You want me to do what?

One of the mantras here at MGC is that there is no “one true way” to be a writer. Sure, there are a few rules you need to follow: you have to write, you have to pay your taxes, that sort of thing. The rest is pretty much up to you. Yet, when you look at a lot of how-to books or read a lot of other sites, there’s one thing so many experts tell you is a must: you MUST have a brand.

But do you?

Every time I see someone telling a writer, especially a new writer, they need to have a brand, I cringe. Why? Because many of those saying you need a brand don’t explain what they mean. Or, if they do, they give mumbo jumbo explanations that sound like they were born from the rules of traditional publishing 20 or more years ago.

Before anyone gets their panties in a wad, let me explain. A lot of the advice boils down to this: you need a brand so your readers know you write only this sort of book. They tell you brand yourself as this sort of author or another. You write mil-sf or clean romance, your books take place in 1880’s Texas Panhandle with mail order brides, etc.

While good, up to a point, there is a downside to all this. It limits what you can write.

It also smacks of what we’ve seen traditional publishers do. They have, for decades and longer, branded their authors into one or two narrow roles. Stephen King was branded as a horror author. So, when he wanted to branch out some, he wrote under the pen name of Richard Bachman. J. K. Rowling, post-Harry Potter, wrote a novel aimed at adult readers under the name of Robert Galbraith.

In both of those instances, you can understand why they chose to use pen names. King was already established as a horror writer. Probably one of the most popular horror writers in history, but one whose readers expected certain things from his books and one who other readers would never read because HORROR! As for Rowling, she was not only changing “brand” but audience age range.

But in other cases, publishers have insisted on pen names because of  “reasons”. They asked for pen names if a writer was too prolific. If someone wrote in multiple genres, the publisher insisted on a pen name. If an author sold to another publisher, a pen name was often used. Then you had the old saw of “you didn’t sell enough under this name but we really think this new series will take off, so you must have a new name for it.”

As readers, we fell for the ruse. At least some of us did. Even when indie publishing became easier to do, we saw writers using pen names for different genres. Why? Because romance readers wouldn’t read science fiction, and science fiction readers wouldn’t read mystery. We knew it because the “real” publishers told us so.

Even best sellers like King and Nora Roberts published under pen names that weren’t immediately made public because their publishers worried about their readers getting offended–or something equally as silly–when they learned their beloved author wrote something other than what they were known for. When those pen names because known and the publishers realized this branching out not only didn’t lose readers but gained them, they went back and “re-branded” the books to show they were written by Famous Author Writing As . . . .

Yet we, as Indies, are being told basically the same thing. We need to limit what we write for fear readers won’t keep reading us. In other words, we either write under pen names or we limit our market.

Does that make sense?

I’ll admit, when I entered the indie world, I published under pen names. Why? Because I bought the line publishers had been feeding authors and readers for years. Then I sat back one day and looked at my personal library. Titles ranged from a wide assortment of non-fiction topics to almost every genre of fiction. Okay, I’ll admit there are very few literary titles in my library and there are some sub-genres I just don’t read. But there was a wide variety of mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, even romance.

Then I started talking to friends. Their readings tastes were varied as well. When asked, they said they would give their favorite authors a try if they wrote in genres they didn’t usually work in. It made sense. After all, you already know the author and you trust them to tell a good tale.

So why were we limiting our audience by writing only in one genre or sub-genre, or writing only one series?

Since I was already writing in several genres, I went back and added my name to the Amazon pages of books written under pen names. Those pen names are still “active” but they are open pen names and my name appears on the product page of every title

This isn’t to say branding is a bad thing. It isn’t. You can write anything you want but it helps if you start out building an audience around a particular “brand”. That can be a series written around a cop who learns monsters are real when she starts turning furry. It can be by writing a mil-sf series based on the founding principles of our country. Hell, it can be writing a series based on another, classic literary series. Build your audience and branch out.

Don’t artificially limit yourself because someone says you need a brand and you have to stay true to it.

But don’t leave your brand if you aren’t convinced it is a good move for you to make at the time.

In other words, weigh your options and consider what is best for you and your readers.

Most of all, remember this. If your brand is based on a single series, what will you do when that series ends? Your brand is more than the series, or it should be. It is the genre or genres you write and the way you write the. At least, that’s what it is to me.

The question is, what is it to you and how are you going to implement it to your best benefit?


  1. When it comes to “One True Way” I am always reminded of Kipling’s poem “In the Neolithic Age”

    In the Neolithic Age

    IN THE Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
    For food and fame and woolly horses’ pelt.
    I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
    And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.

    Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
    Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
    And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
    Were about me and beneath me and above.

    But a rival, of Solutré, told the tribe my style was outré—
    ‘Neath a tomahawk, of diorite, he fell
    And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
    Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.

    Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting-dogs fed full,
    And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
    And I wiped my mouth and said, “It is well that they are dead,
    For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong.”

    But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole-shrine he came,
    And he told me in a vision of the night: —
    “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
    “And every single one of them is right!”

    * * * *

    Then the silence closed upon me till They put new clothing on me
    Of whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail;
    . And I stepped beneath Time’s finger, once again a tribal singer,
    And a minor poet certified by Traill!

    Still they skirmish to and fro, men my messmates on the snow
    When we headed off the aurochs turn for turn;
    When the rich Allobrogenses never kept amanuenses,
    And our only plots were piled in lakes at Berne.

    Still a cultured Christian age sees us scuffle, squeak, and rage,
    Still we pinch and slap and jabber, scratch and dirk;
    Still we let our business slide—as we dropped the half-dressed hide—
    To show a fellow-savage how to work.

    Still the world is wondrous large,—seven seas from marge to marge—
    And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
    And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu
    And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

    Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
    And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
    “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

  2. Branding. Yeah, I think about a pen name for a couple of Space Operas I’m writing, because anything I write that isn’t in my main series sells half or less the copies as anything in the series.

    But if I’m trying to appeal to a new batch of readers, I could probably do that without losing any current fans. Marketing. It’s the next learning experience I’m hiding from.

      1. Too many marketeers and salecreatures see marketing as being a need for lying. And yet the BEST marketing of all, is simply telling truth. Much as good costumer service is the ‘trick’ of simply being honest.

        Now, simple is not the same as easy, alas.

    1. LOL. That I understand and approve of. Been there and done that for much the same reason. Not that I actually wrote about real folks but they would think I did.

      1. I’m not writing about real people (I wish that was the reason!), I’m writing hard-boiled-ish fiction where the protagonist kills people, uses profanity (gasp!) and has sexual relations with women that he isn’t married to [faints dead away] instead of the poorly-written Christian fiction and/or “history of the church” that that side of the family’s matriarch loves and says I should be writing about.

        1. “Do I want my mom to read this?”

          “Do I want my child to read this?”

          I suppose that someone should say those books shouldn’t be written then but killing and sex written by a stranger is different than reading a sex scene your mom wrote. Awkward!

        2. I should probably mention that I have no objection to either genre in principle… it’s just the stuff that Grandmother likes and wants me to emulate, reads like the Chapter Books I used to check out of the Children’s Department at the library back when I was in Elementary School, even though it’s ostensibly written for adults.

      2. Heh. Some of the real folks I know think I’m writing about them, and it wouldn’t be polite to say, “No, you’re not nearly that interesting.”

        1. Heck, I figure even if I encounter a character with my name, and body-type, etc. the character will be much more interesting. [Ox-y-dull pun would go here, if ox wasn’t so dull.]

  3. King’s claim for using a pen name also involved a supposed perception that writers should only publish one novel a year.

    1. Which goes to what I referenced in the post about being a prolific writer. A number of writers were told to use pen names by publishers because publishers thought readers wouldn’t buy more than one book a year from an author–at least that’s what the publishers told the writers.

      1. Yes. I had not only to use pen names but to work with three publishers at once.

      2. Which goes to what I referenced in the post about being a prolific writer. A number of writers were told to use pen names by publishers because publishers thought readers wouldn’t buy more than one book a year from an author would rebel if they realized how much faster their favorite writers could write than the publishers were willing to publish.

        Fixed it for you.

  4. My experience is that branding exists, regardless of whether we like it or not, or want it to or not. I would tell people not to worry about their ‘brand’ when they start out, but to realize that over time, they will develop one. It isn’t something you can avoid, it -will- happen to you. There just isn’t any escaping it these days.

    I ran into the whole ‘brand’ thing when I tried to stray outside my ‘brand’ which was already pretty wide (or so I thought) and I got hammered for it. So I decided that for my next foray into something that was different, I’d use a pen name.

    But here’s the thing, I made my pen name blatantly obvious (Van Stry vs Stryvant) and I told my readers that for ‘branding reasons’ I was going to be writing under the Jan Stryvant pen name with my new series. But I only told my existing readers and only if they read my blog. I didn’t mention it anywhere else. I also told them what was different about my new ‘brand’ and then just moved on with it.

