What’s In A Name?

Last week, we started to talk about what lessons and practices can be carried from traditional print publishing and which ones are less useful in a digital publishing environment. I saved the topic of author brands—i.e. the name an author uses on his or her work—for its own post this week, because it’s such a nice chewy topic.

First of all, when we talk about author brands, we’re talking about marketing. An author brand isn’t very different from any other kind of marketing brand—it’s a shorthand, telling the potential reader what to expect from the book before he or she reads it or even reads the copy.

Authors and pseudonyms
Many fiction authors don’t write under their legal names. There can be a lot of reasons for this, so here are a few that I’ve heard over the years. This list is long, but not exhaustive:
• The author’s name is hard to spell or pronounce, therefore potentially hard to remember.
• The author’s name is long, so it will appear smaller on the book cover than a shorter name.
• The author wishes to protect his or her privacy by writing under a pseudonym.
• The author is actually more than one person, and the partners think it would be simpler for branding if their work was published under a single author name.
• The work is work-for-hire, contracted by a legal estate specifically to be published under an existing author brand (like the V.C. Andrews novels published after that author’s death) or by a publisher to create a brand or series to which the house holds ownership of the author name. (Like the Nancy Drew series. There is no Carolyn Keene, although initially the series was written pseudonymously by Edward Stratemeyer.)
• The author’s name is too similar to that of an existing published author (presumably a successful one) or a famous individual.
• The publishing house contractually required the author to use a pseudonym.
• The author is too prolific for the publisher’s expectations, so is published under multiple names.
• A published author is writing a new kind of work in a different genre or subgenre, or relaunching his or her career.

This last point is the one we’ll focus on today and it falls into two neat divisions.

1. Splitting the brand
As mentioned above, author brands are just like other marketing brands, in that they tell potential consumers what to expect before they buy. What happens when what the author is writing has changed? There are two schools of thought on this: one is that the author should consolidate all work under the name author name or brand, and the other is that different categories or kinds of work should be delineated by different author brands. There are pros and cons to both of these strategies and they go in and out of fashion as a result. Right now, there is a greater tendency to use one brand for all work, whereas 10 to 15 years ago, the tendency was to “split the brand”.

Splitting the brand means that I write historical romance as Claire Delacroix and contemporary romance as Deborah Cooke. Each name is believed to be more evocative of the era (Delacroix sounds historical while Cooke sounds contemporary) and represents a certain area of my work. As I have tended to write for two different publishers simultaneously, it also has made contract clauses easy because the divisions between the two houses were about different kinds of work. Each house could build a graphical branding for my work that was evocative of the contents, without worrying about what the other house was up to. The lines of division were clear, which meant the two brands could be well-managed. That’s one big advantage of splitting the brand, even if it’s split under the jurisdiction of the same publisher.

The weakness in the strategy of splitting the brand is shown in the passage of time and the evolution of certain market niches. What we read also goes in and out of style. In about 2003, the historical romance market, which had previously been very robust, shrank dramatically. The survivor in that niche was sexy Regency historicals and very little else sold well. When a brand has been closely defined and tightly managed, it’s not very resilient to these kinds of changes. I had wanted for years to write historicals even in other periods but couldn’t place them as I was perceived to be a medieval romance author. Medieval romance was my brand. When my niche disappeared, so did my ability to sell my work.

This is a bit of a subjective call, and so Tor was open to the possibility of my writing urban fantasy romance as Claire Delacroix. Their thinking was that the sensuality and worldbuilding was similar to my medievals (and maybe the grit, too!) and that the books were set in a not-now time. They perceived my fallen angel series to be consistent with my brand. They did graphically brand the series differently to show even my established readers that these books weren’t medievals.

I actually saw Dragonfire as being more consistent with my existing brand, but NAL didn’t want to publish those books as Claire Delacroix titles and asked me if I’d use another author brand on them. I knew NAL would do a good job of publishing them (they publish a lot of paranormal romance) so I trusted their call and agreed. Dragonfire became Deborah Cooke books.

