Over the last year, three books of mine have been published. The first, from a large indie press, was a philosophical takedown of woke subjectivism. The second, from a U.K. press specializing in rock star memoirs, was a middle-grade novel about a traumatized kid who begins to hallucinate the ghost of John Lennon. The third, from a conservative-libertarian startup press, was a comic novel set at the dawn of the social media age, about a 30-something mom whose ne’er-do-well husband convinces her to post risqué photos on the internet.
You’d think three books in one year would be a cause for celebration. Yet I’m driving my loyal-to-a-fault literary agent crazy… because I don’t have a brand.
Brands are shorthand devices to convey clusters of information. Most large corporations have a brand. Pepsi has one. So does Burger King. So do Nike, Cadillac and Citibank. Each brand has an instantly recognizable logo, intended to differentiate the business from its competitors and remind you that you’re dealing with an established, credible entity. But a brand also limits the brand-holder’s relevance. If Pepsi, for example, announced it developed a kiwi-infused cola, I’d be intrigued. Pepsi does a fine job with colas, so its processes should work with kiwi flavor. On the other hand, if I’m shopping for auto parts and see Pepsi snow tires, I’m going to pass since that’s not what Pepsi is known for. The company may produce a hell of a tire, but why go that route when you can go with Goodyear—a brand specifically known for tires? It would be like buying Goodyear ginger ale. Or Cadillac cotton swabs.
So it makes sense for businesses to develop a brand. Yet there’s something counterintuitive and vaguely philistine about the notion that writers should develop one. What is a writer’s brand? Essentially, it’s a cross between a credential and an identity. It’s the way the writer is viewed by potential readers and the public face by which he’s already known or will be known; it provides a roadmap for publishers to market his book. Here is the reality of publishing in 2023: Absent a discernible brand, a writer’s chances of finding a commercial publisher are severely diminished. Brands are a particular concern of the marketing departments at publishing houses, as you’d expect. But they’re also on the mind of editors at every stage of the publishing process, figuring prominently not only in getting the book into readers’ hands but also in the decision to acquire a manuscript in the first place.
The brand-versus-brandless divide in publishing
If you’re a struggling writer, the problem may not be the words you’re putting to paper. The problem may be you. You may be saying brilliant things in beautiful prose, but unless there’s an obvious way to pitch you to readers—not just your book, but you yourself—you may be out of luck. Commercial houses are still theoretically on the lookout for, in Alexander Pope’s famous formulation, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” But they’d strongly prefer it in a marketable package. However high-minded editors are about their jobs, they are increasingly drawn to safe bets: what oft was thought, oft expressed and oft generated revenue. If you have a brand, readers know in advance the sort of things you’ll say, and they’ll pony up to hear more of it. And if you don’t have one? In that case, it may not matter if your prose runs laps around that of a brand-name author and your insights put his to shame. If you and he write on similar topics, but he comes with 100,000 Twitter followers and a popular YouTube channel, to whom do you imagine a commercial house will offer a contract? The rise of social media, far from leveling the playing field, has cast the brand-versus-brandless divide into starker relief. For-profit publishers favor writers who bring their own marketing plans. They’re less likely than they were, even a decade ago, to take on obscure authors and build a brand for them.
From their perspective, it’s rarely worth the effort.
Back in 2013, I already had several (small press) books to my credit. I wasn’t wholly obscure, in other words, but from a marketing perspective, I was a blank slate. That was when a children’s book editor at Random House took a liking to a fiction manuscript of mine titled What Happened in Ponzini. I walked into Random House’s midtown Manhattan offices thinking I’d written an adult novel about the moment a 12-year-old boy’s conscience kicks in. Kind of like Huckleberry Finn (I told myself). The nice folks at Random House—all of them were unnervingly nice—listened as I blathered on about the book’s minor themes… the cathartic effects of secular confession and the humanizing power of classic literature. Then my editor and marketing team explained, patiently and politely, that my brand going forward would be novelist for mature middle-grade readers. I had as much input in the branding process as a head of cattle has with the smoke coming off his newly scorched ass. The Random House folks nixed my original title in favor of the more kid-friendly Twerp, which is how my adult novel about conscience, catharsis and the power of classics became a middle-grade novel about bullying. In the space of a week, I’d acquired a brand, a brand new title and a generous advance on sales.
You know what? It worked. Twerp flirted with bestseller lists and to date has sold about 100,000 copies. It paid my rent for years. Its sequel sold only a third as many copies but still earned back its substantial advance. I could have continued to write middle-grade books and perhaps established a niche as a dependable midlist author for young readers. The only hiccup was that I didn’t want to write exclusively for young readers. My brand, had I embraced it, would’ve meant ignoring three-quarters of the ideas that inspired me.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with branding for writers. Going forward, the brand hems in the writer’s ambitions. What if C.S. Lewis had encountered such pressures? Hey, Screwtape! Make up your mind! Do you want to write kids’ stories? Religious satires? Or literary criticism? Pick a lane and stay in it!