    The new brand did well and as per my plan, once I was several books into my new brand I revealed to the people reading it, that it was a pen name and I told them my real name. This allowed me to convert a fair number of the readers from the new brand into readers of the existing brand as well. In short, I had a plan and I stuck to it. But I didn’t get rid of that new brand, I didn’t convert the names over. It’s not mentioned anywhere on the amazon product pages. You have to read the books or my blog to find out.

    Again, why did I do this? Because these days people want their authors to stay between certain lines (and it will take you time to find out just what those lines are for YOU – it’s not always obvious). There are people who absolutely refuse to read Stryvant stories, because they don’t like that kind of thing, but they’ll still read Van Stry stories, (and vice-versa). Some of those people even read this blog. 🙂

    So yes, branding is a thing, and like gravity you ignore it at your own peril. Don’t worry about it when you start out, because it’s not important right away. But once you’ve got a series or two under your belt, you better take a look at your work and your demographics. Because not knowing what your brand is can seriously bite you in the butt. Knowing what your brand is will help you play to your strengths and help you please your fans, and in the end, you have to remember that it’s always about your fans.

    1. The reason I’d write under a pen name would be entirely too complicated:

      Sell lots of (horrors!) milSF under my name

      write under a pen name something designed to hit every sjw talking point

      show up for the awards… lol

      1. Like the semi-legendary Women’s Studies professor in the 1980s-90s who wrote “path-breaking literary feminist poetry” under her own name and got academic kudos and awards, and wrote adult romance under a pen-name and made money.

    2. I’ve considered using variations of my name, Julie A. Pascal for sci-fi and maybe fancify it all up for urban fantasy or paranormal romance to Julianne Pasqual or Pascale or some monkey business. So totally open secret but …

      I do think that pen names matter for signalling the genre. Possibly as much as cover art does. I’ve considered using my maiden name as a pen name but for sci-fi not using Pascal would be beyond idiotic.

      Amanda is probably right, though, that people read cross-genre more than we’ve been told they do. My big thing as a reader is that I want to know going in what I’m getting because we *read* differently because we expect certain genre conventions. So long as it’s supper clear that “this is something else” readers shouldn’t get mad. But I can see how they might if they’re driving through McDonalds and all the food is Taco Bell.

      1. The author is the author is the author… give “warning” about genre, sure… but there are some authors I’d go, “I’m not into $GENRE, but if anyone can make it interesting, it’s…”

        1. And in fact that’s exactly what happened with me and one of the authors here. I’m a big SF fan, and not much of a Western fan, but when Peter Grant announced that he was going to write a Western I bought it just because I like his writing style. I wasn’t disappointed, and am currently eagerly awaiting his next book(s).

        2. I’m in the category of those who still haven’t developed the courage to upload to Amazon, so take this for whatever it’s worth, but here are my thoughts:

          There is something to be said for the pen-name branding, even if it’s an open pen-name. I’ve met plenty of people who are fans of, say J.D. Robb but not Nora Roberts. They don’t care that the two of them are the same person, but they like the stuff that comes out under the Robb name and detest the stuff under the Roberts name.

          For my own stuff, I’ve thought of using a separate pen-name for anything that I would consider YA. The pen-name would basically be a quick way of saying, “There’s nothing in here I would object to my own daughter reading,” while I won’t necessarily make that same guarantee with the stuff under my adult pen-name.

    3. I didn’t notice until you mentioned it (Author’s Notes somewhere, maybe?). I felt like an idiot because, as you say, it’s pretty obvious.

  5. I’ve currently got series in two different genres under my name. I do see a difference in the buy in with my core readers, because the ones that like ‘current’ fiction don’t necessarily like MilSF. The opposite is also true to a lesser extent, and since I’m working on an 1870s western, it will be interesting to see who, if any, of my core readers follows me there.

    1. As an example, Ma would likely be thrilled to read any and all of your western stuff (I *might* have already gotten here some – need to check) but wouldn’t give the MilSF a second glance.

  6. This is helpful (or at least hopefully will one day be). I’m still a wanna-be writer and haven’t published anything yet. Currently I’m honing my writing skills and I’m hoping to “win” nanowrimo this year. 🙂

    I have a friend who reads some of my practice writing, and he swears he hasn’t read two of them that were in the same genre. I was worried about how to deal with that. Do I keep writing in multiple, widely different genres under the same name? Do I pare myself down to one genre? at least at first?

    I still haven’t decided those answers yet.

