I’m no good at this branding/platforming stuff, and at this point I’m not sure I care. Sure, I wish I were wildly successful, but there’s something to be said (in a sour-grapes sort of way, but sincerely just the same) for not appealing to vast numbers of readers, not being hemmed in by expectations, being free to go wherever my inconsistent imagination leads me—and then hope to find somewhere to publish my stories.
That, of course, is the tricky part. I have, in fact, been hemmed in by expectations, casting my lot with a publisher who had a pretty well established brand so that my work could ride on those coat-tails, coat-tails that could take my work into actual, wide-spread book stores (which are now almost non-existent). Now that new ownership has changed that publisher—I’m still not sure how much, and I haven’t yet been entirely cut loose—there’s a certain sense of freedom, even though I haven’t taken a lot of advantage of it. Well, maybe I have, with two different anthologies just out or about to come out from other, much smaller publishers. I may not make a cent from these, but I get to indulge interests I hadn’t been able to “sell” before, chiefly historical themes, bringing me some new as well as more familiar writers. That feels good.
What little brand value my name may have accrued over time, like scant wisps of moss, is in lesbian erotica, by its nature a small niche within a niche. I’m not abandoning that, but hoping to expand into other areas. Any recognition that name has is almost entirely due to being an anthology editor rather than a writer. Those who recognize it are mostly writers who want to have their work in anthologies, which is fine because having good writers contribute to my books is essential. In a way I hope my anthologies are branded, if at all, by variety as well as quality. I look for a wide range of work, no matter how limiting a publisher-decreed theme may seem to be. Mostly I get away with it. But readership might well be better if I were better at figuring out what more people wanted and then letting them have it. Apparently I haven’t outgrown my adolescent resistance to going with the flow, even though I don’t always stay true to it.
I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t have to depend on my writing for basic support, just for extras like travel for conventions and readings and donations to charitable and political causes. That’s just as well, because I’ve come to realize that committed book-buyers want novels, not short stories, and generally not erotica. I’m never going to be able to overcome the perception that erotica is nothing but plotless sex, no matter how many stories I write or choose for anthologies with as much to offer in characterization, setting, originality, plot, and voice as anything to be found in any genre, so I’ll just continue to do what I enjoy.
But I still wish that I were better at this branding business. I keep on discovering, or being discovered by, so many fine writers who are just starting out and deserve more readership than I can provide. The best I can do is provide encouragement, and at least some exposure, and that’s something. The publishing world is changing so fast that I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do even that, but I’ll try.
Writers who have already established enough of a “platform” to make it in self-publishing are inspirational, but I’ve already discovered that my name is not a “brand” that could make that work. Publishing a collection of my own work with a good but smallish publisher got neither of us anywhere, even though the book was a Lambda Award finalist. A new anthology with that same publisher, with some of the finest writing I’ve ever encountered, isn’t doing much either, although it’s a bit soon to tell.
Anthologies in general have been on the fringes for as long as I can remember, and they’re getting even fringier. I’m seeing reports from some other editor/writers that bear this out. A few new publishers have sprung up lately and seemed to gather a following—some of them have even indicated that they’d like to work with me—but a report today, from a friend who is as close to having a “brand” of quality in both writing and editing as anyone I can think of in our niche, tells me that things are even worse than I thought. I suspect that one reason anthologies are hurting is the proliferation of short stories and novellas offered online at low prices. People would rather pay $.99-$1.99--even $2.99--for a single short story than $15 for an anthology with twenty stories. That may make sense, since they can choose a story that nails their pre-established preferences and not have to wade through the kind of variety that I like to assemble. Fair enough. But do those writers get “branded” enough to be noticed just because of their subject matter? Probably. If there are other ways, I wish I knew about them.
I may yet try to move with the times and self-publish individual stories, although my tech chops are almost non-existent and I’d have to invest in covers, formatting, and so on, which hardly seems worth it. Some of my older anthologies have recently been offered on Amazon in Kindle form at $1.99 for limited periods, and those have zoomed right up to the top of their category, so there does seems to be market for anthologies (already “branded” by the reputation of the publisher) at those prices, but writers have to be paid, so doing new anthologies that way doesn’t seem like a possibility.
Well, I’ll keep on for a while anyway, and maybe adapt bit by bit. I won’t be a “brand,” but I’ll be enjoying the freedom of going brandless.