July 10th, 2019

Should Authors Break Free from the Brand?

by Julie Cantrell

The standard advice given to writers is to brand yourself. Find a genre, and stick with it. This strategy has proven successful for many contemporary authors such as Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark, but even Jane Austen had perfected the practice years earlier, and Agatha Christie used it to pen mysteries that ranked her in the sales zone with Shakespeare and the Bible!

So why have I chosen to go against the gold standard of good advice and cross genres? I admit, it’s probably because I have no business sense, but it’s also because I love to learn new things and to challenge myself creatively. 

Let the Muse Take the Wheel

When I sit down to write a story, I don’t think about sales numbers or marketing strategies. I don’t even think about publishing it. Instead, I open myself to the creative flow and let the words find their way through me to the page. It’s not as hokey pokey as it sounds, but it isa beautiful, powerful, and spiritual process that helps me tap into something bigger than myself. 

My first book was written with my daughter in my lap. Together, we wrote a simple story, searching online for stock photos to attach to each page. We printed the “book,” and stapled it together. In time, that handmade picture book was shared with her friends and their mothers, until it found its way to an agent and then to a publisher. Zonderkidz produced a two-book series, God is with Me through the DayGod is with Me through the Night. And before I knew it, I’d become a children’s book author.

I’d never planned to publish that book, and I hadn’t planned to publisher another. But life said, “Let’s do this!” So I sat down to write a novel, just to see if I had one in me. I’d always been an avid reader, and like most readers I thought maybe I had a story to tell too. I gave myself three months, from 3-5 a.m. Monday-Friday, and that’s how I wrote my first draft of Into the Free. 

Again, I never planned to publish, and I didn’t tell anyone I was writing it. But the characters wouldn’t stop pestering me. I reached out to that old agent friend who’d landed my children’s book deal. Thanks to the fates and a brave publisher willing to take a risk on an unknown, I became a novelist. 

From Children’s Books to Historical Novels to Contemporary Novels and MORE!

When that novel proved successful, I was fortunate to write a sequel, When Mountains Move. So with two historical novels under my belt, I suppose I should have stuck in that arena where my readership was strong and loyal. But the creative powers had to shake things up again with my third novel, taking me into the contemporary genre where I stayed for both The Feathered Boneand Perennials.  

That too would have been a cozy place to perch, but life said, “Let’s not get too comfy, Julie.” Next thing I knew, I was being asked to write a creative nonfiction work, so now I’m excited to be launching Crescendo next week (July 16, Harper Collins). It’s my very first collaborative work and an inspirational story that brings me to yet another group of readers.

At least that’s what the marketing folks would tell you. Truth is, many of my readers have followed me from the start. Sure, some prefer one genre or the other. Some like the romance flair of When Mountains Move while others prefer the literary tone of Into the Free. Some dig the gritty edginess to The Feathered Bone while others enjoy the lighter themes in Perennials. Heck, my books even crossover from faith-based to secular audiences and from adult to YA. I just can’t find a box that fits me. And I think most of my readers can relate. I’m hoping these same readers will enjoy reading Crescendo too!

Magic in the Mix

Perhaps I’ve taken these chances because I’m also a reader who likes to mix things up a bit. When I find an author I enjoy reading, I love to see her try new things. Sometimes she wins. Sometimes she loses. But JK Rowling, Barbara Kingsolver, Jeannette Walls, and others will tell you, they just wanted to take on a new challenge, learn new things, and write what was being given to them by the universe.

I guess I tend to write like I read… a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And while it may not be the smartest business strategy, it certainly satisfies my creative curiosity. And for that, I’m a very happy girl.

PRO AUTHOR BRAND

  • Gain creative freedom
  • Reach diverse readerships
  • Tackle new artistic challenges
  • Work with authors of different genres
  • Offer readers fresh material that isn’t formulaic
  • Test your limits and expand as you grow

CON AUTHOR BRAND

  • Limited by brand expectations
  • Readership limited to that specific market
  • May grow bored in time with themes/genre
  • Author circles may be limited to those in your niche
  • Work may eventually feel predictable to readers
  • You may outgrow your own brand in time

Let’s Discuss!

