Diluting Your Author Brand (or, Getting All Up In Your Kool-Aid).
Hi. I’m about to get all up in your Kool-Aid. Bear with me for a bit, because I have some things I’d like to discuss about your author brand, and you may not want to hear them.
Most people don’t think of their author brand as a thing that can be quantified. Instead it’s more of a trait; just like Mirabel has red hair and Sally can’t sleep until she’s brushed her hair for exactly four hundred and seventy-three strokes, Lucy writes historical romance with a BDSM twist and Janice always finds a way to kill a clown by the end of every book. These things can’t really be measured; they simply are.
Except, where your author brand is concerned, it’s not.
Your author brand is a quantifiable substance. It’s a product. It has weight, mass, and density. It can be counted, sorted, packaged, sold, distributed. It can be broken down into different flavors, spread too thin, spread too thick. It can be too strong or too weak, or just right.
What your author brand is, in essence, is a Kool-Aid flavoring pack.
And when you try to make a Kool-Aid flavoring pack stretch too far, you end up with a diluted, watered-down brand. Here’s the recipe:
- Take one author brand. This can be your name, the particular style you’re known for, whatever it is that acts as the foundation for your platform.
- Mix with water. And by water, I mean books. As many books as possible. The instructions on the side of the Kool-Aid packet say mix with two quarts of water. Your Kool-Aid packet says mix with two, maybe three books a year, but here’s the thing: with royalty-paying digital publishers so popular now, you can put out two or three books a month. More if you self-publish.
- Stir well. Divide into single-size servings and distribute to as many people as possible. Do your best to get each person to take more than one serving with the promise there’s a slightly different flavor to each 8oz cup of sugar water. Fans of your flavor will snap up anything you give them, naturally.
Sounds perfect, right? Except it doesn’t quite work that way. And it doesn’t quite lead to the royalties you’d be expecting. There’s a reason New York publishing houses often limit authors to 1-2 books a year, and it’s not just because of editing time, production lead times, or advance marketing schedules. It’s because they’re managing the author brand, and looking for just the right mix of branding + product to leave a good taste in readers’ mouths and leave them wanting more.
Flood the market, and just like mixing a single Kool-Aid pack with six-gallon drum of water, you’ll end up with something diluted, tasteless, and unsatisfying, so generic it’s indistinguishable from slightly bitter-tasting water. Which means your books (the water, if you’re following along with this horrible, horrible metaphor here) are indistinguishable from each other, leaving a bad taste in readers’ mouths. You’ve just become generic in a market oversaturated with yourself, and no matter how you try to sweeten the deal with giveaways and swag and marketing, you’re left with a watered-down brand that people won’t even remember, let alone return to.
There are lots of reasons for this. Some of them have to do with buying habits, others with public perception, others with your own ability to consistently put out a quality product. There are a million factors to consider when you’re shopping your books around to publishers, and trying to get as many as possible out within the year to maximize your royalties and build your backlist while you’re still fresh and new and trying to make a name for yourself. Things like:
1. Unless they’re buying a series, readers tend to think in terms of purchasing “either/or” rather than “and” when choosing books by the same author.
I’m not calling readers cheapskates. What I am calling them is pragmatic. A book is a huge time investment, much more than a movie or the million other forms of entertainment they can and will spend money on before they’ll spend money on your book. If they don’t like the album they just bought or the movie they just rented, that’s a few minutes or hours of their lives they can’t get back. If they don’t like your book? Depending on how long it is and how quickly they read, that can mean days. Days they will quietly resent you for, if they feel in any way cheated.
So in the backs of their minds, even if they aren’t aware of it, they’re thinking in terms of time investment and whether or not a book is worth it. If you release two non-series books simultaneously, they’ll be trying to decide which one they want, rather than defaulting to buying both. But when both the books they’re choosing between are yours, you win either way, especially if you’ve converted a new reader to the Almighty Church of You – right?
Some of your die-hard fans will buy anything you put out, but not nearly as many of your fans are as dedicated as you’d like to think. General fans and new readers will think, “Well, I’ll buy one book and if I like it, I’ll come back for the other.” Some of them even will. Most of them? Won’t. They’ll add it to their wishlist and forget about it, and what could have been two sales had you released and marketed the books separately has become one lonely little sale, waving forlornly to your unsold book in the rear view mirror.
