Monday, November 9, 2015

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 erotic romance world, brands rule. Authors typically produce a multitude of titles in one or two clearly defined genres. Carol Lynne writes M/M contemporary erotica romance, often with a Western setting. Sabrina York creates rock-hard, flint-hearted military heroes, emotionally scarred SEALs or Special Forces guys who struggle against the weakness of loving a special woman. Cerise De Land pens Regencies populated by disgraced dukes and feisty, independent ladies.

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.

Alison Tyler provides another instance. Alison’s brand is even more focused than Rachel’sshe writes dark, transgressive BDSM, mostly M/f, significantly less playful and exploratory than Rachel. Her characters are driven by need, not just erotic curiosity. Alison’s not as “out in the world” as Rachel. She characterizes herself as “a shy girl with a dirty mind”. Still, I suspect there are few readers of erotica who wouldn’t recognize her name. Having recently joined Twitter, I’ve discovered she’s a true expert at this medium, with the ability to make almost any snippet of prose sound fascinating (and naughty). I’ve been studying her technique, but so far I can’t come close.

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 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.

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 very positive reviews.

If consistency is required in order to have an effective brand, though, 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 diversify 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 read.

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. To be honest, I’ve all but given up on the whole notion of branding.

I’m a writer. Period. Pick up one or two of my books and read them to discover what I do. Sorry but I can’t offer you any shortcuts.

24 comments:

  1. Hi, Lisabet. This is more or less off-topic, but I wanted to make sure you and Giselle knew you'd been featured in this Kay Jaybee "top ten" list in ETO magazine:

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-EjQ1ufTtjxE/VjoXHKv6MvI/AAAAAAAANcQ/2FYZpc1haXs/s1600/Kay%2BETO%2BXmas.jpg

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    1. And congratulations to you both!

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    2. Wow! That's very cool! I notice that K.D. Grace's "The Initiation of Ms. Holly" is there too, one of my all time favorite erotic novels.

      Thanks!

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  2. Building a brand is super tough! It's something I've only come to truly understand recently, and I still haven't exactly figured out how to brand myself... but it's a work in progress. :)

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    1. I'll tell you one thing, Cameron. Quality counts--at least for me. The minute I started reading the excerpt in your guest post on my blog, I was impressed.

      Of course, I'm probably not typical. Still....

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  3. Pity how many great artists never make the big time. Sure, they have followers, and their skills are widely acknowledged but they never "Go viral", even when the term had no meaning in the art world. Some of it's luck. But I must say that Rachel sure does work at it. As you say, she's quite systematic about her brand. Maybe the trick is to get out to the people more.

    I've been doing every reading I can to try to affect that. Doing M. Christians Leather, Lace and Lust series December 19th in SF. Now that's another guy who understands networking. That fucker sure does stay busy! Can't turn around without seeing his ass somewhere.

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    1. Actually, I think Rachel is just being Rachel. All her activities and her writing are a true expression of her personality. And maybe that's part of the secret--being genuine.

      For me that means writing all over the map--M/M, F/F, M/F and all the other permutations. Variety is a compulsion for me!

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  4. (Blush) thanks so much, Daddy! I've actually always been anti-brand (prefer to have people buy my stuff not because of who I am but what I create) but also believe in "buying the ticket." i.e. the joke that goes "man asks god to win the lottery. god answers 'meet me halfway: buy a ticket." Fortune will always find you working ;-)

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    1. Actually, your brand IS diversity. I don't know anyone else who has published entire volumes of both gay and lesbian erotica (not to mention who's straight!)

      You're a model to me. Keep up the fabulous work!

      BTW one of my all time favorite books of yours is The Painted Doll. Are you planning a re-release?

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  5. You need to be 'out there' in the public eye, whether the way I was taught, by business cards and a smile, or now on social media. The latter perplexes me.

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    1. Yeah. But I have to say, I just joined Twitter a couple of months ago, and it's a lot of fun.

      Helps me curb my tendencies to be long winded!

