Branding the Writer
By Helen Tope
‘Branding the Writer’ – a discussion on how writers view themselves and how audiences see them – was held at the University of Plymouth as part of the Plymouth International Book Festival 2015. There were some really interesting and useful discussions that would interest aspiring writers, including issues around branding and identity.
Chaired by novelist and short story writer, Tom Vowler, the panel comprised of Anna Freeman (a novelist, prize-winning slam poet and lecturer at Bath Spa University); Mark Sennen (author of the Plymouth-based DI Savage crime novels) and Tim Clare (a performance poet who has appeared in sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe). The discussion tackled issues affecting modern writers, including whether writers themselves are treated as a brand. Despite changes that have seen writers adopt different ways and means of expressing themselves, it is clear that branding remains a part of the writing experience.
Branding the Writer
The biggest question was tackled first: at what point do you identify yourself as a writer? When you’re published? What if you’re never published? If you never show your work to anyone – are you still classed as a writer if you have no audience? The notion of authenticity and what it can offer pales when you consider that Mark Sennen sold 85,000 copies of his debut novel online; a book deemed unsellable by traditional publishers. Tim Clare made a compelling argument for not identifying yourself as a ‘writer’ at all; preferring to call himself a person who writes. Writing by its very nature is a precarious business with peaks and troughs of activity – and who does the writer become when they have nothing to say?
The talk then came to rest on the dilemma of the modern writer; sitting awkwardly between the pressure to conform and the artist’s duty to resist. Mark Sennen noted the differences between self-publication and the pressures that come with landing a publication deal. The influence large retailers have over sales, and the pressure to write within a tried-and-tested brand, is immense. However, this thirst for more of the same, the panel agreed, can come at the expense of promoting new talent.
Branding the Book
When new writers do emerge, they create a huge media buzz, simply because they are such a rarity. It is interesting that ‘new’ in the publishing world comes with a caveat. A debut novel tends to sell better when it can ‘piggyback’ on an established author’s work. If you’ve read blurbs exclaiming ‘He’s the next Ian Rankin!’ ask yourself why we need more, when a perfectly good one already exists.
The branding issue is further complicated when you think about genre: there is no doubt that some are more highly prized over others, with ‘serious’ literary fiction taking the lion’s share of the glory. The expectations of a book also change depending on its genre. While the prestige for the big names of literary fiction is substantial, their sales figures, compared to those of writers such as Lee Child, are modest. Literary fiction is almost expected not to sell – a mark of its exclusivity, perhaps (although some writers do buck the trend like Hilary Mantel). Crime and thriller novels, on the other hand, are expected to sell in huge numbers, but the implication by those sales is that a book that is widely read can’t be well-written. It doesn’t play to type; high sales equal low expectations. In the world of publishing, there may be such a thing as being too popular.
Turning your back on a genre that has become lucrative can also dissuade writers from experimenting and progressing. Finding the sweet spot in your writing, and readers responding, is pretty much the dream – but if it comes at the expense of your creative development, all is not well. When the pressure to stay on-brand becomes the rule and not the exception, a stifled author ultimately leads to bored readers.
Branding the Reader
It’s therefore no wonder that people are heading to the internet to find a novel that’s off the beaten track. While the big releases get covered by the broadsheets, there’s a wealth of reviews available to read online. The internet is opinion, pure and undiluted, and while that’s bad news for the Kardashians, it’s good news for spreading the word about a book you simply have to tell the world about. While the internet may have unlocked our propensity to over-share, if you disagree with someone’s three-word dismissal of The Secret History, the opportunity to respond is yours for the taking.
Discussing how our reading habits will change over the next 50 years, the panel noted how sales of ‘physical’ books, especially hardbacks, have massively increased. The demise of the non-Kindled book has been greatly exaggerated. Tim Clare mused on whether buying an e-book meant owning a book at all, or having it on loan. As a self-declared ‘real’ book person, I’ll admit the idea of a digital library does make me twitchy, but my instinct is it won’t come down to choice of either/or. Whether you store your reads by megabytes or shelf space, the appetite for reading – despite so many grabs for our attention – remains. In defiance of the attempts by publishers and retailers to shoehorn them into neat little groups; readers are breaking out and exploring for themselves. Branding may be here to stay, but not everyone’s taking the bait. For writers, or people who write, there can be no greater encouragement.