An Alternative to Publisher Branding?

Zebra herdAs Nathan Bransford has pointed out, branding and credibility are two things publishers have a great grasp of. A book gets a boost when it has a certain imprint’s logo on its spine, and the name recognition of some brands can give a debut author a leg up he or she wouldn’t be able to achieve on their own. Since most readers—most consumers, really—tend to go with names they trust, this branding and name recognition is a huge aspect of marketing that indie authors miss out on.

(To any of you who doubt that publishers’ brands have a strong pull, look to Angry Robot, whose bestselling item in their online store is a yearly subscription to their ebooks, sight unseen, and to the rabid Baen readership.)

Personal Branding and Group Branding

Most indie authors strike out to create their own personal brand associated with their name and style, and some of them do quite well—Amanda Hocking and John Locke, to name two. Traditionally published authors also achieve personal brands beyond their publishers—Tom Clancy is a good example there. But I wonder if group branding could be beneficial to indie authors.

Group branding, like that available via publishers to traditionally published authors, gives immense benefits to new or little-known authors as they’re building their own platforms and personal brands. Indie authors start with even less credibility than a debut traditional author, so I believe group branding is something they could definitely look into.

Currently I’m just musing, and I hardly have any hard and fast answers in this regard, but I wonder if some sort of group branding will emerge in indie publishing. A form I believe could be effective is a sort of authors club in which like-minded authors build a reputation as a group as well as individuals. An individual reputation could lend to the overall marketing draw of the group, and the group reputation could lend itself to newer writers.

Authors Clubs in Action

I’ve seen something like this work with writers already out on the market. Though Brandon Sanderson, Dan Well, and Howard Tayler all tell stories in different styles (and mediums), readers of one storyteller will often end up sampling the work from one of the others simply because these three do so much together (Writing Excuses, for one example). Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch share a similar sort of group branding because they’re married and do a lot together. Each author retains an individual identity within the group, but they draw readers to each other by virtue of the group. For example, when Mary Robinette Kowal joined Writing Excuses, my (already existing) interest in her book, Shades of Milk and Honey, grew because she associated with a group of people I was already familiar with.

Indie authors could likely achieve something similar. They could produce something together (like Writing Excuses) and promote each others’ individual works. Perhaps when someone came out with a new book, the authors in the group could all pool together and write an anthology of short stories based in the same world, using the same characters, or centered on the same theme that could be used to drive buzz and interest.

Practical Matters and Considerations

Of course, there a small difficulty of determining how you would go about creating some sort of authors club. The default answer would be to get your friends or writing group together and make that your club. This would present problems if your club needed to do some quality control and one member wasn’t quite up to the same level as the rest of the members; you’d be so tightly knit together that the interpersonal issues could create more drama than it’s worth. You could also try to attract a group of authors who have similar views on what stories and writing should do (entertain, enlighten, enlarge, etc.), or you could create a band of individuals who write with similar styles, in the same genre niche, or on the same topic (which would be especially useful for nonfiction).

Maybe you could try out a few mutually promotional anthologies or blog tours to test out the relationship before really going full bore on it; maybe you already have a group you work well with and you’d just need to share your brains a bit before you could make it work. There would be a lot of things that needed to be ironed out. Do you need a formal agreement? How do you determine who joins your club? How do you control quality and standards? How you do kick someone out? Can you kick someone out, and will you ever want to? Will anyone be “in charge”?

Bottom line, it could be really tricky to create a successful group for branding purposes. The Writing Excuses crowd are all friends, and Smith and Rusch are married, so their groups formed more or less organically. But I think the benefits of having a group pool of branding capital could be extremely beneficial for writers who are looking to strike out on their own. Yeah, “group branding” and “striking out on your own” are a bit paradoxical. But there’s a reason publishing has consolidated into a handful of large groups. It’s because a group has more opportunities than an individual, and in optimal circumstances the group flourishes when its individuals do, and individuals flourish my nature of belonging to the group.

The future and place of group branding in indie publishing efforts is something I’m curious about and keeping an eye on. What are your thoughts?

Image by Worakit Sirjinda via

Weekly Roundup: 9/3–9/9

Cory Doctorow: “Why Should Anyone Care?”

Cory Doctorow shares his thoughts about working at a bookstore and how that opened his eyes to how the book-producing industry chugs through the years. He also provides some practical thoughts on self-publishing based on his own experience. My favorite quote: “I knew I’d have to do some of the stuff my publisher had done, but like everyone doing something complicated for the first time, I dramatically underestimated how much work this would be. ”

Stacy Whitman: “Some Thoughts on Middle Grade Voice”

The editorial director of Tu Books shares her thoughts on voice in general and the middle grade voice in particular (I thought this article would follow up last week’s Wordplay podcast quite well). She focuses on how hard humor is, and why it’s really bad if your writing displays the difficulty of your undertaking.

Nathan Bransford: “Publishers Are Squandering Their Cachet On Imprints”

Nathan Bransford presents a post about how publishers lend credibility to authors associated with their brand name—and why that credibility may be squandered on lesser-known imprints and specialty groups. (I’d like to comment more on this, but I recognize more imprints than most people should, so I can’t really say which imprints are actually adding brand-name power to a book.)

Wordplay Podcast Episode 2: “Character, Plot, & Protagonists”

This week the Wordplay team has Ally Condie, the author of Matched, as a guest on episode 2.They talk about the difference between character-driven and plot-driven fiction, and why you need a balance between the two. They also harangue the idea of a paper cutout villain who doesn’t have believable motives or a certain degree of emotional complexity.

