Engineering A Brand

By John Gilstrap

This past Sunday, I returned from Indianapolis, Indiana, where I spent the weekend at the always-wonderful Magna Cum Murder conference.  As often happens at such events, the panels I participated in got me thinking more introspectively about my writing than I ordinarily do.  In one such panel, I heard myself refer to a book as “an engineered product,” and I realized that I’d landed on the topic of this week’s TKZ post.

When we buy anything from a car to a cheeseburger, we expect it to meet certain engineering specifications.  We expect less luxury from a low-end Kia than we do from a top-of-the-line Mercedes, but irrespective of price and name recognition, we expect our chosen vehicle to get us from here to there without burning up, and in the event of a wreck, we expect the seat belts to work.  The perfectly-cooked fast food burger is of no lesser quality than the perfectly-cooked Porterhouse at a 5-star restaurant, but the expectation is different.

When people buy a John Gilstrap book (yes, it’s a little creepy to refer to myself in the third person), I presume they expect a different kind of ride than what they’ll get from, say, a Danielle Steele book.  Our stories are engineered differently, from the ground up, with the result that a Venn diagram of our respective fans would likely reveal a tiny shared area.  Different readers have different tastes, and my job as a professional storyteller is to deliver what my readers have come to expect.

No, that’s too passive.  My job as a writer is to deliver what I have promised fans for over two decades, attracting new readers who could just as easily have chosen a different book and different author.  Those who sample my work and like it are willing to try me again and again, so long as I hold up my end of the bargain.  I offer a tacit promise that there will be violence without gore-porn, there may be romance, but there will be no graphic sex.  My good guys will always be principled, and when the ride is over, justice will reign over my little corner of the fiction universe.  That’s the deal.  That’s my dining menu.

If I let my fan base down even once, I risk losing them forever.  Some will give me a bye if I fall short, but others won’t.  I worked my butt off for every set of eyes, and to risk losing even one is unacceptable.

Of course, the flip side of this is the risk of my stories becoming too predictable—too formulaic—which has its own negative consequences.  So, while providing a trustworthy reading experience, it’s incumbent on me to mix it up a little.  In Scorpion Strike (July, 2018), Jonathan Grave’s team endures their first fatality.  It was a hard scene to write, and it’s a scary thing to do.  Fingers crossed that I won’t drive readers away.

A lot of cyber ink gets spilled in the blogosphere talking about platform building, social media marketing and the like.  It occurred to me this weekend that platform-building and trust are closely related.  As authors’ careers grow, I think it’s important for them to think two or three books ahead—not regarding plots, but in terms of what kind of product they want to addict their readers to.  I believe marketers would call this thinking about their brand.

The harsh truth is that writing and getting read are two entirely different, though related transactions.  Without doubt, every writer is free to write whatever he wants, and publish (or not) by whatever means he desires.  But if said writer wants to maximize his ability to build a readership, he needs to teach his readers what to expect, and then dependably deliver on the promises he makes.

I know too many talented writers who finally achieve the dream of publication only to sabotage their own careers through literary ADD.  One very talented self-published friend of mine cannot constrain his creative impulses.  In quick succession, he’s pushed out a cozy, a thriller, a PI novel and a couple of horror books.  I get the need to flex the creative muscle, but there’s a reason why we don’t see Pepsodent pistols or Smith & Wesson toothpaste.  Branding matters.

What say you, Killzoners?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

13 thoughts on “Engineering A Brand

  1. I would say your engineering comment dovetails with Jim Bell’s recipe comments Sunday…

    As an architect (by day-job), structure defines the general shape of a building, other engineering a building’s ability to keep people safe and comfortable, but it’s the details that define the experience most of all, and that (should) give clues about what type of building it is and what to expect, somewhat, once inside… Not saying there won’t be surprises, which is what should keep architecture engaging…

    Obviously, the parallel might be a bit stretched, but…

  2. Boy, you’ve got me thinking this morning, John. Your comment on “shaking things up” to avoid the formula reminded me of something Robert Crais said. It turned into an inspiration for me. When he wrote LA Requiem, he talked about writing in abject fear that he would lose his avid fan base, but he worked through the fear by trusting the talent that brought him to his success. That book was a turning point for him & ramped his success to the next level. There’s a lot to be said for taking risks. In his case, it was venturing into new points of view & putting another character in the spotlight, Joe Pike.

