When I was much, much younger, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Iowa plains and there were only two black-and-white channels on television (three, if you could bend the wire hanger stuck into the broken antenna at just the right angle), there was an iconic Western drama called “Branded,” starring the iconic Chuck Connors. Connors played Jason McCord, a cavalry officer unjustly accused of desertion and cowardice who chose to bear that dishonor in order to protect the good name of his slain superior officer.
As the show opened each week, I watched, mesmerized, as the military court stripped him of his insignia, snapped his sword in two, and sent him out into the wilderness on foot, the ultimate disgrace for a cavalryman. McCord spent 48 episodes drifting through the Old West, broken saber at his hip, fighting at every way-station to reclaim his sullied reputation. He was a paragon of courage, branded a coward.
What do you do when you’re branded, and you know you’re a man?
It still sends shivers down my spine.
On a somewhat related note, a discussion about branding came up in one of my writing circles as part of a periodic commiseration about marketing our books and how that’s not going as well as we’d like. Branding is a hot marketing topic among writers. It’s about ensuring that when a potential reader thinks about a (insert my chosen genre here) story, the first, and preferably only, image that comes to mind is me. The reader wants a Fred story. He/she needs it…no, even better, they need me.
Branding is a perfectly legitimate strategy for a business and the goods or services it sells. However, when we start thinking of individual human beings as a brand to be tailored and managed to the desires of the marketplace, we’ve taken a person and made them a thing, an object to be bought and sold. It’s a kind of soft slavery—the brand doesn’t serve the welfare of the person, the person serves the welfare of the brand and must constantly adjust to ensure the brand perpetuates and prospers. Do I have any idea who people like The Donald, or Oprah, or Lady Gaga really are? No, but I know them intimately as brands, and once their brands lose their influence in our culture, I will probably lose whatever interest I had in those people. They’ll be replaced in my life by other, more compelling brands that might as well be 3-D digital avatars. Their humanity is irrelevant. All that matters are the products they represent.
If writers spent as much time writing as they do chattering about how to market, the community would be much happier and healthier. Why is your book not selling? It isn’t because you failed to employ the latest marketing gimmick or aren’t properly leveraging your brand.
Repeat after me: My book isn’t selling because it just isn’t that good.
Ouch. I’m not trying to kill anybody’s dreams here, including my own. It doesn’t mean your book is lousy, it doesn’t mean you’re a lousy writer, and it doesn’t mean your next book can’t or won’t take off like a skyrocket. It means that this book which isn’t selling is lacking something important, and there are a plethora of possible problems—objective issues like plotting, characterization, world-building, and narrative flow, or perhaps subjective issues that defy easy analysis, like a simple and genuine emotional connection with the reader. Market research isn’t going to solve these problems. The only solution is to keep writing. If you want to improve your writing, and the potential for your end-product’s success, study and practice.
Sorry, that’s the best advice I’ve got. Truth is often tedious and boring.
Yes, I hear you: “Okay, smart guy, explain why that knucklehead-authored piece of trash parked next to my book is flying off the shelves.”
Repeat after me: That lousy book I detest is selling because it does something right.
Double-ouch. Certainly, it’s not doing everything, or maybe even most things right. Chances are, through some combination of talent, instinct, and dumb luck, the author struck a chord with readers strong enough that they didn’t much care about the story’s glaring weaknesses. Perhaps this was the month everybody happened to be pondering the idea of vegan lycanthrope freedom fighters. Maybe there was a prevailing pessimism about life, the universe, and everything that craved affirmation via a fictional Armageddon that allowed people to watch the world burn from a safe distance. Maybe a has-been celebrity made a splash on the red carpet at precisely the same time as the publication of their trashy unauthorized biography. It might even be that the sexy siren or hunky hercules on the cover was impossible to resist. No, it isn’t fair, but it’s life. Live with it. You might even want to actually read the piece of trash in question to get a better idea of what it got right. You might be surprised. Just be careful about the lessons you learn, because…
Repeat after me: Following the market will not make me a successful writer.
Yes, people do make money, for a while, by copycatting the current “big thing.” This is still a gamble. The coat-tails of any fad vary in length, and public tastes are fleeting and fickle. By the time you finish your epic vampire romance, mummies may be in vogue. Grumpy Cat is supplanted by Sir Stuffington. You roll the dice and take your chances.
I propose, however, that if you’re writing because you think it will make you lots of money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Play the lottery instead. It requires much less time and effort, with a similar rate of return on your investment. Don’t bother writing unless you’re doing it for the love. Do it because it brings you joy and offers an avenue to express your God-given creativity. Do it because your life doesn’t feel complete unless you’re capturing the ideas bouncing around inside your head and heart onto paper or digits or some other medium that brings them into the physical world. It doesn’t matter if anybody likes your work or is willing to pay for the privilege of reading it. If you happen to write a bestseller or save the world, that’s frosting, not the cake itself. Keep your expectations on a tight rein. Be yourself, do your best, give it your all, and have the courage to take a good, hard look at what success in writing, or in life, really means. That’s a brand worth fighting for.
What do you do when you’re branded? Will you fight for your name?