Don’t Get Burned By Branding
Been thinking a bit about “brand” recently in terms of being an author.
For illumination, we turn briefly toward Wikipedia, that cultivated encyclopedia of the commons, and there we discover that the American Marketing Association defines branding as:
“Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”
Of course, you might look to an older definition —
As a verb, you might mean, “To be marked with a branding iron.”
You might further look toward one of the synonyms of the word: “stigmatize.”
Suddenly, I’m thinking less about Coca-Cola and more about a white-hot iron pressing into a beast’s flesh, the fur smoldering, the skin charring, blisters popping up like the bubbles in bubble wrap.
Not coincidentally, I now want a hamburger and a cold glass of Coke.
But that’s really neither here nor there. What I’m trying to suss out is, where does this leave an author in terms of branding himself or being branded? Is this more a symbol of what the author represents to customers, or is it instead an indelible mark scorched into the author’s metaphorical flesh?
I gotta be honest: I’m starting to lean toward the crispy char-mark than the marketing strategy. Because here’s what can happen: you write a handful of books of one type, and then you, as an author seeking to explore new territory, seeking to grow and change and spread your penmonkey
seed wings in other genres and styles and biblio-realms, discover that, uh-oh, you’ve been branded. You’re suddenly That Guy — you’re the Guy Who Writes Splatterpunk Horror or the Girl Who Writes Scientologist Steampunk Space Erotica, and soon as you want to do differently, even once, nobody wants to hear it. More specifically, publishers don’t want to publish it — you’ve got your niche, you’ve built your fence, so now isn’t the time to stray, little pony. Don’t make us get out the shock-prods. Bzzt.
That’s not a rail against specialization, mind you — you want to forever write Hard Sci-Fi in Epistolary Format, hey, fuck it, find your bliss, little word-herder. But the moment you want to do differently, you’re going to find that brand starts to itch and burn and next thing you know you’ve got the loop of a catch-pole tightening around your neck and dragging you back to where you came from.
I mean, in 20 years do I want to be the DOUBLE DEAD guy? Fuck no. I don’t want to just write horror. Or urban fantasy. Or writing advice. I want to write it all. I want to write YA and pulp and maybe something more literary and some creative non-fiction and screenplays and TV shows and games and Martian manifestos and vile tweets and thoughtful reminiscence and — well, you get the point. I don’t want to be kept away from any story I want to tell. Put differently —
I want to write All The Words.
What’s a writer to do, then?
A few things, I think.
First: diversify early. Play the field. Write multiple things across multiple genres and establish yourself as an author who can write all kinds of awesome shit. Joe Lansdale did this early on: that guy wrote insane pulp and hard crime and funny books and short stories about Godzilla. No end to what Lansdale could do. (And I’ll note that such early diversification is easiest with short stories — you can write a lot of them quickly and get them out there in short order.)
Second: embrace self-publishing to some extent — I’m not a fan of putting all your eggs in one basket because next thing you know, those eggs are hatching and now you’re holding a basket of angry pterodactyls. See? Don’t you wish you left some eggs back at the fucking henhouse? (I think that’s the point of that old saying.) Self-publishing gives you strong authorial control over your content. You want to write a horror novel, a teen drama, and a sci-fi satire? You can. You can write all three and give them to readers and say, “Ta-da! Look what I can do!” You needn’t be contained or constrained as a self-published author.
Third: ensure that any branding you do is less about what you write and more about how you write. Your strongest marker as an author is your voice. (In fact, I’d argue we need to stop talking about Brand and start talking about Voice.) Your name and your voice should be all that matter in terms of your fiction — you find a writer you love, you should be willing to read whatever that writer writes. To bring Lansdale back into it, I’d read anything that guy writes. He could write a poem about the goddamn phonebook and I’d buy three copies. Lansdale is Lansdale — anything he writes is his and his alone. His sound, his style, his skill, it creeps into everything he does, soaking it through like a sponge. That’s what I want from an author: not genre, not a reiterative protagonist, not a ditch in which they seem forever trapped.
Am I glad Robert McCammon no longer writes strictly horror?
You betcher penmonkey ass, I am.
Don’t be burned by branding — especially branding you don’t control. Nobody puts Baby in the corner. Baby puts herself in the corner, and then when she’s done with the corner, she karate-kicks her way out of it and goes on a crazy Roadhouse adventure with the ghost of Patrick Swayze.
I may have lost the thread there a little bit.
All I’m saying is —
Own your voice. Live up to your name.
That’s what matters to readers.
(Related: Joelle Charbonneau talks about writing what you want to write. She also notes that our agent, Stacia Decker, encourages us to write what we want to write, which is exactly what you want in an agent.)