Sunday, February 20, 2011

Building a Brand

By Lisabet Sarai


If you want to be successful in the highly competitive game of publishing (I'm told), you need to do more than just write good books and get someone to sell them for you. You need to “build a brand”. What does this mean? Here's a simple definition from Dummies.com:

When people hear your name, they conjure up a set of impressions that influence how they think and buy. Those thoughts define your brand.

For an author, having a “brand” means, first, that readers recognize your name and second, they have a clear and hopefully positive understanding of what you write that leads them to purchase your books. Popular authors like James Patterson or Stephen King have legions of readers who will buy anything they publish, sight unseen. Readers know what to expect from these authors. They'll pre-order a book before it's even released. The power of the author's brand trumps the quality of the actual writing.

In the world of erotic romance, Carol Lynne jumps out as someone who has been tremendously effective in building her brand. Carol specializes in steamy M/M stories, mostly contemporary and often with a western setting. She has a huge following of loyal readers although she has been publishing only a few years. All Romance Ebook's author of the year for 2007, Carol continues to put out best-sellers, month after month.

In the realm of erotica, I consider Rachel Kramer Bussel an example of effective brand-building. Pretty much anyone who reads erotica will be familiar with the dozens of anthologies she has edited, many focused on kink or fetishes. Rachel builds her brand not only through her publications but also through readings, parties and an amazingly active presences in the blogosphere. Just say “cupcake” or “spanking” to any erotica reader and Rachel's name is likely to come to mind.

So how does a poor aspiring author like me go about building a brand? The authorities I've consulted highlight three major issues:

Distinctiveness – Both your name and your work need to be sufficiently unusual to stand out from the crowd.

Value – You need to offer your readers good value for their money. You can't fake your way into effective branding, at least not for long. Especially when you're building your brand, every title you produce has to satisfy your target readers.

Consistency – Your brand controls readers' expectations. People who purchase Carol Lynne's books expect explicit M/M erotic romance. Readers who buy Rachel's anthologies expect playfully transgressive, sex-positive stories in which pleasure trumps more serious issues. For a writer, brand consistency encompasses both genre and style. If a book doesn't fulfill readers' expectations, your brand will suffer.

And there's the rub, for me. Consistency. I write all sorts of genres and heat levels. I write both erotica and romance. BDSM fiction was my first love but I've deliberately diversified. I've written contemporary, paranormal, historical, suspense and even a bit of science fiction; heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and ménage; dark, playful and comic. When a reader comes across my name, he or she isn't likely to have immediate expectations about content or tone. About the only thing that a reader can assume is that my work is likely to contain a lot of sex―but even that isn't guaranteed.

I recently realized that I'm all over the map with regard to the length I write, too. I've published four full-length novels (60K plus words) as well as probably fifty short stories in the 2K to 5K range. Since I started to write erotic romance, I've expanded into what I'd call the novella range (although my publishers call these beasts "stories", despite the fact that they have chapters!), between 10K and 25K words. Carol Lynne's books are a consistent novella length. Rachel's collections typically include fifteen to twenty tales, with the maximum length almost always fixed at 5K. Readers not only know what to expect from content, they also know how long it will take for them to read a book.

Distinctiveness isn't a problem. I happened to choose a pen name that appears to be unique. (I was trying for something that sounded foreign and exotic, to go with the exotic setting of my first novel.) Google my name and you'll find pages and pages of references to me and my books. It appears that in cyberspace, at least, there's only one Lisabet Sarai.

I'd like to believe that I'm set as far as value is concerned as well. I produce quality work, or at least I try, with original premises and engaging characters. Most of my work has received at least moderately positive reviews.

However, if consistency is required in order to have an effective brand, I may never succeed. I'm easily bored. I don't want to write the same sort of book over and over. I'm contemplating sequels to several of my novels and I'll be honest―I'm not sure that I want to return to the same worlds and characters for the duration of another book. I'd rather try something different―to stretch my abilities.

Obviously there are common threads that run through my work. I tend to write stories that have a strong sense of place and I frequently use foreign settings. My characters tend to think a lot―they're not usually action-hero types. In my stories, sexual identity tends to be fluid; it's common for a straight character to discover homoerotic yearnings or vice versa. Sex in my tales is often a revelation as opposed to just recreation. This is particularly true of sex that involves dominance and submission. Finally, I think it's fair to say that my style is more literary than popular (though I'm trying to diversity in this area as well.)

These kind of abstract commonalities aren't enough, I suspect, to bolster a brand identity. I'd be really interested to know what readers think when they hear the name “Lisabet Sarai”. Most probably, it depends on what (if anything) they've read. The trouble is that any particular book they've picked up will likely give them mistaken expectations for the next one of my books that they choose.

I really don't know how seriously I should take this dilemma. Should I channel my writing energies into just one or two genres? If my goal were to support myself with my writing, I'd probably have to do just that. But really―I hate that notion!

