I wrote under a pen name? True, I have a kick-ass pen name just waiting to be used thanks to the telephone company, but still. That wasn’t how I saw my empire forming, disjointed into two halves. So you see my dilemma. And the reason I’ve lost so many brain circuits trying to figure out the right strategy.

I know a lot of you out there are probably wondering why I even care at this point. I haven’t finished anything longer than a short story, and I’m not on the threshold of publishing my first novel. Yet. Most of the advice you’ll find from other writers, professional and otherwise, on this topic says to simply write what you want to write and deal with branding later. But I think that position is naive. Branding can define your entire career, so figuring it out beforehand just seems like smart business sense to me. I’m the type of person that likes to have a plan. I drive my friends and family crazy with my need to always have a schedule/routine/itinerary/strategy for everything. And I usually have at least two or three back-ups in case Plan A derails beyond redemption. (Yes, I know, I’m an OCD freak.) I’m also the type of person who’s never been good at focusing on the small picture. My dreams have always been large, overly-ambitious, and probably impossible. But they’re also long-term. Simply finishing one book isn’t enough for me; has never been enough for me. I’m drowning under an avalanche of continually breeding plot bunnies and if I don’t give them their moment in the sun, they might actually become carnivorous and eat me in a fit of rage. So yeah, ignoring the business aspect of writing until you absolutely have to deal with it might be sound advice for most people. But that’s just not how I roll.

So what have I figured out about the author branding conundrum? Well,

  1. It sucks and makes my head want to implode.
  2. It makes me add one more thing to my list of reasons Unmoving is a giant pain-in-my-ass and I’m not sure why I wanted to write it in the first place.
  3. It makes me want to crawl in a hole until someone else figures it out for me.
  4. It’s almost as brutal as trying to decide between self-publishing and traditional publishing (a debate for another day).
  5. It’s a critical step in understanding writing as a business/career.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I had finally figured out my strategy for dealing with this difficult decision. And in the interest of helping other writers struggling with this topic, I’ll explain. Be warned though, the validity and success of this strategy is still to be tested, so it may be a giant load of crap and you’re better off figuring out your own path. At this point, I’m counting my research a success by the sheer fact that what I’m about to say actually sounds like a coherent plan, instead of the confused jumble ending with a flat-lining  “uhhhhhhhh…..” that’s been my verdict on the subject up til now.

First, I’ve decided to tie all of my Urban Fantasy titles (with the exception of one or two that really only work as stand-alones) into a single series. This will allow fans of my work to follow the series, while keeping my options open for straying outside those expectations. Those same fans may not ever buy my other titles, but they won’t automatically expect everything I release to be Urban Fantasy unless it’s tagged under that series header. (Plus my strategy for connecting all the books will add some really cool, extra layers that I think fans will appreciate.) Who knows, maybe they will eagerly follow me down other paths simply because they like my style. I’ve read everything ever written by my favorite authors, regardless of genre category. So it does happen.

Second, I think I can manage to get around my conundrum of successfully crossing genres by marketing everything solely as Fantasy. I’m lucky in the fact that so far, all my titles are within that overarching genre header. They might cross between sub-genres of that category, but at their roots, they are all Fantasy, and they’d all be shelved in the Fantasy/Sci-fi section of bookstores. So by marketing them as Fantasy with shades of the various sub-genres, I create a brand expectation that everything I write will contain fantasy elements, have my signature voice and penchant for dark overtones, and most importantly, be published under my own name. Which was my ultimate goal for my author brand, because I’m conceited like that.

Now all that’s left is to figure out my mode of distribution– traditional publishing or self-publishing. But I don’t have enough brain circuits left to tackle that one right now. In the meantime, I’d be very curious to hear thoughts/opinions from other writers, or even readers, regarding author branding. Have I figured out a solid strategy, or is there some piece of the puzzle I’m still missing? And if you have first-hand experience with this concept, please share. Insider tips are always welcome. 😉

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