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The author as a brand

23 March 2015

Karen Joy Fowler in this week's Comment makes a totally fair point about the importance of enjoying your writing, and what makes some writers happy is writing a different kind of book each time. But is there any truth in the suggestion that writing similar books is the best way to build a successful writing career?

Sadly, perhaps, there probably is. As far as the book market is concerned, the author is effectively a brand and the way to establish a brand is through consistency. Although it's difficult these days to get a publisher to support an author through a book-by-book building of their career, it's certainly possible - and really necessary - for a self-publisher to think about building their audience in this way. No-one wants to be a one-book wonder, whether that one book is published traditionally or self-published.

The reason for this is simple. For readers the most significant factor about a book is the author. Surveys confirm that this is the key reason people give for the choice of which book to buy. To a considerable extent, book-buyers are influenced by the author's name. If they enjoy one book by an author, they'll reach for another, sometimes immediately, and may go on to devour their entire backlist. This is one of the reasons why becoming a bestselling author can be such a big deal, and it also means that once you have established yourself as a brand there's an audience out there waiting for your next book.

For many authors this isn't really a problem. Why not get into your stride and keep writing a similar kind of book? For many genre writers, writing crime, romance or fantasy, this is what they want to write. Many even have a continuing character or characters which strengthen the reader's connection with the author and their enthusiasm for the next book. The reappearance of Ian Rankin's Rebus, for instance, was probably because the author wanted to write more books about him, but the audience would also have been thrilled - and still more so to get another Rebus story after that.

So could we perhaps make a distinction between genre writing and literary fiction? Are genre writers under more pressure to write similar books than literary novelists, or can writers switch from one to another? Probably not, because it's actually quite hard for a genre writer to get taken seriously as a literary author and vice versa. It's quite difficult for authors to manage this and adopting a pseudonym may be the best way, thus reinforcing the idea that the author's name really does matter. Man Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, with his brooding crime novels under the name Benjamin Black, is one of the few authors who come to mind.