  1. What genre do you prefer to read? 
  2. As a writer, do you tend to stay in that genre or do you like to test the boundaries? 
  3. What’s one way you’ve taken a risk as a writer? (whether on brand or off)
  4. If you veer from your main branding, do you use a pen name?
  5. What writers can you suggest as examples of those who have broken brand successfully? 

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Julie

Julie Cantrell is an award-winning New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author, editor, and TEDx speaker. Her first work of creative nonfiction, Crescendo, releases July 16.

Learn more at www.juliecantrell.com.

19 responses to “Should Authors Break Free from the Brand?”

  1. Laura Drake says:

    This is a really tough one. Left to myself, I'd be like you. I have a horror story and a gritty urban general fiction in me right now. BUT. I spent 15 years trying to be NY published, so I won't.

    It's all in what you want from writing, I think.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I agree, Laura. Some want to make money, some to build a brand, some to tell the stories of their heart. I don't know that there is a right answer. But I do believe that each writer can find the right answer for THEM.

      • Julie Cantrell says:

        Yes, Jenny. You’re right. We can each find our own way, even if it goes against the standard advice.

    • Julie Cantrell says:

      Laura, you’re right. I’d always worked in addition to writing and never planned on supporting myself through publishing. I think everyone has different goals as a writer and for me it was purely creative. That definitely makes a difference in business strategy. However I’ve been lucky enough to have earned enough to be working full time as a writer/editor for three+ years now. Not sure what’s next for me but I’m grateful every day I can find time for a creative outlet. Writing hasn’t made me wealthy. But it’s made me happy. For that, I’m grateful.

  2. This is refreshing to hear. I also cross genres - contemporary women's fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, and my latest manuscript (I'm told) seems to be more in the world of romance. I'm toying with my rewrite for that one to keep it within the bounds of WF (some pretty nebulous bounds I might add). I do think that if commercial success is what you're after sticking to one genre and doing it really well (again and again) will get you there faster than jumping genres. That said, I'm willing to get there slower in order to follow my muse.

    An added bonus has been meeting so many different communities of writers. NF and Memoir writers are very different than fiction and it's been a treat to build relationships in both. I guess I'm greedy, I just want it all.

  3. Diana Stout says:

    I have written across the genres since the 80s. Agents tried to make me chose which resulted in our parting early. I have a brand and it's one that acts as an umbrella embracing all of my genres, all of my writing: Exploring the path to the inner core... All of my stories, all my nonfiction embrace that brand and I don't regret going this path one bit.

  4. pamelagibson says:

    I started writing contemporary romance, but I always wanted to write historical romance. So I did. I believe you have to follow your muse wherever it leads you. I have two genres now and I may try a third. I don't follow the market. I write what I want.

  5. You CAN write under a different name if you want to branch out. Depends on your goals. Breaking in with a new name will be the slog all over again or you can self-pub under the new name.

  6. pilot543 says:

    I, thank you for this article, I have always stuck with romance because that is what I am good at, but with my life experiences I have also chosen to try adventure and such that way I can branch out and make my writing into more of an art.

  7. That's the beauty of writing mainstream about real people (okay, I made them up, but they are very real to me). Pride's Children has in it, as background, over the course of a trilogy about the same three people: a documentary, four movies in varying degree of detail, and mention of several more; a writer who has switched from historical fiction to writing a mainstream science fiction novel; music; a chronic disease; four countries on three continents; the great outdoors; yellow journalism; the Bible; Japanese poetry...

    And has so many themes interconnected (because that's the way real life is) that the last time I listed them I had twenty: mothers and children; grief and loss and death and pain; integrity and its lack; huge egos and people who don't put themselves first.

    And sixty-four named characters.

    You don't have to switch genres to write what you want to write - as long as it all leads to the ending, and you don't have info dumps. Everything must serve the story.

  8. Thank you for sharing this - you have set me free! I, too, started with a children's book, then to historical fiction, but I have three other stories from different genres burning within.