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  6. Even on social media, you can't make people pay attention to a "brand.". Well, you could, but not necessarily positive attention. On Facebook I have a decent number of "friends," and I can get a decent number of comments and "likes" on the rare occasions that I post, say, scenic photos or the occasional bursts of personal angst or joy that break through, but not that much when I post about my books (unless it's a Call for Submissions for a new book, in which case writers perk up and take notice). That's fair enough, since I tend to react in a similar way to posts by others.

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    1. I'm not on FB as an author, but I can say from my personal experience that it's really tough to manage the deluge of information. I actually try hard to comment when something strikes me, because I know how good it feels to be noticed.

      And yes, I get a little thrill whenever I learn someone new is following me on Twitter, even though I KNOW that he or she probably will never look at most of my Tweets.

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  7. This post looks very sensible, Lisabet, and it helps explain the success of the Big Names in our genre. Although I started out wanting to be a writer, not a teacher (public speaking didn't seem to be my calling), over the years I think I've acquired more of a brand as a teacher than as a writer. In the latest meeting of the English Department, the department head jokingly suggested that not all of my colleagues could pass one of my trademark grammar quizzes. This may be a large part of why I'm reluctant to retire: I'm a known quantity (and popular with a student audience) in the relatively small pond of entry-level English classes in the local university, but I seem to be invisible plankton in the ocean of cyberspace. Then there is a catch-22 that you and Sacchi hint at: statements in social media that attract a lot of attention tend to be controversial, and can stir up flame wars. I wouldn't want to build a brand that way, and I suspect none of us do.

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    1. The fact is that most "big names" in erotica were pioneers. That include Rachel and Alison, also Violet Blue, Laura Antoniou, and M. Christian. They were publishing erotica long before the flood.

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  8. I imagine the state of the market now means that no amount of doing what authors are told they're "supposed to" do—branding, social-media noise, etc.—is very likely to get anyone anywhere. So why deviate from writing what you really want to in order to chase an audience that you probably still won't capture? If the goal is selling books, the one thing that really might work (based on what Giselle has told us at various times, and also to a small extent my own experience) is writing books on a very specific fetish topic where demand exceeds supply—and for that, branding is probably irrelevant (beyond using a consistent pen name), because all those readers care about is topic. So you get sales, but not exactly a "loyal readership" who cares about your distinctive personality on the page. That's my impression, anyway.

    And, of course,, having a recognizable "brand" doesn't get you very far if that brand isn't what erotica readers, by and large, are seeking. For a while, my own "brand"—lighthearted, elegantly written erotica with gentle characters and humor—was pretty well known within erotica circles; but since most erotica readers preferred D/s and erotic romance and paranormal, that was that. The other thing I learned was that no matter how recognizable and reinforced your brand is, people can't necessarily retain that kind of information. I'll never forget the time an editor who had personally published many of my stories went on Facebook asking if anybody knew of an erotica writer who used humor—the implication, in the context, being that she couldn't think of anyone who fit the bill. (:v>

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    1. You know, I've noticed a tendency among erotica authors to say "most readers prefer... X" where "X" is what they themselves DON'T write. I don't think there's that level of consistency. You need to find the readers who DO like what YOU write.

      I have to say that editor deserves to have egg on his or her face...

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    2. Well, in my case the catch was that the readers who like my kind of erotica mostly don't follow erotica, so they were, for the most part, unreachable. Believe me, we tried!

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  9. Lisabet, I really feel your point on consistency. I've thought a lot about what it would be like to have a subject I could commit to the way Alison Tyler has committed to her brand of BDSM. However, that's not my personality, in life or on the page.

    I go to a rope conference twice a year and one of the things it's taught me is, much as I like rope, I'm not that committed to any one kink. The last con I went to, I got so freaking excited about sap gloves and (whoa!) topping (totally new for me). That's just who I am, and I feel like branding concerns have to come after being myself.

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    1. Even Alison Tyler has allowed herself some latitude, over the years. Some of her short stories have little or no BDSM. In fact, enough of her stories are like that that I became an enthusiastic fan of her work, even though my personal tastes don't run to stories and books where BDSM is the focus (no offense, no judgment). I don't know how many of her novels fall outside the BDSM theme, but I did read (and love) Melt with You, which, while it probably has elements of BDSM, is not what you'd call a tale of submission first and foremost.

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    2. This is a good point, and I'm glad you made it. It's a bit of a relief, too.

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