Friday, 21 June 2013

The Fame Game


Celebrity book deals remain ever present; if anything, they seem to be on the increase. Once confined to endless rounds of ghost-written autobiographies, celebs are now infiltrating almost all genres across the literary spectrum. TV presenters are releasing cookbooks, sports stars are writing children’s fiction, and reality show ‘stars’ are producing entire series of chick-lit. It’s all rather tedious and there doesn’t seem to be much space left for non-celebrity authors. Real writers, that is. While publishers say that they are always on the look-out for new, undiscovered writing talent, they often choose to supplement any risky investments with safer ones; inevitably celebrities constitute those safe commercial bets. Famous names have a pre-existing fan base which practically guarantees a certain number of sales, regardless of how good the book may or may not be.

This trend is especially apparent in the children’s books sector. UK television personality Holly Willoughby and her sister, for example, recently ‘wrote’ their own School for Stars kid’s fiction series. In such a saturated market as children’s literature, it’s really hard for a title to stand out against the rest, and plonking a celebrity’s name on the front cover can be a simple solution to cutting through this perennial problem. Hey famous footballer Frank Lampard, fancy writing a children’s book? Dennis Rodman, how about you? In fairness, if this tenuous branding encourages children to read, then all power to them. But children’s literacy rates are not really what we’re talking about here, are they? Some celebrity author choices are frankly questionable role models for children. Young readers of Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies may get a surprise when searching for her other books which include a collection of raunchy chick-lit novels and several autobiographies filled with pictures of Jordan, her topless glamour-model alter-ego.

Although this trend can feel like a hugely frustrating, dispiriting development for the rest of us, it does provide a useful hint as to how an unknown name can grab the attention of an agent or publisher: by building an author brand. This is also relevant for self publishing authors who might find that concentrating on selling themselves may be a more successful way to promote their books, than by focussing on their writing, specifically. When talking to Curtis Brown agent, Gordon Wise, for our film about the future of the publishing industry he explained that agents are increasingly searching for authors who have built a brand for themselves, or at least who have shown the potential to do so. The author, not the book, has become the commodity that publishers and agents look for.

There are many different ways to create an ‘author brand’ and writers are constantly coming up with new methods. One thing that all ‘author brands’ have in common is that they offer something more than just their novels. By imparting some kind of knowledge, expertise, or opinion on a particular topic, an author can begin to amass a loyal following. Once they’ve done this they will have a platform from which to sell their books and build that brand even further. A good example of this method is the branding and marketing expert Seth Godin. Godin has, over the years, offered an awful lot of free advice through his own online channels, and by appearing in interviews and guest blogs for other authors and experts in that area of interest. By imparting his knowledge for free, he has positioned himself as one of the foremost writers and thinkers on the subject, and his books relating to marketing and branding have become bestsellers as a result.

Your attraction as an ‘author brand’ doesn’t necessarily have to have a direct link to your books. Joanna Penn, who we spoke to a few weeks ago, has established herself as the go-to writer for all things self publishing, the ‘author-entrepreneur’. Her website attracts a huge amount of traffic as a result. Whilst she has positioned herself as an authority on self promotion and self publishing, she also writes thrillers which she’s able to promote through her website, to the audience she’s cultivated through her expertise, not solely her writing. By offering constructive free advice to fellow authors, Penn has established a strong platform from which to sell her books. In America, the author JA Konrath has adopted a similar strategy. Konrath started blogging about his quest to become a writer, outlining his successes, failures, and imparting the tips he’d learned along the way. By the time he released his first few novels, he already had a loyal readership who were ready and waiting to see the fruits of his labour. He now has a huge fan base who keep coming back for more; his readers are looking out for his name, not his books.

You don’t have to be an expert in something, or to offer help and advice, you could offer your opinion too. Or even just your time. Searching for the best-known and most prolific reviewers in any particular genre, you will find that many of them have written books in that genre too. Having amassed a following of their target market, such authors can then use this platform to plug their own work. Author John Scalzi  is a good example; his no-holds barred approach to sci-fi reviewing had attracting a substantial following well before he became a novelist, but the platform has helped launch his writing career.

There are many things an author can do to raise their own profile, it’s a case of finding out how you can exploit your own talents to make it work for you. In focussing on marketing yourself, you can promote all of your work, all of your endeavours at once. Just like celebrities do. The only way for a reader to know about a book is to read it, but to convince them to do so, well, that requires trust; by offering potential readers something for free, you can build that trust. Whether you’re cultivating your brand online, in your local community, through regional radio contributions or podcasts, you may be surprised by how quickly you can generate support for your efforts. In short, authors should take a leaf out of celebrity’s books: stop trying to sell your product, and sell yourself!


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2 comments:

Fantasywriter said...

I don't read celebrity books and I don't buy things or services advertised by celebrities on TV. If they need such backing they probably aren't very good in the first place. Building an author profile is all well and good but it sounds like a sop to the masses, the consolation prize. How many bloggers gain notice? 1% for example?
Until the issue of marketing your work and yourself is properly addressed most people are going to continue to be disappointed and frustrated by lack of interface with publishers.

M. A. McRae said...

On the subject of building an author profile and 'selling the author rather than the books, I notice that the authors that get TV interviews for instance, have to be good-looking, and if female, have to be young as well, preferably blonde. How nice it would be if an 'author profile' worked as well for middle-aged and grey-haired.