Nicola Griffith has an excellent and in depth post up about the balancing act between developing depth of craft as a writer, and branding the art that comes of craft.
Branded. It’s a brutal word for a brutal practice: a label burnt into the hide without permission. On a cow a brand marks an animal that belongs to a herd. Yet to create art the artist must be as free as possible from the herd mentality: neither belong to any group nor follow any but our own particular, often peculiar path.
The short answer on branding for writers is – don’t. Here’s why.
Branding is about imbuing low value ingredients with qualities that give it a high value. To steal a line from Ricky Gervais, Coca-Cola is just fizzy brown water with sugar in. It costs pennies to produce dozens of gallons of coke. So those clever folks at the Coca-Cola corporation spend literally billions of dollars every year making advertisements that market Coke to you. They don’t do this to inform you that Coke exists. They do it so that when you see Coke, you associate it with certain brand values – America, vitality, sex, sun. To name a few. Now the fizzy brown water with sugar in has gone from low to high value, because when you drink Coke, you feel like those values apply to you, an experience worth paying for.
Now consider the strawberry. The strawberry requires no advertisements, no marketing strategy, and no brand values. Strawberries have been hunted by man and woman for all of human history, simply because they are fucking tasty. Do you know what isn’t tasty? Sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil and modified starch. These being the main ingredients in Angel Delight (a kind of synthesised dessert mouse, for those fortunates never made to eat it). The modern food industry doesn’t start out with the desire to make a lovely dessert. it starts out with a cheap, abundant “ingredient” that often exists as a byproduct of another industrial process. In this case, modified starch, and asks “what can we make with this that we can sell for the highest mark-up? And hence the deluge of processed foods, that will do as much to ruin your health as smoking, and cause chronic obesity. Why does anyone eat them? Or worse, feed them to their kids? The answer? Branding of course. And a little artificial strawberry flavouring.
If you’re a working parent, who can’t afford real strawberries for your kids the this ad for Angel Delight, which is only “food” by the very loosest of definitions, hits all the right buttons. Of course! Angel Delight is like strawberries and cream! All whizzed together! Perfect for pud! And there, the branding has you. And it’s the same story for all major brand products – low value ingredients, made in to a high value product with the clever application of brand values.
What, as a writer, are you? Are you a producer of a low value product? Do you need to persuade readers that your writing has brand values that actually it doesn’t? Do you actually believe your writing has real value? If you’ve been through the complex process of learning to write that Nicola Griffith explores in her essay, you’ll be tremendously wary of branding. Because you know your writing is a strawberry. It doesn’t need to be marketed. As soon as people get a whiff if its sweet stench, they’ll come hunting for the fruit.
When writers do enthusiastically brand themselves, it’s always a sign that they’re trying to sell you Angel Delight. A book full of wonky sentences, half cooked plot ideas, and cheap characters. So they use the brand values of genre to try and make you think this botched epic fantasy will be like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or that this cliched cyberpunk novel will be a shiny chromium prize like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But it never is. In fact, once you know the signs, branding is one of the most counter-productive things a writer can do. because if you’re channelling a lot of effort in to branding your work, it tells me that deep down you believe it’s of low value.
2 thoughts on “Branding for writers – just don’t”
Very well said, Damien. Once upon a time, there was a comment that children of Depression-era Midwestern frugal parents (like mine) had thumped into them: “If it was any good, why would they need to advertise?”
Now, there is an answer to some of that. Publicity strongly conditions how people approach a work, and for some readers may very nearly define the work so that it can almost over-write what the author did. And if you the writer don’t take some control of advertising&marketing, your work may be sold as the thing that is easiest to sell rather than the thing it is, or as how someone in the organization misunderstood it. Conversely, if what they do is set up a fan to waft the smell of strawberries toward the population, you may get discovered a lot sooner, and by a swarm of people who love the strawberries you’ve got.
But yes, we have too many people out there who think they’re being “realistic” and “businesslike” as they turn their own work and best impulses into synthetic book-like product with a shiny wrapper. Not good for literature, not good for that particular book, and I kind of suspect absolutely horrible in the long run for the writer; the people I have seen who are able to do that sort of thing long term have generally been the sort of people who really, truly can’t tell a good book from a bad one, and therefore have to get all their validation from sales — which is like having to get all your water from rainfall. Sooner or later, there’s a drought, and then you’re truly hosed.
I think what you wrote is true enough, however, given the current state of indie publishing, social media and fandom, authors ARE brands, whether we want to be or not.