Behind all of this is the risk of “tainting the author brand”. This usually means that an attempt to diversify goes badly wrong and leaves the reader uncertain what to expect from an author. The author’s sales often  plummet as a result—even if readers like one niche of the author’s work, they may be cautious in reading more if they’ve been disappointed even once. A diversified brand is more robust, though, so there’s a balance to be struck.

2. Starting over
Because of the way the print publishing machine works, it’s pretty common for an author to end up with less-than-compelling sales numbers. The author could have been unlucky in terms of cover art, competing titles, distribution errors, on-sale dates that coincide with major world events (wars tend to keep people from buying books.) He or she could also have tainted the brand, as noted above. Actually, when you look at all the things that can go wrong, it’s amazing that any books succeed at all. There are a lot of variables that affect the sales of a given book, but when things go awry, it’s often perceived to be easier to start fresh than to try to save or rebuild the existing author brand.

We all like new shiny things, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that publishers and booksellers are no different. In the publishing industry, there is special attention given to debut authors, and even though “you can’t be a virgin again” as one editor once memorably put it, an author can have a rebirth in the marketplace by using a new author brand. This is a strategy that has to be employed with care to work well in our digital age, with so much information online and accessible. Readers can feel tricked if they subsequently discover the original identity of the author and there can be a backlash. One of the first great backfires of this strategy was the launch of Josie Litton by Bantam, who turned out to be Maura Seger with a new author brand.

Then and Now
As mentioned above, it’s more common now for authors to put everything under a single author brand, using the graphics and imagery on the cover to distinguish the genres of their work. Those of us who have multiple author brands spend a good deal of time trying to get readers to connect the two. But there’s still a place for dividing the brand, and it’s one that’s getting a lot of action in our current marketplace. What’s interesting to me is that it’s authors doing it by choice. Authors are acting like publishers, using author brand for the same reasons as publishers, and also using it for a new reason.

Tainting a brand is still a very real concern. Depending what the author writes, his or her brand may be more open to diversification in certain directions, or not. As authors take control of their author brands, they’re looking at their market as publishers and making strategic choices about managing brands.

Let’s look at the four possible scenarios, although there are probably dozens:

Author A is a multi-published high fantasy author, who has always wanted to publish paranormal romance. She’s well-respected in her genre, but knows that her audience won’t follow her to the romance section. There is seldom explicit sex in fantasy novels, but often a good bit of it in a paranormal romance. Still, for creative (or maybe financial) reasons, Author A wants to give romance a try. If she chooses to use a different author name on her paranormal romances, she will be deliberately dividing her brand.

Author B has always written very sweet romances. Although she has published a number of books, the marketing support from the house has been tepid, at best, and she’s had some bad luck with cover art and distribution. On the one hand, editors tell her that the market requires more spicy romances; on the other, no one will buy one from her because “it’s not her brand”. Author B has chosen to write a 50 Shades variation that is edgy and gritty, partly to push herself and partly to show what she can do. She will choose a new author name because she’s essentially starting over: there will be no crossover of her previous readership to this new series.

Author C is well-established, multi-published and maybe writing actively for a publishing house. He wants to understand the digital book market and how to indie-publish,so he can make better choices about his future. He decides to publish new work under a new and different author brand. That way there’s no risk of Author C messing up the good thing he has going, but he can still gather information. The work in question might be in a different genre, but chances are good that it’s in the same genre in which he’s currently published. He might be testing the waters for an idea his publisher thinks is too risky, or marketing works in a slightly different niche, or marketing works of a different length. He might be indie-publishing a series that his publisher declined to acquire. He’s experimenting. He might be doing this with the awareness of his house and representation, or um, not. It’s possible that he will ultimately be able to improve his digital sales of his traditionally published books, by applying what he’s learned to his existing book list. It’s also possible that he will prove his idea to be marketable and viable—that might feed the interest of the house in this different work or alternatively, convince him to take all of his work indie. It’s an information-gathering mission, and even if it fails, he will have learned something from it.

