This is a discussion that comes up every so often. Is it better to do what you can to make yourself a brand name author, i.e. write books that are very similar, say like Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, or that are all set in the same world, like say, the Left Behind books, or have the same characters, like pretty much every popular crime series ever from Sherlock Holmes on. Or are you better off writing what you want to write from urban fantasy trilogies, to realist crime, to fantastical comedies, to historicals to whatever.
The argument is that you are much more likely to build an audience and keep them if your audience knows what they’re in for when they pick up one of your books and you deliver it. An author who is all over the shop in terms of genre and mood: fantasy one minute, realist the next; comedy, followed by tragically serious—a writer like that is only going to be able to build the kind of audience who doesn’t mind surprises, and will happily read across genres and moods. That is a much smaller audience.
I look around at my genre, YA, and I can tell you that argument is absolutely true. The brand names in my genre are writing books that are, mostly, recognisably like their other books. And when they write something that is very different from their regular books they don’t sell as well. They do much better with books that are, *cough*, core to their brand.1
But here’s what such discussions leave out: Most of the so-called brand name authors didn’t start out by sitting down and deciding what their “brand” would be and then writing accordingly.2 Most of them were not instant successes. Many wrote varied books before the book or series that became their brand took off. No one chooses to be a brand. It just happens.
If it were that easy than how do we explain all the series that did not succeed? I began my writing career with a trilogy. The first book, Magic or Madness, sold quite well. The two books that followed did not. Had I tried to persist in building my brand by writing more books in that series I suspect they would have sold even worse. No one was asking for more of those books, not my publisher, not my agent, no one.3
Most series do not take off. Unsurprising given that most books don’t take off either. The vast majority of us writers who have written more than one book set in the same world or telling the same story do not become brand names. Instead we watch with sinking hearts as each successive book sells in fewer numbers than the proceeding one. The sad fact is that more series get cancelled by their publishers than turn their writer into a brand name.
So if you have staked your career on writing this one kind of book over and over and no one wants that book you’re in a pretty bad place. Those writers who have lots of other books they want to write can move on from an unsuccessful series to something new and different.
Or to put it more succinctly: Very few writers become brand names. Building your career around the expectation that you will be one is kind of, um, not sensible.
So let’s scale back expectations. Let’s be realistic. When I look around me at the YA authors who I consider to be successful4 i.e. their agent is able to sell each book they write, which is to say there is a market for their books, even if it’s small compared to the big name brand writer, I see writers who have mostly written the books they want to write. Sure, for some of them that means writing all comedies, or all sf, or all fantasy, or all whatever. But that’s because that’s what they like writing and what they’re good at writing not because they are hellbent on becoming a brand.5
Most writers do not want to write books in every single genre in a wide variety of styles and modes. Most writers, like most readers, tend to stick to one or two genres. Now I know you’re all going to chime in and say, “Not me! I like all sorts of different books!” That’s awesome. I, too, am a varied reader. But we are the exceptions, not the rule. Trust me on this.
And those brand name writers? Most of them are also writing the books they want to write.
So, yeah, in the great becoming a brand-versus-writing-what-you-want-to-write debate I’m suggesting that those are not either or propositions. The first one, becoming a brand name, is an extremely unlikely hit-by-lightning thing that there’s nothing you can do to engineer. Might as well plan to win the lottery. But the second is something that you might build a career on.6
Because frankly why would you want a writing career that meant you were stuck writing novels you didn’t want to write year after year? This is such a tough business, it’s so hard to sustain a career, why would you make it any harder for yourself than it already is?
Update: Okay, I seem to have done a piss-poor job of making my point with this post. As I’m getting many responses from people saying, “Oh noes! I could never write the same book over and over again. I am doomed.” That is not what I was trying to say. So let me try again:
Most writers that we’ve heard of in all genres have had a fairly uniform body of works. Jane Austen’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, William Faulkner’s, Georgette Heyer’s, Dawn Powell’s, Sylvia Plath’s, Jackie Collins’, Stephen King’s etc. etc. Writers have particular styles and preoccupations which lead to writing particular kinds of work. They do not necessarily do this in order to build a brand but because that’s the kind of writers they are.
There also exist writers who write across genres and styles. Within my genre off the top of my head I’d name Libba Bray, M. T. Anderson, Robin Wasserman, myself. Although we’ve written mostly YA within that genre we’ve been all over the shop writing realist, fantastical, science fictional, historical.7 But we’re not delivering the same kind of book each time. We’re writing what we want to write and we’re making a living at it.