Writing Excuses 6.14: “Suspension of Disbelief”

The Writing Excuses crew has Patrick Rothfuss joining them for a podcast about suspending your reader’s disbelief. Some highlights: don’t make everything too tidy, don’t betray human nature, lay your groundwork, and make use of the slow build to absurdity. Rothfuss also highlights the concept of bathos, which boils down to undercutting serious or weighty things with commonplace events or thoughts.

Jon Schindehette: “Is Illustration a Viable and Productive Art Form?”

Illustration is the art of books, from two-page illustrated spreads to covers. In this post Jon Schindehette (creative director at Wizards of the Coast) briefly looks at illustration as an art form from an artist’s standpoint. He also addresses the viewpoint of an art director or editor. “[Art directors and editors] are responsible for ensure [sic] the artist that is chosen is appropriate for the task at hand, but they are also responsible for communicating the ‘needs of the text’ so that you [the illustrator] understand what success will look like.” If you’re an author looking into being your own publisher, you should also start thinking about what it takes to be your own art director as well.

Kristin Nelson: “In The Author’s Shoes”

Agent Kristin Nelson shares a conversation she had with an author who has recently changed agents. The author pointed out three things every author should be sure of before signing with an agent. Kristin adds her thoughts on each point. These points serve as a reminder that the author–agent relationship should be a partnership, and you should approach it as such. If you can’t ensure they’ll be a good business partner, you shouldn’t be signing with them.

Weekly Roundup: 8/29–9/3

This is the first of my (hopefully) weekly roundups where I post articles and events in publishing that caught my eye this week. The focus is that these are what caught my eye, so they may not be the most important stuff for anyone else.

Wordplay Podcast: Young Adult & Middle Grade Novels

Nathan Bransford (former agent, author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow), James Dashner (author of the Thirteenth Reality series, Maze Runner Trilogy), and J. Scott Savage (author of the Far World series and the forthcoming Grimville Case Files from HarperCollins) launched a new podcast this week called Wordplay. Their first episode was “Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels,” which, given their publishing credentials, was a perfect topic for them (the episode is around 20 minutes long—I’m pretty sure they don’t intend for it to become an hour-long monster ’cast).

The point they hit on that I appreciated the most was defining the idea of a middle grade sensibility. That sensibility is something I’ve heard a lot about, and when I read a YA book and then a middle grade book I can definitely feel the difference, but it’s hard to define. They essentially said that reaching a middle grade sensibility means writing from the perspective of a young reader—the things that get noticed, the way they’re interpreted, etc., should be seen like your ideal reader. This can come from channeling your inner 12-year-old (and trying to sound like them) or simply capturing the sense of wonder associated with what your ideal reader will fall in love with (they use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as an example of a middle grade book that doesn’t have a middle grade voice but still captures the middle grade sensibility). Portraying your ideal reader’s interests in a way they’ll appreciate is good advice no matter the age group you’re writing for.

Another interesting point they hit on was whether the MG/YA distinction is going to matter quite as much as people move away from physical bookstores (where things are shelved categorically, instead of by author). Nathan mentioned that middle grade is the youngest genre that gets read up by older people; James said he has the same reader in mind when he’s writing the Thirteenth Reality books (MG) and when he’s writing the Maze Runner books (YA). They all think the distinctions are going to become less important for future electronic markets.

The podcast will also have special episodes every third Monday that are just for younger writers and readers (3rd through 8th grade). You can email questions or requests for content directly to

Writing Excuses: World Building Communications Technology

If you write in speculative fiction, you’ve probably already heard of Writing Excuses, the writing podcast from Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and (new to this season) Mary Robinette Kowal. For episode 13 of season 6, they put out “World Building Communications Technology.”

The podcast is basically an encouragement to think outside the box when you’re thinking about your speculative world’s communications capabilities, and they also warned against defaulting to the level of communication you’re familiar with. When you’re in a pre-industrial world, remember things like the semaphor, or the communication capabilities of the Great Wall of China (old war technologies are good things to look at). In Victorian England, they had mail deliveries and pickups 10 times a day—that’s practically as good as email if you live close enough together.

To find inspiration for conflict in your communications, the WE crew recommended looking for failure points in your communications system (where can servers clog up, what happens during natural disasters, etc.).

Nathan Bransford: The Place for Publishers with Big-Name Authors

Nathan Bransford makes his second appearance in this week’s roundup with his blog post entitled “By the Time A Self-Publisher Hits It Big, Do They Really Need a Publisher?” In the post he looks at John Locke’s recent distribution deal with Simon & Schuster and questions what publishers can offer authors who have already made a name for themselves (i.e. the authors who do much of the work to make publishing a functional business). He wonders if publishers who survive the revolution will need to focus on the package of services they provide authors and instead become service providers instead of top dogs.

Janet Reid: Pitch versus query

For those of you planning to go with traditional publishing: the literary agent behind Query Shark posted about the difference between a pitch and a query—with examples. Examples really are the best way to learn this stuff.

Joe Konrath: How To Succeed

For anyone trying to be published (traditionally or on your own): self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath succinctly outlines how to succeed. My favorite line? “No one deserves to make money writing. The world doesn’t owe you a living, and you aren’t entitled to huge sales. You simply need to work at it, until you get lucky.” I also like his answer to “What if I never get lucky?” and “Can it really take forever to be successful?” No matter what you’re trying to do with your books, it takes hard work, dedication, and a lot of luck. That doesn’t mean you need a lot of those things concentrated over a matter of month, or even over a few years.

Lou Anders: Thoughts on eBooks

Please take a moment to consider Lou Anders’s thoughts on ebooks. I wholeheartedly agree. I’ll probably add more thoughts on this in future posts.