    To your point, he didn’t stray from his genre, but I can see how it was a risk for him to put a secondary character in the starring role of his hugely popular Elvis Cole series. Perhaps the more success you enjoy, deviating off what brought you to the party can feel like leaping off a cliff.

    Your post has me thinking of my brand. I definitely have a “book type” that my readers look for, but I’ve struggled with how much romance to put into my stories. Romance can be a huge draw for readers, but the “formula” for romance is something I simply can’t see for myself. I write crime fiction. It’s my comfort read too. Romantic elements are part of my emotional storylines because that’s life, but romantic elements can manifest in different ways.

    I’ve learned a lot from writing shorter novellas for Kindle Worlds using different aspects of romantic elements yet staying true to my crime fiction. I’m still finding that crossover audience that “wouldn’t normally read this kind of book,” but they’re open to what I’m bringing to the table. I’ve reinforced my brand while staying true to the crime fiction I love. Your post put this into words. Thank you.

  3. Good, but scary timing. My next release is a novella in my mystery series, but a secondary character is the sole POV character. Since she’s not law enforcement–her only connection is she’s the series protagonist’s girlfriend–by genre convention, it’s more cozy than police procedural. Will my mystery series fans accept it? Approve it? I hope so. I’m going to be seeking beta readers and will nervously await their opinions.

  4. Agreed, John. If we veer too far from readers’ expectations, we’re sunk. We still have room to explore, though. I have two very different series, both psychological thrillers that feature serial killers. In my Grafton County Series, I include police procedures, forensics, a crime writer’s side-investigation, and the killer is unknown. Whereas in my Mayhem Series, readers and the MC know who the killer is from the get-go. The mystery, if you will, becomes why he kills, what pushed him to the point of committing murder?

    I only mention this to illustrate my point: we can use a different storytelling style as long as we link the books together in other ways. We need enough similarities to satisfy readers. Although, taking risks can really pay off. Echoing your last line, branding matters.

  5. I think it’s okay to branch off into different genres as long as the author’s underlying worldview remains consistent. That’s what really draws in and keeps readers. Works that affirm certain values and outlooks can cross boundary lines and still deliver the goods. In fact, those values can come through even more distinctly when they’re presented in a new context.

    • Well said, Mike. Ever since 2010 or so, I’ve talked about digital self-publishing as the new “pulp era.” The great pulp writers of old usually did get associated with a certain kind of story, but not all. I think of the great Robert E. Howard. He wrote in multiple genres, and soon enough his name became associated with one thing: telling a ripping good story. And he did have a world view, one of honor and bigness of spirit.

      So as long as an author is not violating reader trust by becoming something contrary to his previous work, trying new things is not going to hurt one bit. It may even “cross-pollinate.”

      That doesn’t work on the traditional side. There, bookstore shelving expectations and publisher pressure keep an author tied to one kind of book. Only when an author gets “big enough” will he be allowed to “try” something else, but then he will get roped right back into the barn (e.g., John Grisham).

    • I don’t disagree, Mike, but the messaging needs to be very clear. In fact, if I were inclined to write a romance or a horror story, I would probably write it under a pseudonym, which is essentially starting over as a first-time novelist. My real name would have little to know recognition among romance readers, so the pseudonym wouldn’t matter to that market, but a fan of my thrillers who picks up a romance with my name on it would likely feel cheated and angry.

