Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Author Brand

As my co-blogger, Lisabet, discussed yesterday, building an author brand is quite complicated.  Primarily, you need to consider what a reader will associate with your name — and the clearer and more direct the association, the better.

In the traditional publishing world, authors stick to one genre or sub-genre under their name.  If they choose to explore a different genre or sub-genre, they often choose an alternate pen name.  For example, I’m a huge fan of James Rollins thrillers — but when he wanted to give epic fantasy a try, his publisher forced him to choose a different pen name (James Clemens) so as to not dilute the brand associated with the name James Rollins.  Romance author Nora Roberts also writes mystery under the name JD Robb.

There are some exceptions, of course, in the traditional publishing world.  PD James, mystery author, wrote the sci-fi novel, The Children of Men, under the same name.  While I haven’t read her mystery books, her one sci-fi novel wasn’t a grand epic of futuristic starship battles.  Rather, it was the tale of one man in the near-future, who meets a pregnant woman in a world that’s been gripped by total infertility for decades.  I would imagine the writing style, tone, and general plot structure resembled her mystery novels — and, so while The Children of Men would be a departure from her brand, it likely didn’t dilute it that much.  (Also, she wrote only one sci-fi novel — if she had wanted to write a series, she likely would have chosen a new name.)

I’ve noticed, though, that self-publishers often don’t follow the same procedure.  I think it’s because self-publishers can put out whatever they want, whenever they want.  They aren’t beholden to a publisher who can say, “You know what... this really doesn’t fit what readers expect from you... can you write something else?”  The self-publisher can put out non-fiction, romance, sci-fi, mystery, and more under one pen name because no one is going to tell them different.

Personally, I think this is a big mistake.  Readers get an unclear picture of what to expect from the author, which can lead to disappointment down the road.  It can also lead to serious problems... I came across one author who writes erotica and children’s picture books under the same pen name.  I don’t know why this author thought that was a good idea.

For myself, I write gay erotica (and sometimes gay erotic romance) under the pen name Cameron D. James.  I currently have two other pen names that handle different genres (and I’d rather not link them here to my erotica output).  It helps me stay clear about what is and what isn’t acceptable to say online.  As my erotica persona, I can talk about hot older men fucking skinny twinks, and maybe share some pictures on Tumblr depicting such things.  But if I was publishing my other stuff under the same pen name, then I couldn’t do that, as readers of the other genres wouldn’t want to see hot gay sex.

But a brand comes down to more than just the genre.  As Lisabet said yesterday, it includes specifics of what the reader might find in your stories.  Your pen name may be associated with BDSM, paranormal, power differentials, or more.

This is where I struggled with Cameron D. James.  I started as an erotic romance author with my novel, Autumn Fire.  However, I quickly learned that while my publisher classified me as erotic romance, Autumn Fire was clearly more in the erotica category.  So I was promoting myself as an e-rom author and getting bad reviews from e-rom readers who felt the novel was clearly erotica.  It certainly didn’t help that I self-published an erotica short story, then sold another e-rom novel to my publisher (and that one was also really more erotica than e-rom).  So I floundered for about two years, trying to determine my brand and my voice.

Finally, I said, “Fuck it,” and classified myself as an erotica author.  My erotica was doing better than my e-rom anyway.  But deciding my brand was as an erotica author wasn’t enough.  I still needed to define my brand further, to differentiate myself from other erotica authors.  Most of my stories feature older/younger pairings — and those that don’t will usually feature something similar (like a bulky football player and a skinny twink cheer team member).  So, I’ve taken that and kind of run with it.  I don’t always stay 100% true to my brand, but it does help focus what I do with my writing, how I promote myself, and how I interact with readers.  And I have no doubt that the readers appreciate it — because a quick glance at my brand can tell them if they’re likely to enjoy my stories or not.

Branding isn’t only about guiding the reader; it can also guide the author.  When I begin a new project, I make sure it fits into my brand — which can inspire ideas.  Since I know my brand primarily features older/younger, I start a new project by thinking of a hot older/younger pairing or situation that I haven’t explored yet.  Once I figure it out, the ideas tumble out from there and soon I’m excited to start the new project.

