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.