No, put those hot irons down. That’s not the kind of branding I mean. Save it for your stories, people.* I mean branding in the marketing sense.
The common wisdom among publishers is that fans come to expect a certain kind of story from their favorite author, and writing more than one style of book risked alienating the folks who are paying your salary. In a recent blog entry, author David Farland has said that, these days, even writing different settings for different novels is too big a risk for most authors. Many authors write under different names in different genres, as a consequence.
In 1977, Stephen King published the novel Rage under the name Richard Bachmann. The Bachmann books differed in theme and tone from King’s (see the novels Desperation and The Regulators, King writing the same basic idea in two styles, for the most dramatic example), and they sold well enough. When King was outed as Bachmann, the sales of Bachman’s books jumped tenfold. The name matters.
What this means for you, my storytelling friends at ForbiddenFiction, is that your name matters.
The name you publish under isn’t just a word or two useful for indexing your fiction. It isn’t primarily a means of self-expression. It’s a way of selling your story to your audience. The author is the second thing most people will look for, after the title, and it’s the first thing your fans will look for.
This is why there are so many male authors writing romance and erotica under feminine names. If you’re writing under the name John Smith (which is a terrible name for a writer, really), once folks read your first John Smith story, that’s what they’re going to expect from John Smith in the future. If you want to write different styles with the same name, you better start with your second story.
People really will compare your stories with each other. Assuming that they’ll judge each story on its own merits is unrealistic, that’s just not how the default settings for the human brain work. It’s also one reason why editing and criticism are learned skills, just to get past that default. So if you write four humorous stories as John Smith and then write a moody existential drama for your fifth, half of your readers will insist that it’s not as good as your earlier work, even if it is objectively the finest thing you’ve written. You really are better off picking a new pen name for your dramatic work.
Which means, like it or not, the name you write under is part of your style, and it should go with your style. I don’t mean that your pen name should sound like a character from a b-grade entry into your genre, because that makes it sound like you aren’t taking your own work seriously. I personally hate pen names for erotica that sound like porn star names, for that reason. What I do mean is that your pen name should sound like a name, and if you’re writing in different genres or styles under different names, the names should be quite distinct, just to keep things clear.
Your fans will look for your work by searching your name, make it easy on them. Make your pen name distinct and easy to remember.
The same logic goes for the titles of your works. If you’re writing a series, the titles should connect, thematically, to advertise that they’re the same series. Your title should indicate what’s in the story, what the story is about. This is why we often recommend that authors change titles that are just one word, or that only make sense after reading the story. Your title is your first piece of advertising.
Remember, when we post a story on the site or on our sales site, the first thing they’ll see is the title, the second thing is the author’s name. Then, most likely, they’ll see the cover art. By this point, most people have already decided whether or not to read. Your first chance to hook them is with these three points, and you (as the author) aren’t making the covers, so the one you have the most control over are the title and your name. Make them count.
*Unless very well trained and committed for certain types of cultural or kink practicioners.