The Fine Art of Branding
What does branding have to do with writing fiction?
In the old West, branding was how cattle was marked to show who owned what. In the advertising field, the term refers to how consumers recognise and desire a product or service. With literature, branding refers to readers’ assumptions when they pick up your next work.
Writer Randy Ingermanson, as part of a long interview on the Storyfix blog, comments on branding. He sees it as an ‘implicit contract’ with your readers. Readers look for consistency from writers they enjoy. After reading something you have written, they presume your other writings will in some way be similar. If you write something quite different, they may feel cheated. Your new work may be interesting, even great, but it is not what they are expecting.
Ingermanson’s example: You enjoy a fabulous Chinese meal at a restaurant, so you return only to find—shock, horror—that all Chinese items have been taken off the menu, replaced by Italian and Mexican dishes. There may be good reasons for the change, and the new dishes may be just as delectable. But despite that, you are sorely disappointed because you want what you liked before—and getting this is now impossible.
An author’s brand or reader-contract is generally easily identified in nonfiction. Authors may be branded as writing about one subject—cooking, weight loss, religion, sports, self-help. People who like nature writer find David Attenborough’s books. Bill Bryson’s wins followers for his material that combines personal experience, research and humour.
With fiction, the nature of the writer-reader contract differs, depending on if the story falls into the category of genre or literary fiction.
In genre fiction, branding often means that readers expect an author to write in the same genre, often using the same character and perhaps even the same location, book after book. When readers see a new book by Donna Leon, they expect it will involve a crime, set in Venice, which Inspector Brunetti must solve. Readers who pick up a book by Nora Roberts assume that, like her previous books, this one will be a romance.
Literary fiction involves a looser writer-reader contract. A writer’s subject matter may change radically from book to book, but readers often assume that the author will maintain a similar writing style or world view. Geraldine Brooks writes on a wide range of topics, but readers are used to her fiction being based on detailed historical fact. Readers who pick up a novel or short story by Ernest Hemingway expect the tale to be told in his well-known plain or minimalist style.
Is branding a straitjacket?
Some writers believe branding is just another term for type casting, putting them in a literary straitjacket in terms of their writing choices. Writers can move away from their established brand to explore new topics or styles. But if they do, they risk losing some of their loyal readership. Readers who love an author’s hilarious accounts about life abroad may balk at reading a book in which she airs her political views. If you want to diverge, Ingermanson suggests using a new pen name. Doing so means that you can keep your current brand intact while creating a new brand for a different group of readers attracted to your new material.
A related advertising term that has made its way into the writing/literary field is platform. The term generally refers to the extent that you and your writing are known. By publicising yourself and your writing—building your platform—you may increase your chance of interesting an agent or publisher.
Both terms—platform and branding—identify your potential readership, but one refers to amount and the other to focus. Platform considers quantity, the number of readers and potential readers who are aware of you and want to read what you write. Brand is more about expectation, what people assume about your writing, based on their past reading experience.
Like branding, the term platform sits better with non-fiction. A professional gardener who has a TV show, column or radio program may find it relatively easy to gain a book contract because he already has a following. For fiction writers, establishing and sustaining a similar level of public recognition is harder. To publicise themselves and their work, they chase diverse opportunities to put themselves in front of people. Fiction writers participate in writing festivals, give interviews, write spin-off articles, present writing workshops, appear on panels, author a blog or provide guest posts, tweet, etc.
Writing as a business
Some writers view sacrificing precious writing time to engage with branding and platform building as going too far over to the ‘dark side’. But increasingly, new writers can increase their chance of getting published (at least using the traditional pathway) if they can show a publisher or agent that they have developed a public presence and a solid, potential readership.
And literary fiction writers engaging with the business is not new. When Australian universities moved to performance indicators as a way to gauge academics’ output, it tended to be the arts academics who claimed their work could not be evaluated in this way. But once they realised that ignoring the requirement would result in reduced funding and status, they worked out ways to ‘measure’ their professional activities, undertaking to communicate what they did in new ways.
Similarly, the increased use of business terms being applied to fiction writing serves to remind us of two things: Our work is, among other things, connected to business, and as writers, we need to engage thoughtfully with this aspect.