Branded? Not likely. Not me.
These days it seems to be a given that we writers have to do a lot of our own marketing. To be successful commercially we are encouraged to publicise ourselves. That’s fair enough. We’d all like to sell more than a book or two. There’s plenty of advice about how to do that online, both from Amazon and from other writers, who seem to earn a living, if not from writing itself, from their online courses aimed at other writers. Some of these webinars are very good – I’ve sat in on quite a few – and they prove useful to those of us not used to marketing.
The advice from such blogs that I do object to is to label myself as a “brand.” Convicts used to be branded with a hot iron so that if they escaped it was clear to everyone they were prisoners. I don’t want to be a prisoner. I want to be free to write what I want to, to develop originality in subject matter and style. I don’t want to be identified as a writer of one particular type of fiction.
But it seems that the writers whose books sell the best fit into a specific genre: crime (the most popular), thriller, romance, sci-fi fantasy, women’s fiction etc. The algorithms on Amazon will then put your book into the right category and market your work to appropriate prospective readers.
That’s why most trainers advise us writers to identify our “brand” and “our target readers” before even one word of our new novel or short story has been written. If we do this from the very first spark of an idea, our work becomes easier to place. In other words we are encouraged to think of our novel as a product to be sold even before it’s written. If I take this advice, my new novel is more likely to become a bestseller. That’s why it’s tempting to believe that our work has to fit neatly into a recognisable brand with a pre-determined readership so that it will sell lots of copies.
But how I hate those words, “brand” and “target.” ‘I’m not a salesperson,’ I cry. ‘I’m a creative writer.’ But these days it seems you have to be both. Whether self-published or with a mainline publisher, the writer is expected to do most of the marketing.
Lots of writers do not object to being branded. They decide to be crime writers, for example, and stick to the format required. A profitable thing to do. My aim is to make the current work the best piece of writing I’ve written so far. If it achieves this objective and if my subject matter is interesting, topical and relevant surely it must sell. Or will it?
Margaret Atwood is generally regarded as a literary writer but this doesn’t stop her venturing into the world of speculative fiction in The Handmaid’s Tale and the Oryx and Crake trilogy. You might find these novels categorised as Science Fiction but she writes about a possible future in a way that both subverts the genre and enriches it. Way to go, Ms Atwood!
I too have made forays into writing genre fiction. The Oasis Series is my view of a possible future but it doesn’t conform to the usual format of sci-fi or fantasy fiction. I may sell fewer books because I haven’t kept to the format expected of this genre. On the other hand, don’t let’s underestimate our readers. Some of the people who’ve read the first two novels in the series, including those who don’t usually read sci-fi, tell me they have been drawn in by the originality and imagination of the story and characters and ask when the next book in the trilogy is due. The answer to that question is Now. The third book entitled Renaissance is available on Amazon.
Another genre I have attempted is that of psychological thriller with a touch of eroticism thrown in. The working title is Sunshine Skyway. I completed several drafts, had a preliminary edit and sent it to Helen Bryant at Cornerstones Literary Agency who loved the premise and the writing. It got to submission stage but she doesn’t consider it ready to recommend it to agents yet. She wants more twists and turns, more suspense, more fear. I suspect she wants it to fit more neatly into the thriller genre to sell more books. Here’s my dilemma. How much of her advice should I take on board? To be fair, her answer is that I should only make changes that I feel passionate about. So – that’s where I’m at. Thinking about changes and starting the re-write.
My objective, as always, is to try to write something I’m burning to write about. When seemingly writing in a genre such as science fiction or psychological thriller, I want to break the usual format, to be daring and surprise my readers. I want to say to potential readers, ‘this book may turn out to be different from any other futuristic novel or thriller you’ve read.’ I would like them to appreciate that this deviance from conformity is a bonus.
I don’t want to be a brand, churning out the same old stuff – even if that does mean that the books have more chance of becoming bestsellers. I don’t want to target readers of one particular genre and write formatted plots. My objective is to attract readers who are looking for something a little out of the ordinary. You could say that’s my brand. But have Amazon an algorithm for that?
My novel, GONE is a rather disturbing story about the effect on the parents of twin teenagers who go on holiday but fail to return. This could be seen as a suspense novel, a sort of thriller, but it doesn’t have the expected ending for that genre. Why? Because I want to keep it real. The majority of children who go missing do not return. It’s the not knowing where they are, what they are doing or if they’re alive or dead that is most upsetting for those left behind. My premise was to show how that “not knowing” can disturb the equilibrium of the parents’ once close relationship and how this affects the rest of their lives. To turn this story into a neatly formatted thriller with a happy, resolved ending would not ring true. That’s why I do not want to be a hack writer, writing to a well-tried format.
Am I living in a dream world? Possibly. But after all, dreams are a prime ingredient of a writer’s toolkit. Without them I wouldn’t be sitting at my computer writing this blog.
I’d be interested to hear your views on this subject. As a reader, are you stuck in one genre or are you open to reading something that deviates from the norm? As a writer do you want to be known as a “brand” to help you fit neatly into a genre, target the right readers and most likely sell more books? Or do you too want to be a innovator?
When I read a book like Milkman by Anna Burns, this year’s Man Booker winner, it makes me realise the kind of writer I want to be.