Slap your brand on that maverick.
Alas, I am my own proof that the improbable does happen sometimes. My tribal name, out here beyond the black stump is ‘Worrier-with-too-many-bread-machines’ (which I believe you pig-ig’nrant foreigners all mispronounce as ‘Monkey’. You just keep it up. It does my vast self-importance a lot of good to have a good sneer at y’all.) You see, selling bread on the island is a de facto monopoly. A loaf costs more than double what it does on the mainland. People shrug and buy it, because you need bread. They’re quite used to it, as it has been like that for always and always (well, a good few years.) We only have one bakery, and they can charge what they like.
Well, unless you’re like me, mean as cats wee, and perpetually with something higher up the list to spend my money on (yes, of course I’m a rich author. I got 64 cents out of that last paperback you bought.) And with flour – which you can buy in bulk from the farmer’s co-op, yeast and a little oil, I can get away with spending a lot less. It isn’t bakery bread, but it is wholesome and good. I don’t care about the brand.
A while back I found that bread machines – which do all the tedious kneading for you, are cheap to throw-away second-hand items here in Oz. Mostly people scratch the Teflon on the bread pan, and that’s that. Or they get bored with the gadget. They’re well off enough that bought bread has no fear, and even less work. Now, I have a huge, small commercial oven (yes of course that makes sense. It’s huge if compared to a non-commercial oven. I can fit a 10kg roast pig into it, but not a full size pig). I like to cook, and I bought many years ago in a fit of temporary affluence. Being as I said, mean as cats wee, I fill it when I spend money on lighting it. I’ve got four bread machines –all repaired/tossed/ recycled bar one, two of which could still make bread, the others fit for dough, and I bake a big batch about every ten days. Rolls, buns, bread, pizza, everything, (and more) than I can buy, and done to suit my needs and tastes at a fraction of the price.
I get given these unloved machines –and bits of them, and, in my ample spare time, I coax more life out of them. I’ve just been given a fifth… the bread pan looks like someone used a garden fork to take out the last loaf. And lo, the improbable happened. The last bitsa I was given was bread pan in perfect nick… where the machine had been tossed years ago. And the bread pan… fits the new hand-me-down, like it was made for it, which, tah-dah, it was! You see, here brand does matter, does have value. The odds are beaten because both were from a common, popular, good make. If I was ever to buy a bread machine, it would be one of that brand, that type, especially if the design hadn’t changed much, because I have a lot perforce-learned skill at using one machine for parts.
So: what am I waffling on about? Obviously not bread machines. I’m talking about the value of brands. An author’s greatest single enemy is obscurity, not a lack of ability – we’ve all read drivel that makes you wonder just who the author slept with to get published, and some occasions, just how perverted that had to have been. Humans do explore, try new things… but especially if money is a factor, we tend to very wary about big spends on things we don’t know. Ergo: the value of brands and an author’s need for them.
As a writer, in theory, you have three possible brands.
1) Your traditional publisher could be your brand. In practice of course, they weren’t unless you were in Romance, or published by Baen. This part of the reason –as I see it anyway, for the endless attempts to denigrate Baen, often covertly but sometimes – as by Scalzi and recently, the individual kindly* renamed ‘the Dickless Weasel’ posting over in the Guardian last week. They hate that it works, but not for them and their little friendies.
2) You could win an Award – the award is a brand of sorts too.
3) And of course first and foremost YOUR NAME (which I mention third here, because, duh, it’s not really what a skill in writing makes you good at. It’s hard, and we have no tools, or budget for it, most of us. One is forced to do it, by necessity. We make a virtue of it, but really is it what authors should be doing?)
The thing, of course with a brand is that has value in itself. And that value needs to be nurtured, looked after and guarded if it’s going to keep being worth having, let alone grow. Authors need to be aware that they stand or fall by that brand reputation. You’re as good as your last book, or maybe two or three, if you’re an old brand (like the Hugo Awards are, or Larry Niven)
Potentially, that goes a lot further with Publishers, and indeed awards. Nurture should be their first name. Start to disappoint people and there goes many years of hard work -it’s easier to break than make. And it is largely self-inflicted injury: Attempting to diss a brand name may put off those who don’t know it, but it is a balancing act. If the brand was obscure, all you’re doing is making people notice it, and if it is a good product – or at least one that has faithful partisans, this is a stupid technique, because it tends to make those partisans vocal. Trying saying something derogatory about Apple Macs to see this in action.
Of course when it comes to awards we have a delusion with the partisans It is this ‘The Hugo/Nebula/Clark/Lambda is a great Award it will do wonders for your prestige and sales. You should be trying to win at all costs.’
Well, actually, no. Firstly there is a plainly inverse relationship here. For example Tim Neverheardofhim will benefit from winning any award. Jill Bestseller won’t much, if at all. She may actually lose sales if the award labels her book say literary and she does not sell to a highbrow audience. If it is a niche award appealing to an audience that already knows the author, it also definitely works against her. So a well-known lesbian author writing lesbian centered books getting a Lambda, basically won’t sell extra, and acts to constrain her sales to people who want to explore gay literature. It’s good news for the Lambda, not so good for the author. Of course to an obscure author it’s still a lift in that reading group.