This experimentation and testing of the market is the new variation. I’ll guess that the majority of the authors I know who are digitally publishing have chosen to add a new pseudonym to their list of identities.  The pseudonym in question is a test case. It might represent any of the options represented above—even Author B, who is starting over, is engaged in an experiment. Digital publishing and the portals open to authors mean that we can connect directly with readers in an effective way for the first time ever. That means that instead of taking someone’s word that a work is or isn’t marketable, we can run a test and find out. The readers hold the cards instead of the marketing department, and that’s pretty exciting stuff.

What about you? Do you have authors you’ll follow into any section of the bookstore? Do you give new authors a try? Or are you more likely to stick to your tried-and-true favourite authors?

Convergence

One of the things I’ve noticed lately is how much indie publishing is becoming similar to traditional publishing. You all know that I usually write in two subgenres, alternating between series. This helps me to see an ongoing series with a fresh perspective each time I come back to it. In an ideal universe, I’d write one book from idea to publication, then work on the next one.

It worked that way when I was unpublished. Ever since selling my first book in 1992, the process has been entirely different.

In traditional publishing, there are many people involved in the process of bringing a work to publication, and a lot of consensus needs to be built. That means stopping and starting, stopping and starting, stopping and starting. This was never my favorite part of the model, but it was how it was. For example, I would first talk to my editor about ideas for how to continue an established series. We would usually decide that we liked one or two particular ideas best (fortunately, I’ve been in agreement most of the time with my editors as to which ideas should be pursued next.) When we had agreed, I would write up a proposal. This could be a synopsis, but usually I wrote the first scene of the book, or even the first chapter. That gave me a better sense of the characters before writing the synopsis. I’d send that off to her and wait to hear back. The wait could be anywhere from two weeks to six months. If everyone in house agreed upon the idea, then she’d offer a contract, and we’d agree on a delivery date for the book manuscript. Sometimes this was right away and sometimes not. Sometimes I had other things to finish first.

Eventually, I’d get to sit down and write the book. With any luck, I’d be able to write it from start to finish, but invariably other things would pop up. The cover conference would always be held before the book was written, and quite often the cover copy would be written before the book was written. In a good editorial relationship, the author and editor discuss each at the appropriate time. When the book was finally done, I’d send it off to my editor. There would then be another wait which was never less than 60 days and could be a lot longer. If my editor had revisions or changes, we’d talk about that and I’d usually have to do them quickly. The book would leave my life again, for another 60 to 90 days while it was edited and copy edited. It would return to my desk for review, which usually had to be done immediately. Back it would go (off my desk!) for another 60 to 90 days while it was typeset, and finally, I’d get the page proofs to review before it was published. By this time, I’d be working with publicity and talking to reviewers and bloggers, setting up the promotion for the book’s on sale date.

If everything went very well (and the book was on the schedule) the elapsed time from my delivering the book manuscript to my editor and it being available for sale was usually 9 to 12 months. I’d be done with the page proofs about 90 days before publication.

The Renegade's Heart, first in the True Love Brides series of medieval romances by Claire DelacroixYou can imagine that with so many stops and starts – and many things popping up to be done immediately – it’s challenging for a writer to schedule his or her time. Working on two projects simultaneously can make for a nice balance, although as schedules became tighter, that was harder to manage. When I went indie, I was hoping for that ideal again, of working on a book from start to finish, then just having a bit of back and forth with editors and formatters immediately before publication.

The reality is that there is a great deal of stopping and starting, even in indie publishing. To be fair, I had more than many indie authors because I had so much backlist to package, edit, format and republish. This is all good, but has been pretty time consuming. I’ve re-published 16 novels and 4 boxed sets since the beginning of 2012, in addition to The Renegade’s Heart and two Dragon Legion novellas. I tend to look at those two novellas and one book and think I’ve been slacking off, but those 20 other titles can’t be left out of the equation. I wrote most of Ember’s Kiss in 2012, too. Abyss, an urban fantasy romance by Claire Delacroix

The reversion of the Prometheus Project trilogy early this year put the release of Tupperman’s book on hold, but I was looking forward to getting those four books out into the world this fall and being (phew) caught up. I thought my stops were done, and I’d be able to juggle fewer projects at a time.

