(Originally posted April 2012)
The topic of BRANDING has been a hot-button issue, so I’m so honored to have some of the most respected people in the industry sitting down with me for a candid discussion on the topic.
Barbara Cameron is the author of more than 30 books – fiction and non-fiction. She is the winner of various romance inspirational awards and was the first winner of RWA’s Golden Heart Award. She makes her home in Florida.
Author Jenny B. Jones is known for writing books “with a few giggles, quite a bit of sass, and lots of crazy.” Her novels include the Katie Parker Production series, A Charmed Life series, and her contemporary romance, Just Between You and Me. When she isn’t writing, she teaches high school in her home state of Arkansas.
Tamela Hancock Murray joined The Steve Laube Agency after serving as an agent with Hartline Literary Agency for a decade. A best-selling, award-winning author of twenty novels, novellas, and nonfiction books, Tamela brings the unique perspective of a writer to her role as literary agent. She makes her home in Northern Virginia.
Since 2001, Wynn-Wynn Media has been providing full-service publicity campaigns for the best in Christian publishing, representing the finest books, authors, and publishers there are. At Wynn-Wynn Media,Tyson and Jeane Wynn represent only those books and authors they believe in. Wynn-Wynn Media formulates strategic publicity plans that target both traditional and emerging media. Bringing those plans to life with persistence, determination, and old-fashioned hard work is the hallmark of Wynn-Wynn Media.
SANDIE: The coffee is served, and all of the key people are here. So let’s talk, ladies and gentlemen. Um, gentleman. When I was a publicist for actors, I had to deal with the issue of typecasting on a pretty regular basis. But around the time that Always the Baker Never the Bride was released by Abingdon Press, the term branding entered my radar for the first time as an author. My dream of writing suspense was shoved to the sideline by a successful string of romantic comedies from Summerside and Abingdon.
Jen and Barbara, I imagine you’ve had to deal with it fairly often as well since you’re known for fairly clear genres – at least, at the moment. What’s the down side for you?
BARBARA: I think branding may be a good way for someone to be quickly identified, as in, “Oh, Suzy Author, she’s the one who writes Amish books, right?” But if anyone – from reader to editor – pigeonholes a writer into just that one genre, I think they’re doing a disservice.
JENNY: One downside of the branding issue, for me, has been readers not being totally aware that I write anything but YA. I've seen bloggers mention one of my women's rom-coms and call it a YA. Sometimes cover models can look kind of young, I guess.
SANDIE: Tamela, you come from a unique perspective as both an agent AND a writer. How do you, as an agent, view the importance of branding your clients? Do you plan a career path with a brand in mind?
TAMELA: I think branding is important because you don't want to confuse your readers. Once an author becomes established, readers look for certain types of books from that author, and could be disappointed when they find they have bought something else. A good comparison is music. If you are a fan of a dance music group, wouldn't you be disappointed by a recording featuring nothing but ballads? No matter how good the ballads are, they are still slow grooves and not the upbeat tunes you were expecting. In my view, giving readers what they expect from you, but still keeping stories fresh, is the best path.
SANDIE: What about the perspective of the book publicist? How big a role does an author's specific branding play in your strategy for helping them promote their book?
TYSON: We always consider an author's branding in any campaign we do. If he or she is a new author, we want to help them begin a brand, along with promoting the specific book, of course. If they are further along the continuum and have a few books under their belt, we’ll look at helping them sharpen their brand and messaging. Our goal is always to introduce new readers to the books we represent, but we also really want them to get a sense of knowing the author so that they are consistent readers of future works the author produces.
JEANE: As far as promoting a particular book, what we try to do through our campaigns is to connect a new title continually with their branding message, genre, etc. We have been doing fiction publicity for a long time now, and in the last few years, especially, it has become vitally important not only to build an author’s brand but also to maintain it. It’s a waste of effort and lost opportunity if authors don’t use the cheap and, in most cases, free tools available to them to reinforce their brand. We talk a lot about author care, and via modern tools such as social media, authors can regularly engage their fans, which constantly goes to establishing their brand.