Secondly: the value of an award is directly proportional to the popularity of works which have won the award in previous years. So: for example LotR wins a Hugo, the Hugo gains huge exposure to people in parts of society that wouldn’t know what it was, and the next year ‘Hugo winning’ has a great value. Only the next year it goes to Joe Unknown’s Piece of Drekk, because a bunch of Joe’s friends and rellies get together and push it. Or Joe is an outspoken albino lesbian transvestite, great at raising awareness, just not a great novelist…or Joe is a Neo-Nazi with a loyal blog following, and mediocre books. Joe will sell very well on the year before’s reputation. The year that follows, will sell largely off Joe’s popularity with some effect from the prior years. It’s a complicated calculation, as an award has a certain historical value, which is degraded by poor quality winners, or by winners which exclude a large section of the buying public.
Thirdly, there is a retroactive effect. Let’s say, you, Fred FairlyGood, at the height of your game, won a Hugo just between Jill Bestseller and Mary Alsobestseller. Fred will continue to benefit from the Hugo for many years… as long as the reputation of the award remains for great, broad appeal books. If the award is hijacked by a partisan group that have very limited appeal (regardless of who that group is). Fred’s award value declines, as well as the future value to any winner.
So: it is to everyone’s – except Joe Unknown’s shortsighted self-interest, each year (and even Joe should want it to go to someone reputable and with broad appeal next year and as many years as possible.) to have the award go to as broadly popular authors as possible, and that the competition appears credible, fair and unbiased. Its value its reputation. And, unless it is a niche award -That value is only enhanced by works that have very broad appeal – in other words, by authors with a large following, and are putting up their best work. Otherwise they’re at best coasting on someone else’s tail, and at worst, rapidly degrading the value of the award.
It’s why Baen did so many co-authored books – with rather good co-authors but less well-known ones Flint with Drake for example – not as is typical out there to get a cheap BIGNAME book (with in small print the actual author’s name, below), by using a cheap minor author, which de facto cheats the minor author, cheats readers, and makes a short term profit for the publisher (who places no value on their brand) and the BIGNAME who is either vain enough to think he/she is famous enough to ignore preserving their brand, or just stupid.
Hugos, with a long history have been slowly coasting towards obscurity, with the value and interest dropping, because the nominations and awards overwhelmingly went to a narrow sector of the political spectrum, a sector which sells quite little. While this was disguised and a pretense was made that it just wasn’t so… some credibility was retained, but it seeped away, year after year. Eventually the Hugo award would become a trivial thing, already it is a long way from Dune/Lord of Light. Then first John Ringo IIRC made some public noise about it. Gradually more authors and readers became aware. Larry Correia- who cares more for the genre and the history than it deserves – broke it into the open. And the reaction of the left partisan bloc was predicted, and they did precisely what they were predicted to do, to the enduring shame of all those who participated in the process. You managed to bring the Hugos and the left wing into disrepute. The tactics used in attacking Larry’s character and reputation will stain the award for years.
If it was my brand, I’d be in tears. If I had won in the past or hoped in the future, I’d be devastated.
If it was my brand it wouldn’t have happened. I’d have protected it.
Looking at next year… Those invested in genre and the award, particularly those who have been nominated/won before (or are fans of those who have), and, as this very ideologically biased, have most to lose if the award does not recapture its credibility. It needs establish that it is not ideologically driven. The only way anyone who isn’t hard left and blinkered is going to believe that… is if the noms and awards take a sharp turn away from the left, and have some very popular authors with a large following who are center and right wing — and they’ll have to do it for a good few years. The problem, of course, is twofold. If anyone who is not an outspoken left-winger is going to be attacked by the same creeps as this time, you’ll have repeat of this year, and more damage, and secondly… who are you going to get? There are dozens of outspoken left wing authors in traditional publishing, some with a fair size following – probably most of what there is to have in their niche (which is a small part of whayt is out there). Traditional publishing skews hard left, that’s just about all they’ve done for years. It’s very available, expensive, and made to suit the sellers, not the market. Rather like bakery bread here. Not selling that well, now that people are feeling the pinch. But you can find fifty virtually indistinguishable clones of the current Hugo winners very easily.
The other side is hard to find. They make their own bread, mostly. It’s generally cheaper, more varied. While there are actally quite a lot of center/right authors doing very well as indies, the list in ordinary traditional publishing of people selling 100k + copies is tiny anyway, and those who aren’t outspoken left wing is miniscule. Larry Correia was literally the Hugos best bet.
So to those who wish to retain some value for the award. I suggest you start looking for suitable bestselling nominations… that have no trace of left wing about them. Good luck trying. Most of those mavericks are more likely to kick you than go along quietly to wear your brand and add value to it.
If it happened tome (yes, I know, more chance of falling pregnant. I’m a hack, and contented with that label), well my brand is too valuable to me to let that on be put on it. I’ll settle for home baked, at least I know I can trust it.
And there is a fair amount of home-baked bread to suit all tastes available here.
*I would have called him God’s gift to Coprophagia