Author branding is one of the scariest and yet most necessary things an author can do. But how tight should that brand be? Can you have a “broad brand?”
Teddi posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Randy, in the second half of your interview on StoryFix.com you mentioned branding and reader expectations. You said,
“New writers often fail to understand the importance of branding. When you attach your name to a novel and publish it, that’s an implicit contract you’re making with your reader: ‘I promise to produce more fiction like this in the future.’”
I have a dozen stories in various stages of notes-and-development, and they are spread across several genres. I intend to pursue a certain amount of self-publishing, so the choice of branding is going to be in my hands for many of these projects.
Is author name really the key factor in reader expectations?
For example, one of my favorite authors is Lois McMaster Bujold. She writes fantasy, science fiction and things in between. Although I like some of her books more than others, it didn’t really bother me to discover “the hard way” that I like her sci-fi better than most of her fantasy. I’d read anything she wrote, even in other genres outside SFF, because I like her writing.
Just wondering if that’s atypical. Maybe we need new ways of categorizing things.
Lois Bujold: Science Fiction
Lois Bujold: Medieval Fantasy
Lois Bujold: Fantasy Romance
I’d prefer something like the above rather than having her identity obscured behind a totally different author name. Especially if her aliases weren’t easily and publicly available.
Any thoughts on this? Do you think the publishing world is changing enough that this sort of thing will also change? Or should I simply make up a pen name for each genre and then put them somewhere on a website for folks who want to know “what all Teddi’s written”?
Randy sez: Imagine this scenario: You’re in Cairo for the first time and feeling way out of your depth. Egypt is a very different world for you, and you’re starting to feel just a wee bit homesick. Then you see the golden arches of a McDonald’s fast food restaurant. Desperate for a taste of home, you walk in … and find that the only thing on the menu is crocodile pancakes.
Question for you: How do you feel about that?
I suspect you’d feel a bit put out. Nothing against eating crocodile. Nothing against eating pancakes. But you don’t go into a McDonald’s looking for either one of those. You go there because you expect exactly the same menu in Cairo as in California.
When somebody violates your expectations, you don’t blame yourself. You blame them.
In the case of Lois McMaster Bujold, I don’t see a problem. Fantasy and science fiction have long been joined at the hip. Whether she’s writing in one sub-category or another really makes little difference.
I think you’d be a bit upset, however, if you bought one of her books and found it to be cowboy erotica. Or an Amish detective story. Or an Ayn Rand-like economic manifesto on the virtues of capitalism.
Any of those could be a fine, fine book. Or not. The quality of the writing is not the issue. The issue is that when you see Lois McMaster Bujold’s name on the cover of a book, you expect a certain kind of story. If you don’t get anything like what you were expecting, you don’t like it.
Treat your readers the way you want to be treated. (This brilliant piece of advice works in many areas of life. I regret that I didn’t invent it.)
This reminds me that my friend James Scott Bell just published a zombie legal thriller. No kidding, a zombie legal thriller. Jim has been writing legal thrillers for quite a while, but this one is out of his normal zone. So he wrote it under a pseudonym, K. Bennett. This is not a secret, so I’m not spilling any confidences here.
The novel, PAY ME IN FLESH, is hysterically funny. I’m tempted to say the novel is “brilliant,” but that term gets thrown around so much that it’s pretty useless. Let’s just say that I haven’t had so much pure fun reading a novel in a long time.
Any time you start a novel with a female lawyer being sexually harrassed by a lecherous judge, and the lawyer’s immediate reaction is to wonder what the judge’s brains would taste like, you’ve got a weird, wacky start to a hilarious book. I loved it.
I’m not a big fan of horror fiction, by the way, so I’d never have guessed that I’d enjoy a zombie legal thriller. But my friend, Susan Meissner, (whom I interviewed on this blog a few years ago), gave such a glowing review that I had to get the book. Susan is a gentle soul who writes literary women’s fiction, and I figured if she could stomach the zombie stuff, then it wouldn’t bother me either. I figured right.
In my view, Jim did the right thing by using a pseudonym here, even though a “zombie legal thriller” doesn’t seem all that different from a “legal thriller.” The fact is that the zombie element plus the humor element make this quite a bit different from Jim’s usual writing. (Jim can be funny, but he doesn’t usually do slapstick comedy, as he does in this book.)
The fact is that Jim’s new pseudonym, K. Bennett, now effectively owns the entire subcategory of “zombie legal thrillers.” So Jim can go on to break new ground in this wacky genre under this name, and if the category eventually fades out, he can walk away from it. Good move, Jim!
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.