The Writer And The Branding Iron

Is branding your writing still the best way to go?

By this I don’t mean having a specific name for a specific type of book, which particularly if a book is a little more risque than the others is just sense. (It’s best if the wrong person doesn’t pick up your book, even if a few right persons miss it. This might seem illogical, but one wrong person picking up the book and hating it, and telling all his/her friends what a disappointment you were can miss you readers for the next book.)

However, in general, for years now, publishers wanted you to “brand” – i.e. write only one type of thing, in a series and usually for their house only (Thank heavens Baen doesn’t feel that way) – and I wonder if it’s still an advantage.

Oh, not for the one house, only. That, I was told (by Laurell Hamilton!) right after I broke in “Publishers are like men. If you have only one, they don’t treat you right.” Now, I’m not sure what that says about her love life – nor do I want to know! – but I found out within months of her telling me this that she was right. The only way to ensure even semi-decent treatment was to have two publishers.

But I wonder if branding matters. You see, I wonder because I could never do it. While I understood the purpose of it – ie you got more shelf space with more books and had more chance of being noticed and also people who liked one book would like the others – I could never confine myself to one genre, or one set of characters because I am a Popcorn Kitten. Ideas rain on me from above and I have to take the ones that interest me, even if they’re a genre I’ve never written.

Oh, there are series I wrote SOLELY because the publisher made me. (One series, no, I’m not telling which. No, not DST which was written in at least one form thirteen years before it was ever published.) BUT there are several other series publishers “suppressed” – usually because I knew that as the market was they’d never be bought. Sometimes because I submitted and nothing happened. Right now, I have in the hopper an Orphan Kittens Mystery Series. (Naked Reader Press has told me they’re interested, so it will be written.) A hardboiled mystery with vampires. Two almost finished science fiction series – besides the one overdue – only one of which is in the DST sequence (though not with Thena.) Another space opera started in a different part of Thena verse, about five hundred years in the future (hard to tell, actually, if it’s future or past with this book.) The Leonardo DaVinci mysteries, started. The War Of The Roses from the women’s perspective (come on, giving birth, kidnaped children. It’s not striking a blow for equality, it’s how in hell did these women cope?) started. And, who knows, either through NRP or on my own, if I eventually find time, there WILL be the last two books of the Shakespeare sequence. And new ideas hit every time. Poor Captain Charming, in the last post.

So, I can’t do branding, unless I start a career for each name – doable now. But given the collapse of bookstores – see Larry Correia’s post, which reminds me of Kris Rusch’s post – is branding still all that important?

I honestly don’t know. I don’t read only one genre, and the fans I’ve heard from who do have let my siren song seduce them into reading other genres. From Science Fiction to cozy mystery, they’ll go there if I take them.

What is the most normal reading behavior? I don’t doubt that some people will read only my mysteries, or only my fantasy, or only my science fiction. I know some of you will not touch vampires, no matter how good. (Yeah, I know. They’re dead, they’re cold and – thank you Laura Anne Gillman – how can they get it up if blood isn’t circulating? Completely understand not touching that.)

I don’t read hard core erotica or splatter horror, for instance, but I still read every genre. If I’m writing your equivalent “do not touch” I can see you not reading those, but reading all the others, and then I still come out ahead. And every read I “capture” through one of these genres has a 50/50 chance of reading the rest, right? So…

To brand or not to brand, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to confine one’s imagination to one channel and by mastering it sell extremely well (?), or to be a popcorn kitten, mastering several subgenres and letting them crosspolinate to the delight of readers?  (Sorry, this happens when I haven’t had enough caffeine.  I’ll now go in search of it.)

6 thoughts on “The Writer And The Branding Iron

  1. Hi Sarah, great post. Because of Dean Wesley Smith, I dove off into the wonderful New World of Publishing this year. Most of my stuff has been science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but I just finished a crime story last night, and have another few ideas brewing.

    I’ve been thinking about setting up another pen name for crime/mystery fiction … but like you, I’m not sure it’s necessary in this New World. Or helpful. If, as DWS says, the more content you have, the more sales you get, why divide your work?

    It would make sense, I suppose, if you want to keep your religious fiction separate from your erotica (and who in the world would write both???). But like you, I read SF, cozy mystery, horror (traditional, not splatter), noir, fantasy — you name it. I’ll gladly follow writers I like across genres.

    And I think my readers are intelligent enough to know the difference between fantasy and science fiction. I mean, I love OSC’s Ender books but don’t like his Alvin Maker. That’s the way it goes.

    PS — Speaking of DWS, I read a post you wrote (at least, I 95% sure it was you ) about Dean and Kris’s take on rewriting your work, and it helped me greatly.

  2. Yes branding is still important for an author…and it could either be of great benefit if done correctly, and very limiting if done badly. For example, Dave Weber is branded as a mil-sf author, and every time he tries to step out of that role, he sells far fewer books.

    But if you are careful, you don’t have to use a whole passel of pseudonyms, either. Aggressive promotion of ALL the genres you write in is essential to not be “type cast” as a specific genre author.

  3. If you’re a good writer, I think it’s definitely not helpful. As an example, one day in the early oughts I was going through the sci-fi/fantasy shelves looking for something to read, and saw a Dan Simmons book I didn’t recognize, which was odd, because he pretty much was an instant purchase author for me. Looking at it, it was the third book in a detective novel series. Third! I had no idea he was writing other genres than horror and sci-fi.

    That was a happy day, wandering over to the non-genre shelves I discovered four Dan Simmons books I hadn’t read, the three detective novels, and Darwin’s Blade, which very well may be my favorite of his books since Hyperion. All were enjoyable, and in the pre-Amazon days when I still bought most of my stuff at a brick and mortar dead tree store, I’d have never found them if the one book hadn’t been misfiled. And I don’t normally read much horror, the only reason I’d read the horror ones was they’d been filed in the SF shelves as well.

    These days I’d see the other books on Amazon, but not likely if you don’t keep the same name. If Dan Simmons had a different name for crime novels, sci-fi, horror, the more lit’rary recent stuff like The Terror, etc., the odds of me having read anything but the sci-fi ones would be pretty small.

  4. Yeah, the new ways of shopping have changed somethings, and not changed others. Multiple pen names might be useful for books to get shelved in the right spots, and keep the kids’ books separate from the adult content stuff. And the MilSF away from the Regency Romances.

    But with e-shopping, it might be more useful to have everything you write pop up, but perhaps with names that make it clear which genre or series a book was in. As you do with the Musketeers books, and the furniture refinishing mysteries.

    A clear indication of subgenre might be a good lead into the description, for new readers.

    “A risque fantasy in a future universe of parallel worlds . . . “

  5. Ah well, I’ve had that genre limitation argument too many times to engage it again. Suffice to say some folk read only within a genre and some will read any … ANYthing. Count me in the second group; we knew the deranged daughter was bred true when she was discovered at age 4 (… 5? they grow so quickly) reading the Woolite ingredients for lack of anything else in the bathroom to read. Tell me an author I’ve LIKED has other books and I hunt them down and devour them (well, actually: given I’m so far behind that the “too be read” piles now exceed the average small bookstore inventory, it would be more honest to say I hoard them) pretty much without consideration of genre. That includes checking them on Wiki or other sites for compleat works. Heck, wouldn’t YOU want to read a Heinlein Western? … although I think I might shy away from one of his bodice-rippers.

  6. I don’t think it’s necessary in this new world either, but ditto on mata pam’s comment: make sure the genre is clearly flagged through the cover art and blurb.

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