Friday, 9 May 2014

Who do you think you are? by Anne Rooney

On Saturday, I'll be in London chairing a debate on authors, branding and publicity at the Society of Authors. It's an issue that bedevils writers now, but wasn't an issue twenty years ago. Brand? Isn't that applicable to soap and sausages rather than authors?

We're all used to the idea of 'brand' in retail. A brand is identified by a logo, it is a recognisable characterisation that manages our expectations. We know what 'Marks and Spencer' stands for, how that brand is different from, say, Aldi or Tesco. Do we want to apply it to authors? Many authors do write the same type of book, and readers know what to expect. Jacqueline Wilson had a 'brand' long before it was a thing. But do we really want to cultivate a brand?

Branding irons - heat them up in a fire, use
them to brand your author
I have to say, I'm not 100% comfortable with the term 'branding'. Originally, a brand was a mark of identification and ownership burned into an animal or, more horrifically, a slave. These days, freeze-branding is a near-painless way of marking an animal. But still. Ownership? Cattle? Slaves? *shudder*

Nowadays publishers are keen on authors 'building their brand', preferably through social media, blogging, events, and so on. A cynical view of this would be that it saves the publisher some marketing effort. If the author writes only for one publisher, the two are in league and it's fine. Promoting the brand serves both equally. But what if the author has several or many publishers? The brand is then the author's own, it is not tied to a publisher. The publisher loses enthusiasm for the brand aspect of the author and wants you to build a brand for the series/book. (I'm the ultimate publisher-harlot and some of them don't care for my brand at all.)

Brand, of course, is an artificial construct. It's not the author's real personality, but the bit that's allowed out in public. When it was just created by our books, it didn't really need managing, but now we are on display in other ways, too - from Facebook to TV and radio, from blogs to Pinterest and Instagram - we need to keep a grip on it. It can be hard to imagine how our particular, personal 'brand' is seen from the outside. Building a brand, thoughtfully rather than by default, requires deciding who you are, who you want to be seen to be, and then creating that public image. To do it successfully, you have to do it consciously and deliberately. For many writers, that seems too calculating and perhaps even directly counter to the emotional honesty and openness that good writing demands. Building your brand is to ask Who do you think you are? And Who do you want people to think you are? Answer with caution. "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be," as Kurt Vonnegut said.

While a 'brand' might make your books more immediately recognisable, does it make it harder to step outside the brand and try something new? If as an author you always write (say) upbeat friendship novels for 8-11s but then want to try your hand at a gritty, hard-hitting teen novel, does your brand stand in your way? Is it a way of stifling your freedom to make life easy for the publisher? Or a way of making your life easier, too, by setting boundaries to what you will do and demand of yourself? Is it safe or constraining?

And what does brand mean to the people at the other end of the transaction - the readers, librarians, teachers and parents? If you have come to expect upbeat friendship novels from Fifi Ambergris, what do you think of her writing a gritty teen novel? Is it confusing, misleading, dangerous? Would you rather she changed her name to Amber Fifigris for those books to leave her brand intact with younger readers?

What do you think, as author, reader, librarian, publisher or whatever you are in the publishing-reading transaction?

Anne Rooney
aka Stroppy Author
Most recent publication: 'The Colours of the Day' in Daughters of Time, edited Mary Hoffman, Templar Publishing, 2014


Nick Green said...

Interesting thoughts - does your 'author brand' mean you shouldn't step outside your genre?

I don't think so. Brand shouldn't be confused with genre. Brand should be simply a guarantee of quality. For instance you can pick up any book by Anne Fine and know you'll be in safe hands, whether it's an easy reader for younger children, or an adult novel.

And of course writers can have sub-brands by varying their name, for example. Lee Weatherly versus L. A. Weatherly, for instance, or Iain Banks versus Iain M. Banks. So you know you can trust the quality, while expecting slightly different kinds of books from each sub-brand.

Stroppy Author said...

Well, perhaps I was being lazy giving genre as an example - I didn't mean it should be that narrow. But brand is more than just 'quality'. It is to do with characteristics and expectations. That might include voice or genre or any number of things, but has to be something distinctive and individual and then the same issues about stepping outside brand exist.

Nick Green said...

For companies, 'brand' is effectively the same as 'personality', so for authors (who are people) their brand probably is literally their personality. So I'm not sure you could stray outside it if you tried.

I think the only danger is if you write something that is in conflict with your publisher's brand (such as a racy YA romance for an imprint that only deals with middle-grade fiction). But that's all too obvious.

Barbara Vine is still recognisably Ruth Rendell, despite being a conscious effort to be a new author 'brand'. I'm not saying you could guess they were the same person if you didn't know - but the revelation is not a shocking surprise. You think, 'Oh yes, that figures.'

Savita Kalhan said...

It's a horrible word and it's meaning is equally insidious. I've had a lot of experience of that word over the last couple of years, and have come to the conclusion that it's pretty important to understand the word and what it implies, and brand yourself accordingly. My brand isn't necessairly a reflection of my personality, but of the main body of my work. Publishers seem to want this, some require it.
Stepping out of the brand is obviously done far more easily once you're established/well-known...
Great post, Stroppy! Thank you. Shame I'll miss your talk tomorrow.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm thinking of Paul Jennings, an Aussie writer whose "brand" is utterly silly, hilarious short fiction for younger readers. One day, he decided to try his hand at a YA thriller. Poor man. I read it. I enjoyed it - and so would teenage readers if anyone else's name had been on the cover.

On the otherr hand, if another name had been on the cover, he wouldn't have had the built-in audience to buy it, even if they didn't like it.

You can't win, sometimes.

Katherine Roberts said...

Pseudonyms, people, pseudonyms!

Brands are essentially chains. The only difference is who put them on you. Are they manacles fitted by someone else who kept the key, or gold ones you bought yourself and can take off whenever you like?