How Many Brands Can an Author Have?

Last week I wrote about the re-launch of my first series, co-authored with Tracie Peterson. City of Angels, Book 1 in the Trials of Kit Shannon series, is now available for the intro price of $2.99 on both Kindle and Nook.
Which raises (not begs!) the question: can an author today have several brands?
Back in the “old days” (like, before August, 2010) branding was a key concept in the traditional publishing world. Still is, actually. That’s because a publisher trying to make money with an author has to build a repeat readership, and that’s done over time, book by book. 
Take a hypothetical author. Let’s call him Gil Johnstrap. He comes out with a terrific first novel, a thriller about a boy on the run from the law. A fan base starts to form and they eagerly await his next book. If that book were to be about a horticulture competition in Surrey, England, circa 1849, they would tend to be confused and frustrated. They might decide to skip the next Johnstrap because they’re not sure what it contains.
So Gil and his publisher come out with another thriller, this one about a family on the run from the FBI. Fans buy it and are happy. They start spreading the word to other thriller fans about this Johnstrap fellow. The growing base looks forward to the next thriller. And so it goes.
Now, if an author becomes overwhelmingly popular, like a King, Grisham or Patterson, they earn the right to try, on occasion, something “off brand.” King might write about a girl lost in the woods. Grisham about a painted house. Patterson about whatever the heck he wants—I have a feeling his parking tickets would sell a million copies.
But the publishers will insist on getting “back on brand” with the next book, because that is the bread and butter for them, the guaranteed sales.  
Cut to: today. And e-publishing. What is the state of branding now? Let me start with my own experience.
I have been writing contemporary suspense, like the Ty Buchanan series for Hachette and Deceived for Zondervan. I’ve now augmented those books with novella/short story collections I’ve self-published. These all fall into the suspense category, so they are complementary. They make new readers for the traditional work. Everybody wins. 
I’ve self-published a couple of boxing stories, because I like writing them. These make me new readers for the rest of my work, too. They do absolutely no harm to the print brands. Plus they bring in nice-dinner-with-my-wife money each month.
I write zombie legal thrillers under the pen name K. Bennett for Kensington. I plan to augment these with short, paranormal stories. These stories will make new readers for the novels. Once again, both publisher and author win.
As mentioned up top, I’m re-launching the historical romance series featuring Kit Shannon, six books in all. I daresay the readers of the Kit Shannon books may find the Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law books a tad “off brand.” But that’s okay. Two different audiences, but with potential cross-over. And no harm, no foul to either brand.
I do non-fiction for Writer’s Digest Books. I support those books with articles for Writer’s Digest magazine, my regular Sunday column here at TKZ and on Twitter (where I’ve also developed a strategic brand). Again, everything working together.
So: Can an author today juggle several brands?
My answer: Not only can, but should.
Branding in the days of print-only was partially determined by physical shelf space and seasonal purchases. An author could not come out with several different titles at roughly the same time. Bookstores wouldn’t buy. And they’d be a bit confused. If Gil Johnstrap did write that horticulture novel, A Garden in My Heart,would it be placed on the thriller shelf next to his other titles, where fans would look? Or on the romance shelf? Or in “Gardening”?
But there are no such limitations in the digital world. All books are “shelved” cover out. Digitized books are given, via algorithm, space next to similar books. A reader can find new authors in a genre this way. Quite easily.
An author can distinguish between his brands via cover art, book description, tagging, and even a pseudonym.
John Locke, poster boy for self-publishing success, writes contemporary thrillers and Westerns. Just like Robert B. Parker did after he became a household name with Spenser.
As I said a couple of years ago, this new e-publishing era is a lot like the old pulp fiction days. I look back at a Depression-era writer like Robert E. Howard. He wrote stories in the fantasy, horror, detective, western and boxing genres. All of ‘em. And made a living. That can be done again, now, in today’s e-world. It’s a great time to be a writer who loves to write.
There is only one fly in this ointment: a traditional publishing contract with a boilerplate non-compete clause the publisher is determined to enforce. I know some writers in this predicament. And while I understand that publishers are undergoing paradigm shock right now, this is not the best reaction. Publishers should be willing to re-negotiate these clauses so their writers can earn extra income and make new readers without harming the brand they are creating together.

Publishers who make an investment in an author do deserve consideration and protection. They deserve the author’s best work (non-diluted by overwriting). And they are entitled not to wake up one morning to find their author selling a novel in the same genre for 99¢. Authors need to appreciate the harsh business reality of traditional publishing. 
All that said, I see no reason why writers cannot be strategically developing different brands for their digital platform, and have fun doing it. Nor do I see a reason for publishers to resist sitting down with author and agent and hammering out contractual language that is fair to both sides on this matter.

Now I’m going to run a warm bath, put on some Yanni and relax with A Garden in My Heart.

18 thoughts on “How Many Brands Can an Author Have?

  1. Sigh. I confess, reading articles like this always make me feel 100 years behind the times. Like the publishing industry is going forward so fast I’ll never be able to catch up and jump on board.

    I share your enthusiasm and excitement for the opportunities afforded to writers in this digital age.

    It’s especially nice that authors have an opportunity to branch out and experiment with other genres. While I personally have no desire to do this at the present time, it’s nice to know that as a reader, my options are broader due to digital publishing.

