Jan

19

2012

Your Brand is Not a Limitation

by Tamela Hancock Murray

It is All About Expectations

What if you bought a recording from a music group expecting their usual collection of ballads, only to hear guitar anthems? Or what if you picked up a book with a pink cover that promised a love story but ended up reading a novel where hapless and nameless victims suffered gunshot wounds on every page? You’d be disappointed, right? I would be. You don’t want to disappoint readers, so branding has become a consistent topic.

Your Best Friend

Some writers find the concept of branding to be limiting. When they think of branding the TV show “Rawhide”  and Cattle comes to mind.  And despite the awesomeness of such a theme song, they want to keep their options open.

While freedom to explore new avenues is desirable for growth, the fact is, writers need to first establish an audience. And to do that, their work has to be consistent in quality and content. The idea is to become a friend to readers, one they can rely on for certain reading value, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Think about it — what if you had formed a relationship with a friend who consistently gave great advice from the context of her loving family and marriage. Over the years, you come to rely on her for Wednesday afternoon chats over tea in her cozy breakfast nook, watching birds from a bay window. In return, you might bring over some sugar cookies. You find comfort in her usual appearance — a white t-shirt and jeans, blonde ponytail and cotton-candy-pink lip gloss.

What Happened?

How would you feel if one week you kept your Wednesday appointment but were greeted by a stranger with cropped hair dyed the color of onyx, coal-black lipstick, a newly-pierced eyebrow, wearing black leather? Only this isn’t a stranger. It’s your friend. “How do you like my new look?” she asks. “I was tired of the old look and thought I’d spread my wings. And my husband? I threw him out and he took the kids with him. Oh, and I changed brands of tea. But come on in!” Would you trust her not to have spiked the tea as well as her hair?

Double Identity?

This isn’t a comment on fashion, it is a comment about expectations. This is akin to what happens to readers looking for a certain type of story associated with your name. Sure, you might be a cotton-candy-pink writer with a vampire novel sitting in your files. What with self-publishing, shouldn’t the vampire come out and play? Probably not a good idea. The idea of giving blood is not going to appeal to your audience looking for a sugar fix. If they happen upon the vampire novel, your readers devoted to light romance will be confused and disappointed. They will be looking for their friend. Granted, a very, very select few writers are able to write across genres and be successful at several. And others are skilled at using pen names and creating dual marketing identities. But that takes work and an intentional strategy to market to divergent audiences. For most writers, concentrating on a quality and valued friendship with a devoted audience is reward enough.

Your turn

Who are your favorite writers? And if you had to identify their brand, what would you say it is? (Remember a brand is not a slogan, that is a topic for another day.)

 

 

28 Responses to “Your Brand is Not a Limitation”

  1. Timothy Fish January 19, 2012 at 5:39 am #

    Wednesday afternoon chats over tea? What a scary chick.

    It is different with friends. I’m sure I would have a problem if one of my friends made such a drastic change, but it would be more out of concern for them than fear that they are going to poison the Kool-aid.

    With writing, we aren’t really talking about friends. Readers aren’t so understanding if we give them something they don’t want. To some extent, it is the author’s job to give the readers what they want. That is what they are paying for. Nevertheless, I don’t know of very many authors who stick completely with what the readers think they should. That may mean they lose some readers along the way, but sometimes they gain new ones. While drastic changes are not a good idea, author are people too and their writing will mature and change over time.

  2. Debbie Lynne Costello January 19, 2012 at 5:56 am #

    I have more than 2 favorite authors, but 2 mentored me and so those are the two I will mention–Laurie Alice Eakes and MaryLu Tyndall. What do I expect when I read Laurie Alice’s books? It could be set in America or Europe, it will be historical, full of beautiful descriptions, sometimes suspense, it will have a strong romance and a happily ever after. MaryLu’s I expect it to be historical, again beautiful description, intrigue and suspense, and maybe a bit edgy but nothing offensive, always a strong romance and happily ever after.

    You mentioned slogans. Are slogans a bad thing?

    • Steve Laube January 19, 2012 at 9:26 am #

      Slogans are fine. They look great on a business card and on a web site. They are also a good way to create a banner over a display of an author’s books. But a slogan is not a brand.

      Here’s a thought. A brand is something hear and then know what is expected from that brand…i.e. Stephen King. His name is a brand.

      But if you hear a slogan do you know what brand or what author that is describing? For example: Lose Your Heart in the Amish Life. … That is a wonderful slogan, but without looking it up can you tell me what author it is describing?

      But if I said Wanda Brunstetter you would know I meant the bestselling Amish author. Her name is her brand. And associated with her name (brand) is Amish fiction.

      Hope that helps.

      Steve

  3. Andra M. January 19, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    I have a question. Is writing books for the ABA and other books for the CBA a “violation” of my brand even if they’re all science fiction?