So where does that leave me? Can I be a moderate success without building a brand? Can I attract a community of readers who appreciate diversity and don't mind having their expectations violated? I don't know. I'm curious to know what readers and other authors have to say on this topic.

20 comments:

  1. First, I have to point out that the Verification Word that came up in the comment window was "torid."

    I'm just sayin'.

    I don't have the answers to your excellent questions, but I can cop to sensing the essence of them.

    I sometimes write romantic, but I don't write romance per se. I sometimes write humorous, sometimes serious but with a scad of dark humor. Tender sex, angry sex, long term lovers, sudden sex in a motel after a rock-n-roll show, two people who don't like each other brought together by a common, equalizing event, sexual contact in a crowded subway car...

    I have a handful of finished longer works which I'm working on getting published, but the challenge is knowing where to publish. They vary in size from 25K to around 100K. They vary in subject matter.

    I know the things that are consistent in my stories, but I don't believe these things are what one would call "brandable."

    Sigh.

    I've finally arrived at a plan with one novella (after much gnashing of teeth,) and I hope this will set me on the right course, but I just don't know. Time will tell.

    My blog is an assortment of memoir, experimental flasher stories, observations about life, talk about my passion for music.

    These are all things that I am, and I'd like to think this all somehow comprises at least a cohesive identity, but I'm realistic.

    For now, all I can do is write and love the act of writing.

    And I do, but I don't know where this leads. Like you, I hate the notion of trying to pare down to a certain genre. I'm spoiled to writing what I feel. It's just fortunate that I'm not trying to make my living at writing.

    I have tremendous respect for those who do.

    Sorry I was a bit long winded, but I did enjoy, and relate to this post.

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  2. Lisabet,

    I'm honestly not sure that this will help your bottom line at all, but you do have a very unique and highly recognized brand...by other writers.

    A while ago (one year? Almost two?) I wanted to know if this writing smut thing was for me. I did what I assume is the usual thing, and started poking around the edges of the erotica/romantica communities of the internet asking questions. Where should I start? How do I find out who's looking to publish, and whether they are looking to publish unknowns?

    I was amazed at the amount of helpful and supportive answers I got back. Many, as I'm sure you can guess, suggested other communities, or websites (Like the ERWA.) Some, though, suggested looking for specific people. People who are known for their support of new writers whether it be through articles, or blogging, or active participation in forums and email lists etc.

    The name that came up the most in that setting was, by far, Lisabet Sarai. Don't ask me how you might be able to brand or take advantage of that, I have no clue, but there might be something in it!

    -Madeline

    ps- They were right, too. You posted the very first story I ever wrote for public consumption, raw as it was, on Pink Flamingo as a free read. As much as I love writing for writing's sake, I have to admit that initial positive reinforcement from a "real writer" was definitely a reason I decided to keep trying.

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  3. I also write in two worlds, and having fun in both: romance and erotic romance. Recently I've begun self pubbing (started with a short and working on others around the use of sex toys), but under a pen name, Angela Love, so I don't blow my chances at the bigs now being shopped by my agent for my paranormal series. And I have no idea whether or not this is wise, but wanted to be prudent just in case. A trait that gives me a lot of trouble at times...

    I also like humor in my writing, and, let's face it, sex can be funny, as circumstances are. In trying to get pubbed in paranormal romance, I have been told as a newbie to watch the humor level, and keep it lower, and tend to the dark, which I'm experimenting with. Humor will have to stay. How dark I go, not sure, but I want to be commercially viable.

    So, in the meantime, I'm following every blog I can find on good writing, especially in the erotic or erotic romance genres. And starting to use it to gain recognition with other writers. We are the first fans of any writer, IMHO. Then we get the reader-only fans, but by branding and blogging, there's no other way to attract those readers.

    My short is called The Stimulus Package, on all the e-formats. It isn't a bit political.

    Great post. I'll be back, and usually don't comment to long. Following a trend here today...

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  4. I write under two names--doing different thigns. Both are selling. You have to be consistant with the readers, get out there to let them know you are there--whatever the name you use. Social media. Jojun places like Goodreads and Shelfari where the readers are.

    It takes time. All well known authors had to build over time, to get their name out there. Nora roberts was writing since 1970s. Did I know her name back then--no, not really.

    Do conventions or conferences where the readers of your type of writing would be. I do--now I get ask to be a guest.

    But the key word is consistency.

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  5. Hi Lisabet,

    You've asked a question I've been pondering for several years. Can an author be recognizable without sticking to one or two genre. And, how can you brand a name when you write in a dozen genres?

    I made the decision quite some time ago to write what I love, and that means a variety of genre. I know I'm not as branded as say Carol Lynne, and I possibly never will be because of my choice.