  2. James, I totally agree. The conventional wisdom (which is usually neither) says that an author must be identified with a particular genre so that the author’s readership will know what to expect. That may have been true before, but in this new world I think one can have toes in different genres; simply identify the book as such. Richard Brautigan defied, and poked fun, at the convention at the time by subtitling a couple of his books:
    THE HAWKLINE MONSTER: A Gothic Western and WILLARD & HIS BOWLING TROPHIES: A Perverse Mystery.

    It’s great to know that you are a fan of Gil Johnstrap, too!

  3. BK, it’s all about choices now. No need to sigh, either. You can jump on at any point, no matter how fast things are moving. Nice.

    Joe, ah, Brautigan. He was a huge influence on me in high school. He showed me writing could go anywhere, and with him, that’s where it always went. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I personally can say without hesitation that Gil Johnstrap’s writing style has influenced me more than any other writer.

    I think you’re spot on here, Brother Bell. Whereas in the old days publishers would push prolific authors toward pseudonyms to preserve the brand (and to ease the burden of the booksellers), the virtual bookshelf has removed that pressure–at least for ebooks.

    I think there remains a concern for oversaturation, though. A friend of mine lost his publisher for his recurring character, and now is self-pubbing two or three ebooks per year featuring that character. I worry that he’s going to burn his audience out.

    By the way, Jim, thanks for the restraint you showed in going for Johnstrap instead of, well, something else.

    Great post.

  5. Howard was also prolific in historical fiction, “spicies,” confessionals, and even wrote a few science fiction yarns. Amazingly prolific.

  6. Great post and one that gives me hope for the future.

    Tomorrow my first (paid) column for a local newspaper is due. I am using historical documents to do a perspective on why the streets are named the way they are (hey if you live here it might be interesting).

    I’m also working on my sample/trial articles for a freelance gig on . . . wait for it . . . collecting car memorabilia (I’ve been a pop culture dealer for 10+ years). It is a serious pro-paying gig. My samples range from Ed Roth art to Hallmark ornaments. I may not make it to the winner’s circle, but I made it to the flag lap.

    Last night I worked on one of my naughty bits under my super secret pseudonym and finished off a massive proofreading project.

    Yeah, and added another layer to my novel. Then I hung some paneling. And then there are my two other day jobs . . .

    Branding . . . it’s not just for breakfast anymore.


  7. John, your mentor knows his stuff. I think the student has surpassed the teacher.

    Taranaich, indeed, Howard was a marvel, a writing machine, and managing to be skilled in so many genres.

    Terri, your last line is a great tag for this whole new era. Love it.

  8. James, I have downloaded City of Angels on my Kindle and am so glad it is now available (and thanks for letting me know). I do hope the other books in this series will soon be available on Kindle. I love Tracie’s books and your books, too!

  9. Social media is making it easier for writers to move between genres. I feel the books originally were the only brand, but not there really is only ONE brand…the author. WE are the brand and our VOICE becomes the product. I have read a lot of your writing and the one consistent thing I can rely on, regardless of genre…is your voice.

    Music lovers used to be very loyal to only a certain kind of music. Records, CDs and tapes were expensive and one didn’t just try stuff out because “trying out” an unknown band cost $10-$20. Also if we liked one song, we couldn’t just BUY that one song and so we were stuck with an entire album…so we just didn’t purchase that one Bohemian Folk song we though was cool, because we didn’t NEED an entire album of music we didn’t care for.

    Once music went digital and we could download individual songs for 99 cents, the market shifted and we started seeing people’s tastes in music become more eclectic than ever before. We could LOVE rock, but also have the one random Bohemian Folk song we found while surfing the web, and the three rap songs out of all of rap we actually liked.

    I predict you will see the same thing with books. People will read more than they ever have in human history and their appetite will be insatiable and they will likely read cross-genre. This NEW type of reader, the Digital Age Reader, I predict, will become loyal to a writer more for voice than genre. I think they won’t care WHAT genre, so long as they can get more of our books.

    Thanks for a really thought-provoking post. As I always, I know I can trust you for an excellent read…no matter what it is 😉

  10. Wow, James. You truly are my hero! So may genres and so little time!!

    I whole-heartedly agree with you. Today’s writers can and should be multiply branded, especially in this evolving publishing marketplace in which even the publishers are skidding around. The cost of multiple brands should always be considered, but IMHO, well worth the expense.

    I wish you continued success with all your ventures. Just reading this is sending me to Amazon to find you words. I’m curious to see your different styles.

    I’m still working on my new brand as we speak. This post is an inspiration. Thanks!

  11. You guys are hilarious! I love it. And good information as always. Thanks!

  12. Because I write in two different genres, I have “branded” myself as a Florida author, someone who loves the tropics and who writes about them. Hopefully my readers know they’ll get a fast-paced story with humor, romance, and suspense from my books, regardless of the genre. What’s hard for me are the marketing aspects because it’s double work to appeal to such a varied readership.

  13. Just saw this comment on another blogsite, talking about authors and marketing: “I want to be easily able to find an author’s other books, and I want to know of any pen names. If the author is one I like, I will probably like those too, even if they are from a genre I don’t usually read. At the least, I will try one or two. A site with all books listed and links to where to purchase will almost always guarantee you at least one book sold, and quite possibly more.”

  14. I sometimes find the notion of genre as restrictive (and meaningless) as the notion of race. It seldom is clearcut. I would definitely agree that if I like an author, I will probably like him/her writing in other genres or non-fiction as well.

Comments are closed.