Now I don’t think that will happen. The strange thing is that those stops and starts are beginning to more clearly echo the pattern of traditional publishing. The pattern is so strong that I wonder whether there will soon be any difference at all. Everything takes longer than I expect, and seems to be taking longer with each go-round. Contractors are busier, which means they can’t always jump on a project immediately. I have to allow more time for each phase. I probably should leave 90 days for the editing process, for example, which is a whole lot like the timeline in traditional publishing for that phase.

I shouldKiss of Destiny, a Dragon Legion Novella by Deborah Cooke leave 90 days between completion of the book and publication, in order to effectively promote it and make advance reading copies available to reviewers. A year ago, those opportunities didn’t exist, but now indie authors can sign up for Netgalley, for example, as well as other vehicles used by traditional publishing houses. 90 days to promo a completed book before it goes on sale is the same timeline as traditional publishing. Formatting remains quicker, but that too is becoming slower as formatters become busier and develop a queue. As the timeline extends, it starts to look more like the timeline in traditional publishing.

And as a result of that, the stopping and starting is multiplying, too. This week, for example, I am working on Kiss of Destiny, the third novella in the Dragon Legion trilogy of paranormal romance novellas and part of Dragonfire. The Highlander’s Curse is on my editor’s desk.

The Highlander's Curse by NYT Bestselling author Claire Delacroix, #2 in her True Love Brides series of medieval romances.(I’m hoping to hear back from her around the end of the month. There will invariably be some questions, suggestions and changes, then I’ll get it to the formatter as quickly as possible. I really hope it will be published before I go to RWA National in July.)

I realized I needed to write the teaser for The Frost Maiden’s Kiss, so it could go in the back of The Highlander’s Curse, so I did that – and got all excited about Malcolm’s story, just in time to set it aside. Similarly, I’m working on the excerpt for Serpent’s Kiss, which is Thorolf’s story and Dragonfire #10, because it will go in the back of Kiss of Destiny. I’ll get all excited about that story, just in time to set it aside and go through Abyss one more time before it goes to my editor.

The HighlanThe Dragon Legion Collection by Deborah Cookeder’s Curse and The Dragon Legion Collection will need to be set up for their print editions ASAP in July, then Fallen, Rebel and Guardian need to be edited, proofed, and formatted for digital and print. I’ll be hearing back from my editor on Abyss, and probably have some changes to make there, as well. I need to do art fact sheets soon for The Frost Maiden’s Kiss and Serpent’s Kiss and send them off, to get a place in my cover artist’s line, too—especially as I want to buy exclusive images and she may need to shoot them. Finally, I have to decide if I’m going to do the 90 day review cycle before publication for either of these books, to add that time into the schedule. Meanwhile, there’s all the usual promotion stuff and conference preparation to manage for the books that are out there. This is exactly the same kind of stopping and starting I’ve been doing in traditional publishing for twenty years. (Just writing this list makes me realize why I’m sleeping so well!)

So, maybe, at the end of October after these seven titles are published, I’ll be able to sit down and write Thorolf’s story from start to finish. Maybe the ideal writing life scenario will happen. Either way, I’m not going to give you publication dates again until the book is at the formatter. Just as in traditional publishing, Murphy’s Law loves a book deadline, and you can only be sure when the book will be done when it is.

Thoughts from BEA

I had an interesting time at Book Expo America, primarily because the wholesale book show was so different than the last time I attended—and that was only two years ago.

First off, it was a smaller show. The booths of Big Six and midsize publishers were smaller in size, yet a lot of smaller publishers also had booths. I don’t recall seeing so many digital-first presses at the show before.

One thing that was very exciting to me was that there was a booth hosted by six bestselling indie authors: Bella Andre, Stephanie Bond, Tina Folsom, Barbara Freethy, Hugh Howey and CJ Lyons. It’s not been common to see authors with booths, and totally out of the norm for them to be so crazy-busy. They were the highlight of the show, IMO – and Bella Andre was on the cover of the show edition of Publishers’ Weekly magazine, as well. This was one of the many signs that publishing is changing.

