I was reading an article in the Society of Authors Bulletin about “The Author Brand” and it got me to pondering. We’re all admonished these days to think in marketing terms and to “brand” ourselves. There’s something in me that just reacts with repugnance to that, so I didn’t expect to find much in the article. But I did.
The author, Damian Horner, points out there are some authors who are “brands”. In other words, they are recognised names with a loyal following. But many more characters are better known than their authors. Not surprising, he says, because the reader engages in a relationship with the character, not the author. Character brands are those that can be rebooted after the author’s death, like James Bond or, more recently, Lisbeth Salander.
Of course, most of us are neither author brands, nor the creators of character brands. What then are we to do? Horner suggests many of us rely on genre brands. These are generally recognisable by their cover designs. Red, black and white with shadows and empty streets signals to the reader this is another comfortable member of the crime family. An illustration instead of a photograph says “literary” (yes, literary is a genre too). Genre brands allow writers who aren’t well enough known on their own to piggyback off the genre as a whole.
The problem comes when and if you try to step outside the genre. Horner suggests we need to develop, at least for ourselves, a rough author brand. We need, he says, to work out what kind of writer we want to be – “What is important to you? What are you aiming for? How do you want to be perceived?” The answers to these questions should guide a writer’s career development. They should influence decisions like what events we participate in, what we talk about in social media, they style of covers we want, and how we describe ourselves in our biographies.
That got me considering what I stand for as a writer. It’s something I’m going to ruminate over for quite a while – the fact I don’t already have a worked out answer is illuminating in itself. But, so far, I think I know that I care about ideas and yet want to write cracking good tales, not turgid literary fiction.
Perhaps, like Yeats, I aim to think like a wise man and speak in the language of the people. I’m not sure I do either very successfully. My ideas may be too poorly formed, and my love of words too great. But certainly I tried. In A Prize of Sovereigns I used the historical fiction tropes of conflict, revolt, and betrayal to explore ideas about how power works. The Golden Illusion, the novel I have just started pitching, uses the mystery story format to situate love, desire and search. In both, the ideas are (hopefully) secondary in the reader’s mind to the story and the characters. Because, fundamentally, I write for readers – I want to entertain. The first draft is always just for me, but all the revisions are for readers. So, I guess my ideal reader is someone who likes to root for the main characters, but who wants to be left with something to muse on.