  7. > Because romance readers wouldn’t read science fiction, and science fiction readers wouldn’t read mystery. We knew it because the “real” publishers told us so.

    This SF reader will read mysteries, but I’d be powerfully annoyed if either turned out to be a romance.

    1. I thought that, but… then I encountered a fantasy series that the author advertises as “Fantasy Romantic Comedy.. with a body count.” And while I might still await a proper Minotaur in the series, at least the almost-minotaur whilst pure evil (really, Satan is a more sympathetic character!), was NOT *dull*. Not-dull is critical.

      1. I read one of those and loved it. Romance as a spice is delightful, but I’m not one who enjoys it for the whole meal, and I thought that series was nicely balanced.

  8. I’ve considered a pseudonym. But I must confess a bit of vanity in that I like being able to point at something with my name on it.

  9. I will be publishing under a pen name, because the world is full of a-holes who do things like call your office and tell them you’re all manner of horrible things. (People at my office would laugh and say “Obvioulsy!” but its more the principal of the thing.)

    Later on, should the hoped-for SJW Shirtstorm of free publicity fizzle out to just a rabid camel and a guy who farms Chinese bots, I can always de-cloak.

      1. I could, but that might look silly. I was going to write as Noah Ward but Sarah talked me out of it. ~:D

        So, it’ll be something very non-confrontational and not copyrighted that hopefully helps sell the book.

        That means I can’t be Lamont Cranston. ~:(

          1. I always liked Lamont Cranston. Its a cool name you’d never see in real life. Kit Walker, you get the feeling Lee Falk just tipped open a phonebook and stuck his finger in.

        1. You might write under the Christopher (Kit) Walker name. 😉

          (Now let’s see who gets this.)

          1. Mr. Chupik beat you by a second. And sadly, Kit Walker is copyright just like Clark Kent. And really, so pedestrian. [Ba-dump tsh!]

            Kriztopher Walkerschtein, that I could probably get away with. ~:D

  10. My brand is my style, not any one genre. This year I sold Hard SF, Fantasy, Western, True Crime, Memoir, and a number of stories that don’t fit neatly into any one genre. I’m willing to try my hand at just about anything.

    All of them have the signature Misha Burnett style, though, which I would describe as darkly poetic. I’ve yet to have any fans of my style complain that a particular story hasn’t been in whatever genre they associate me with.

    There is one project (currently unfinished, may never be finished) that if it is published I will use a pseudonym because it is erotica. If, as I say, it ever gets done I will publish it exclusively on Smashwords, where I already have an account under the name I intend to use.

    That would be writing pure and simply for the money, to see if I can use it to generate income. I’m not proud of that, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve done for money.

    1. Congrats on placing in the Baen Fantasy Adventure Award, BTW. Always nice to see a familiar name.

  11. After they lost one writer and she took the brand of her name with her, Harlequin required all writers to use a pen name — and they trademarked it.

    The only concession the writers got was only one writer per pen name.

  12. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when using a pen name, especially a closed pen name, is not only a good idea, but necessary. If you write children’s/middle grade stories and also erotica is one example and, yes, there are authors who do both. If you write religious fiction and erotica or even sexually explicit romance is another. This is especially true if you do so and are or want to be traditionally published.

    As you all probably know, I still write under a pen name for my Honor & Duty series. It is an open pen name but the pen name is the one that goes on the cover. Why? Because there are still some who won’t buy anything coming close to military-sf if it has a female name on the cover. Shrug.

    Also, there are some professions or jobs you can hold that would look askance at you if they knew you were publishing fiction. So, yeah, that is something you have to take into consideration before hitting the “publish” button on Amazon etc.

    But many of the reasons we’ve been told over the years about why pen names are necessary are anything but true. While there is nothing wrong with using pen names–in fact, it is sometimes necessary–just because you write in different genres doesn’t mean you have to have one or more pen names. What it does mean is you have to be clear in your cuing on your book covers and in your blurbs what the book is about and what the genre/sub-genre is.

    1. Jodi Thomas (_The Tender Texan_ and a lot more) is the pen name of a now-retired teacher. She opted for the pen name because of her job, and to shield her family’s privacy. From some of the stories she and her friends tell about wayward-souls at some of her signings, she really made the right call. Apparently there are some romance readers who make sci-fi fans look like paragons of tact, restraint, and sanity.

      1. “Apparently there are some romance readers who make sci-fi fans look like paragons of tact, restraint, and sanity.”

        I dread to ask.

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