JENNY: I think readers want to know what they're getting when they pick up a Sandie Bricker or Nora Roberts book. But at the same time, writers thrive on being challenged and pushed creatively, so sometimes you just have to write something a little different. For me, it's important that my brand isn't too narrow.
BARBARA: And there are many aspects of that one type of genre that make a writer able to write successfully for another. What makes you successful in one area of writing can often make you successful in another. I hope I’ve established myself as someone who a reader thinks of as a good writer, not just a good Amish writer. I absolutely do want to write for markets other than Amish, just as I wrote for them before I wrote Amish novels.
SANDIE: I think it might be slightly easier for you to do that than for Jen or me because humor is one thing that readers don’t want to skimp on, if you know what I mean. For my Quilts of Love book for Abingdon, I told the story of an ovarian cancer survivor meeting up with a widower and young child who have lost someone to the same disease. That’s a pretty serious thread, but I know my readers will come looking for a healthy dose of humor as well, and I don’t want to take the chance of letting them down.
JENNY: I have a few characteristics that are true no matter what genre I'm writing in: romance, humor, strong female leads. If I woke up tomorrow and decided to write a historical, that would still be true.
SANDIE: Tamela, in your opinion, is there a point in a writer's career when they no longer have to think about staying within the brand?
TAMELA: I don't think so. Consider that Nora Roberts writes under different names to distinguish one type of book from another. However, few authors earn the cachet to write as "Big Name Author writing as Pen Name."
SANDIE: Good point.
TAMELA: That's one reason why it's important for authors to be passionate about the type of books they are writing, because those blessed enough to be recognized by top publishers and awarded good contracts will want to keep that passion alive for the long term. Just as you will grow and change over the course of maintaining key personal relationships, you can grow your writing and stories within that initial passion.
SANDIE: Tyson and Jeane, let’s hear more from you on your take since you’re the professionals on the subject.
JEANE: As publicists, we love branding. It is something that we promote, work with, or do every day. Branding is very necessary with fiction authors and even more so as the fiction market becomes more and more competitive due to the increasing numbers of quality books being produced. For example, Brandilyn Collins is known by her Seatbelt Suspense and Terri Blackstock writes Up All Night fiction, so even though they both write suspense, the branding really enables both of those suspense authors to carry their own identity. And whether an author has an official “tag line” or has a more informal brand, they should never be limited by that. Take Liz Curtis Higgs. She was mostly known for her non-fiction Bad Girls of the Bible books when she asked her publisher to let her write Scottish historical fiction, which we’re sure they’re very glad they did. Of course, her previous fans were a built-in market for her new books, so there are always opportunities to expand within your brand.
TYSON: With all the talk of platform these days, it’s always a plus to take an existing potential market to a publisher when hoping they’ll publish your book. Branding can help to build that platform, which certainly is no guarantee of a publishing success, but it can help decision-makers as they decide whose book they want to take a chance on.
JENNY: I like switching back and forth from YA to adult rom-com because it gives me a break from teen land or a break from writing about a grown-up with lots of responsibilities. I think to write in more than one genre, you need to either be a really good marketer or write more than one book a year in each genre. And when you figure out how to do that, let me know.
SANDIE: When I had the day job, that was my goal too. But now that I’m writing full time, limiting myself to one book a year just isn’t feasible for me.
BARBARA: I have published many times in non-fiction articles and books, and romances for the secular market. I wrote those before writing Amish so I don’t know if there would be challenges now. But I’d have to think that someone considering non-Amish work would see my success with my Amish work as helping, not hurting me.
SANDIE: When discussing this topic, I often think about an actor I used to know in Los Angeles. He left the steady paycheck and sort of stratosphere kind of notoriety of the soap opera he was on, and ended up coming back a year or two later. When I asked him about it, he said that no one wanted to see him for anything other than that character he’d made famous. Meg Ryan had the same challenge when she branched out of the cute little romantic comedy heroines she made famous. Tamela, do you think it's the same with readers?
