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 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:

JJI 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:

RachelAs 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:

vanessa-di-gregorioI’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.

Thoughts?

  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.
  

23 Responses to Genre Jumping and Author Branding

  1. Sooz Apr 20 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    I totally agree with you Billy. I honestly have zero interest in picking up Rowling’s next book. :-/ And while I think many authors cross genres and do it well, there are some who have written for so long in a narrow strip of genre-land (e.g. Philippa Gregory) that I’d be wary to pick up something different from them. It’s funny, though, because as a writer, I have NO desire to be pigeonholed into one writing area…I guess this means I need a pseudonym?

    • Biljana
      Biljana Apr 20 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      I dunno, Sooz :S Like I said, I feel like I’d have a bit of an identity crisis if I had to get a pseudonym so I’m not stuck in one genre. Hopefully this is common, and goes away once the step is made?

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows Apr 20 2012 at 7:50 pm #

      I’m with you, Sooz. While I wish Rowling the best luck with her new book (hah, as if she needs luck!), I . . . have no desire to pick it up. There’s no magic. Besides her name on the cover, there appears to be none of the stuff that made millions of people fall in love with Harry Potter. Maybe it’s brilliant. (Okay, it probably is.) But it doesn’t strike me as a story I’d be particularly interested in.

      Now if her next novel were a science fiction or something same but different — yeah. I’d read that. So maybe it’s not just about moving genres, but moving in a way readers who fell in love with the magic (or whatever you’ve got that they love) can move with you.

      • Biljana
        Biljana Apr 20 2012 at 8:26 pm #

        I’ll most likely read it. I’m really curious about it. And who knows? Maybe she gains my trust in her new style as much as she has with HP.

        • jodimeadows
          jodimeadows Apr 20 2012 at 9:21 pm #

          Let me know what you think of it! I WANT to be convinced. I’m just not a literary fiction kind of gal, normally.

  2. wendy darling Apr 20 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    If an author isn’t trying new things, and challenging themselves, then what’s the point. That’s how you get lazy. If readers don’t like when an author writers something different, that’s okay. Maybe that author will find new readers. And nothing says they can’t go back to the stuff they used to write.

    Fear of trying new things leads to stagnation.

    Expecting Rowling to write the same magical stuff for the rest of her life is something we have no right to do.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Apr 20 2012 at 8:24 pm #

      I completely agree that fear of trying leads to stagnation… I guess it just takes accepting that not everybody will like everything you write, especially if you write a wide range of things.

      And good point about Rowling. Readers really shouldn’t dictate what authors write next. Even though I am disappointed that it’s not some kind of fantasy, it kind of makes me respect her more. She didn’t sell out or bow to the expectations of her audience.

    • Seleste deLaney Apr 20 2012 at 8:34 pm #

      I’m with you, Wendy. I like to stretch and try new things, and I enjoy when authors I love do it too. For example, I fell in love with Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series, but when she started writing Nadia Stafford, I was right there with her. Is it possible I wouldn’t have liked it? Sure. But I like thrillers and I like Kelley’s writing, so why would I not try it? Now, if she went to literary fiction, I probably would wish her well but not look at it. That’s only because I *really* don’t like literary fiction. Another example is Hannah Moskowitz. Thus far, she’s the *only* contemporary YA author I really like. When she made the jump to MG magical realism, I was right there. I didn’t think twice about it.

      So for me, I’ll follow an author to another genre I like. I won’t follow them to a genre I don’t. (And it depends on how far the new genre/character types stray from what they’re known for.)

      If I love an author’s voice, I will follow that voice a long way, regardless of genre.

      • Biljana
        Biljana Apr 20 2012 at 9:38 pm #

        That’s good to hear, Seleste. I think most readers are like this, but as soon as money gets involved, the higher-ups get uncomfortable because a business is a business. It’s not like the readers are demanding pen names, right? And yeah, like you said, certain genres appeal to some but not to others, so that’s probably a big part of what causes the disconnect between the author and the reader.

    • jodimeadows
      jodimeadows Apr 20 2012 at 9:20 pm #

      Oh yeah, it’s absolutely the author’s call in what to write next, and I’d never say otherwise. Authors have to follow their hearts, and heart is clearly in adult literary right now, so that’s awesome. I bet she will find a new audience, and bring some of her audience from the Harry Potter books. I’m happy she didn’t let reader expectations keep her from stretching her writing muscles. (If a little bummed for my own selfish reading wants. Heh.)

      That said, I don’t think an author needs to jump genres in order to count as trying new things. Genres are pretty broad creatures, with lots of room to explore and grow if you really want to dig in and start turning tropes on their sides.

      Some readers will follow their favorite authors anywhere and maybe find something new to love. Others will stay away from genres they don’t particularly care for (for whatever reason – time, overflowing TBR piles, or a strong opposition to X genre). Neither group is wrong. Once the author starts branching out — which is his/her prerogative! — it’s the readers’ preference on whether they follow. Both decisions are valid.

      • Biljana
        Biljana Apr 20 2012 at 9:51 pm #

        Honestly, Jodi, both you and Wendy have great points.