It doesn’t stop there. In making that either/or choice, readers will more often gravitate toward the cheaper book, especially if they’ve never read you before. In the best case scenario, they love the book so much they become one of the aforementioned die-hard fans and come back to snap up everything you’ve ever written. In the more likely scenario, you’ve just screwed yourself out of higher royalties on the more expensive book because you couldn’t wait one or two more months to release, when your buying public is ready to make another commitment to investing time in one of your books.
So let’s say you have a novella priced at 99 cents and a category romance priced at $2.99. (Aww snap, that’s right, I’m breaking out the numbers in this bitch.) Let’s also say you get a 30% royalty from the publisher on those, assuming your percent is taken from what's left over after the distributor cut and not the even smaller amount left over after the publisher cut. We’ll use the Amazon 70/30 split as an example…and keep in mind that on digital books priced below $2.99, Amazon keeps 70% and you keep 30%. On books priced at $2.99 or above, Amazon keeps 30% and you keep 70%. So on that cheaper novella – the more likely choice for the frugal reader – you’re getting a 30% cut of 29.7 cents. On the more expensive category, you’re getting 30% of $2.09.
So your final take from the sale of each novella is 8.91 cents. Final take from the sale of each category romance novel? 62.79 cents. Even hoping astronomical sales of the cheaper book will compensate for the low return, it’s unlikely you’ll see the results you were hoping for when you eagerly trotted out your wares. In the back of your mind you were probably hoping that each sale per customer would combine the two books, and you’d walk away with 71.7 cents in profit per customer purchase.
But the unfortunate reality is that you’ll likely be getting 8.91 cents, and they won’t ever come back to give you that 62.79 cents that would be the real bread and butter of your sales – because, on release, you gave them a choice. And they didn’t choose what you wanted.
This is why releases from a single author are staggered – so that for one or two or six months, their primary offering is a matter of default, not a matter of choice. Once the book’s post-launch sales potential has exhausted itself and it trends off the new release market, it won’t matter if there are fifty backlist books delivering a trickle of continued sales from fans interested in discovering more from a beloved author (and that trickle does add up). What matters is managing brand perception of your current offering, and making sure you do everything you can to position each new release as a must-have instead of a possible choice out of many.
Well okay, you say. But what if the two books you’re releasing are totally different? What if one’s SF, the other’s historical, and there’s very little overlap in the buying market, so it doesn’t matter anyway?
2. Spreading yourself too thin over multiple markets can undermine your ability to create a strong platform in a single market.
That’s not to say that authors shouldn’t branch out. If you want to jump from paranormal into hardcore science fiction, great. Tons of people have done it successfully, and cultivated new and even overlapping audiences. But be aware that you’ll have to rebuild your audience mostly from scratch, and create a wholly new brand image that readers can concretely grasp in concise terms – and when you’re trying to build multiple audiences in multiple markets simultaneously without an existing base in any single market, you might make an okay amount from the combined trickle of incremental revenues, but you’re missing out on the snowball effect.
The snowball effect is what happens when a book hits that peak sales point where it becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Suddenly it’s pretty much selling itself; ranking lists and book reviews and word of mouth and the overall book industry machine combine into a gestalt that shoves that book under everyone’s noses, and everyone’s buying. The snowball effect multiplies sales exponentially; when a book jumps that hurdle, it jumps hard, and can skyrocket from a few hundred sales a month to a few hundred thousand or (he says as a hundred authors feel a little tingle below the belt) a few million. But it’s less likely to do that when you’ve got twenty other books released at the same time, the weight of their poor-to-middling sales undermining your brand reputation and dragging it down. Why?
3. Because when you’re throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, readers can tell.
At first glance, it makes sense: put out as much as possible in the hopes that one of those dogs will surge ahead of the others and go streaking over the finish line. If you bet on every dog in the race, you’ve got to win some time – and if all those dogs are yours you haven’t lost anything from betting on the losers, right?
Again, wrong. Very, very wrong.
