You’ve got to love a Meryl Streep movie. When you see one, you know exactly what you’re getting:
She is an actress who knows how to find a wonderful story. In it, she becomes its heroine, fully and completely. Like a chameleon, she hides within the emotional hues and physical nuances of the role.
We don’t know Meryl. We know Julia, who embodies her adopted home of Paris’ recipes and joie de vie. We revel in the penultimate political animal that is Margaret, or the revered albeit lonely fashion trendsetter, Miranda. And we fall in love with Donna, the mother of the bride who spent a lifetime looking — and finding– love in all the right places.
Authors, when it comes to your creative output, take a page out of Ms. Streep’s playbook: write stories that resonate with you, and you’ll find they resonate with readers, too.
All the more reason to keep your name. Like actors, authors are brands. Yes, your name is your brand. If the twelve years I spent in advertising taught me anything, it was that.
By accepting that you are a brand, you can now give your readers some credit. They read a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction, from many genres. If they love your storytelling style, they will follow you into another book, or series.
And they will pick up ALL your books.
Two perfect examples of renowned best-selling authors who write the books that resonate with them, genre be damned, are Jane Smiley and John Irving. The eloquence of their storytelling transcends any need to pigeonhole them on the bookstore shelves. Stylistically, they slip from tragedy (Private Life for Ms. Smiley, and Cider House Rules for Mr. Irving) to satire (Moo for Ms. Smiley, The World According to Garp for Mr. Irving) seemingly with ease. One book may be historical, the next contemporary fiction.
Over time, both Ms. Smiley and Mr. Irving have built their stellar reputations, delivering one satisfying book after another. Their readers don’t know what topic they will tackle next, but enjoy the cadence of their writing voices.
They’ve learned that they don’t need to stick to a theme or a genre in order to write books that resonate with readers.
Today, those of us who have yet to built our reputations into that of a Smiley or an Irving must do so in a strange new publishing world.
Even if we get a publishing deal, and our books are put on bookshelves, we’ve got only 90 days to prove ourselves, or our book gets yanked to make room for someone else’s.
If sales of a particular book don’t do as well as expected, more than likely the variables that hurt sales were out of the author’s control. For example, perhaps on your launch date your pub house wasn’t kowtowing to a large book chain, and therefore wasn’t getting the co-op (front-of-store placement) they were expecting for the book. Or maybe the cover was lackluster in the eyes of the bookstore’s buyer. Eventually the pub house and bookseller will kiss and make up, but the author is the collateral damage.
Sadly, most pub houses don’t view — or treat — all their authors as “brands.” Promotional efforts are negligible: a pittance, compared to that put behind other entertainment options at comparable price points.
Promotion doesn’t mean ensuring the book is put on the bookstore shelves, for a mere four to twelve weeks. It means knowing the book’s audience, and telling this audience where to find the book. Promotion must take place both online and in the real world. It must make the audience excited about this book, and this author.
This is why many authors also take on the task of promotion themselves because it is something their pub houses do sporadically, or just for a few weeks around the launch date, or that it is never done for the author (let alone the book) an ongoing basis.
In the traditional book publishing world when sales don’t reach expectations, editors or agents will suggest to the author in question that she or he take a pen name.
Um…NO. Authors, your name is your brand.
And brands are built over time, not just in the first few weeks of one book’s release.
The name change game is a slippery slope. As an author, your job is to write a good book. Your editor guides you in this process. The job of your publishing house isn’t to just print and distribute your books. It must promote it as well.
There isn’t an author I know who does not want to see his or her books in print. At the same time, print runs have shrunk because bookstore shelf space is dwindling. The same technological advances that changed how music and film is delivered — that is, via the Internet — has also changed how we distribute, and purchase, books.
Already it has put many bookstores out of business. At the same time, the ranks of editors at publishing houses are shrinking, as are the sales staffs.
And authors have been cut from pub house rosters as well.
If you make your living writing books, it’s natural to panic; to do anything and everything you can to stay in the business you love and worked so hard to enter.
One of the advantages of this new publishing era is that authors don’t have to change their name to put out a book they believe in. They can publish the book themselves. Even those proven authors with extensive backlists, are taking manuscripts that were for one reason or another passed over by editors, and self-publishing these orphan books.
Careers are being made, or revived. In fact, many authors have found a place to thrive.
To remain the middle man between the writer and the reader, promotion is what pub houses must bring to the table. Everything else (great content editing and proofing, eye-catching covers, eBook conversions) are purchased commodities.
But an author’s name is not a commodity.
It is the brand.
*Photo montage of Meryl Streep from a few of her movies,
including Mama Mia, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Out of Africa,
The Devil Wore Prada, The Iron Lady, and Kramer Vs. Kramer, courtesy Fan Pop.