Thursday, January 24, 2008

Author Branding, Part Two: Market Research

In my last post, I talked about the concept of author branding. Today I’m going to look at the first step in creating an author brand: research. This involves asking some questions. The most obvious question to address is, What do my readers like about my books? This tells us what to stress. After all, we don’t simply want to attract readers to our books; we want to attract the readers who will LIKE our books. You see, branding isn’t about telling lies; it’s about recognizing what’s unique and interesting about each of us, and then using it to sell our books.

While it isn’t always possible to get either an honest or an informed answer, for published authors, an obvious place to start our research is with reviews of our books. (Unfortunately, while this will work for my Sebastian series, I don’t have that option with my up-coming thriller series; more about that later.) Unpublished authors can canvas all the writing colleagues, friends, and relatives who’ve read their manuscripts over the years.

So, what do my readers say they like about my Sebastian St. Cyr series? The most frequent responses are, in no necessary order: fast-pacing; complex, richly layered plots; action and suspense; historical accuracy that takes readers into all strata of Regency society; an ensemble of strong characters including a sexy hero; the overarcing mystery in the hero’s personal life (interestingly, the last is inevitably mentioned in person but rarely in written reviews).

For comparative purposes, I then looked at two very different bestselling historical mysteries from 2007: Mistress of the Art of Death and Silent in the Grave (neither of which I have read, so I have no personal prejudices here). Both have female protagonists. “Mistress” is a gritty story about the murder and sexual mutilation of children, set in the time of Henry II (“CSI meets Canterbury Tales”). “Silent” is a cozy set in Victorian England. So, what did the readers of these books like? Fans of “Mistress” repeatedly mention the strong female protagonist, the fascinating historical tidbits and CSI-like forensic details, the secondary romance, and the literary snob appeal of the Chaucer link. Fans of “Silent” liked the strong female protagonist, the Victorian setting, the clothing details, the secondary romance with a dark and mysterious stranger, and the humorous, breezy voice.

I also glanced at what readers of these books said they did NOT like. The secondary romance in “Mistress” annoyed many readers; no one complained about it in “Silent.” This tells me that readers attracted to cozy period mysteries are happy with a romance, whereas at least some readers of “gritty” mysteries will find it an annoyance. Various readers complained of historical inaccuracies. In certain cases these complaints were valid (activities in Victorian England that, while possible, would have raised eyebrows rather than merely earning indulgent smiles; a medieval cholera plague when cholera didn’t actually hit Europe until the 19th century; Sephardic Jews speaking Yiddish, etc); in other cases readers complaining about historical inaccuracies were actually wrong themselves. Some readers of “Mistress” found the prose awkward. Some readers of “Silent” found the breezy voice annoying, and the “strong” female protagonist an idiot. One of my readers said reading my book caused her to suffer what she called “chase-anxiety;” she prefers less suspenseful, less action-packed mysteries with no sex. Several other readers found Sebastian too liberal-minded for their tastes (scary thought). I also know from a link I belong to (CrimeThruTime) that many historical mystery fans didn’t even pick up “Mistress” because they don’t like reading about serial killers of children. Inevitably, the very aspect of a book than attracts some readers will turn off others.

Armed with this kind of information, the author-in-search-of-a-branded-identity then needs to ask some more questions. What is it about my books and about me as a writer that’s different or unique? Who out there would buy what I’m writing? What else is out there that people are buying? What is the market crying for? How do I connect with my readers?

More on that next time.

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Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

This is a great approach to take. I wonder how much an author can "set up" some reviews by stressing certain points about their works. For example, I generally mention the Burroughs connection when I talk about my Taleran books, and almost inevitably this is mentioned in reviews of it.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Steve Malley said...

"...branding isn’t about telling lies; it’s about recognizing what’s unique and interesting about each of us, and then using it..."

Perfectly put, and *so* true!

Thanks for these posts!

2:18 PM  
Blogger Chap O'Keefe said...

This certainly is shaping up as another interesting set of posts for writers (and readers, I hope).

Authors do try, as Charles mentions, to "set up" reviews, even if not consciously.

Every time an author writes about their writing, I feel the chance is they are going to influence reviewers, should they attract any. Good literary criticism takes into account the author's intentions and how far he has fulfilled them. Thus the reviewer who does his homework looks for clues to what makes the writer under study tick.

Also, reviewers influence reviewers. The reviewer of your latest book will read what other reviewers have said about your previous work and may well pick up on it in the context of the new offering.

This could have the effect of what another industry calls typecasting. The author repeats himself simply because that is what is expected of him and he needs his work to be accepted and at least viable.

My last book, Peace at Any Price, attracted a review at the Saddlebums Western Review blog. It reiterated several, I'm sure salient, points that had been touched upon at another blog, Westerns for Today, in a review of a title issued earlier in 2007, Sons and Gunslicks.

It was issued before I posted my own commentary at the current Black Horse Westerns website. This was written before the Saddlebums review and the reviewer didn't know of it.

It was interesting to see how the Saddlebums reviewer and myself took different tacks on what we thought were the story's points of appeal.

12:48 AM  
Blogger Farrah Rochon said...

Excellent, excellent post. I am blown away by how quickly you were able to absorb all of that info and further explore it. I am definitely making note of this series of posts for later reference.

9:34 PM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Good points, Charles and Chap. Yes, Steve, I think that's an important point lost by writers who object to branding (i.e., me for many years). And Farrah, I guess all those years of graduate school were good for something!

12:09 PM  

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