Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Branded

My writing group talked last night about "branding" for authors. No, this isn't a roundup of recalcitrant writers to be marked and lobotomized, but is when an author essentially turns themselves into a name "brand." Like KFC or McDonalds. When you buy a "brand" name you get consistency. You know what you're getting and it's always going to be pretty much the same. This seems to be, essentially, what bestselling authors who want to continue to be bestselling do. Tom Clancy. Dean Koontz. James Patterson. These are all examples. When you pick up a Clancy book you have a good idea before you crack the cover about what you're going to get, and at the highest selling levels branding is apparently a very effective and desirable tactic. And the "brand" extends well beyond characters. The characters may be different, but the basic form of the work is the same.

My problem with this is twofold. First, as a reader I almost never like brand names. Yes, I read most of Koontz's work, but I actually liked him better in his earlier days when he took more chances with his material. I also like Louis L'Amour, and he was definitely a brand name in his day. But I've only read one James Patterson book. I've managed two Clancy's. I'm thinking of a couple of military thriller brand name types that I can't remember the names of because I've never been tempted to try even one of their books.

Second, as a writer, I actually like to think of myself as a flexible writer. I want to write different kinds of things, lots of different kinds of things. Writing gives me the freedom to imagine so many different kinds of stories. I would think that I would very quickly get bored writing essentially the same story over and over. Where's the fun in that?

So what's your opinion? Is branding good for you as a reader? As a writer? Or do you care one way or another?

26 comments:

Shauna Roberts said...

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, part of the joy of sf/f is that every book has (or should have) new and surprising ideas. Barbara Hambly has written in multiple genres—fantasy, fantasy romance, horror, historical mystery, and now straight-out historical fiction—and because I like her, I've read her books in all the genres.

On the other hand, I do enjoy reading series with continuing characters, and I do like knowing what kind of book I'm getting when I buy a particular author.

I have to admit that even though Guy Gavriel Kay is my favorite author, I put off buying Ysalbel for a long time just because it was very different from his previous books. When I finally read it, I liked it, but not nearly as much as his fantasy/alternative history books.

Miladysa said...

I agree with Shauna.

I like the works of Anne Rice and when I pick up one of her books I have a good idea what I am going to be reading. I like the continuing characters, they make for 'easy' reading when I want to chill out.

The same with John le Carre.

I think if an author is 'branded' in one genre they could always adopt a pen name if they wanted to try something new :]

Lisa said...

I've learned that I'm not a typical reader (which makes my input pretty useless to writers), but I don't mind at all when a writer reaches and tries different things. OTOH, I've read about several writers (primarily romance) whose fans get rabid and angry when they switch genres. I think that's silly. I suppose the key is to make sure the jacket copy of the book clearly indicates what kind of story is inside -- but of course that also means the target readers take the time to read the cover too ;)

Bernita said...

I'm confused about "brand."
It must mean something more specific than genre or series.

DrillerAA said...

It's not much different in many areas of life, particularly entertainment. If you went to a John Wayne movie, you had a pretty good idea what his character was going to look and act like. Jack Nicholson movies are the same. Jack doesn't play a character any longer, he is the character. Branding by any other name is still branding.

Josephine Damian said...

Bernita, I think it's a bit more than genre or series - I think it also includes tone - you may write violent, fast paced, action filled thrillers but if you switch to a more literary, character based thriller your readers might revolt - or even making a change of letting the bad guy get away with murder as opposed to bringing him to justice - that would not be consistent with brand.

Angie said...

I've been thinking about this a lot recently. :/ The standard wisdom is that you should brand yourself, pick a genre or subgenre or character type or plot type or something, some sort of angle that your fans will come to recognizes as "you," so they'll think of you as the go-to writer when they're in the mood for that kind of story. There's definitely a negative impact with a lot of readers when writers switch genres or even just styles or moods within a genre, and I've seen more than once (MANY more times than once) writers get flamed for moving away from what some (loud) group of their established fans had come to expect from them.

But like you, I like to emphasize the "creative" part of writing. I like trying different genres and styles and types of plots and characters. I don't want to be a single brand and be stuck with that.

Right now, all four stories I've published have been "otherworldly" in some way, and that's how I've been thinking of them. I've got one SF, to urban fantasies and a paranormal, and I do enjoy all those genres. But I have some more "normal" stories in me too and I'm wondering what to do. Should I just stick with what I've been doing and be a go-to writer for otherworldly types of gay romance? Should I say "Screw it" and go ahead and write my standard contemporary stories and just publish whatever under my current pseud? Should I come up with another pseud for my non-magical contemporary stuff?

A couple of months ago I was leaning toward spawning off another pseud. Right now, though, I'm leaning toward just chucking it all under Angela Benedetti. The whole branding thing seems to work best for the huge bestsellers, and you could stack the ten best selling writers in my end of the business on top of each other and still not get anywhere near the sales figures of Tom Clancy or John Grisham or Ann Rice.

