Monday, November 16, 2015

Going Brandless

Sacchi Green

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.                

15 comments:

  1. First of all, Sacchi, I love your clever title for this post! (:v>

    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.

    Yeah, these awards, alas, generally don't seem to translate into sales, readers, or even any exposure beyond the circle of people who win them (and their best buddies), do they? I got an IPPY last year, and though that was wonderful in itself, it made virtually no difference to anything. And no wonder, when my Web searches in the wake of the award revealed no press or publicity other than blogs belonging to authors or publishers who had also won IPPYs that year and were posting the list of results.

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  2. Thanks, Jeremy! I was wondering whether anyone would get my sly but rather outdated wordplay.

    If there's any value to awards, it's in giving one something to say in a bio, and just maybe to interest another publisher in your work. Maybe.

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  3. I agree with Jeremy, your post title is brilliant!

    If your anthologies shoot up to the top of the list when they're priced at $1.99, that's actually a pretty impressive indication that your name IS known, at least to some people.

    My survey earlier this year suggested that many readers are extremely price conscious. To be honest, I think this is partially due to worldwide economic conditions. A couple of people told me they never buy books, only get them from the library or download free offers.

    So where does that leave us authors? In pretty bad shape, obviously. Unless we can sell a zillion copies, we make no money. That's one reason I give so much of my stuff away to Coming Together. At least it's going to do someone some good.

    Speaking of publishers, have you worked with LadyLit at all? I've had extremely positive experiences with them. And I suspect they'd be very flexible about the content you'd like to create (though of course I can't speak for them).

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  4. Lisabet, I've had stories in a couple of Ladylit anthologies. I just happen to have been e-mailing this morning with the editor of those anthologies, a long-time friend (I'm sure you don't need me to tell you her name), and she brought up the subject of the decline of anthologies, which has been noticed at Ladylit. Not too encouraging.

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  5. I'm super sad about this anthology thing, not just as a writer but as a reader. I love, love, love anthologies. I buy and read them all the time. I like the variety, and I like that I don't feel like I've totally wasted my money if I don't finish the book. My shelves are full of anthologies, and I'm a super-committed purchaser of books. It makes me sad that I seem to be so weird compared to other readers. Honestly, the sight of a long novel makes me feel exhausted. I rarely read them. Anthologies are so exciting because I'm in for an interesting taste of so many different worlds. I am a fan not only of erotic anthologies but also of specfic, essay collections, etc. I'm always confused that in our short-attention span world there don't seem to be more readers like me.

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    1. Yeah, most of my erotica library is in the form of anthologies. Because, as you say, there's the variety factor (especially important for someone whose tastes are as narrow as mine are—an antho with four stories that really grab me is a huge success!). Also, a lot of my favorite erotica authors never wrote novels or, if they did, the novels went less in directions that appealed to me than their short stories (at least some of their stories) did. I think we've also discussed here, in the past, how it's easier to let a short story stand without committing to a capital-P Plot, which I think can be very important for erotica, where sometimes all you really want is a vignette, or a tale where the sexual atmosphere is the story. The possibilities for erotic-novel plots, even leaving aside "hybrid" forms like erotic thrillers, are much wider than the proverbial wisdom might assume (and wider than that swath which is reflected by a lot of publishers and recognized by a lot of readers); but still I think short pieces enjoy much more freedom because of not requiring a Big Story.

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    2. Writing short stories is in some ways a different art from wiring novels. Every now and then I think about expanding a short story to novel length, since I often feel that I know enough about my characters and their situations to fill a novel, but the short stories themselves don't feel as though they would fit into the different flow of novels. Sometimes a short story won't feel as close to the style of a novel as to--well, for lack of a better comparison, to poetry.

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    3. One reason anthologies are on the decline, imho, is that their quality has fallen quite a lot. I stopped reading that last RKB anthology I picked up about a third of the way through. I was bored. It was just more of the same.

      That's one reason it's worth shouting when you find a great anthology, like Cheyenne's recent FIRST.

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  6. Sacchi, I agree with Lisabet that at least some readers clearly recognize your name. Sad news about anthologies. Not only are they appealing smorgasbords in themselves, they have given quite a few erotic writers their first chance to be published.

