Branding and Genre Fiction

So once a month, a group of us writers get together up in Lynnwood to talk, not about the craft of writing, but about the business of indie publishing. Most of the writers I know in the indie field do publish their own work, but would not call themselves publishers. It is a different mindset.

My wife and I do think of ourselves as publishers, because we go beyond just doing our own books. I have done a couple of anthology projects so far, and am going to be doing a major event this summer. She has a half dozen other authors she handles. And all of those efforts involve coordinating a number of different writers, ranging the entire spectrum from stone-pros to delicate snowflakes.

For many indie folks, the work isn’t worth the reward. (And I have to ask myself on a regular basis why the hell I’m doing this.) But I also see the benefits of doing some of those project. It exposes me to the fans of folks I pull into anthologies. Hopefully, if you, the reader, buy this for the person you like, you’ll read the rest and find my stuff acceptably entertaining. I figure if you like the kind of stuff I write, I can hook you. I’m a good enough writer, but I have to attract your eyeballs first.

At lunch, the topic of branding came up. Two of the folks I was talking to were in the process of redoing all of their existing covers with new art. There is an ugly secret in the publishing world related to covers. Every three to five years it is necessary to redo your covers to something else.

In Traditional Publishing, senior and managing editors come and go. When they do, the new person taking over will have different tastes, and so will push for covers to look a different way. Think back to the Sci-fi covers on paperbacks from the sixties, which tended towards the minimalist in many ways. Now compare that to the seventies, where big paintings with a scene from the book were suddenly everywhere. That also was every fantasy cover in the eighties.

But it changes. If you walk into the bookstore today, take a look at the covers on your preferred genre, and compare the picture to what you have on your shelf already from five, ten, or twenty years ago.

So for indie writers, we have to fight an ongoing-battle to keep refreshing covers. (I can cheat, because I write frequently write epic space opera. Throw a space ship or a space battle on it, and I’m pretty much good.) They were in the process of updating. I suggested that instead of taking two months off from the writing, it might be better to spend one or two days writing new cover blurbs for all the backs, and then dedicate a day or two each week to updating the covers.

I cannot imagine taking two months off and doing nothing but covers. But Fabulous Publisher Babe™ also does most of those. My job is to write new blurbs whenever she tells me that its time, as well as much of the marketing. But we do it ongoing. Constantly going back and looking at old stuff and seeing if it has become “dated,” and fixing it while maintaining the brand.

I have been thinking about this a bunch lately because the sixth Beyond The Mirror has just come out, and at some point soon I will drop number seven. Each of them has a sub-title, so that the reader knows what they are picking up.

1) Fantastic Worlds

2) Fantastic Worlds

3) Alternate Worlds

4) Dramatic Worlds

5) Dramatic Worlds

6) Alternate Worlds

7) Heroic Worlds

Two collections of early fantasy stuff (that I need to get back to extending one of these days). Two collections of science fiction. Two collections of stage plays. One superhero collection.

But they all have to be branded. Epic space opera is branded by having a big space battle on the cover. Hard-boiled detective often has a gun and a fedora. Fantasy will involve swords (and frequently bimbos with large chests in a state of barely-covered disarray, but I digress).

When I set out to do collections, I had no idea where my career would go. And I can prove it with the list of other prospective sub-titles I dreamed up for the Mirror books, including Mysterious Worlds, Pulp Worlds, Wild Steam Worlds, and Romantic Worlds. Might yet still use some of those. Dunno.

But each of them starts with the same cheval mirror in a wood-framed bedroom. It is what you find in the mirror (beyond the mirror, as it were), that tells you what you’ll get. Fantasy bridges, space ships, empty stages. When I get famous, a reader would be able to see one of those on a bookshelf and immediately know it to be a Blaze Ward short fiction collection.

If I have to go back and redo covers on them, the question will be if we use a different mirror in a different bedroom as the frame, plus new art in each of the mirrors that open your world to adventure.

That is the brand. Today. Tomorrow might be entirely different. I have no idea. Nor does anybody else. Harry Potter and Hunger Games both drove fantastically new forces into the world of branding when they came out. Now go compare your issue #1 covers you got way back when to what they are today.

Wow, huh? Same for us, with the extra bonus that we don’t have an art department we can just instruct to redo all the covers. That costs money. Or it costs a lot of time and not as much money. The choice is spending all of your time today, or a little every day until hell freezes over, or we get so fabulously wealthy that we can just pay someone else to do it while we spend all day making shit up.

Most indie writers don’t want to do that work. As a publisher, I understand that it is a necessity. Part of the job itself.

Plus, some of you will own collector’s items, one of these days, because you have the original cover, before it changed. There are Science Officer paperbacks that don’t say Volume One. Same with Auberon. And as I look at the shelf in my office, I have half a dozen volumes of “Beyond the Mirror: Fantastic Worlds.”

Kinda weird, ya know?