Sunday, August 10, 2008

Branding or Blanding?

A few years ago, series for kids started to get "hot". We'd had the Babysitters' Club and Saddle Club for a long while, and my daughter had other series on her bookshelves (usually the theme was either animals or diaries/penpals). But then series started to become the thing. We moved from books to collectibles, with the idea that a kid who had two or three would want the whole lot, or as many as Mum or Dad would buy them. Kind of like bubblegum cards, but it was books.

Some of the early series writers, like R.L. Stine and Ann Martin, had to give way to books that had no "name" author. It was the brand that counted. Or the concept. After years of telling us that fairies were old-hat, suddenly fairies and pixies and elves were spilling off the shelves in all kinds of colours and glittery bits. The current bling series is Go Girls, but if you move up a notch, age-wise, you'll get Gossip Girls and the like.

One of my favourite series is Junie B. Jones, bad (intentionally) grammar and all. The Magic Tree House is immensely popular with kids, and I can see why. It's history and magic all tied together, for 6-8 year olds. I've read quite a few series books over the past few years, more out of curiosity than anything else. As a writer, you can't help but wonder: a) what the attraction is for kids, b) what the quality of writing is like, and c) could I come up with something like this?

I did try. I came up with what I thought was a good concept, some interesting characters, and the first book - all great stuff to show an editor, who was interested at the time. Her eventual response? Bland. I'd played it way too safe, trying to either emulate what was already out there or stick too close to what had already been done. That's the thing about publishing - the good editors are looking for the next new/different thing, and the editors who just want more of the same aren't who you want to work with, mostly.

So what is a series? Mostly - it's about branding, I think. It's why you get series with a bunch of different author names on it and no one cares. Penguin have several chapter book series and none of the authors get their "name" from being published in them. The kids recognise the distinctive die-cut covers first, then they say, "Oh, you wrote that!" R.L. Stine is a very distinctive name in series fiction for kids, but any kid will immediately equate his name with horror - scary stuff. If he ever tried to write, say, nice horse books, his readers would be greatly disappointed. They're ready for blood and guts (but not actual death).

We hear a lot about branding these days. I teach it to students - gee, I even have a Powerpoint on it! And I've done a couple of seminars on branding for writers. Has any of that led me to developing my own brand? Nup. Wish it had. But I'm caught in my own loop - I'd like some kind of recognisable "thing" about my books, but I want to be free to write whatever I want. That means everything from picture books for toddlers to edgy YA. I've had both published. It's a bit hard to find a brand for myself that covers both of those areas, let alone chapter books about very small pirates and award-winning verse novels!

I look at children's writers like Morris Gleitzman and Andy Griffiths, both of whom write very recognisable books aimed at (mostly) 10-12 year old boys. That's their thing, and they are doing very well at it. Sonya Hartnett writes very literary novels for readers 16+ and adults. While she has been complaining for years that she doesn't earn enough from them, winning the Astrid Lindgren recently should be enough to make her happy. And the thing is, the one book she did write out of her "zone" was an erotic novel for adults that sparked a lot of publicity, mostly bad.

So branding can be both good and bad. It can garner you a loyal following, sometimes that will spread into million-seller books. I love Ian Rankin's books, and I always enjoy reading about his character, Rebus. Would I read a Rankin book that wasn't about Rebus? If it was crime, probably. If it was romance, probably not. Writers who write the same kind of book, over and over, will grow a fan base. One that could well turn on them if they step out of their chosen field. Or produce a book that the fans don't like. I was interested to read, for example, of the backlash against Stephanie Meyer's latest book in her vampire series.

I think the biggest problem that writers face with branding is not so much being forced to stay in their recognised genre and type of book, but that in finding themselves there, they end up writing stuff that is sub-standard in order to feed the mob. And for new writers, the danger is what I encountered - writing "safe" in order to try and break in. In this time of "hot and new", editors don't want safe - they want innovative and different. That means taking risks and hoping someone loves what you're trying to do (and lying awake, night after night, coming up with ideas and throwing them away because they've been done already).

I have two series now, both accidental. One is the chapter book series about The Littlest Pirate, the other is about a character called Tracey Binns. My biggest challenge is to keep the characters fresh and new for me, before anyone else. Then it's about maintaining the voice, developing the character a little more in each story, and most importantly, trying to make each new book better than the last. It helps when you love your characters - it helps a lot! But as neither of these set out to be series when I wrote the first one, I backtrack a lot to keep it all together and make sure things are consistent. And most of all, I try very hard to stay away from bland.

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