The Persistence of the Author Brand

There was a time, in the pulp-era of publishing, when authors put out a new book on a monthly basis. Many of these books were written under “house names” that belonged to the publisher and very often multiple writers contributed to the brand. Perhaps the best example of this is The Shadow, by Maxwell Grant. “Grant” was the house name used by Walter Gibson, who famously wrote nearly 300 Shadow novels over twenty years. (In March 1941, a decade into his run, Gibson wrote an article for WD on the topic entitled “A Million Words a Year for Ten Straight Years.”)

You might expect that kind of regular exposure generates author recognition among readers pretty quickly. But Gibson was an excellent writer and his success was something like lightning in a bottle. Perhaps only one other pulp house name – Kenneth Robeson – developed so fervent a following so quickly. Pulp fiction publishers tried again and again to replicate that level of success with their author brands, but rarely succeeded. (Brands are valuable, but rarely established without quality writing and/or an effective platform.)

In later decades, the 1970s and 80s in particular, the practice of developing an author brand was continued with monthly series like The Destroyer, or Mack Bolan – generally men’s adventure fiction that again used house names to ensure new books on a monthly basis. In the 21st century, this model of publishing appears to be fading away.

In reality, the practice simply took on a different form. The new era of author branding uses a famous author as the billboard and very carefully positions a secondary contributor as the actual writer of the piece. James Patterson is, of course, the master of this sort of publishing. But other well known authors – Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy, for example – also utilize this model. And from the publisher point of view it’s brilliant. Sales of books that have the names of bestselling authors attached are more predictable than books from new authors, so publishing houses seed their list with such titles in order to better ensure a certain portion of revenue. Using James Patterson as an example, the best I can measure is that 31 titles were released under his “brand” in 2011. That doesn’t include multiple editions of the same book (hardcover, mass market paperback, audio, etc). Soon, I suspect, there will be James Patterson dish towels, lunch boxes, and running shoes. What a great tagline for that last one – “Run for your life with James Patterson Sneakers!”

The traditional model for developing a new author brand assumed perhaps one new release a year. The first book would come out and publishers would cross their fingers that it was a success at some level. Then they’d release a second book a year later, with the hope that readers would remember the author’s name and first book. Then a year later, a third book would come out, and so on.

In the past two years or so, we’ve seen the emergence of another strategy for building author brands. These are books by the same person, but released within a relatively short span of time, so that a new work is regularly on display and suggests to consumers that the author is both prolific and popular (even if they are not).

This new model enables publishers to circumvent the traditional period of delay between books, helping to ensure that readers are seeing a new release from the author, just as they’re finishing the previous one. Here are two examples from 2011:

Andy McDermott was an established author in the UK whose books hadn’t yet been published in the U.S. Bantam/Random House picked up the series and released the first book in the U.S. in September ’09, the second in October ’09, the third in March ’10, the fourth in April ’10, the fifth in September ’10, and the sixth in March ’11. This expedited release schedule meant that within one year, McDermott had four books on bookstore shelves – and each one went on display at the major bookstore chains. Voila, instant brand. McDermott’s seventh book was just released last September. Seven books in two years. Not bad.

Similarly, Zoe Archer was a relative unknown when Kensington Publishing executed the same strategy with her work. Archer was a good writer who had written two books for Leisure Books in 2006. Neither title made much of an impact from a sales point of view. Regardless, Kensington must have recognized something in her work that made them confident enough to take a big gamble. In September 2010, they launched Archer’s Blades of the Rose series, with new books following in October, November, and December of that same year. All four books went on display at the major chains and Archer now owns nice little section of the romance bookshelf and has a substantial following.

These “instant brand” strategies required a greater-than-normal leap of faith on the part of the publishers involved, but in both cases it seems to have worked. Outside-the-box thinking about release dates, marketing, consumer awareness, and consumer shopping habits have proven out.

But these are exceptional cases, with both authors having been published previously, and one – McDermott – having a strong track record of sales overseas. Additionally, both Archer and McDermott focused on writing series, with storylines and characters that consumers would be compelled to invest in and revisit again and again, much like the pulp series of the 1930s and 40s. But it’s extraordinarily rare for publishers to buy multiple books in an unpublished series from an author with no track record.

As a writer, what can you do to improve or enhance your author brand? Odds are you won’t get a multi-book publishing deal like the ones detailed above. But if you’re considering some form of self-publishing, how your books are presented and the frequency of their release is entirely in your hands.

If you are self-publishing, are you writing a series? Consider releasing the individual books fairly close to one another (if you can afford it). Have your designer incorporate unified design elements into each cover. Give the books a series name and use it on each cover. Even if you’re not writing a series, consider giving your author name the same type treatment from book to book. Check out the shelves of your local bookstore and you’ll see that many houses use this technique to help give multiple titles from one author a unified look. For a good example from the world of e-book self-publishing, check out the cover treatments for books in J.A. Konrath’s Jack Daniels mystery series. Each book is instantly identifiable as being connected.

Self-publishing your work in e-book format also gives you control over price. You can sell your first book at a low retail, attracting target readers with a low-risk purchase, then take up the price on subsequent books once you’ve proven to them you have something worth paying for.

Additionally, e-books enable you to bundle sets of books into a single purchase option. Do you have three books in a series? Bundle them together at a discounted rate so that consumers have the option of buying them all at once. You don’t need to wait for a traditional publishing house to create a “boxed” set – there’s very little chance they will in any case.

You can also use Amazon.com’s “Listmania” service to group all of your titles together under one theme. For example, a fan of your work could create a list of “Favorite mysteries by Beverly Stanton” (or whatever your genre/name is). As consumers search for mysteries on the site, Listmania recommendations will pop up automatically in the sidebars. Encouraging fans, friends, or family to make such lists using your books, provides your books with additional exposure, even when readers aren’t looking for your work specifically. This suggestion works for any traditionally published books as well.

These are a few basic ideas that are easy to execute. But the important thing is to ask yourself the following questions: What am I doing to promote my brand? What am I doing to lead my readers from one book to the next? How am I getting the word out about my brand and what it represents (i.e. what readers can expect from a book by you)?

Keep in mind, building an author brand is not the same as building a platform. A platform connects you to people and tells them who you are. It’s a personal effort that enables you to influence how people perceive you and your work. A brand is a marketing tool. It’s an umbrella that ties your work together and suggests to readers what to expect – it doesn’t replace a platform and without a platform, won’t do you that much good.  For some excellent information on platform building, check out this post from Christina Katz and also her now book The Writer’s Workout.

Keep writing!

Phil

Phil Sexton – Publisher, Writer’s Digest – Twitter @psexton1

 

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