  6. I come at this from a different perspective and a different field. I’ve been an art dealer most of my life and I’d sometimes have an artist who suddenly veered from the type of artwork that they’d been doing (and I’d been selling) because they got “bored” or “wanted to explore another facet” – all well and good, but they often lost their core group of buyers who liked that old style. Don’t know the answer to this one – maybe the answer is a gradual or subtle move into new territory as some have said above. Maybe it’s creating a whole new author brand for a different type of book

  7. I’ve written only military thrillers, with one exception, that being the first book in a comic/fantasy series about my Leprechaun friends who appear here from time to time. I considered doing it under a pseudonym so as not to confuse folks, but then decided instead to leave my name on it and just make the cover and title clearly show that it is something completely different. It is doing well, but I have found, if the various reviews are a good indicator, that it is being read by different people than my high tension thrillers.
    Neil Gaiman is a very diverse writer, with comic books, children’s books, YA fantasy, adult fantasy, comedy and horror, historical reference, etc. But I think he has engineered his brand as himself, as in even though his works are diverse, they are all clearly his writing style and a reader can identify it as such.
    On the other hand his mentor, Terry Pratchett, only veered from his Discworld series a handful of times out of 70+ books. And he was the best selling writer in the UK until JK Rowling hit the scene.
    I think it all depends on who your audience is and what they expect from a writer.

  8. I think you folks are all correct. Branding is important. Building a brand is important.

    But for a person with the disorder IDLVW–I don’t learn very well–I’ll continue to support and love each and everyone of you. But I gotta be I. (Dr. Beck ALWAYS said that Frank was grammatically wrong.)

    I will have to continue to write under different pseudonyms. I doubt that any of my paranormal-based thriller readers (very few so far) would be happy to understand that I also want to write war novels. (In my mind, the Imperial Japanese Navy is stoking up their oil-starved ships to take a run at the U.S. Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor again. Or still. I know they would hate to hear that I am tripping the light fantastic, learning how to 49 in Cache, Oklahoma with a Kiowa cutie. No. No. For now, I’ll keep the 49 a secret from those who don’t know what it is. And some may not be too excited that I am getting ready to kill Brevet Colonel Custer again. Oh, you DO know that there are possibly half-Indian Custers running around Indian country, don’t you?)

    So, I agree that I will likely drive myself nuts trying to establish brands in each of the story categories.

    But, as I said, I gotta be I.

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  10. To me, my genre of choice is mystery, but I haven’t really limited myself to just one type – I have an adult romance and a twisted YA.
    The majority of my writing is legal mystery. I am working on two series, while both are very ‘How the hell does a good person get into such a mess’ and ‘How the hell to get them out of it’, I come at them differently. My Rachel Shorte mysteries look at the mess from the attorney’s POV, while my Reese Millridge is from the client’s, witnesses, etc. POV, so I didn’t think my fans (when I get some) would be disappointed. HOWEVER, Rachel’s sex life takes place in the ‘background’, and Reese – well two of my friends got in a screaming match, literally, as to whether it was erotica or porn.

    Now I find myself debating if I should put my full name or part of my name or a pen name on the second series. If my friend ‘A’ is any indication as to how my fans will react I may have a serious problem.

    I completely agree with what Jordan Dane said above “Romantic elements are part of my emotional storylines because that’s life, but romantic elements can manifest in different ways.” I write crime too and I can’t promise that the romance will continue happily ever after in my stories, hell, I can’t even promise both or either party will live to see the end of the book.

  11. Your post certainly makes sense. The problem is, it fails to include fledgling Michael Creighton’s and Stephen King’s. It may seem a little arrogant, however, these prolific writers wrote cross genre consistently from early in their carrers. They do maintain their commitment to their readers; well-written and thoughtful storytelling. I think that even for a beginning writer, as long as you warn your reading or listening audience that you write in multiple genres, but promised to keep the quality consistent in each genre that you write in, diversification may actually expand your base more rapidly. Right now, this is just talk, however, as I start to spread my wings and flap into different genres, I hope that my readers enjoy my fantasy and science fiction as much as my medical fiction.

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