Brand for Writers: Bonkers, Barf-worthy, and Boring.


I have more than a few trendy publishing words that I can’t wait for their trendiness to pass. “Engagement” is one. “Brand” is another. I can’t wait for it to exit the lexicon, especially when it applies to writers, artists, and other creatives. I cringe every time a human being is referred to as a brand. As in, “You have to stay on brand.” Or, “Your brand is what sets you apart.” Cue barf emoji, please.

People are not brands. We’re individuals, subject to whims, quirks, and weirdness. People are dynamic and ever-changing. Brands are static, plastic, and passive. They don’t change, and they don’t exhibit funny quirks or random behavior that would make them interesting. (And I don’t care how many times you tell me that a brand changes to keep up with the times. They don’t, or at least not in any meaningful way. Once created a brand is stuck with itself.)

Lets look at authors for a moment. There are a few “branded” authors. Nora Roberts, John Grisham, James Patterson, Stephen King are some big ones. They are the ones whose names you know and you know what to expect from their work. But… As nice as that may be, I’ve often wondered how often some of these people might like to try a different kind of storytelling but can’t because it’s “off brand.”

Some get around it in other ways. Nora Roberts became JD Robb when she wanted to write mysteries/thrillers. JK Rowling became Richard Galbraith when she wanted to write mysteries. Others tried other genres and got crucified for doing so. Stephanie Meyer’s forays away from vampires did not go well, and John Grisham’s non-legal books seem to be viewed as eccentric trips down some oddball lane. Indulged, but not appreciated.

These people suffer the trap of “the brand.” You are what you write and you may never deviate from it, lest the media and fans turn on you. But to me, it’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.

Any creative person will likely tell you that the idea of doing the same thing over and over again is stifling. Creative people thrive on experimentation. Maybe not all of those experiments pan out, but it’s still fun to try. So what’s the answer if you want to go off brand? Just do those other things privately and never share them with the world? That would be a mistake both for the creative person and the world.

I often think about Leonardo da Vinci. Had brands been around in his day, how would the world have pigeonholed him? As a painter? Inventor? Scientist? The same goes for Benjamin Franklin. Would he have been branded as an inventor? Scientist? Benefactor? Writer? Which one of these things would society have made these men choose? And how much poorer would the world be because of it? Had we stuffed them into a box and said, “You can only do this because it’s your brand,” we’d be missing so much today.

Look, I get it. The idea behind a brand is to make you stand out in a crowded marketplace. But honestly, I’d much rather follow and be a fan of someone who’s constantly trying new things and stretching themselves. It’s much more interesting to watch someone grapple with something new than it is to see them announce yet another thing in a long line of the same things.

Besides… For something that’s supposed to mark your uniqueness, all brands end up looking and sounding more or less the same. They all fade away into the background noise that is modern life. Even in the case of authors and artists. Being a brand is only a heartbeat away form being an advertisement, and no lone looks kindly on those these days.

Brands are too limiting for most creative people (and human beings in general). A true brand does one thing and one thing only. Nike makes apparel. Starbucks makes coffee. Samsung makes electronics. But authors and writers aren’t “brands” in that sense. Nor are most other creative people. Most of us do multiple things. We may write novels and non-fiction books. Our work may cross genres or formats, with some of us freelancing in various areas in addition to our book writing. Many of us aren’t “just” writers, either. We have hobbies, jobs, and interests that deviate from our writing, yet make us more interesting people.

When I think of many branded people, I think plastic and fake. I think of people who have Photoshopped the reality out of life. People who believe their own press corp and have a distorted sense of self and reality. Maybe that’s what they enjoy, I don’t know. But I know it’s not how I want to live.

To say that I can only be this one thing, a brand of some sort, is the kind of thing that makes me just want to put my head through a wall. I can’t imagine only writing one thing for the rest of my life. I can’t imagine having to act like my brand is all that there is to me. If I go out in public or meet people on social media, I don’t want to talk only about my brand. I want to talk about my humanity and interests, and try to connect with others on those levels. I don’t want to worry about whether my comments are coming across as “off brand.” That’s no way to live. At least not for me.

So I guess I’ll just keep on bucking the trends. I’ll just be the person who follows my interests wherever they may lead. I’m pretty sure that’s going to mean a career with no fame or fortune, or no career at all come to that. But to me it’s the only way I can be happy. While I’ll certainly never be as gifted or intelligent as da Vinci or Franklin, their lives look a whole hell of a lot more appealing to me than that of a branded person.

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