What’s lost in the branding tradeoff
That’s the reason that I, a lesser writer than Lewis to be sure, walked away from my brand. My brandless books ever since have sold a few hundred to a few thousand copies… which means they’ve broken even or lost money for their indie publishers. Not that I’m complaining. I’m still getting published, and as much as I’d like to think it’s because the books I write are too good to overlook, the truth is that I’m probably getting published because once upon a time one of my books sold 100,000 copies.
That’s kinda, sorta my brand now. I’m the Maybe Lightning Will Strike Twice Guy.
It’s not exactly Keats sitting by a lake, waiting for a nightingale to sing in his ear. But what’s the alternative? Somebody has to decide what gets published, and that somebody needs criteria to make those decisions. Whatever else may be said about prioritizing a writer’s brand, at least the results are testable. There are objective ways to gauge success and objective consequences for failure. Take on enough money-losing projects, you’ll be out of a job. That’s the bottom line, and editors, marketers and publishers know it. They’re thus incentivized to stick with safe bets and steer clear of quirk. But at least everyone involved knows the score.
Do you want to know what publishing looks like if it becomes unmoored from the market? Consider the present state of American poetry. Absent a fluke such as a sitcom star coughing up a hairball of doggerel, or an aggrieved juvenile stringing together sappy platitudes and getting invited to recite them at a presidential inauguration, no one turns a profit from poetry. Not the publishers. Not the editors. Not the writers. That’s why commercial houses have mostly gotten out of the poetry game. Poetry has been relegated almost exclusively to non-profit (i.e., money-losing), grant-subsidized, donation-seeking presses. Even among those “little” presses, however, editors still have to make acquisition decisions. Given the lack of formal constraints in contemporary poetry and the consequent truth that no one can say exactly what makes a good poem, you may rightly wonder which poets get published.
Answer: the ones who are well-connected. The ones who act the part at parties. The ones who figure out where editors hang and show up with kneepads. Those are the poets who get their monographs into print… to the delight of the dozen or so friends and relatives who purchase copies but don’t read them.
Why marketability drives the industry
The poetic alternative to branding, in short, is brown-nosing. Not that brown-nosing is unknown among prose writers. Indeed, for those who aspire to that most elusive and most subjective of authorial brands, “literary novelist,” the clearest current path is also the coarsest: hooking up (metaphorically or conjugally) with an established, branded writer—who then provides access to literary agents and editors.
Don’t believe me? Google “best young American novelists” and track down the bios of the first twenty names that come up. Results will vary over time, but as of December of 2023, eighteen of them held MFAs. That means one of two things. Either master’s-level writing programs are freakishly successful at churning out literary prodigies—which seems farfetched, given the notable lack of MFAs in the canons of American literature—or hopeful writers are pursuing fine arts degrees to make the acquaintance of well-connected mentors to capitalize on those mentors’ connections.
The painful truth is that creative writing programs, undergraduate or graduate, involve little in the way of real scholarship. They’re more akin to expensive conduits. Having spent the last four decades straddling the academic and publishing worlds, I’ll pull back the curtain for you: If you want to become a literary writer, study literature. Take survey courses. Take themed seminars. Learn how masters of the craft—the deader, the better—did it. If, however, you’re absolutely determined to go the writing workshop route, you’ll get more useful feedback from a continuing education class at your local high school than from a room full of career-minded fellow writers who, after forking over monstrous tuitions, are jockeying for the professor’s finite beneficence… which (I reiterate) may or may not be a euphemism. Then, after you’ve refined and polished your work, take the cash you saved by not matriculating and spend it on writers’ conferences—where you’ll be able to suck up to agents and editors yourself.
Publishing, though it’s awkward to think of it as such, is a competition among writers. The vast majority of writers will never find a commercial publisher for their work; many will end up self-publishing for the satisfaction of seeing their words in print—and, let me stress, there’s nothing wrong with that. But self-published books rarely sell.
Commercial publishers, to belabor the obvious, have commercial interests. By working with branded writers, they maximize their odds of turning a profit. Yes, brands can be creatively stifling for a writer, but a publishing world without them, and without a heavy dose of market concerns, soon devolves into a competition not of literary skills but of social skills. How you feel about this state of things will likely depend on how good you are at working a room.
Where does that leave writers who want to write in multiple genres? Mostly, it leaves them brandless—and therefore probably out of luck when looking for commercial publishers. On the other hand, with the advent of print-on-demand services, it’s easier now than ever for quirky little presses to get off the ground. It may be that writers whose inspiration pulls them in multiple directions will find themselves in a limbo of getting their words into print but not into the hands of readers.
From there, they’ll await the final judgment of posterity.