Because you’re competing with yourself, and as I mentioned in point #1, you’re cannibalizing your own sales. And, frankly, you’re boxing yourself in as yet another generic e-book author throwing out book after book after book in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will notice you.
When you want to be noticed, being generic is a little self-defeating. And flooding the market with your books? Makes you look desperate, and like you don’t have a plan for managing your career as an author. You don’t want to look desperate and clueless. Readers can smell desperation and cluelessness like a high school clique zeroing in on that poor nerd who’s five seconds away from wearing his Underoos as a hat – and it’s a huge turnoff. It damages your reputation, and a damaged reputation is very hard to recover.
4. If you sell yourself cheaply, people will think you’re cheap.
Your brand is a commodity, and frankly the value of that commodity is entirely in its public perception. When supply exceeds demand, your product is just going to sit on the shelves without making any money. And when that product is you?
Consumers will think “If no one else is buying her books, why should I?”
When you devalue yourself in the public eye by flinging books out left and right, signing with every publisher who makes an offer, you create the perception that you produce cheap products of little value. People associate Wal-Mart with low prices because of mass production and enormous variety, but they sure as hell don’t associate them with quality. You don’t want to be the Wal-Mart of the book world. You want to be Saks 5th Avenue, and that means controlling what you supply to generate demand.
More than just a commodity, you need to be a hot commodity. Something readers feel privileged to gain access to. No one gives a shit when Kraft launches a new flavor of mac n’cheese, no matter how brightly those Wal-Mart display shelves promise Kraft is really excited about this product, and you should be too. But the world lights its collective ass on fire wiggling their seats in anticipation when Ridley Scott hints at a not-quite-prequel to the Alien franchise, because that franchise has been established as something of value with lasting brand appeal.
So build a franchise with lasting brand appeal, not a marginally new flavor of the same old product. There’s no anticipation of anything special when you’re slapping a new book up on Amazon every two weeks and saying “It’s there, bitches, go buy it.” You’re just common bottom-shelf goods, cheap and easily accessible – and not worth waiting for.
5. Burnout is a bitch.
Eventually the stress of producing – and editing, I should hope – so many books in such a short period of time will catch up with you, and that’s when you'll go down in flames. It’ll start off slow. You’ll let a loosely-written scene slip because you’ve been up for three days straight and you’ve got a deadline with one publisher tomorrow, the day after your launch event with another publisher. Then you’ll start peppering in continuity errors as you get your series mixed up. You’ll stop caring if you re-used that phrase a dozen times over. The quality of your work will slip drastically. Readers will notice. Reviewers will say things. Publishing industry people who were once sniffing after your scent trail will suddenly shy away like you've got leprosy and just asked to borrow their scarf. It will piss you off, and you’ll be so tired you won’t really have the judgment or restraint necessary to bite your tongue in that crucial moment that could have saved you from committing career suicide. You'll gain not fame, but notoriety, and everyone will gather 'round to watch you burn.
Even if you don’t crash and burn so dramatically, you’ll still notice a decline in which not only are readers completely “meh” about your fortieth new book this year, but you are too. You’ll write by rote and formula, and suddenly you don’t have a brand. You just have a content mill.
Your editors, too, will be exhausted - trying not only to keep up with your releases with their publisher, but to keep up with your other releases so they can attempt, often in vain, to make smart decisions about timing your books based on what else you have floating around in the works while you're constantly missing one deadline after another.
And when even your editors are too tired to handle another book from you, that’s when you have a problem.
So. Hey. Slow your roll.
I know the temptation’s out there. Success is a heady and thrilling thing. You’ll have one awesome book that really takes off, and suddenly you’re a hot ticket and everyone wants a piece of you. You’ve got a million brilliant story ideas, and the world needs to read them all. You’ll get greedy and think if you don’t snap up these opportunities now, you’ll never have them again. But when you’re handing out all these pieces of yourself, you’re going to run out, over-commit, and end up scattered everywhere without a centralized brand focus - instead of making intelligent, strategic, and patient choices about your career as an author.
You’ll be watered-down. You’ll be over-saturated. And you’ll have major issues not only with not being able to manage your brand, but not even being wholly sure what that brand is.
And it’s sad when an author is all up in their own Kool-Aid, and don’t even know the flavor.***