Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Branding Challenges For Authors of Sci-Fi Romance

As I was reading “That’s A Wrap! Author Branding in a Nutshell” by Carina Press Executive Editor Angela James in the December 2012 edition of RT Book Reviews, I began wondering about the relationship of author branding with readers who look to genre/subgenre first when making decisions about which books to read.

An author can brand all she wants but for readers who pick books according to genre first (like me) the branding may very well be a non factor. Unless, that is, one defines the very act of writing a sci-fi romance a type of branding (Angela James defines brand as a “promise to readers”).

This issue comes into play with science fiction romance when authors who write in this subgenre have to decide how to brand themselves. I regularly encounter the umbrella genre tags included in the brand. Meaning authors brand themselves as SF *or* romance authors even if what they write are hybrid stories with elements of both. Then readers like me go and ferret out the specific SF and romance elements and blog about them like crazy no matter what the author’s stated brand is.

Which I’m sure must drive some authors nuts, especially if they’ve worked hard to build a specific brand or define their work a certain way. Then there’s the fact that the romance angle is seen as less valid by some people. Do authors of SFR risk branding themselves with “romance” or do they sidestep the issue and stick with the generally safer “SF” description? No matter which brand an author chooses, however, sometimes it must seem like they can't win.

Case in point: author Margaret Atwood. Many consider some of her books to be squarely science fiction. But she has insisted otherwise:

Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to The Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." On BBC Breakfast she explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she herself wrote, was "talking squids in outer space." The latter phrase particularly rankled advocates of science fiction and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed.[9]

I mean, like wow, she won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1987 for THE HANDMAID’S TALE—an SF award for a story she at one time insisted wasn’t science fiction. Talk about an author-reader difference between genre interpretations!

So I would ask authors of sci-fi romance this question: Would you rather have complete control over your brand or would you rather increase the chances of people talking about your books even if they posit their own definitions about what you write? The reason I ask is because no matter how hard one works at branding, as the Margaret Atwood example shows, one’s control over it only goes so far.

Readers are going to define stories according to their individual tastes no matter how authors brand themselves (and I should point out that Ms. James wrote about how brand is not always related to genre so much as an author’s “…voice, quality, and storytelling in each book.” Pg. 30).

Sometimes a reader’s definition matches the author’s brand but other times there’s only a partial match. Debating how readers define your stories implies that their interpretations are invalid. Distancing yourself from one genre label or another (in this case, SF or romance) only makes readers question your investment in them.

All of this doesn’t mean authors should throw branding efforts out the window; rather, it would be fruitful to explore how branding can be adapted to connect with readers who choose books according to genre or specific hybrids.

How can you best maximize the leverage of your SF-Romance hybrids? Yes, you may have branded yourself an SF author but beyond that simple classification how well does it really define what you write? For example, how will romance readers discover the romance thread(s) in your book(s)? How can you best engage in a dialogue with SF readers about the advantages of character-driven stories?

My suggestion: embrace how readers interpret and label your stories. Tailor your marketing efforts with that factor in mind. After all, once your work is published, all your stories are belong to us.

Joyfully yours,