    • Steve Laube January 19, 2012 at 9:33 am #

      Andra,
      Tamela also gives a good answer below. Let me add my two cents.

      You are actually asking a question that goes into the nature of the content of your science fiction novels. If your ABA stories are full of graphic sex, bloody violence, foul language, and anti-Christian rhetoric…then you would have a tough time writing with credibility for the CBA audience that would not want those elements in their stories.

      It is well documented that Francine Rivers wrote romance novels in the general market first. After she moved to CBA she retrieved the rights to all those older titles and removed them from circulation because the content was not the kind that she wanted associated with her name.

      I know some great authors who are writing science fiction in the ABA (general market). But they do not compromise their faith or craft.

      The divide between ABA (general market) and CBA (Christian market) is not as wide as some may think. But that is a blog post for another day.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

      Certainly! Thank you for reading the blog and contributing to our discussion.

  4. Lindsay Harrel January 19, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    I have a lot of favorites, but I have read all of Karen Kingsbury’s and Francine Rivers’ books.

    One question: Is the leap between women’s fiction and romance such a big deal? Or the leap between historicals and contemporary? Francine kind of does all of them but I know she is really well known. I would love to write all of these types but wasn’t sure if the perceived difference between them was too great.

    • Timothy Fish January 19, 2012 at 8:25 am #

      It seems to me that the answer to that depends on what people are expecting when they read the author’s books. For example, if they are expecting a story about a woman in a small town, they may not care what genre it is in, but if they are expecting a story about a woman who falls in love, then the genre is hugely important.

  5. Carrie Daws January 19, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    A group I recently visited online was discussing this very thing, and one of the writers wanted to write two stories in very different genres and simply didn’t understand why she had to brand herself to both groups of readers. As a reader, I can allow a little difference from one book to the next, but the general themes still need to be close. I must be able to make the logical jump in my mind from one book to the next — or I lose interest and have to convince myself all over again that the author is worth trying. I must keep this in mind as I write….

    • Timothy Fish January 19, 2012 at 8:29 am #

      For me, theme is one thing I don’t want to be branded on. I don’t mind getting locked into a genre and I don’t mind getting locked into including certain elements in each story, but the writer who gets locked in on one theme will soon run out of anything to say.

  6. Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Andra: Thanks for the question! I am happy to share my broad opinion.

    I would say writing for both CBA and ABA is not a violation of your brand in this case, particularly since you are writing books attracting the same cross-section of readers. However, any secular books must still have a Christian world view.

    Hope this helps. If you need clarification, feel free to ask.

    • Andra M. January 19, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

      Hi Tamela,

      You and Steve’s comments answered my question perfectly. I’m relieved that I won’t have to think up a pen-name for one market over another. They are closely related; it’s just that one novel is more overtly Christian than the other so fits better in the CBA market over ABA.

      Thank you both!

  7. Tamela Hancock Murray January 19, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Lindsay, I appreciate your question as well. As far as branding, I would say that the leap from romance to women’s fiction is not great because generally, women’s fiction contains enough strong romantic elements that readers who enjoy romance won’t be disappointed. As for historical versus contemporary, if you are writing for the same cross-section of readers, writing for both can work. However, in my experience, writers usually feel passionate about writing contemporaries or passionate about conducting research and setting their plots in a certain historical time period. What type of story do you enjoy writing most?

    Even though the audience will see some overlap, agents have specific marketing plans for each type of book. We understand the nuances and what will and will not work for your brand.

    I don’t mean to make assumptions about your career, but based on your question, in my view, you sound as though you have reached the point where you would benefit from talking one-on-one to industry professionals. Attending a writers conference where you would have a chance to meet a variety of agents and editors interested in pursuing women’s fiction and romantic fiction might be a good move for you to consider in the near future.

    • Dawn Kinzer January 21, 2012 at 11:59 am #

      I’ve always focused on writing contemporary romances, but I read a lot of historical romances and have recently come up with an idea for a historical. My hometown has some interesting history (late 1800s to early 1900s). I’ve begun research on the story while continuing to also work on a contemporary.

      I’ve wondered if a brand could include both contemporary and historical romance if the tone was similar. Mine tends to be more serious with humor sprinkled throughout.

      DiAnn Mills and Susan May Warren write both contemporary and historical romances and don’t use pen names … but I can’t compare my skills to theirs.

      I don’t want to waste time writing a historical … but I’ve also thought it might be a good exercise to try writing one and see what results.

  8. Lindsay Harrel January 19, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    Tamela, thank you so much for your advice. I haven’t actually undertaken a historical yet but love reading both historical and contemporary and can imagine myself loving to write both, which is why I asked. I also tend to write women’s fiction with a romantic subplot, but again, love reading full-on romances too. Thus my dilemma. :)

    I plan to attend ACFW in September, so I will most definitely do as you suggest. Thanks again for taking the time to answer.

