Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Brand Name Shopping

Think about going grocery shopping. What makes you buy certain products? Is price the sole consideration or does the brand name factor into the equation? What leads you to certain brands? Advertising? A recommendation? How likely are you to purchase a brand that you have never heard of?

All of this is true for book buying. Seldom do readers pick out books solely because the back sounds interesting or it has a cool cover. People seek out books that they know they will like, that will meet their expectations. They don't want to throw down 25 bucks on a hardcover unless they know it's going to be good. How do they know? Aside from reviews, word-of-mouth, and advertising, they buy the brands they trust.

Authors like J.A. Konrath have made their careers on the idea of branding. He writes:

But your brand is more than just your writing. It's your personality. Your expertise. Your persona. It's what makes you special, and what makes others want to seek you out.Remember that no one can look for you if they don't know you exist. So a large part of your brand is aligning yourself with something that people do seek out, so when they look for it they will find you.What about you and your work is interesting? Unique? Similar? Important to others?Think about it. Think long and hard. Anyone can find you by Googling you. You need to make them find you when they're looking for something else.

When I pick up a Konrath book, one with a drink name for a title, I know what I'm getting: a police procedural in Chicago, usually with a serial killer, blood, guts and a few laughs. Creating a brand isn't just about having recurring characters; you have to write in a similar style, have similar conflicts, and a gimmick always helps (how else do you explain the success of cat cozies?). Of course, the book itself has to be halfway decent. Otherwise people will stop buying your brand.

There are many upsides to creating a brand:
  • Easier to build an audience
  • Better for name recognition
  • Marketable
  • If someone likes one of your products, they'll usually buy the rest

But for me, and lots of other writers I know, even mentioning the idea of branding causes me to cringe. Not for me as a reader, but as a writer. After spending six months to a year on a book, my characters, which used to be good friends, turn into these imposing house guests that I cannot wait to get rid of. The idea of writing about the same characters and the same themes book after book, year after year is like eating one food for the rest of my life. There is only so much chocolate I can stomach.

The downsides of branding:

  • Harder to break out
  • You're in danger of becoming a commodity
  • More difficult to differentiate your books; they become interchangeable.
  • Once you've created your brand, even the slightest deviation or experimenting will lead to angry letters from your readers and possibly losing parts of your audience.

Most career novelists treat writing like a job, and justifiably so. I agree that creating a brand tends to be better for business. But it has to be a good brand, a quality product, otherwise people won't buy it. And for someone like me, someone who has more of the artist mentality, any time I am forced to write within tight confines, the product suffers. I prefer the free reign, to write what's pulling me, without fear of pissing off an audience or my publisher. Does this make me less marketable? Perhaps. But I think it's worse to have a bad product, even if it's brandable.

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