As modern America consumers, we all understand the concept of a brand. It’s the set of expectations that come into our minds when we hear a product’s name. Think about cars. Mercedes=expensive, luxurious, high-maintenance; Honda=reliable, practical, affordable. To use Malcolm’s example, if Mercedes and Honda decided to make watches, you’d already know what they’d be like, wouldn’t you? Now, think about the expectations and associations evoked by bestselling authors’ names. We hear Tom Clancy and we think: military, suspense, bestseller, technothriller. We hear Anne Rice and we think: vampires, witches, New Orleans, sexy-scary.
In essence, a brand is a simplifier. In our society, simple is good. We have so many choices today that no one has the time to do all the research necessary to really make an informed choice. Branding makes life easier.
Some writers might revolt at this concept. Why do I have to be pigeonholed? Why can’t I just be known as a “good writer”? The problem is, of course, that “good” is a value judgment and unless you’re Oprah, no one’s going to take your word for it. As for being pigeonholed…see simplifier, above.
Okay, you might be thinking; I can see how this could be good for sales. Only, how do I decide what my “brand” is?
The first question a writer needs to ask is, What do my readers like about my books?
The problem with asking this question is that readers frequently aren’t very good at articulating the reasons they love a book. They also lie.
Consider a certain wildly popular writer of romantic sagas who shall remain nameless. Several years ago, when I tried a couple of her books, I was bemused to discover that they involved a significant amount of mild S&M, i.e., the hero and heroine both get raped and whipped. In both books. (I don’t know if the series continues this tendency because I quit halfway through the second book.) Now, I’m not saying everyone who reads her books reads for those elements, but given their frequency of occurrence, I suspect they’re a solid part of the books’ appeal with a significant percentage of this author’s readership. And here’s the weird part: except for one writer friend who also found those elements peculiar, I’ve never heard any of this writers’ millions of fans mention them. When Suzie Soccer Mom goes on Amazon.com to rave about her favorite writer, is she going to say, “And I really love the part where the villain rapes the hero!”? No. She’s going to gush, “I love the characters. And the books are soooo historically correct.”
So, getting accurate answers to this question can be tough. Nevertheless, in the interest of market research, I decided to do something I usually avoid doing: look at my Amazon.com reviews. I always read my professional reviews—PW and Kirkus and the like—because they have a huge impact on my career. But I avoid my Amazon reviews because I tend to go ballistic when some idiot gets on there and rants about how my portrayals of my 19th century characters’ thoughts are anachronistic (as a historian, the history of thoughts and ideas was my SPECIALTY). To make my market research more effective, I decided to also read the Amazon reviews of two other recent historical mysteries. One of these books falls into the “cozy” historical mystery subgenre; the other can be described as more “gritty.” I was interested to see how their readers’ comments differed from each others’ and how they differed from mine.
I’ll talk about the results of that interesting venture next time.