Genre Jumping and Author Branding
So J.K. Rowling recently announced her new novel, and it isn’t Harry Potter. I was browsing in a book store with a friend and we came across a sign that showcased The Casual Vacancy and gave a brief description of what it was about. No joke, the first words out of my friend’s mouth were, “That doesn’t sound magical!”
Granted, she wasn’t being totally serious, but I’m sure a lot of other people were thinking the same thing. As I'm part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, and as it’s one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer in the first place, seeing that even the author is finally letting it go is a bit of a blow to me.[1. Yeah, yeah, I know about Pottermore, and I already have an account and am a touch addicted (and may or may not be brewing a potion as I write this). As a window into her world building, it's pretty fascinating, but as it isn't a concrete continuation of the series, I'm still counting it as letting go.] I have to admit, I have come to exclusively expect magic and fantasy from J.K. Rowling.
It’s kind of like how I’d feel if Philippa Gregory announced her next project as a Cyber Punk/Dystopian, and William Gibson suddenly took up Historical Romance. It makes me pause. I don’t necessarily doubt that they’ll be good books, but they’re not the stories I want to hear from them. Most likely I'll ignore those books entirely.
This, I believe, is where Author Branding plays such a big role, and what, as a reader and writer, I’m very iffy about. I understand the need for it, of course. As a writer, your business investment is your book. But your name is as much a part of that, because it’s your name that will be on the book. And if you build a career for yourself that’s full of successful novels, you will undoubtedly make fans that will pre-order your next one without even checking to see what it’s about. That is, as long as it’s in the same vein as everything else you’ve written. With your past books, you’ve built trust between yourself and your readers. But the moment you make an abrupt change, that trust is tested, because the expectation is that you keep doing what you do. If you’re popular enough that your name is a bigger deal than the genre you write, that might not matter as much. For example, I’m sure J.K. Rowling won’t have any trouble selling The Casual Vacancy.
But what if you’re an author with a smaller claim to fame? What if you have a much smaller following that you risk losing if you “betray” it by changing your product?
As I know a lot of readers and writers have opinions like mine, I was curious about ones from industry professionals. I obviously can’t offer those, so I asked the PubCrawl ladies if they could chip in. I asked them how they would feel acquiring/writing books in a totally different genre and mood from what they’ve been marketing already. The general answers were surprisingly positive but still seemed to echo my thoughts.
Editor JJ said name recognition definitely helped, and that making jumps from children’s lit to adult fiction isn’t as hard as it seems, but did say this about genre jumping:
I will argue that it's more difficult for people to switch genres. In YA, not a problem; YA doesn't have the same genre divisions adult does. But I would certainly raise my eyebrows if I saw a paranormal romance writer suddenly writing thrillers. Not that I don't believe s/he can—it's just that I've become accustomed to seeing "This Name" with "This Type of Book". It's why Nora Roberts had a pen name for her more romantic suspense novels (even though everyone knows it's Nora Roberts). Anne Rice wrote BDSM erotica as A.N. Roquelare. It's not that identity of writer must be secret—it's the name associated with the brand that produces a reaction. Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic are all owned by the same company, but they each provide a slightly different type of clothing.
Pretty close to how I perceived things, and how I’m sure most others do as well. The moment somebody mentions John Grisham I immediately think Legal Thrillers, regardless of the fact that I’ve never read his books. But then JJ went on to say this, extending her clothing metaphor:
Now with someone like Lauren Oliver, or even John Green, it's the not the content of the book but their writing styles that draw the reader, I think. In this case, I think it's like name designer—Marc Jacobs, Chanel, etc. Chanel does make up, clothing, purses, shoes, etc.”
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s quite well put. I have noticed I’m a lot more disappointed when there’s a big string of, say, Steampunk YA novels, followed by a random Literary Adult book, because I was anticipating more kick-ass AU goodness but got something entirely different instead. But if I’m used to an author jumping around genres, seeing new things is almost like going on mixed adventures with a trusted friend. More often than not, it’s cool to see the author take on a new genre but keep their style.
Bookseller Rachel had this to say:
As a bookseller I can tell you that it seldom works when an author departs drastically from what they're known for. We appreciate an author trying to stretch literary muscles, but the audience who enjoys a particular kind of novel tends to end up disappointed. In the adult market, Nora Roberts, for example writes under J.D. Robb and writes in a different genre. J.K. Rowling will sell regardless, but I suspect that a lot of people will be surprised that it's not a grown up Harry Potter.
Which just leaves me wondering how much control I’ll even have as a writer. Of course, the choices I make will be my choices, and if I really don’t want to do something nobody will ever be able to force me, but I don’t know how genuine I would feel if I had to use a pen name just to write in a different genre. Yet that’s not to accuse writers who do this as not being genuine, because it does make marketing sense to have these “brand names”. Perhaps this issue dissolves with time and experience. Maybe it's even a pride thing, that I would want my real name on each one of my books.
Either way, it was nice to hear Sales Rep Vanessa say:
I'm very used to seeing pen names—often when authors go from one genre to another (ie. literary fiction and crime thrillers). As a rep, I always tell my bookseller the real identity of the pen name author and they decide whether or not they can sell it. I think an author name can definitely become a brand, and the reason pen names are used so often is not to hide the author's identity (it's always pretty easy to figure out), but to differentiate the type of book being written. If people are used to John Doe writing literary fiction, then people will associate his name with literary fiction. So to branch out more easily, many authors choose a pen name. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, is a superstar in the publishing world so she doesn't need a pen name. People know she isn't writing a new Harry Potter—mostly because people care to hear about what she's doing.
But I have, also, had authors go from mystery thrillers to literary science fiction, which can garner different reactions from my booksellers when I'm selling to them. So it's hard to say, from a selling point of view - but it definitely helps if they know a pen name is actually an author they know.
What do you guys think? Let’s hear your views on this. Are you disappointed with genre changes from your favourite authors? Do these authors have pen names, and if they do, do you read stuff under those names as well, or stick to what you know? Are pen names a moral dilemma with you, even now that you’ve heard that sales reps will let their clients know the true name behind them, and even though they're a smart marketing move?
Personally, I’m torn. But again, that could be plain pride.