    I've asked M. Christian about this sort of thing too. He doesn't have the answers, (DAMN!) but he did say that pin-holing yourself into just one or two genres stifles the writer. He seemed to think stretching your own boundaries was much the smarter move. I tend to agree. The bottom line there is, do it well.

    As for what this reader things of when I hear the name Lisabet Sarai: Passionate writing. Deeply felt writing of many genre. Also, has a love for truly meaningful BDSM.

    I'll be watching this topic. I'm really interested in what everyone has to say.

    Hugs

    PS: How come Craig gets the cool word verification things? Sheesh!

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  6. I can understand your dilemmas and to an extent share them since I write on different themes and to different lengths, and try to ring changes so as not to bore myself.

    I have two thoughts. The first is that there are some brands, like Virgin, that stand for something more than just a single product; they suggest a worldview, a set of values/expectations, etc., that apply to any product. Maybe that's the kind of brand you represent.

    The second is that in many debates about publishing now the buzzword isn't 'brand' but 'tribe' - the name of the game is about having a tribe you belong to and who recognise you as one of their own, and who maybe value the fact that you do a range of different things. The idea of 'tribe-building' does have a certain elemental appeal...

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  7. Hi Lisabet,

    You've pointed out niche writing - and I get that it's a definite way to be recognized...but I also get bored writing the same things over and over. So...I'm still searching for what my 'brand' will be also.

    But I get how important it is to light on something and make it steadfast.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Kay Dee

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  8. branded or not, I popped over to your site one day, clicked on free reads and after a couple of hours had to pull myself away. no matter which genre, I kept going, and going, and going to the next.

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  9. When I worked in advertising in NYC, building a brand was what we did for all our clients. I worked on the AMEX accounts where they had famous people answer the same questions about themselves and then they became the brand of American Express in print ads. It was very high end and uber chic,

    As a writer, I'm small potatoes with one book of poetry and short stories out (The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget) a novel almost finished (Night Surfing), lots of Guest Blog Posts, articles and comments on other writer's blogs and a third book just in the inception stage called The Girl With Sand in Her Hair. I asked my small publisher and she said I get about 80-100 hits a month on my website. I am the best writer noone knows about. I get only good reviews but I'm not known. I'm not a bestseller. To be honest, I don't read bestseller stuff. I read the small, beautiful stuff,
    the books that celebrate the small moments in life.
    I'm on Facebook but I don't think I've sold many books there. I'm told Twitter offers a better shot at
    connecting with the right people, but to be honest, all the sites I'm on, to include this one, we are all writers wanting all of you fellow writers to read and buy our stuff, and to be honest, how many of you do that?

    In my opinion, we need to be pitching to a different audience - not other writers, but other READERS.
    I've done some Guest Book Club Author stints. It's great and sells some books. But you're still left pushing that rock up the hill. I love what I do, so I'll keep doing it. I was hit hard in the gut this week when I found out both the Borders bookstores I hang out in in my area are closing. Very disheartening...

    ß≈Ω

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  10. Great topic, Lisabet. It appears you have a strong hold on most of the questions asked and you also probably know staying true to who you are is what will draw people to your work. Unlike movies, a book's name isn't what people remember, it's the author. I took a short class on branding and the instructor suggested an author's name is what people will remember. He had multiple suggestions for branding one of which included a magnetic banner placed strategically on a car with the authors name on it. T-shirts are another way. Regardless of method, familiarity is what people are drawn to. Your fortunate to have a name that people will remember. Your already ahead of most...lol.

    Thanks for doing this. It is a provocative subject.

    Karen Cote

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  11. Thank you for your excellent comments, all of you, and for your kind compliments.

    Craig - I think that once you stop loving the writing process, you might as well stop writing period. And I don't know about other readers, but when I see your name on a short story these days, I'm always eager to read it. Oh - and I accept no responsibility whatever for the captchas. Though I'd love to find a way to hack 'em so that they're always suggestive!

    Madeline - Glad to know that I've got a good rep for helping other authors! I try. I'd rather other folks don't have to make the same mistakes I did! However, I do think you have me confused with someone else with regard to Pink Flamingo. Unless my age is really getting to my memory, that's never been my site!

    Sharon - I love your title! Definitely timely! But I'll tell you something - if your goal is to get readership and even make money, I think "the bigs" are not necessarily the way to go anymore.

    Sapphire - I couldn't manage two pseudonyms - two brands! I can barely manage one. Also, I can't really divvy my work up nicely into two piles, even based on publisher. Raw Silk was originally published as erotica. Now it's marketed as romance. Which is it? Both, I guess. However, I do think you've succeeded. I definitely recognize your name, though I haven't been in the romance community all that long. (What's your erotica pseudonym?)

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  12. Jude - I think M.Christian demonstrates that versatility doesn't necessarily undermine a brand. Indeed, variety is PART of his brand identity. So maybe there's hope. (And thanks for your comments on what YOU think of when you hear my name. Really made me smile.)