There were other indications of transition, as well, including ads and booths targeting indie published authors, offering services for those authors. That was new. Previously, BEA was all about publishers and offering services to them – authors were not particularly welcome at the show, unless they had been invited by their publishers for the purpose of promoting their books. Authors arrived, signed their books, and left. The business of publishing was left to publishers and agents. But the focus of BEA is changing: their reader day had 2000 attendees this year, a vast increase over the 500 Power Readers who booked last year. Publishing needs authors and readers. You’re probably not surprised by that, but it seems that many people in the biz still are.

I only attended the Power Reader day (Saturday) which was fun because it was so busy. The show was filled with enthusiastic readers and fans. The line up for a free copy of Sylvia Day’s book was huge! I was lucky to see Syl in passing and have a chance to give her a hug. She’s doing so well, and that’s exciting. My only official appearance was to sign postcards for free downloads of Double Trouble from KOBO in the Kobo Writing Life booth. The best part of this was that I had a good chat with the Kobo people, and also that I met up with Joy from Joyfully Reviewed again. That was wonderful!

I realized a bit late that I could have signed books there – my badge was from RWA and two years ago, authors could only book a signing in the RWA booth with books from RWA-approved publishers. As a result, I never even thought to book a signing with my indie books, but I could have done it because that rule has changed. So, next year, I’ll sign in the RWA booth. :-)

My main goal at the show was personal contact. One of the frustrations with digital publishing portals is that it’s very hard to contact an individual to get something fixed, or even to find out why something is displaying how it is. Most of their helpdesks are anonymous, and each request goes to a new individual – even if you’re continuing to pursue the same unresolved issue. This can be a huge time sink, and doesn’t always lead to a resolution. (Yup, it’s frustrating!) At BEA, though, I was able to talk to real people and get connected to find solutions. All of the indie portals had booths and I had a list of questions. As a result of that trip, I’m hoping to soon have my books properly displayed on Nook UK – something I’ve been trying to fix for months – to verify and correct my book listings on Overdrive, and to work out some kinks at Smashwords. I talked to ACX about taking my books to audio, which is pretty exciting, and to NetGalley about having my books available to reviewers in advance of publication. Neither of these options existed for indie authors two years ago. I also talked to Califa about selling my books directly to libraries, another option that is entirely new for authors.

In the end, I came home with sore feet, a pile of information and my head spinning with possibilities. My To Do list has gotten longer again! I will go to BEA next year, though, and have a good plan as to what I need to do to prepare for that trip. I also made some modifications to my plan for RWA National in July, based on what I learned at BEA. More about that closer to the date.

Simplify

I’ve probably mentioned to you before that I belong to a little local group of authors. It’s not an official organization and we don’t have any program—we just meet most months, have lunch, and talk. Sometimes we talk about writing, sometimes about publishing, sometimes about other topics. It’s interesting and it’s fun. We have some things in common: we are all actively writing and publishing; we all write romance in some sub-genre (although some write in other genres, too); we all have other responsibilities to juggle along with the writing and promotion associated with it. What’s interesting is that we all make different choices, and sometimes we talk about that. Some authors in the group are traditionally published; others are with digital-first presses; others are indie all the way; still others have a blend of publishing styles, depending upon the project, sub-genre and opportunity. I represent the old guard in this group :-) as everyone else has entered the publishing biz in the last five years or so.

One of the things that most interests me is how each author balances her time. (Yes, we’re all women.) The choices of one author in particular intrigue me, because she and I share a desire to just write. The difference is that she let that desire shape her choices. She has a blog which acts as her website. She has a Goodreads account. But that’s it. She does no social media. She’s not on Facebook. Her author profile and bio is a single sentence with no photograph. She doesn’t have a newsletter. I was skeptical of this plan when she started out, because it’s very much the “right answer” for authors to do all of these things. The reason I do them is that my publishers have insisted upon it. Her blog posts are all business, too, of the “here’s the link for my new release” variety. She says she doesn’t have time to do anything else, which is fair – she has published the equivalent of four full length books in the past year and a half, in addition to her full time job. The thing is that she’s doing very well. Her blog gets lots of traffic and comments, plus she consistently sells a lot of books. Granted, she writes in a popular sub-genre (erotica and erotic romance) but I’m thinking I could learn a few tricks from her.