  9. Ruth Douthitt January 19, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    I am working on developing my brand right now. I am diving head first into Christian Supernatural Fiction and need to be consistent with my voice throughout the 7 book series, however, I do find it ok to have the supernatural storyline become darker as the series progresses for impact.

    But I will strive to be consistent. I know it is tempting for a writer to be provocative in order to sell books or for a “twist” but I don’t want to succumb to that temptation.

    • Steve Laube January 19, 2012 at 11:13 am #

      Ruth,

      A caution. Unless you plan to self-publish, note that few publishers will commit to a seven book series.

      History shows that a series tends to sell less with each subsequent book in the series. The only exception is if the series happens to take off. Like Left Behind or Harry Potter. Left Behind was originally pitched as a three book series. It ended up with twelve because of its success.

      Rarely do we get a publisher to commit beyond three books in a series unless that author has had a phenomenal track record of sales.

  10. Lauralee Bliss January 19, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    Is a pen name a viable way to make a leap into another genre you also feel passionate about? Or into the non fiction realm? Will an agent market both your name and your pen name books or should the material under the pen name be done by the author if the situation lends itself?

    • Steve Laube January 19, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Good question Lauralee.

      Pen names can allow an author to write under multiple genres. Happens more than you realize.

      It can work easier with fiction because the media side of the marketing is not critical. But say you, Lauralee, write under a male name “George Mason.” And then the Today Show wants to interview George. Or a radio program wants to interview George. Then you’ve got a challenge. :-) Nora Roberts wrote as J.R. Robb. Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman. So there is precedence.

      But I do not recommend it in non-fiction. Especially in the Christian market unless you have a really good reason. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use a pen name. I know of many who have a professional name (some ladies use a maiden name for identity protection). But do not have TWO non-fiction pen names. If that came to light then folks would wonder why you are lying about who you are.

      Make sense?

      Steve

  11. Marji Laine January 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    The word “brand,” because of obvious marketing connotations, led me astray at first. I’d thought that the brand WAS the tagline. But I get it now. The “brand” is what people think when they hear my name. (Well, someday anyway.) The type of writing that it stirs: dark or humorous, heavy or light, romantic, inspirational, etc. My goal is to make sure my writing, within even the broad genre of romance, adheres to the “brand” I want my readers to understand. Consistency is key. Am I on the right track? Thanks for such a thought-provoking article!

  12. Peter DeHaan January 19, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    There have been a couple of non-fiction authors who I have followed, reading as much of their work as I could. With each successive book, I enjoyed it a little less until I got to point of boredom and then actually began disliking them.

    The problem was that they didn’t really have anything new to say, but were rehashing variations of their first book or writing a book on a chapter’s worth of ideas.

    They were certainly following their brand — and lost me in the process.

  13. Beth Shriver January 19, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    On the multi book contract…when I was offered a 6 book contract I was thrilled. But once I got started I became a bit overwhelmed. I knew I needed to make them all unique to keep the readers interested and went about how to do that. I was relieved when the editor suggested creating two separate series. I am now writing the first book of the second series and feel refreshed in doing so. I am grateful to have a fantastic agent and editor to help make that happen.

    • Steve Laube January 19, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

      Exactly Beth! It can feel overwhelming. And there can be the danger of reader fatigue. That is why starting a second three-book series feels brand new because you have new settings and characters.

      The same thing can happen in the entertainment industry with TV series. After a while the stories can get so contrived that they are no longer watchable. A great premise that gets “Lost”…so to speak…

  14. Sharyn Kopf January 19, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

    One of my favorite writers didn’t change genres but her books started getting darker. The last two I read were so macabre I haven’t picked up anything she’s written since, and it’s been several years. Another part of the problem is I never thought of her as a good writer but did consider her a good storyteller. Just not good enough to want to be depressed after reading her books.

    As far as I can tell, though, she’s still a popular CBA novelist so I guess it didn’t bother most people.

  15. Peter Eleazar Missing January 20, 2012 at 12:27 am #

    I embrace what you are saying here, but the theory of branding is a lot about contriving an image or an ideal in order to give the most favourable impression of a business and to attract profitable customers. That, in the case of individuals, can represent an alter-ego – the image we would like others to see in us. I fully believe in being consistent but what is more important is to be authentic and true to yourself, else sooner or later you will get found out. We are known by our fruits and that will reveal who we really are. Better that we have a genuine walk with Christ so that we can have about us the sweet fragrance of His presence and the ring of truth that characterises genuine faith, than that we try to be what we are not. Besides, we are not being moulded into an ideal image, but into the likeness of Christ.

  16. Susan Karsten January 17, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    One of my favorite authors in M.C. Beaton, who writes cozies and has two series in that genre. Some years back, she was a prolific Regency author, using the name Marion Chesney. I can easily see the need for two names.

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