    Fulani - Thanks for introducing the notion of tribe-building. You might be right about this being a more relevant goal. What I'd like to do is identify a group of readers who like both erotic romance and erotica. I'm testing the waters with my new release BODY ELECTRIC. It's a group of short stories, some of which are definitely not romance, in the sense that there's not a HEA. Others do end in the traditional romance manner. I'd like to create some crossover readership.

    Kay Dee - I'm starting to think that maybe you can't artificially build your brand. Maybe you have to let it emerge in a kind of organic way.

    Larion - Gee, thanks! (blushing) One thing about the free reads on the site - they're as diverse as my published work. So in some sense, as a collection, they give a potential reader/fan an accurate view of who I am as a writer.

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  13. Hi, Mary - "I am the best writer no one knows about." I love that. Maybe I should put that on my business cards (but then again...) I agree, readers are the audience to go for. I know how to do that for romance but not really for erotica. I do think, though, that many of the followers of OGG are readers. It's definitely not just a writers site.

    Karen - I was lucky in choosing my pen name. As I shared recently, I started publishing before the Internet and search became all that important in marketing (though I've had a website since 2001 or thereabouts). I didn't think about distinctiveness when I created Lisabet Sarai. However, it has worked out well. That's another reason why I wouldn't want to launch an alternative identity for a different genre (unless of course I wanted to write YA).

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  14. HI Lisabet,

    I think you need to decide what your brand is for.
    Is it to sell books?
    Is it to sell to publishers?
    Is it to attract readers to all media, including the free stuff?
    Is it to promote the love of writing and the quality and impact of erotica?
    Is it to pre-empt others from branding you?
    Is it so you will know who you are being and will feel authentic?

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  15. Hi Lisabet

    First i want to second Madeline. Of all authors, you have given me the most support and guidance of any. I feel so proud I get to have you as my First Reader. That is such a privelege and such a creative advantage for me. Thank you again for totally being there for me and other newbies too. If I ever reach a level where other young writers want to consult me you are the standard I'll set myself by.

    I think the take away for me here is brand making. Its a kind of trade off, to create a popular brand and work within that brand. What i also realize is that even though I work hard on a craft level, I'm still not at that point yet of being as prolific as i would really have to be to be a Carol Lynne or Rachel Bussel so maybe I just have to make my peace with myself at that point. I must confess I really hated this theme at first, but I think it will be a very productive week after all.

    Garce

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  16. I struggle with that, too. Please the artist or please the masses? If it helps, when I think Lisabet Sarai I think "successful erotica author" just because I see your name so much in different areas of web that I'm trying to worm my ameteur way into.

    I found this post very helpful. And reassuring. I just want to write, you know? But if you want to be successful, you have to learn to be a writer and a salesman. It's good to know that authors I view as successful and recognizable struggle with the same things.

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  17. I follow writers because I like how they write. Someone who effectively keeps telling me the same kind of story, I don't stick with. I like to be surprised. It's probably not just. So, be reassured there are readers who will follow authors anywhere for the lvoe of their style and imagination, not for the banal certanty of gtting pretty much what they got last time.

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  18. Lisabet, from someone who is still trying to figure out promotion and branding, myself, I have to say with your different blogs and dedication to getting the word out there about your articles and posts, I think you've got it pretty together!

    I have only read snippets of your writing so far, but I am very impressed with what I've read. I haven't read much erotica, but when I get a chance, you would be the name that would come to mind when I go looking to read something good:)

    Cheers, Sara

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  19. Hello again!

    Mike - The purpose of a brand, in my view, is to attract readers. I don't seem to need help attracting publishers. And I'm not prominent enough for anyone to try and force a brand on me.

    Garce - You've made a really good point. Being prolific is a huge help in branding. Carol releases at least one book per month (and has readers salivating in anticipation of each one). Rachel normally has 2 or 3 open CFS at any one time. And by the way, in case you're wondering, editing a book is at least as difficult as writing, in its own way.

    Nimue - thank you! I know that my personal style won't appeal to everyone. It's too introspective and maybe too academic. Too focused on story and character sometimes at the expense of the sex. I just want to find the readers who DO enjoy this sort of writing.

    Sara - I'm glad that you think I've gotten my name out. If you'd like to read some of my stuff, there are many free stories, both erotica and erotic romance, on my website.

    Thanks again!

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  20. Lisabet,

    I'm glad you haven't limited yourself! I don't have much to add to what the others have said, but when I see your name, I think of the amount of support you provide for other writers, and a really distinct body of BDSM fiction that is intensely spiritual, like the stories in the BDSM antho you edited w. Seneca Mayfair. Some books & writers really should be better-known, but I don't know how to make that happen either. :(

    - Jean Roberta

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