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  7. This branding business is going to bite me worse than I'd realized. Actually I'd known the time would come, but it's still a bit of a shock. I just got an e-mail from an intern at the company that bought my usual (and still, for the moment) publisher. I haven't been able to get responses to my own e-mails lately, but that's beside the point. What the intern says is that they've set up a YouTube website for the publisher, and they want editors to send them videos publicizing themselves and their new books. There are two videos on the site so far , one with RKB, who always looks good but would look even better, in my opinion, with her head raised and her gaze direct instead of a ducked-head sex kitten stance, but whatever works. The other has a woman I don't know with long blonde hair and an aura of glamour. That's what it takes for branding erotica writers now, or part of what it takes, and I'm not going to be in the running. I can stand in front of an audience and channel my characters with no problem, but I'm no poster image for erotica.

    Fortunately my BLE anthology isn't out until February, and we have a pre-publication reading in NYC in December, so maybe I can get a group video made there, if any of my writers know something about making videos. I certainly don't. I don't actually think the video thing will have any actual effect on book sales, or get much notice, but it's the perception of the publisher that counts here. I'm not at all sure that I care.

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    1. Don't be intimidated, Sacchi. What I recommend is that you channel one of your favorite characters. Wear a costume. Be someone else.

      And get a professional to do the video. Lighting makes a huge difference, as does making sure you record in a really quiet environment.

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    2. (Wait until you read my post for Monday!)

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    3. Sheesh, this shunting of promotional responsibilities from the publisher's desk to the author's (or freelance editor's) workload just gets worse and worse. I happen to think the idea that book trailers on YouTube will sell books (apart from blockbusters and celebrity authors, maybe) is dubious, but that's beside the point. Professional-quality videos take time, special skills, and possibly money. If the publisher wants videos, imo, the publisher should make videos. It's great that someone like Rachel has a gift for that type of endeavor, but making it a requirement for everyone seems so inappropriate to me.

      That said, I agree with Lisabet that if you do end up offering them a video, the fact that, like most of us here, you're not 25 years old oughtn't be an obstacle (though obviously you know best what you're comfortable with). You're an author-editor, not a model. And I happen to know you have a beautiful, compelling reading voice (though that oughtn't be a requirement for a writer, either). Personally, I would love to see you front and center in a video, presenting your work like I've had the pleasure of seeing you do in person, and any viewer who's troubled that you're not 25 years old can go navigate over to a porn channel, as far as I'm concerned. But if you're not keen on being the center of attention, there's no reason you have to be onscreen, right? In theory, the video could feature images of other people, settings, shots of the book, etc., couldn't it? (If you do decide to film a video, other than a live-reading video, I might be able to help you assemble some local talent—though, again, I think it's outrageous of the publisher to dump this on you at all. But if you were doing it, I'd enjoy helping, if my help were helpful.)

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    4. Thanks, Jeremy, I was hoping you'd offer to help, and I was going to ask you even if you didn't offer.

      To be fair, I think this whole deal is about an intern have a "bright idea" and the publisher grasping at anything that might possibly work. It wasn't worded as a requirement, anyway, but I've been prodded before by a publisher to get with the newest sure thing, and they certainly look more favorable on you if you give it a try.

      I'd like such of my readers as are close enough to here or at the NY reading to be featured at least briefly--Annabeth is one, and who could be more photogenic? Anyway, I'll get in touch with you, Jeremy. Rachel's video is just 27 seconds, probably average for a book trailer, while the other woman--Jenny Block may be her name, and she writes, I think, for Huffington--has a video of over half an hour taken while she was giving a speech or talk or whatever at some event. I didn't turn on the sound. Average book trailer length seems more useful.

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    5. Most book trailers are 1-1.5 minutes. I've done several. They're a lot of fun to make and to watch (if they are well constructed and especially if the music fits the graphic). However, I have no idea whether they get readers' attention or sell books. Probably it depends on the reader. One thing that was clear from my survey earlier this year is that readers differ a lot in terms of what is important to them.

      As far as the video is concerned, interesting is much more important than beautiful. (Maybe I should have that tattooed on my butt!)

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