Writers, you are a brand. You get that, right? When a reader sees your name on a cover, they will hopefully have a good idea what sort of story to expect. We’re beyond good art, good font, and good blurb here. Your name.
So what are you selling them?
This came up for me recently because I’m generally known for space opera kinds of actiony science fiction. At the same time, I write other stuff. Most of it falls into SF, but I also have the occasional sword and sorcery fantasy piece, some from the early days and some from ongoing efforts when the muse bites me on the ass.
But in 2022, I’m planning on dropping some books that fall into the Action/Adventure category. No magic or paranormal. Hardly any science fiction at all (less than any given James Bond movie, for comparison, with the sorts of technology you might have the Tuesday After Next).
I hope that my usual SF fans will come with me on a new adventure. Science fiction fans tend to be the most forgiving, by the way, when an author branches out. Mystery readers, on the other hand, tend to not come out of mystery as a rule. There will be exceptions, and most of those are brand related, when they love a particular author that much. Or the author happens to drift into a new category that is also one they like.
Buchman and I have been masterminding for a few years now. Trying to figure out how to glimpse the future and see where publishing is going over the next several years. Not all of those insights will help us make money, but more than a few of them have saved us time and effort. Opportunity costs.
Science fiction is going through one of those regular cycles where sales boom for a while, then slide down the waveform. In the last twenty-five years, we’ve seen YA Magic Academies become a major publishing event. Then YA Post-apocalyptic SF. Sparkly vampires, which was not quite horror like previous generations. Mostly Paranormal Romance, if you had to categorize it, but it resists being limited for a variety of reasons.
For each genre, there are expectations. When you build up a fan slowly, you will first do it by hitting enough of those expectations (not all of them) and providing entertainment value. Over time, they will come to know and like your brand. To form expectations about what your next book will be. To preorder your next book sight-unseen.
This is where cover art and font treatment come into play, because they form unconscious opinions about the story based purely on the art, in that first tenth of a second the (potential) reader see it. And those expectations shape everything, so if you are wrong, you lead them astray.
Blurbs help refine, but the cover art draws them in far enough to look at the blurb. Before then, they look for the author name.
Do they know you? Do the like you? Are they fans? Or do they have bad experiences because you maybe burned them in the past?
Lots to unpack here, but I’m going to focus on the brand part.
You know you are in a Blaze Ward story where someone is sticking it to the Man. Where you will have some manner of found family forming and enduring. I don’t do grand family arcs, because my personal history does not lend itself well to that sort of thing. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason I live in Seattle, which was about as far away as I could get from certain elements of family without crossing oceans or national borders.
My brand in SF is fast-paced, lean prose leaning heavily into my past as a poet. Stories that draw you in and hold you until you read the entire thing in one sitting if I’ve done it right. Smart characters. Competent women who are not defined by the man in their lives. Real people solving real problems, without any gods or deus ex machina involved. No Chosen One. No ancient prophesy.
I’ve talked in other places about why I will put such a (Chosen One) book down immediately. I don’t care what twist you’ve put on it or how cute you think it is. Not interested. Worse, if you’ve gotten me as far as reading a sample of your book when I find it is Chosen One, you can pretty much rest assured that I have now formed an opinion of your brand and marked you off of people I will have any interest in reading in the future.
But that’s neither here nor there.
What is your brand? What ten, individual words could you write down the left margin of a page that summed up your writing style for someone that had never picked up one of your books before?
Who are you?
If you don’t know, that means that you have never considered yourself from the standpoint of the readers you want to entice into giving you money. They will have opinions. Probably already do. What will they think?
If you aren’t selling well, is it because someone picking up any of your books has no idea what to expect? What genre it might be, based on cover art and title font?
What are you selling?
Any one book is a product in and of itself. But when you have a catalog, you are selling something bigger. A brand.
What is your brand? What should it be, if we were to ask you and ten fans? How do you reconcile if those opinions are radically different?
I am a commercial artist. That’s a fancy way of saying that I care about the business side of things. Because this is a business. I am publishing books because I want folks to buy them and read them. To support me in a lifestyle that no longer involves pants.
To do that, I have to take into account commercial considerations. That does not involve writing to market, because I write in genres and sub-genres with large fan bases. I love SF, and can make money in it, because my first mission when I start a new piece is to entertain my fans.
All the politics and ax-grinding is secondary, and largely hidden away inside the prose where you might absorb it without conscious thought. That’s also part of my brand.
I regularly hear about writers who just want to write. Who just want to put a story down on paper and have people fall in love with it. None of that icky, commercial crap. Lovely thought. Any story will have fans, but the weirder and more niche it is, the smaller that potential fan base.
What do you do when you’ve sold your book to all twelve fans of a sub-sub-sub-sub-slipstream-genre?
If you don’t want to work the commercial side of things, then I presume you are busy querying agents for a book deal. Best of luck, because those are rarer than hen’s teeth and pay hardly anything at all. But you don’t have to worry about anything except finding a home for your book, because the publisher will be on the hook for everything, which includes cover art, title font, and blurb. Maybe they’ll find a winning combination. Maybe not.
Either way, they will be forming your brand for you.
Read that again.
You have given up control of your brand, meaning that someone else gets to decide how the world of readers perceive you.
What are they going to see?
And is it worth it?