I'm thinking that this whole fuss and bother just doesn't apply to me, because where I am now, writing gay romances and erotica, I'm never going to be huge enough for it to be a significant issue. And weirdly enough, I find that comforting. [wry smile]

Angie

Josephine Damian said...

Charles, I see more and more writers, especially crime writers, stuck in what I've come to think of as the series "ghetto" - the publisher locks them in to a mid-list series; the publisher doesn't make much money off the individual writer, but it makes a steady stream of income because the writer has created a brand that their albeit small fan base buys automatically.

As somone with a psyche background, I'm sure you can see how publishers apply Skinner and Pavlov to influence buying habits of readers.

More important, after the first couple of titles the author has the name recognition - the branding - and the publisher doesn't have to spend any money or effort promoting those books - and their profit margin is greater. Since they have dozens of series written under their imprint, they make the money by sheer volume of series writers.

Did you see the interview with the BookEnds author last week? After writing a couple of mid-list forensic based mysteries, he's already branching out - under a different name - with a different type of crime book.

As a reader, I rarely read more than one book in a series (mostly I don't read them at all anymore) because writers tend to "phone it in" after the first few - they bored with their own characters and are no doubt frustrated because their publisher has them locked in, contractually, and because of branding.

Steve Malley said...

My reader hat: Brands are good. They tell me what to expect and whether or not I'm likely to like it. Like that old argument about genres.

My writer hat: How dare those readers? The muse is too capricious to rein in and force to follow the same trails, time and again. I want undiscovered country, I want... musical theater?!

Fact is, readers do crave a certain reliability of experience. And writers do have those handy psuedonyms to hide behind.

Stephen King built his main brand while Richard Bachman took all sorts of chances, from Stand By Me to The Running Man. No categorizing that Bachman guy. In his early, more-chance-taking days, Dean Koontz was also like half the names on the shelf. My favorite? Owen West. Just *love* the sound of that one..

Heck, Joyce Carol Oates writes crime fiction as Lauren Kelley.

Trying to move away from your brand under your own name is a tricky business: William Gibson's doing a pretty good job, though his modern-day technothrillers still end up on the science fiction shelves and more than a few of my friends are bitterly disappointed that his new books aren't simply Mona Lisa Overdrive VII: Leonardo's Revenge...

And let us not forget, not every artist impulse is the best one. I bet Clint Eastwood could pretend somebody else starred in Paint Your Wagon....

Charles Gramlich said...

General to all: I was definitely thinking of the "brand" as being broader than just the use of the same character. In fact, I'm not sure I really consider a "series" with the same character to be branding. At least not necessarily. Branding is more about content than character.

Shauna, A lot depends on my mood certainly. I might be willing to read something very different from Dean Koontz's normal stuff, but I do need to be in the mood.

Miladysa, Anne Rice is one of those who has actually tried to branch out, I think, and has struggled with that.

Lisa, I'm with you, the cover art and blurbs should basically indicate what type of book it is, but given that, I don't mind writers trying their hands at new genres.

Bernita, I think my top general comment addresses that.

Drillera, you're right certainly. and I don't mind branding in consumer goods. I like to know what I'm going to get when I go to KFC. But in art I like, at least often, to be surprised a bit.

Josephine, yes, that's more precisely what I was thinking of. And definetely it is a marketing issue rather than a "creative" one.

Angie, the same thing for me, I think. At least with my fantasy stuff there's never likely to be enough demand to produce a bestseller. And also the fact that I don't make my living from writing gives me some leeway.

Steve Malley, the pseudonym approach may be the best way to go, but the downside of that is the difficulty these days builing up any name recognition. But that does settle the issue being branded and unable to write anything else.

Lana Gramlich said...

Personally I'm tired of McCulture in any form.

ivan said...

Been branded as a "street philosopher" by my reviewers.

Ah well. Take it out to the street.

It's all Play Dough anyway.

But I'm still fascinated by the Myth of the Cave.

The media tell you one thing and those in the Primaries do another.

moonrat said...

such a terrible, complex conversation.

the saddest case scenario is when you have an author who writes, say, a really stellar mystery. then, they want to write a really stellar fantasy novel right afterwards... and bookstores won't carry it. or they put it in their mystery section.

CURSES!!! WE SHALL NEVER FIGURE THIS OUT!!

Shauna Roberts said...

Romance writers have really gotten into branding, probably because romance is the most popular genre and so has the most authors competing for attention. How, for example, does one writer of short, humorous contemporary romance distinguish herself from the thousand other ones?

