I meant to answer this earlier, but life interfered.
You talked about a few times how your publishing company wants you to be a brand. If you write about series that are funny action with a romantic subplot then your publishers want more of the same from you, so you don’t alienate fans and such. Even Alphas: Origins you said had to be toned down a lot in a anthology because your name was attached to it. What I’m getting at is that in media such as music and movies there is a lot more leeway for artists to try new things and hopefully have a focus for artistically evolving and creating something new. It just seems like the publishing world will attach an author to a brand much more permanently than the music or movie world. For an author, how would one go about trying new things and branching out into other genres? Or is the only recourse to get another pen name?
A very good question. This is a complicated answer, so my apologies in advance. I will be quoting some reviews in this blog post. I will be doing it without attribution, as some people become offended on our behalf or on behalf of their chosen genre, and I don’t want to start a flame war. Please take into consideration that books are an interactive form of entertainment and as such, people’s experience with a fictional narrative is unique to them, so please don’t go to hunt down those reviewers and explain to them how they are wrong on the internet. Neither one of us is emotionally troubled by these reviews, so there is no need to defend us. 🙂
We are going to discuss author branding as it related to the reader expectations. Author branding in terms of commercial success is a different animal. Occasionally when author’s sales fail to meet a certain standard, a publishing house may ask the author to change their name for the brand new series. This is done to give the new “author” a clean slate without the history of slow sales.
Branding is a layered concept. It’s not as simple as writing in the same genre or writing similar stories. It is a function of the emotional experience your narrative delivers to the reader. I will come back to this point later.
Alphas: Origins began as a very dark urban fantasy. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize at the time that it would be included in an anthology under Berkley. Berkley is a romance imprint, so it wouldn’t be fair to the readers and to other authors if three of the stories in an anthology had romantic overtones but the fourth clearly didn’t. Then, once Alphas: Origins was published, the reviews split. Some readers wanted more, now, right away. Other readers were appalled. This is where the branding kicked in.
Ok I normally love everything by Ilona Andrews but Alphas Origins was an awful story.
Alphas by Ilona Andrews is an engaging, complex story that takes place in a wholly original world with so much potential for spin-off stories that I was champing at the bit for more after this (too brief!) interlude. … A fantastic short story, I just desperately want there to be more–this world has so much potential and is so different than everything else being published.
Ilona Andrews is another favorite author of mine and her Kate Daniels series is my favorite of 2011. Alphas: Origins is unlike anything I have ever read before and I mean that in the best way possible.
I was disturbed by the Ilona Andrews story and felt that it really didn’t mesh well with the other stories in the collection.
Not as funny as the other series, though, so if you need the comedic asides you might find them missing here.
I bought this book for the Ilona Andrews short, and that’s the only one I’ve read. This story grossed me out.
Alphas: Origins by Ilona Andrews – This is unlike anything I’ve read from Ilona Andrews. This is by far the most unique of the stories in this anthology. I usually have a time with the first novel in any series because it is taken up with world building so when you can read a short story like this and get through the world building too. It just goes to show how talented the Ilona Andrews team is. I’d encourage them to continue with this but I don’t want to them take time away from their Kate Daniels series.
As you can see, the story didn’t mesh with Kate Daniels series. Kate is a very popular series, and everything we write is measured by the Kate yard stick. Some people really like the new feel of Alphas, and for some it was too dark and not funny enough, and the horror overtones prevented them from enjoying the story.
The effect of branding can be seen on the new series as well. Burn For Me was almost universally loved – and I just saw it has almost 600 reviews on Amazon, thank you, guys! – but the question is why. Here is a very telling assessment.
This is nothing like the Kate series. The storyline, situations, philosophies and long term goals are vastly different. But I did recognize a couple of familiar traits between Kate/Curran and Nevada/Mad Rogan that I really enjoyed. There’s a mystery, a great deal of action, and steamy sexual tension in small spurts that while important, don’t overwhelm the story. Like Kate’s series, the humor comes in the form of conversations, sarcastic thoughts and the sexual tension. It’s listed as a romance because both are very attracted to the other, but don’t expect an HEA at this point. More along the lines of the Kate series, expect a slow build up on the romance
Let’s take these one at a time: this series has mystery, action, steam, humor, and a slow burn romance just like KD series. But it’s nothing like KD series. How can this be?
It’s not that KD and Hidden Legacy are the same. Protagonists are polar opposites, the setting is completely different, and even the romantic leads have some strong differences which will become apparent down the road. But the emotional undercurrent of the narratives is similar. KD appeals to people who like action, humor, visually spectacular magic, and slow burn. These same readers like stories about smart protagonists loyal to their friends and family and willing to do anything to shield them. Hidden Legacy, although it’s a very different story, will likely appeal to the same readers, because it has all of the characteristics I just listed.
Here is the interesting aspect of it: Hidden Legacy, when taken as a trilogy, is a romance/police procedural. Kate Daniels is a post-apocalyptic heroic fantasy. They both align with our perceived “brand.” You don’t have to write in the same genre to still stay true to your branding. Innkeeper Chronicles is light SF, which is miles away from either Hidden Legacy of KD, yet it still appeals to our reader base, because the narrative delivers the same emotional experience.
Look at your shelves to where you keep your comfort reads. Chances are, even though they are from different authors, you may find strong similarities in how these books make you feel. This is the core of branding. An Ilona Andrews book, or a Nalini Singh book, or a Jeaniene Frost book, produces a certain emotional impact and when the readers don’t get it, they are disappointed. This is why Alphas failed for some readers. It wasn’t the complex worldbuilding. It simply elicited a different reaction than most readers expected.
This isn’t to say that all books by the same author should be cookie-cutter copies of each other. There must be growth even within the series. Magic Breaks, as well received as it was, has some detractors who wanted a return to the previous format of the series, such as Magic Slays. Personally I feel Magic Slays is probably the weakest novel in the series, with Magic Bites being a close second, but as author, I’m not the best judge, because I evaluate our work through a different lens.
So now, after I have rambled, let’s go back to the original question.
For an author, how would one go about trying new things and branching out into other genres? Or is the only recourse to get another pen name?
Are you still delivering the emotional experience your readers are accustomed to? If you are, there is no need for a pseudonym. The readers will follow you. Look at Simon Green. The Forest Kingdom series is a heroic fantasy, the Deathstalker is a space opera, and the Nightside is an urban fantasy. But if your emotional narrative changes, if you used to be scary, but now you want to be hilarious, if you wrote action-filled heroic stories and now you want to let people have tea and long conversations about the meaning of the universe, you may want to look into a pseudonym.