Is Your Brand Interfering with Your Writing?

001It’s funny living in Santa Fe, because it’s such a center for the visual arts. Ever since Georgia O’Keeffe arrived for a visit and fell in love with the light, visual artists of every stamp have flocked to the region. Galleries are everywhere and nearly every person you meet is a painter or a sculptor or  a photographer or a jewelry maker and so on. It’s prevalent enough that it became a kind of running gag after we moved here, when we met new people – what kind of artist they’d be and how long before they told us we should buy some of their art.

(I am deliberately specifying the visual arts because there’s a weird dearth of writers here. One of my writer friends calls it “the vast Siberia of literary arts” and she’s not far off.)

So, it’s not unusual to see people’s artistic efforts around the neighborhood – in a way you would never see in another community. It’s quite wonderful, really, even if some of the art is kind of bizarre. There’s one house down the block from us where the resident artist – I’m convinced it’s a woman, but I don’t know – is into painting the desert plants and artifacts. First she painted a cow skull in big blocks of lurid tempura colors – pink, green and yellow. Then a piece of driftwood. Then a wooden saguaro cactus. She seems to be into the quadrants of unnatural colors thing.

It’s not pretty.

Then I noticed the other day that she’d attacked a large, many branched cholla on their property and the poor thing is now painted in similar chunks of this bright color, which I’m pretty sure will kill its ability to photosynthesize. It’s like she’s Goldfinger, serially murdering the landscape.

At any rate, I can see what she’s going for – a very clear style – even if it doesn’t do much for me. I do wonder, however, if she’s sacrificing a heartfelt artistic effort for the sake of this style. This brand.

We writers hear about brand all the time these days. We’re in a peculiar position in that we, ourselves, are our brand. Just as we glommed onto authors, reading everything from an author on the library shelf, readers follow US, not necessarily our publishers or our genres. What we write arises out of us, but we are the physical embodiment of it because, even with print books, story remains intangible. It can be kind of a funky thing – especially when being sane about the business requires separating ourselves from our work.

I’m very careful to say “this work was rejected” or “this book got a good review,” not “I was rejected” or “I got a good review.”

But, for the purposes of branding, well meaning and helpful marketing types are forever reminding me that *I* am my brand. My brand is me. I’m pretty much just a walking, talking advertisement for All Things Jeffe. I’m picturing something like that old movie poster for the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

See how creepy this gets?

It struck me the other day, because I saw a youngish writer tweeting about writing tips. She said something along the lines of that, when she gets stuck writing, she thinks of her brand and what her readers would expect from her. I can see how this is smart marketing, but it bothered me. It took me a few days to pin down why.

This is the tail wagging the dog, right?

I mean, let’s look at someone like Neil Gaiman. He started out writing dark graphic novels and creepy stories. He liked wearing black t-shirts because they generally looked clean and matched everything. Over time, the way he looks and the stories he writes merged into a very recognizable “feel” that is quintessentially Neil Gaiman. This is partly because he’s a person who is comfortable with himself and his career. His sincerity and honesty, his self-deprecating humor and insightful intelligence – all of these combine to make him very recognizably himself.

But WHAT he writes is all over the place! He does exactly what the marketers advise us not to do. He writes children’s books, adult magical realism, horror, screenplays, graphic novels, science fiction and more. All under the same name, too.

Here’s how he answered a recent set of questions on his Tumblr:

1. How would you describe the genre of your work?

 Stories.

 2. Have you always known what genre you wanted to write, or was it a process?

I don’t know. I write stories, if that’s any help.

3. How important is the development of atmosphere and setting to the genre of your works?

Very, I think. Whatever genre they are, if they had no atmosphere or setting they would not be as good.

4. What do you prefer to write and why? (short stories, novels, screenwriting)

Yes. And the rest.

 5. Is there any advice you would give to young aspiring writers? Thank you!

 Write. Finish things. Worry less about genre and more about telling good stories.

Answers like this are why I admire him so much.

When he writes and hits a snag, do you think Neil asks himself what his brand is and what his readers would expect?