Here are some examples of "branding" as practiced by romance writers:

Vicky Lewis Thompson: a drawing of a pair of eyeglasses (symbolizing the intelligent heroes of her Nerd series)

Sabrina Jeffries: the slogan "Looking for a good time?"

Jennifer Apodaca: the slogan "For dangerously romantic reading"

Mary Castillo: the slogan "Romantic comedies with a Latina twist"

Charlotte Maclay: the slogan "Strong women . . . and the brave men who love them"

There's one romance writer whose brand is a drawing of a heart, but I can't remember who it is.

Just thought this discussion could use some examples for the people who haven't heard of branding before.

Julie said...

Interesting. Spouse reads crime/mystery/historical fiction etc by 'brand' authors like Wilbur Smith; I often feel, perhaps unjustly, that he is essentially reading the same book with variations, but suits his style. (He recognizes the repetitive elements).

Isn't this a publishing two edged sword - if you don't like the brand sample, you won't bother with any of it?

Travis said...

I like the familiarity of a writer like W.E.B. Griffin, who essentially writes the same story over and over but with different characters. Sometimes he'll repeat the same basic story with the same characters. I like him because of his characterization and realism. I feel the same way about David Eddings.

The difficulty with that kind of branding can come from an audience that doesn't want a new story. The author may have a great new book, but his core audience may not give it a chance because it's not familiar...it's not part of the brand.

Josie said...

I think every writer has his own "voice". Hemingway, Steinbeck, Maugham, even Stephen King. They all have their own voice, and you can recognize that voice. As far as "branding", I think that would stifle creativity.

Greg Schwartz said...

I think branding has its place. I read a wide variety of fiction, but every now and then I like to pick up a Stuart Woods book (crime/mystery writer) because I know it's gonna be entertaining, fast-paced, and fun to read. Essentially his books are all the same story told different ways, but I don't mind because they're enjoyable.

I agree with you, Charles, about being branded as a writer -- I don't think I'd enjoy that. (Of course, I'd love to get to the point where that's a problem!)

Michelle's Spell said...

Not big on the brands I think except when buying consumer products (ie, you know what you're getting, no surprises) which is kind of anathema to art (art being all about surprise). While I'm not being any means a creative person (my stories tend to be very alike, my voice pretty much the same), I don't plan it that way. As for my tastes, I like when writers are kind of always themselves and I like the ones that venture out of the the mold. Love series of books with the same characters as well. But I think when your writing loses the innate mystery to you, you're sunk.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, do you include Popeyes in that?

Ivan, good point about it all being Play dough.

Moonrat, that's a perfect illustration of the downside of it.

Shauna, great examples! But wow, so narrow in some cases. That would be tough as a writer.

Julie, ultimately, nearly everything is repetitive. Same food, same clothes, same movies, same books, same cars.

You know, I've never read a Griffin or Eddings book. I have some of each but haven't gotten to them yet. Griffin looks interesting to me but I have to be in just the right mood for a war novel.

Josie, I think it does stifle creativity.

Greg, I've given up on the idea of ever being at that level. Would be a good payday, though.

Michelle, that's the problem with a lot of series. It's not the series that's the problem, it's the loss of interest or sense of newness from the writer. At least so it seems to me.

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; I said "MC" Culture, not Popeye Culture. ;)

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...

I too have mixed feelings on this. With branding you are almost sure to have a steady following. Whereas when you are a "shoot from the hip" writer, as I like to call them, you just never know.

Personally Charles, I think you extremely talented and since you have gotten this far, well, I'd keep doing what makes you happy. Most of the time in life when we do for other just to suit them, we tend not to be happy with us. But you know that and do not need some small time poet to tell you.

My vote is a no. To hell with branding....smiles

T

Farrah Rochon said...

Fascinating discussion. I'm soaking it all in.

I think writers, in general (and especially in genre fiction), are clamoring for ways to stand out in the crowd. Branding yourself is definitely one way to establish an audience. Then again, you get pegged as "this type" of writer.

If you're lucky, you can get a footing in more than one genre (Nora Roberts/ J.D. Robb, anyone?).

This is such a tough business, and it gets tougher everyday.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, you are forgiven.

Tara, thank you for the compliment.

Farrah, yes, see what you've gotten yourself into?

Church Lady said...

It's funny. Before writing, I would have said the same thing as you.
But now I'm finding (after not too much trial and error) that my style is more humorous and light. I don't think I have a weepy romance anywhere in my bones, and I'm okay with that.

Great post.

Demon Hunter said...

I am more concerned as to whether I like the book or not. i don't care about the brand. I love Stephen King, and own just about all of his works, but he's the only one I will buy like that.

As for me, it's a double-edged sword. I don't want readers to expect me to write the same thing, over and over again, because my ideas tend to run into different genres; mostly horror, but also, fantasy, sc-fi, drama, comedy, etc. So, we'll see what happens! :*)