Last week, I listened to author Lisa See talk about branding, courtesy of Susan McBeth’s Authorpreneurs program. (Note to all authors: if you’re coming through San Diego ever or would like to, contact Susan’s Adventures by the Book and see if you can set up an event with her. She runs fabulous events).
Authors have “brands.” Did you know that? I did, but it always awfully smacked of “selling out to the man” or something. We’re artistes! We write what we feel driven to write.
I have always written about what I wanted to write about, without thought of which category my writing fit into or trying to shoehorn it into a certain genre. Not that I did it on purpose, exactly; it’s just how things worked out. I had stories I wanted to tell and the genres came after.
My second book won an American Library Association Award for Best Women’s Fiction, so I think we can somewhat objectively say it wasn’t poorly written. However, that book didn’t sell nearly as well as my first book. Hmmm. Is it because the subject matter was different? Maybe that people didn’t connect with a potential downer of a storyline (character with a grave illness). I did go back to writing a Japanese theme for this third book because I found something I really really wanted to write about, a warrior woman associated with my mother’s family tree.
Is writing about half-Japanese people my brand, then? Or is my brand “family relationship dramas?” What is an “author brand,” anyway?
Basically, it’s what people expect from you when they pick up a book of yours. This expectation stems from whatever book you wrote that sold the best. See’s brand would be historical novels containing a secret, with Chinese or Chinese-American characters.
But what if she wanted to write about non-Chinese characters?
Sure, she could. She could in the sense that this is America and you can write whatever you like. Nobody’s going to take her laptop away and throw her into the gulag if she writes something different. HOWEVER, the publisher might not publish it.
On one level, I feel like this may be unfair to Lisa See. When I read a Lisa See novel, I know I will get a beautifully written, exhaustively researched novel with some historical flair. The style of writing would not change, just the subject matter. What does subject matter have to do with style?
Then as she continued the talk and my mind (with its long synapses, a quality of an introvert) digested all of this, I had an epiphany.
I think what turned me off so much before about “branding” was the fact that the word “branding” was used. However, try substituting the word “style,” perhaps combined with “subject matter.” I think about different visual artists and the themes they explore, I can certainly tell their styles apart, and the artwork is mostly thematically cohesive.
If you look at, for example, a Picasso painting, you know it’s a Picasso painting and not,say, a Jackson Pollock. For the most part.
Here’s Woman with Mandolin, by Picasso.
Here’s Blue Poles by Pollock.
But both men had different styles (or brands, if you will) early in their careers. You could even say that the early Pollock looks a bit like the later Picasso.
The Old Fisherman, Picasso, 1895
Naked Man with a Knife, c. 1938, Jackson Pollock
Another distinctive artist is Diane Arbus, known for her photographs of those on the fringes of society. Both the subject matter and style are hers. But she and her husband did start out as fashion photographers for magazines like Vogue.
Do these and other artists have the ability to work in different styles competently? Yes. But were they known for working in all of them? No. They developed a distinctive style, or voice, or brand.
This is true for musicians as well. I was watching The Voice the other night. A guy sang “Pretty Woman.” He sounded exactly like Roy Orbison, like a Roy Orbison impressionist, in fact. Nobody turned their chair for him, and all the judges said that he sounded too much like Orbison. They wanted somebody with his own sound that sounds like nobody else on the planet.
Your style (or your brand) is what nobody else has. A different take. As the writer Anna Quindlen said, “Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had.”
So, all this was going through my head during See’s discussion. And I wondered, is it really unreasonable for me to have a style and subject matter that I am known for? That is pretty much the only new thing I’m bringing to the table, right? That is my brand—or whatever you want to call it.
Maybe the “brand” isn’t totally dependent on the author. Maybe your brand is just what the market (your readership) decides for you. Maybe your readers will follow you no matter what you write about, maybe they won’t.
I think you have to write about what moves you, and your brand will follow. After all, there are never any failproof guarantees about bestseller-dom or awards; if there were, publishers would have figured it out. Perhaps you already know what you want to do, or perhaps it will take a few books (another issue: are authors even allowed the time to develop a brand these days?) just as it took some time for these artists to develop their distinctive styles.