You do not have to stick to writing the same kind of books to have a successful writing career. You can write what you want to write. That’s what I do. I may never be a brand but for almost ten years now I’ve made my living as a writer.
Besides that is also what most of those authors who from the outside look like brands are doing: they are writing the books they want to write.
In other words whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.
- Please forgive me for that phrase. Though I’m not sure I’ll be able to forgive myself. [↩]
- I suspect none of them did. [↩]
- Okay, except for some of the fans of the Magic or Madness trilogy, for which, BLESS YOU! [↩]
- In the sense of career. Not necessarily creatively. [↩]
- And occasionally when broke, they’ll ghost write books for other people. But it’s not under their own name so it doesn’t count. [↩]
- Remembering that a huge percentage of writers who publish a first novel never publish a second. [↩]
- I’d argue that you can also see similarities across our body of work. [↩]
Hmmm, it’s interesting, and of course I am not trying to make my primary income as a writer, or else I might feel differently about this. But I’ve come to think of it as almost a temperamental impossibility that I would be able to write the same book repeatedly. I am very easily bored, and the whole premise has to be new and different than what I’ve done before for me to really find it worth the trouble to write the book in the first place! The brands that I like, I truly love – esp. crime franchises like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, or Dick Francis in the old days! – and the similarity between books is part of the pleasure. But I don’t think that as a novelist I’d be able to repeat the effect each year without getting bored and cynical, and that doesn’t lead to good fiction. I am very impressed with series authors who can stay interested in what they’re doing over the long haul.
Jenny Davidson: I don’t know anyone who’s in the position of having to write books they don’t want to write. Not in the Dick Francis sense. Those kind of brands are so rare. It’s just not something the vast majority of published writers have to worry about.
I’ve frequently not been in the mood to write the book I contracted to write. I was over the Magic or Madness trilogy long before I finished it. And thus I learnt my lesson and never sold three books at a time again. But that really is very different from being pressured by your publisher to write the same kind of book again and again.
Which, as I keep saying, does not happen to the majority of published writers.
And even those big brands get to write what they want. Stephenie Meyers published an adult sf book. Rowling’s about to publish an adult realist book. Stephen King has published across genres. Yes, his horror books sell best but those other books aren’t exactly losing money.
Thank you so much for this post. I have been querying my novel and have been worried that if (when!) I get published I will have to stick with horror just because my first book is horror. This notion distressed me greatly — I have ideas all across the board and look forward to exploring them all. So when I came across your post, I wanted to cry out of sheer joy and relief.
Thank you, a thousand times!
I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of “focus on writing what you want to write”–I think if nothing else, you’ll create better stories because you’re more passionate about the setting/style/characters. I figured that out when I couldn’t write further than 60 pages into a realist novel, but SF rolled off my fingertips.
Still, I think there is a bit of a complication in what you wrote. “…whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.” Writing as your job does require at least a token thought to the story’s marketability, and perhaps some changes to the overall story you’re telling so as to buttress that marketability–in which case it’s not purely the invention of your imagination, but a combination of that and market concessions.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing, simply a factor that needs to be understood when critiquing stories. Yet it does take a little away from the romantic notion of simply writing what you want. But you’re a working writer: Maybe you can illuminate this for us?
I am impressed that writers like you, who write such different things every time, can still have a career in this day and age. I don’t mean it in a rude way, but I think you’re right on the “brand” thing.
On the other hand, how often have I contributed to this myself? There are authors I discovered through one series, which I love, but when they start writing another series, I just plain don’t like it much/it falls flat to me. Like Jim Butcher–I love the personality of the Dresden Files books, but his first straight fantasy book left me cold and bored. The stuff I liked about series one did not transfer over to book 2. Or some other authors feel like their second or third series is just a weaker rehash of their first one (Laurell K. Hamilton, ahem). It’s rare that I find someone where I like all of their series–like Seanan McGuire, who somehow brings all of the stuff I enjoy about her writing into every new world she creates AND keeps it interesting AND it doesn’t feel like a rehash.
As for your books, they have the quirky personality traits that I like, but also create new and interesting worlds too. I guess what needs to transfer over are the “you” qualities from world to world, without rehashing or eliminating in order to be more different.