Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Is Brand Name Better?

When it comes to publishing and promotion, many authors like to talk about branding, that like any product being sold, people look for brand name recognition. I believe there are a few ways book buyers consider brands:
  • Brand-name author. People buy books all the time just because of the author, myself included. If you are publishing numerous books with consistent style and content, you create a brand for yourself and people will buy books solely based on track record.
  • Brand-name series. This isn't only applicable to series characters, there can be other series branding as well. Soho Crime publishes books that are set in foreign countries so when you pick up a Soho book you expect to be transported. Blogs like The Outfit group authors together and send the message, "If you like one of our books, you'll probably like the others."
  • Brand-name publisher. When I receive books to review, one of the first things I look at is the publisher. Admittedly, it makes a difference. There are certain lines and certain houses I tend to enjoy over others. This has nothing to do with how large or small the house is; it has everything to do with track record. If I've read three lousy books released by publisher X, what are the chances of me picking up another?
  • Brand-name genre. The genre you write in is another form of brand, and within that genre, there are dozens of sub-genres. Do you think cat cozy fans read the backs of those books before they buy them or do they just see "cat" in the title and know they'll like it? Why do you think people subscribe to Harlequin, receiving whichever title is released that month? People are loyal to their genre and will pick up books solely based on where their shelved or how they're categorized.

Some of this may sound silly and superficial. After all, we read books based on content and quality of writing, right? It doesn't matter who published it or where the book is shelved. The reason we continue to read certain authors or certain genres is because they're consistently good, but if the book is bad, it's bad.

But how many people consistently buy authors like James Patterson and Tom Clancy, who barely write their own books anymore? If we're all about quality and consistency, wouldn't we notice when a different author is writing each of their books? To me, it's like the drug companies changing their formulas or Starbucks changing coffee roasters. Will people notice a difference? And if they do, will they even care?

As a person who buys generic everything and couldn't care less about labels, I find it interesting that such superficial branding has found its way into book buying. Like anything, publishing is a business and branding is vital to sales. But what happens when the quality of the product suffers? What happens when people buy books for the author or publisher regardless of the writing quality? Where does that leave newbie writers who are talented, but don't have a brand?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Marc Paoletti, Chicago Contingent member and talented writer, has finally launched his website. Check it out here and be sure to pick up copies of his novel SCORCH, due out May 16.

My People Magazine

I find that one of the most common questions fans ask writers is, "How much of it is true?" or "Are you a lot like your protagonist?" Whether it's fiction, creative nonfiction, or has a big memoir stamp across the front, readers want to know whether they're reading about the author or an entirely made-up character.

As much genre fiction as I read, the truth is, a really enjoy a good memoir. Authors like Augusten Burroughs, Dave Sedaris, and James Frey make their living off telling their life stories. When people asked me if I ever thought about writing memoir I always told them you get one life story, but these authors seem to have a never ending batch. Other authors, like Virginia Woolf, Truman Capote, and Sylvia Plath told fictionalized versions of their life stories, changing details and exaggerating events to create a more interesting read. Knowing that these books do not have the memoir stamp, I search between the lines, looking for the authors within the characters, wondering which events are true and which are fiction.

This week I interviewed a memoirist for the Sun-Times, and it was the oddest sensation of feeling like I knew everything about this person because I read their book. And I really think it's because I have this desire to know about the lives of authors that I read memoir and love writing author profiles.

I don't know actresses or pop stars. I don't read the celebrity rags or watch E! True Hollywood Story. I don't know which actress adopted a baby from Cambodia after divorcing the hot costar of her recent Hollywood blockbuster. And frankly, I don't care. But is reading memoirs the equivalent of reading People magazine or the unauthorized biography of some under age pop star? Is viewing author websites and signing up for their newsletter the same as joining some TV actress's fan club? Time and time again, I have said how disgusting our obsession with celebrity gossip is and I don't understand why people are so drawn to it, but am I any better?

While books enhance your brain and I'm pretty sure fluff magazines could cause it to rot, I believe the intention is pretty much the same. We all have a desire to learn about the artists we love, to meet them and see what they're like. Some people watch Access Hollywood, others read Us Weekly. I read memoirs and author websites and occasionally, I have the opportunity to interview a writer and find out for myself who is the real person behind the novel.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Not So Standard English

Spending a week with my Brooklynite family and reading Richard Marinick and June Hampson's latest novels has left me thinking a lot about dialect. Anyone who has heard Brooklyn Jews talk knows that there’s not only a specific accent, but specific lingo and sentence structure as well. The subject comes at the end of the sentence, such as, “A saint is what he is!” or “So beautiful, her face!” Of course, if the speaker was from an older generation, they would say “A mentsh is what he is!” or “Sheyn punim!” All week, I was immersed in this dialect to the point where I began inserting bits of Yiddish into my sentences and shaking my hand as I spoke.

I’m currently reading June Hampson’s Damaged Goods, a thriller set in 1960’s Britain, and the dialect the characters use is far different from what I’m used to. My brain has had to translate the various British sayings and reread the words phonetically spelled out to convey the English accent. It brings authenticity and easily pulls the reader into the world of the novel, but at times, my need to translate interrupts the flow of the storytelling.

So when is it too much? When accents and dialects are true to the setting it can add an interesting facet to a story. But when does it become too overbearing? When does the need to translate and think about certain words take away from the suspense and flow of the storytelling?

When I was writing Thou Shall Not, I was constantly questioning when to insert the Yiddish or Hebrew I knew the characters would use and when to hold back and give the English translation. Fortunately, I live with a shikse who went through the manuscript and told me which words she couldn’t translate through the context of the sentence, but for most writers, it’s a judgment call. In the case of Hampson’s novel, I think she could have held back some of the phonetic spelling and left it up to the reader to hear the characters’ accents, but I am still able to follow the story. In the case of Marinick, I found the dialect too complicated to follow and I ended up putting the novel down. It was too hard to get into the story or be drawn to the characters when I had to read each paragraph twice and translate it in my head. Authors like Dennis Lehane and Russell James know how to strike a balance between dialect and standard English, knowing that it is sometimes necessary to hold back slang for the sake of readability.

A good trick I’ve learned is to read things aloud. If your tongue trips on words or stumbles through certain paragraphs, you should revise. I also sometimes like to write two different versions of the sentence. If you take away the slang or the accents, is anything lost? What do you gain by including vernacular? Is one sentence clearer than the other? Easier to read?

Though there are plenty of books I’ve enjoyed with highly stylized writing or that were heavy on slang, they tend to be exceptions to the rule. Authors such as Irvine Welsh and Zora Neale Hurston have made careers on writing in dialect, but their novels are far from easy reads.

I’d love for others to weigh in on this. Is dialect a turn off or turn on? Should authors only worry about staying true to their characters or should they hold back for the sake of readability? And lastly, is writing in dialect the same as creating a series character? Are you branding your writing as highly stylized or heavy on slang?