Spring is a time when I take a hard look at my choices. In all facets of my life, I try to organize and sort what’s worth keeping, and re-distribute what isn’t. This is when I simplify. Over the past month, I’ve taken a look at my promotional obligations, in contrast to those of my friend. I’m not going to stop doing all that I do (because habits are hard to change) but I’m going to do less. For example, the Wild West Thursday posts here on the blog take me a lot of time to compose. They don’t generate a lot of traffic, so my friend says they’re work for nothing. I suspect she’s right, so no more Wild West Thursday posts. In fact, I’m going to take my blog to her model, and post only when I have book news for you (plus the monthly contests, of course.) I’ve already cut back on Facebook time and that’s helped me to write more. And if you want to see my knitting, you’ll need to check on Ravelry. I don’t think the changes will be that painful to any of you, and the bonus is that you’ll have more books from me sooner.

We have a new plan, and I have writing to do!

Writers Making Connections

I belong to a local writing group that meets most months. We have lunch and talk about our writing, our books, and the publishing business at large (as well as other things). We get loud, we have fun and we share a lot of experience with each other. I’m convinced that our new world of publishing is distinguished by more cooperation between authors and a healthy exchange of information. So, I had an idea to extend the circle a bit – since everyone was excited about the idea, we did it.

Last Saturday, we hosted Writers Making Connections. The idea was to get a bigger group of writers together to network. We had lunch and talked – about our writing, our books and the publishing business at large. It turned out that most of us in attendance were indie-publishing at least part of our lists, or thinking about diving into that. We also invited freelance editors and brought promo materials from the service providers we use. We brought our own swag, too, and filled a table with the promo materials. We kept the cost low -  the $15 registration fee covered the buffet lunch and the use of the room. The idea was that we would break even, not make a profit.

The plan was to keep everything as low-maintenance as possible, because we’re all busy writers. We each took a job. I wrote an invitation and after we agreed on it, sent it out to industry people and listserves. Everyone spread the word through their own networks. Melanie Card was the contact person for registration and replied to each person with info about registering and paying. Jane Kent arranged for the venue and the lunch, and collected the money to pay the bill. Jessica E. Subject sent confirmation messages to registrants after their payment etc. was received, giving them the details of the event location. a.c. Mason made the signs, telling people how to find the room, and Susan Douglas did nametags on lanyards in advance of the event.

Saturday morning, we got up to fresh snow. Ugh! Even so, we had 24 attendees, including 3 freelance editors, 1 blogger and Christina Potter from KOBO Writing Life. Most of the authors write romance, erotica or young adult fiction – because that’s what most of us write, those were the people we knew. There were also fantasy and mystery writers. People came from all around Stratford, even from as far as Sarnia, Toronto and Ottawa. We drank all the coffee (twice) and ate most of the food on the buffet, and talked until we were hoarse.

The best part for me was that the exchange of information was very generous. The matchmaking was wonderful: “Oh, you’re writing such-and-such. You really need to look at this website, and I’ll email you contact info for a reviewer. You should also go introduce yourself to that person over there.” I LOVE that helpful aspect of our new publishing world. It’s great karma for all of us.

My one concern was that the room didn’t have the acoustics to graciously handle all our conversation – it became very, very loud in there! I came home exhausted, with a pocketful of new ideas and business cards.

That was when I remembered that my camera was in my purse. :-(

If you attended, thank you very much for doing so. I hope you had as good of a time as I did, and found it a useful (and fun) way to spend an afternoon. Thanks also to Melanie, Jessica, Susan, Mason and Jane for making the details run so smoothly.

We’re going to host this event again next fall. If you were one of the attendees on Saturday, you’ll be the first to know. If you weren’t one of the attendees on Saturday, you might want to join us next time. (The Nanaimo bars were particularly good.) We’ve also created a Facebook page for the event—it’s still pretty bare-bones but if you’d like to keep an eye on plans as they shape up (or if you just think it’s a good idea) please come on by and LIKE us. :-)