        Writing hopefully is a result of a love of story-telling, and people are constantly changing, which inevitably leads to differences in how stories are told. As soon as people try to stick stories into out-grown moulds resentment sets in and both the reader and the writer start becoming dissatisfied with the outcome.

        I’m wary of my writing being controlled, like I said in the post, so while I’m sad to see Harry Potter go, I’m happy that JK can stand as an example of somebody who can build a fifteen-year rock star career out of fantasy writing and then make this transition. Whether it’s successful or not is too early to tell, but I really hope so, because that adds to other fantastic precedents of authors jumping genres and still being loved.

        That said, though, as people keep saying, new things might not always attract old readers. And not being attracted to adult literary is a pretty good reason to not read JK’s new book.

  3. Amie Kaufman
    Amie Kaufman Apr 20 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    I think you make a good point when you say that to some extent, it depends on what we expect from the author. To draw a parallel in a different medium, one of my favourite actors is Michael Sheen. He’s incredible in Frost/Nixon as the reporter who bites off more than he can chew, then makes something of it. He’s equally incredible as an arrogant, pretentious bearded ass in Midnight in Paris. He’s manic and just amazing in The Damned United. One’s a semi-documentary political movie, one’s a whimsical half-fantasy literary movie, and one’s a gritty sports film. Basically, I’ll follow him anywhere because he’s just that good.

    There are some authors I feel the same way about, but they really have to be amazing. And I think it’s important to be clear — via cover artwork or the flap copy — that this is something different. Otherwise, readers end up disappointed simply because they were hoping for something else.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Apr 23 2012 at 11:29 pm #

      Good parallel with the actors. I know a lot of people were annoyed and felt a bit betrayed (especially by the trailer) when Will Ferrel did “Stranger than Fiction” and it wasn’t as slapstick-y and driven by character humour as his usual stuff.

  4. Rachel Seigel Apr 21 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    At first blush, the new JK Rowling book doesn’t appeal to me, but by the bestseller status it already has, obviously people are curious! I think it works both ways as a reader- you could end up following a writer who is trying something new and be totally blown away by how much you like it, or, while you applaud them for trying something new, it just may not be a genre that appeals to you, and you take a break from the author until they get back to what you like. We do tend to “typecast” authors so-to-speak, and I can understand as a writer how it gets boring to just stick with the same thing over and over again. But- the more well-known and established you are in your genre, the more of a risk you are taking with a serious departure.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Apr 23 2012 at 11:31 pm #

      I’m really hoping I’ll be blown away; the plot doesn’t seem particularly inventive, but maybe she has a fascinating and different way of putting it together. If not, I guess, like you said, I’ll just wait for her next fantasy, if she ever even goes back.

  5. Tim Apr 22 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    Personally, I think JK Rowling is kind of trying to prove that she’s a “real” writer by writing something a bit more literary. Which a fan can’t really complain about:P But, ugh, I hate how some people think the only good writing is literary writing.

    • Biljana
      Biljana Apr 23 2012 at 11:34 pm #

      Yeah I agree about how she might be doing this not just to give herself a break, but to prove she isn’t a one-trick pony. And I also agree about literary, and noticed that I find those that only hold literary writing in high regard a bit annoying as people, too–not just because it feels like a slap in the face to me, who isn’t writing literary at the moment, but also because if they’re that snobby about reading, I don’t know if I want to hear about other things.

  6. Cara M Apr 27 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    Wow, I’m actually pretty excited about The Casual Vacancy, and not because it’s J.K. Rowling (*kowtow*). One of the reasons I liked Harry Potter as much as I did was how it was a pastiche of a lot of the british boarding school books, Enid Blyton especially. When I read the description of the new book, it sounded like a british country novel with a modern flair. If she writes it with the same sharply drawn and hilarious characters and sharp and deft prose that the first few HP books have, it could be great. But then again, I suppose I just don’t mind authors jumping genre if they’re moving from one that I like into another that I like.

    • Biljana
      Biljana May 31 2012 at 2:07 am #

      Hah fair enough, about jumping to genres that you still like anyway. I did enjoy her characters in HP, so I suppose if she hasn’t changed how she creates them too much, I’ll still enjoy it.

  7. Kaye M. Apr 28 2012 at 11:52 am #

    This is something I mull over a lot, seeing as I have a few steampunk projects, mixed with with some cyberpunk and one or two contemporaries. I see that a lot of authors are expected to stay in one genre – but to me, that’s stifling because I have so many ideas all over the place. I can’t see myself sticking to, say, fantasy and just staying there.

    I am looking forward to this mystery, though. Maybe my mind is wired wrong and I should feel all indignant and OMG. I just like the premise, so I don’t care who writes it. ><

    Also, YAY for Pottermore addiction! The potions is really the best part of it (even if it gives you the nerves of a spooked rabbit).

    • Biljana
      Biljana May 31 2012 at 2:09 am #

      Nahh, I don’t think it’s a question of “wired wrong” (at all, in fact, haha) just an acceptance that people change. I wouldn’t want to be tied down to one genre either, which is why this was something I was conflicted with.

      And oh my god potion brewing, seriously, I haven’t gotten any better at it. I can’t even count how many have failed.

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