No no no.

Neil doesn’t think about what his brand is – or his genre, for that matter – because his allegiance is to the story. I feel very strongly that if we as writers don’t have first allegiance to the story, then we may become nothing more than factory workers, packaging little chunks of canned brand in the hopes of filling the supermarket shelves.

I don’t think we should EVER be thinking about brand while we’re writing. Writers often talk about the art of writing and the business of writing being two very different things. For me, I want to keep them that way. It’s a reality of the modern marketplace that writers must engage in the business end of writing far more than in the past. Nobody gets to be JD Salinger anymore, playing the hermit and refusing all interaction.

But we also don’t have to become what the marketers would make us into. There’s a soullessness to that and there are plenty of ways out there to make a living that are soulless and are much easier and more lucrative.

Like marketing. 😀

Seriously, if I wanted to be in sales and marketing, I would have gone to business school. I’m glad there are people who did and who then give us advice on how to get our books out there and into the hands of readers who will love them. But that’s a different way of seeing the world. I don’t tell them how supply and demand works and they don’t tell me how to craft a story.

That’s where I want my first loyalty to always be.

Story first. Sales later.

35 Replies to “Is Your Brand Interfering with Your Writing?”

  1. Wow, Jeffe, this really resonated for me. I think there’s been a creeping sense of uncertainty about “embracing” the Brand-ing too tightly. And yes, it really has messed with my writing. The hard part for me is the fear of stepping too far back…
    Maybe that will be your next blog. I’d like to re-post this, if you’re okay with that.
    Barrett

    1. Do you know I’ve never read Sandman? I’ve had the compilation on my Amazon wishlist for a couple of years, but they’re pricey… *sigh*

  2. I love you, Jeffe. I love you so much.

    I have been wracking my brain about this very thing for weeks. I have started several stories that are not along the lines of my ‘brand,’ and I keep wondering if I finished them and tried to sell them, would I be shooting myself in the foot. Your reminder of all things Neil Gaiman and your positive, ever-insightful (seriously, it’s like you’re a genius or something) words have left me dumbfounded and … and hopeful.

    I’m no Neil. I got to meet him and have my picture taken with him and I am so very much no Neil We just don’t look that much alike. But seriously, he writes what he wants. He tells the stories he wants to tell. He’s brilliant and sparkly, unless that was just my vision of him at the time. Sparkly. Bigger than life. And yet so down to earth. And he tells the stories he wants to tell.

    I love him.

    I love you.

    Did I mention that already?

    1. Darynda – you make me laugh and I love you, too. (Even if you got to meet Neil and have your pic taken – *jealous*)

      You’re right. Neil is sparkly, bigger than life and down to earth. We should all be able to tell the stories we want to tell. That’s why we got into this gig. You rock those new stories, baby!

  3. I the Writer, Pledge allegiance to the story…actually, I do, I’m with you about the writing being the key, not whether it fits some mythical “brand”. Another good post! (And I’m sure Jackson was hidden in those beautiful flowers but I couldn’t find him LOL.)

  4. Amen, Jeffe! Thanks for reminding me that staying true to the story, whatever that story might be, is the only way to stay true to yourself. Love you, girlfriend:o)

  5. I don’t consider myself a writer but I was drawn to this article. When I discover a new (to me) writer, I want to read everything s/he has written until I get my fill. Occasionally I find a writer who is all over the spectrum like Neil Gaiman and it throws me off balance when I don’t get what I expected. John Grisham is one. After a long line of lawyer mysteries, he wrote “A Painted House”. I thought there was another John Grisham writing and had to check it out. It was exciting seeing another side of his talents.

    1. I agree, Anne – it can be weird when an author really deviates into another genre. Some I’ll follow, some I won’t. But I will always think that the author should follow that itch!

  6. Great post, Jeffe. I’m struggling with this at the moment, especially the idea of genre labels. Are they necessary? When do they stop being tools for discovering new authors and start being straight jackets? Thanks for this reminder that stories are what matter–and I do believe that if the story is there, the readers will come.

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