Branding is smart business advice, and I fear it’s something that’s being largely overlooked in the self-publishing world.  I wonder if some of the many self-pubbed authors that complain of eternally-low sales would do much better if they could brand and define themselves.  While there is certainly a whole lot more that goes into creating a professional author identity and high quality products, branding is a key element that cannot be ignored.

Cameron D. James is a writer of gay erotica and M/M erotic romance; his latest release is Go-Go Boys of Club 21: The Complete Series.  He lives in Canada, is always crushing on Starbucks baristas, and has two rescue cats.  To learn more about Cameron, visit http://www.camerondjames.com.


  1. Thanks for a great post, Cameron--an excellent contrast to mine.

    Your mileage may definitely vary, but I can barely handle one pseudonymic identity. There's no way I could manage multiple pen names for erotica versus erotic romance (for instance), from a purely practical perspective. Two blogs? Two websites? Two email accounts? I already have come close to revealing my identity due to confusions between my real world and my author emails.

    I also have philosophical problems drawing the line between genres. My first three novels share the touchstone of romance, namely, they focus on the development of a serious love relationship and have a HEA. At the same time, they contain all sorts of sexual pairings and activities, not just involving the main characters but other characters as well. They've been marketed as both erotica and as romance at different points in time. Which are they? Neither, and both, in my opinion.

    Based on your post, I suspect you'd recommend that I explicitly sharpen the definition of my work in order to get better sales, that I put myself clearly in one camp or the other. I've tried, but that doesn't work very well. If I try to write either classic erom or pure smut, the results feel inauthentic.

    Maybe I'm just a non-conformist (and the fact that I'm not making my living off my writing is a factor, too), but I object, at some gut level, to the constraints of genre. All my favorite books transcend genre, including my favorite erotica. I know this is probably horrible marketing, but I find myself WANTING to break the rules. (I have one book where I tried to cram as many sub-genres as possible into one novel--just for fun. It's a werewolf/steampunk/menage/BDSM/Rubenesque/Bollywood/spy novel. I personally think it's brilliant...)

    Maybe I should try building a brand as a cranky curmudgeon!

    1. That's another way the publishing industry is changing -- and why advice like this is so hard to follow -- genres aren't so clearly defined anymore! Nowadays, a self-publisher is likely to classify their books as something like "erotic science fantasy murder mystery", because it legitimately contains elements of all of those individual genres. I think for cross-genre writers, the traditional branding advice is nearly impossible to follow. This may be counter to what my post was about -- but if you define yourself as cross-genre, then that can be your brand, too. I'm currently reading Abomination by Gary Whitta, and I've seen it defined as "science fantasy horror" -- if he writes another novel, I would expect it to be in that intersection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, because that's the brand I've associated with his name...

    2. And I love the "cranky curmudgeon" brand! ;)

    3. I have a tag line for a "diversity" brand: Desires of every persuasion.

  2. If only I could settle on some consistency, maybe I could be 'known' for something. :>) But I guess the only generalization for my work is that it's usually at least quasi-hetro and that it requires accepting a perhaps unfamiliar system of values.

  3. It's too bad, but a fact of life, that our work is pigeonholed into genres. It's true that we want readers who like to read erotica to know what we offer, but it's also true that many potential readers have a knee-jerk reaction to anything labeled erotica, and assume that it's all junk. I'll just putter along writing and editing erotica that includes more than sex, but I know the readership niche is more limited than it ought to be. (My latest anthology not only triggers the anti-erotica reaction, but the the anti-war one, too, and there does't seem to be any way to get across the message that the book in no way glorifies war, but features well-researched history and strong women doing what must be done. It's my fault for the title: Thunder of War, Lightning of Desire: Lesbian Historical Military Erotica; "Historical" comes before "Erotica," but that doesn't make any difference, and I knew I had to play to the whatever audience I already have.)

  4. I have thought a lot recently about the e-rom/erotica distinction and concluded that, despite my stories sometimes being romantic, they generally don't fit the e-rom formula. I feel like I'm generally better served when I'm seen as an erotica writer, and that erotica readers tend to react more positively to my work than e-rom readers. For one thing, I think erotica readers are more accepting of dark elements, which I often use.