Branded: The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.

Kameron Hurley • November 20th, 2009 @ 10:40 am • Uncategorized

Guest blogger Kameron Hurley does most of her ranting at her blog, Brutal Women. You can find  some of her recent fiction in Year’s Best SF 12, Strange Horizons, and EscapePod. She currently makes a living as a marketing and sales copywriter in Ohio, and has sold or nearly sold or sort of sold or is still in the process of selling a book called God’s War, which may or may not actually be published at some unspecified period from an as yet unspecified publisher. Stay tuned.

Jay Lake recently made an observation about how copywriting differs from fiction writing. Copy doesn’t just convey information. It’s about creating, building, and reinforcing a brand image. This generally means that once you’ve got the brand “voice” down, you spend a good deal of time rehashing and repurposing old copy. You repeat yourself. The key to writing copy for any big brand is consistency.  “Repurposing” isn’t considered a bad thing. Ideally, everything you write should be immediately identifiable as the voice of that brand, even if you take out the company name and pretty graphics.

Fiction, Lake pointed out, isn’t like that. Our goal as creative writers – particularly in SF/F – hinges more on the “creative” than the writer part (as many badly-written books can attest). We enjoy good, creative, idea-packed stories. We don’t repurpose old text. We try to make every book different. What I love about so many books is that original creation, that difference (I recently became enamored with Tim Akers’s Heart of Veridon, which I highly, highly recommend).

That said, I think that as much as we like to pretend that what gets us ahead is our originality and creativity, writers – whether consciously or not – end up either being branded or branding themselves over the course of their careers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it comes with all the perils and pitfalls inherent in that.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I work on yet another bloody brutal women story. One of the paralyzing things I encountered as I started working on some short fiction earlier this year came when I re-read the opening to one of my works in progress:

Yousra had always feared the bodies. Not the ones that she killed, no, but the ones out beyond the thorn fence that the Heroes left to the dung beetles and muskflies.

Oh, for fuck’s sake, I thought, I’m writing another story about women chopping off people’s heads. And, OK, this time it’s with machetes instead of swords, but c’mon.

I brooded about it. I dithered some more. It got worse when I started revising an old trunk novel that literally has women licking blood off each other’s faces. I mean, seriously, WTF? Sometimes I startle MYSELF with the shit I write.

Because what happens when you start writing stories about bloody women is that people start to expect that that’s ALL you’re going to write about. Did I really want to brand myself as a writer with these particular kinks? All bugs and blood and brutal fucking women? Because let’s face it: this is niche stuff, and it’s going to turn a lot of people off.  Sometimes it turns ME off.

When I first started writing with the intent of publication – back when I was in my mid-to-late teens – I wrote a lot of really boring stories. I bought a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress collections, and tried hard to emulate what I found there. This is what everyone tells you to do when you first start writing: read a lot of published short stories and try and emulate them.

The trouble was, I was profoundly bored by the stories I found in an anthology called, y’know, Sword and Sorceress. There were always chicks with swords on the cover, so I expected a certain level of… brutal, scary women. Right?  But… the stories and characters and settings generally weren’t all that interesting to me. Or all that bloody. I would learn later that MZB wasn’t exactly the type of writer I wanted to emulate anyway (I recently read a Darkover novel and had an intense desire to simply throw it away in the trash. That says a lot, considering I have a deep aversion to throwing away books).

After many years without selling anything, I decided I was wasting my time on writing what I thought I should be writing, and I started writing what I wanted to write. I started to write the types of stories I wasn’t seeing on the shelves. The books nobody else was writing.

I had a lot more fun writing, and I started selling stuff. But it’s taken me a long time to come to grips with the fact that I do, in fact, write bloody apocalypse/war stories about tough women. I’m all about learning to accept who you are, but it’s tough to accept who you are when it turns out you’re a bloody fucking ninja.

Like it or not, this is how I’m starting to get branded. It happens to all of us when we start writing the stories that interest us. And yes, it has the same benefits – and drawbacks – as company branding. People come to expect certain types of stories from you, and they read you for stories like that. Which is great for building a loyal audience who knows what to expect, but bad for when you branch out from writing, say, romance novels to writing criminal thrillers. You’re only going to bring along so many regular readers for the ride. Once you’ve got a hit, it’s a lot harder to get a publisher to take on other things. People want more of the same. They want more of your brand. Pen names are great for when we switch gears (as Daniel Abraham/M.L.N. Hanover and Tim Pratt/T.A. Pratt, among many others, can attest).

The trouble you really run into is when you’ve got a niche market brand.

Right?

Well, let’s look at the corporate copy equivalent of that. 80% of your sales come from 20% of your buyers. So why are you wasting time catering to the 80% who only make up 20% of your sales?

It’s like that with books, too. You can be a niche writer and make a living these days, primarily because the internet makes it a lot easier to find your people (Catherynne Valente’s reader/fan community is a great example of this).

I worried a lot about being a niche writer. I worried a lot about finding “my people.” I still worry a lot about pen names for future books (see Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison). But you know, if I ended up publishing drastically different books under the same name, I’d dilute my crazy niche brand. If folks know what they’re getting into when they read a Kameron Hurley book, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  Your goal is to reach out and find the people who like what you like. It’s like going to a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. You’re guaranteed a certain type of film.

For better or worse.

But for the ones who love that type of story, your name is all the marketing they need.  Oh, for the day when a name is all the marketing I need…. (and until then there’s Book Rejection Bingo).

It’s taken me a long time to be OK with what I write. But the alternative to writing what I love is writing what I think will sell to as many people as possible. And you know what?

Book publishing is an exercise is speculation.  I’m all about speculation.

There’s plenty of time for pen names later.

3 Responses to “Branded: The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.”

  1. Jay Lake: [links] Link salad takes the last train to the coast says:

    [...] The Good. The Bad. The Ugly. — Kameron Hurley riffs on a recent comment of mine about copy writing vs fiction writing. [...]

  2. Kenneth Mark Hoover says:

    Good essay, I enjoyed it.

  3. Daemon says:

    When you get right down to it, this is the issue with Genre fiction itself. A Genre, essentially, is the same as a Brand, just not an author- or even publisher-specific one.

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