Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Branding or Bondage? (Yes, This is About Writing, Not Sex)

I’m taking an online class on self-promotion from the women who run Blue Moon Communications, and the first set of lectures are all about how an author “brands” (as in builds a brand name for) themselves. If you haven’t heard of this concept, consider yourself lucky. The idea is that any product (even things like authors or museums) can benefit from the kind of advertising that works for say, Coca-Cola. A consumer is supposed to form an association with you and your work, which solidifies a particular image in their head, like when I say “McDonald’s” you think: fast, ubiquitous, cheap, and utterly evil food. Okay, you’re not supposed to think that last one, but you get the idea, right?

Lot of people buy into this idea as a good thing. When I was still working at the Minnesota Historical Society, I sat through an entire meeting devoted to getting to the core ideas MHS wanted to express as they began the process of branding themselves. My local chapter of RWA has had special lecturers come in and teach authors how to do this also.

Here’s my problem: I’m not convinced this is a good idea for authors.

However, I can see this sort of advertising working well for places like Minnesota Historical Society. Even though it might be a nebulous idea like ‘fun learning,’ what MHS produces can be distilled into sell-able concepts or information bytes.

One of our first assignments for my promotion class was to think of three well-known authors and to consider what their brand might be. All the people I could think of – Stephen King, Anne McCaffery, and J.K. Rowling – might have been “branded,” but they were also pigeonholed. Stephen King is the horror guy, Anne McCaffery is the dragon lady, and J.K. Rowling is the kid wizard woman, even though they might want to be someone else. They’re stuck delivering stories in that same niche. Not “branded,” so much as in “bondage.”

Yeah, you’re saying, but branding clearly works. Those guys are famous! I’m sure they’re crying all the way to the bank. I mean, once you’re THAT famous, presumably you are writing fulltime and may have the time to write what you want on the side under a pseudonym… or maybe you finally have enough money that you simply fall into some kind of intense bliss of uncaring joy.

I still don’t buy it.

Part of the problem is that I don’t believe this works from the ground up, only in reverse. Let me explain. Stephen King, Anne McCaffery, and J. K. Rowling didn’t set out with a brand in mind (especially King and McCaffery, they both started writing in the 1970s). They wrote what they wanted to. It just so happened that what they wrote struck a cord in the (inter)national market. They wrote what people wanted, WHEN they wanted it. By accident. Not by design. My point is, they were already bestsellers. To my knowledge, none of them set out to be the dragon lady or horror guy or the whatever babe du jour.

I’ll grant that perhaps one of the salient features of being a bestseller is writing something that’s easy branded. A simple message is a broad one. That makes sense to me.

But I’m not entirely convinced that distilling one’s own work into a sellable catch phrase is really going to suddenly translate into a broader appeal, especially when the book is already out there. The assumption is that an author continues to build their brand-name recognition with each book. This is great a great idea… if you can last that long. One of the reasons authors are so desperate to try ideas like branding, is because the reality of the book buying world is that books don’t have a very long shelf life. That, my mentors at Blue Moon would tell me, is why you brand the AUTHOR, not the book.

Again, great in theory. Let’s say an author brands herself the telepathic dolphin chick, and no one wants stories about mind-reading sea mammals? Well, then, my instructors very bluntly explain that if the books the author writes bomb, s/he needs to take on a penname and try again. You’ve effectively killed the author by branding them to the type of books that died (of course, this happens anyway, because of the way books are bought by chain bookstores.)

Whereas I can see that authors who already have established reputations can be said to have a brand, no one that I can think of has risen out of the unwashed masses by branding themselves as, say, the tarantula chick-lit writer. And I don’t know what branding yourself the sassy arachnid author gets you, other than the potential to have to be that for as long as people want stories like that and you’re forced to change your name and do it all over again.

That’s not to say that I don’t think some of the advice given as part of this whole branding idea isn’t sound. It’s perfectly reasonable to consider what your theme is and to try to have it reflected in your web presence, in print, in your professional demeanor. In a lot of ways, because the publishing industry is set up in such a way that branding is its own self-fulfilling prophesy (which is to say, you get sort of branded by the marketing department anyway, and, as I said, big chains attach your name to your sales figures so you sink or swim with your series no matter what), you might as well try to paddle the boat rather than just going along for the ride. But, I don’t think an author should fool themselves into thinking that if they can crack this mythical branding nut, they will suddenly find themselves on the New York Times bestseller list.

I really think that the only way you get to be a bestseller is by luck.

Or by magic.

6 comments:

Steve Walizer said...

Meh, you've already put yourself into this bondage by creating an entire identity for your chick-lit work. So Tate is the 'vampire chick-lit' chick =)

I think the brand should come out of your work and finding a voice, not out of writing to fulfill a brand. Stephen King is 'the horror guy' because he's written primarily horror fiction, with some REALLY notable exceptions that most people don't even associate with him. Shawshank Redemption anyone?

Kelly McCullough said...

Wow, I hate this idea. The only kind of brand I want to build is one for good writing. Oh, and I guess I cold live with the world building guy because that's a brand that allows some wiggle room. But really, what an absolutely wretched concept. Bad for writers, bad for the business, and bad for readers.

Yasamin said...

Branding has been going on for years and has become so widely accepted. Unfortunately it doesnt make it right. Pigeonholing is a dirty trick that can really hurt someone. I hate the fact that if you or your promotions team screws up, you have to take a pen-name and start over. damnit i like my name. i dont want to write under another just because they marketed the damned book wrong. on a lighter note... theres alwaya a way to break the bondage. if your strong enough.

jpj said...

I saw Dan Simmons give a talk once. Simmons, we all know, writes all kind of stuff: SF, hardboiled detective stuff, horror, fantasy, historical fiction, etc.

His advice to SF writers was to publish their first novels in a field other than SF so they wouldn't be in the "SF ghetto." Cold.

I also think branding violates what I think of as the "Ray Kroc" rule. Ray Kroc was one of the richest men in the US, but he didn't set out to get rich. He set out to make sure every town in the US had a McDonalds (that evil food). Even when he was a gazillionaire, he'd go into McDonalds (his restaurants after all) and make sure the ketchup packets were tidy, the napkin dispensers were stocked, etc.

In other words, do what you want to do and good things will follow.

tate said...

Simmons was writing before all of this branding stuff and when the market (or maybe the publisher's marketing department) was a lot more tolerant of writers, really.

Doing what you love is all good, but what I really want to write, oh, let's say, apocalyptic cyberpunk with angels? I can write it all I want, but no one is going to buy it. Unlike Mr. McDonald/Kroc, I can't exactly set up a franchise for a product no one wants.

Crap. I want to talk about this more, but Mason is begging for his hot chocolate to be reheated in the microwave.

jpj said...

This "branding" buzz is very, very old, even while the use of specific term "branding" might be new.

I don't think so. Harlan Ellison has been bitching about the "SF ghetto" for forty years. That is why the "New Wave" authors attempted to move from "science fiction" to "speculative fiction."

Mmmmm.... hot chocolate. Smart kid you got yourself there.