TAMELA: That's a tough question that I don't believe has a one-size-fits-all answer. I've spoken to readers who say, "I loved every book by So-and-So-Author, but when some of her stories took on fantasy/suspense/mystery/whatever elements, I didn't like those books as much and I stopped reading her." At the same time, another portion of the author's fans may love the new elements and see them as growth, and will stay with the author no matter what. In any career, change is risky. It's best for authors wanting to move into a new category to discuss their desires with their agents and publishers. Everyone needs to work together to weigh the risks and rewards to decide the best career path for the author.
SANDIE: You make a good point. When I was contracted to do a couple of romantic comedies for Moody’s River North fiction line, as I got to know my editor, she and I had several conversations about the future. I told her about a couple of suspense novels I published early on in my career with Avalon Books, and I said that most publishers want to see rom-com from me since that’s where I’ve made a mark, so to speak. I came away feeling like any type of change had to be approached with real caution. I have some fantastic and loyal readers, and I’m all about giving them what they want and keeping them happy in return for the loyalty they've shown me thus far.
JENNY: I think your reader gets to know you, know your style. If it works for them, they'll pick up your other titles to get more of that brand we mentioned. I was an established YA writer when I put out my first "big girl" romance. In hindsight, I'm not sure what we could've done to establish that I was working in both genres and not just one.
SANDIE: Tyson and Jeane, this one is for you. How does an author's brand specifically assist you in publicizing their work and their name?
TYSON: Let’s answer this in reverse. We can definitely see when failing to capitalize on an author’s brand has hurt them. Unfortunately, we have worked with authors who have, for whatever reason, not used the tools available to them to maintain their brand and engage their readers. In the end, they were disappointed that more people were not clamoring to read their book, but they were firm in their commitment that they just didn’t like Facebook and Twitter. While authors shouldn’t live online 24/7, it’s also a mistake to fully refuse to use a technological advance to your benefit. Moderation in all things applies to more than food.
JEANE: And if an author has been well branded, it does help with our campaign in that we can build upon that foundation with each successive title rather than repeatedly laying the groundwork over and over. If they have yet to develop a brand, and it often develops fairly organically, we spend time helping to establish their brand while publicizing their specific book. The two go hand-in-hand.
TYSON: Words like branding are tossed about a lot in book marketing these days, but it really is up to the author to research branding, know what it is, and work on how they can strategically place themselves. A big part of marketing lies in differentiating oneself from the competition (or colleagues who are friends) so that people have some accurate expectation when they pick up a certain author’s new book.
JEANE: While a publicist can help with brainstorming, it’s ultimately up to the author to do their own branding, which should span many years of a career. It will be the umbrella under which many books (and possibly several publicists) will eventually come.
SANDIE: Wow! This has been such a great discussion. I think it will bring value to anyone interested in books, whether they’re on the inside of the publishing business or on the fringes as a reader or reviewer.
Thank you to all of my special guests! Lots of good information and solid advice from professionals … and friends.
SANDRA D. BRICKER was an entertainment publicist in Los Angeles for 15+ years where she attended school to learn screenwriting and eventually taught the craft for several semesters. When she put Hollywood in the rearview mirror and headed across the country to take care of her mom until she passed away, she traded her scripts for books, and a best-selling, award-winning author of Live-Out-Loud fiction for the inspirational market was born. Sandie is best known for her Another Emma Rae Creation and Jessie Stanton series for Abingdon Press, and she was also recently named ACFW’s Editor of the Year for her work as managing editor of Bling!, an edgy romance imprint for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. “I believe in the power of the parable,” she says. “And I just love words in almost any form. From the assembling on the page to the polishing and perfecting, there’s almost nothing more powerful.”As an ovarian cancer survivor, Sandie also gears time and effort toward raising awareness and funds for research, diagnostics and a cure.
Her September 2015 book, Moments of Truth, is available now.