  9. Love this post. Thanks for sharing it. And for the sake of the discussion:.
    1. I read just about all genres. I haven't read much in the way of romance, but I am not opposed to it. Being able to see the variety of ways stories are told is something I truly enjoy.
    2. I love to test the boundaries. Writing just one thing or another for the rest of my life is sounds dull. I like seeing what genre the story demands rather than what story the genre demands.
    3. Being indie for one. The other is by moving so freely from genre to genre. I have a draft middle-grade fiction work and yet I am actively playing around (*cough*) with an erotica story now. Given that I am still an unknown, it's not a huge risk, although, it might aid in solidifying that I remain unknown.
    4. I've not figured out my brand yet anyway. I've toyed with the idea of using pen names (due to my answer to #3) but I haven't decided.
    5. I am trying to think of this one, yet none are coming to mind. I know that I've read a few authors who've gone in and out of genres; I just can't think of them.

    Basically, my personal belief is that a writer should do like you: write what they enjoy. And if that means jumping genres like you, great! If it means sticking only to romance or scifi or military vampire historical fiction set in medieval Scotland with a strong 20-something female lead, then awesome!

  10. dholcomb1 says:

    I write in the genre I read the most: romance. It has always been my favorite genre and writing comes easily for that genre.

    I also write a lot of copy for a friend's blog; it keeps the words flowing. What's insulting is what I overhear when I'm invited to press events. In media, there are a lot of members of press not considering "blogs" as meaningful. I'll refrain from the exact comments. What these detractors don't recognize is blog influencers reach a lot of people and some earn a lot of money--in the six- or seven-figure range. Most blogs don't earn that much, but many have a wide reach. Regardless of their comments, I am a real writer.

    denise

  11. Julie Glover says:

    I have dabbled in several areas, but through various identities. At least three right now, with nonfiction, mystery, young adult, and supernatural genres. I feel like that's allowed me to have a brand within the niche, but still do more things than I would otherwise. It's hard to know, however, just how to approach such things. I love hearing how others have made it work. Thanks for your story and tips!

  12. Suzy Davies says:

    This article raises some important questions.The most important consideration for me is integrity. You have to follow your calling, challenge yourself and explore. Good writing is good writing. It comes from extensive reading. I write every day. I am motivated to be the best I can be. It's wise to immerse yourself in what you do best. This is how reputations and brands are created. Focus is all.

  13. Fae Rowen says:

    Some day I want to write a "hard" science fiction novel. When I'm "established" in science fiction romance and Young Adult SFR. For now, that Sci Fi novel waits until I have enough books out under my romance brand to be able to branch out.

  14. Julie Cantrell says:

    Hi All,

    Please forgive the one reply for the whole group. I’ve been on the road and am flying out early this morning for the Crescendo book launch in Georgia, which means I’ve been trying to post replies via my phone and every time I enter one it vanishes. So... I’m trying this and crossing my fingers and hoping you’ll at least know I’ve read all your comments and do so greatly appreciate each of you taking time to join the conversation.

    You’ve brought up so many good points.

    First, I agree... Pen names are an excellent idea and I may use one too someday.

    Second, any writing is writing... whether it’s on a blog or in a book. I hope you’ll continue to silence the voices of the naysayers in your life and continue living the life you were born to live. Bravo! I wrote blogs for many years and I agree... it’s an excellent creative outlet and it keeps the writing brain in gear. Plus you get to interact directly with readers just like here on WITS... fun!

    Third, I’ve never tried sci-fi but never say never 🙂 I think that would be the biggest challenge for me.

    Fourth, yes, even if you cross genres your work can stay under an “umbrella” genre or central theme to your work. Mine is resiliency and empathy. Everything i write can be boiled down to my two core beliefs about the human journey... life is about 2 things:1. How we process the truth. 2. How we manage our pain. So whether I’m writing books for children or adults, set in the past or the present, my stories all explore overcoming life’s greatest traumas and choosing to live and love with an open heart.

    Finally, yes, our work is also about about integrity and staying true to ourselves. I love hearing all the ways you’ve all been doing this.

    Thanks again for joining the conversation and I hope you’ll have a wonderful day writing and reading.

    Cheers,
    Julie

  15. Thanks for sharing this, Julie! I think it's wonderful that your journey began with your daughter in your lap. I hope you continue to find success and have a blast mixing things up! 🙂

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