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 FreeDigitalPhotos.net