Author Brand Identity

I recently participated in an author’s workshop where a very well-established, multiple-title-best-selling indie author offered advice to the rest of us. One point in particular struck a nerve with me, because I’m not sure that it was good advice for me (I know, you ignore advice at your own peril), but it certainly got me thinking.

Image from Pixabay

The advice was to find a very narrow niche and write to it exclusively, to basically re-write the same story again and again (different characters and situations, but the same basic plot). “Your readers will love it. They’ll know what to expect when they buy one of your books.”

And I understand that as a marketing/branding idea: You buy a James Patterson book, you get the typical James Patterson story. There’s a template.

But there are many successful authors for whom this singular expectation isn’t true.

Robert Heinlein’s most successful stories were Starship Troopers (Military Sci-fi), A Stranger in a Strange Land (a very Kurt Vonnegut-esque discourse on religion and sex), and Friday (a cyberpunk story).

Frank Herbert’s follow-up to Dune was a book called Dragon in the Sea (re-released as Under Pressure), a World War III submarine warfare story. He also wrote books about human/alien interactions (there are no aliens in the Dune universe).

John Scalzi came to prominence with a military sci-fi series, Old Man’s War. His next most famous project was Red Shirts, a spoof of Star Trek. He’s written near-future medical thrillers (Locked In and its sequels) and flat out space opera (The Collapsing Empire). His next book is about kaiju (Godzilla-like monsters).

These very successful science fiction writers didn’t limit themselves to a narrow niche, and they didn’t lose their audiences by jumping around.

So maybe ‘narrow niche’ isn’t the way to build your brand and readership, in this genre at least. Maybe we get more flexibility if you don’t stray too far outside of the rather large SF/F arena.

Or maybe there’s another element to branding – be it voice, theme, or style.

Robert Heinlein’s stories often explored the status quo, the power structure behind society. Religion is an oft-repeated motif throughout the works of Frank Herbert. John Scalzi’s draw is his voice, a tone that is flippant, sometimes sarcastic, always light.

Then there’s Michael Crichton.

His books ranged from The Great Train Robbery (historical fiction) to Rising Sun (a police thriller) and Jurassic Park (sci-fi techno thriller). He also create the TV show ER and co-wrote the film Twister (yes that one, with Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt). Other than being entertaining, what’s his brand? He’s certainly not contained by a niche genre. Perhaps his brand is about exploring human interaction with (often new) technology.

Whenever writers on Twitter ask if it’s OK to write in more than one genre, I respond with the fact that Ian Fleming didn’t just create James Bond, he also created Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

That’s all well and good, but how does this help me? I don’t write in a narrow niche. What’s my brand?

I have thoughts.

The stories that I’m developing now or taking notes on to write later, range from a parallel Earth fantasy, a space opera, a military scifi, a time-travel series, a high fantasy and a techno-thriller. It’s a very wide niche, basically covering the whole spectrum of SF/F.

My stories can be situational (plot-driven) but are usually character-driven. So I (try to) write characters that you will care about and empathise with, flaws and all. Then I put them through hell, given them conflicts and conundrums and see how their morals adapt. Sometimes, I kill them.

I’d like to think that my stories reward a second (or third) reading, that elements and conversations that seem inconsequential early in the story pay off near the end, and a reader on their second pass would see the pieces more clearly.