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shana galen

Re-Branding: A Survivor's Guide

In the movie The Last of the Mohicans, Hawkeye famously tells Cora Munro, the woman he's fallen in love with, "You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you." That's not bad advice for authors. If you can stay alive, i.e. stay published, readers will find you and your books.

But sometimes they might have to search.

Author Brand

I'm sure by now you've heard of branding and may have even given some thought—if not a lot of thought—to your author brand. "In fiction, the brand is the author's name," according to Sourcebooks' editor Deb Werksman. Your name should help your reader identify what kind of story she'll be reading when she buys your book. Publishers use book titles and cover art to convey to new readers what type of book an author writes.

Why Re-Brand?

Sometimes an author finds it necessary to re-brand. The most common reason is when an author changes sub-genre. Amelia Grey (A Gentleman Says I Do, 05/12). "wanted to leave American historicals and move to Regency London." Her editor asked her to take a new name as Gloria Dale Skinner was associated with American and Western historicals. Many of you may have done the same when you moved from historicals to contemporary or paranormal to YA.

It isn't always the author or the editor making a suggestion to re-brand. Sherrill Bodine (All I Want is You, 01/12) credits her agent, Danielle Egan-Miller, with her successful re-brand. Miller suggested Bodine write as herself after fifteen books as Lynn Leslie and Leslie Lynn. Bodine couldn't be happier. She describes the re-branding as a "fresh beginning."

Because scenarios like Bodine's and Grey's are familiar to me, I was confused when my editor called me to discuss re-branding. I had no intention of changing genres. In fact, I had a book, the third in a well-reviewed historical series, scheduled to release in two months. My publisher didn't want to change my name, just the package I was wrapped up in. Editor Deb Werksman explains it like this: "Sometimes we find that an author needs what we call 're-branding.' This can happen if the author's sales have slowed down, or if the package needs an update, or if we launched a series and the first (and sometimes the second book) didn't get the kind of traction we were looking for. We also do it even if sales haven't slowed down, if we believe that the marketplace has shifted and...an author needs to be repositioned for the marketplace."

Agent Joanna MacKenzie says, "Re-branding is a way of reintroducing an already established author back into the marketplace. Sometimes re-branding occurs organically" as in Bodine and Grey's cases. But sometimes "the marketplace pushes an author to consider re-branding."

Most of us have felt the pinch of the tight current market, which means re-branding can definitely be a positive thing, and agent Joanna MacKenzie admits she is seeing more of this. In this economy, Deb Werksman says that publishers are "marketing every book we publish and never just putting a book out there and just waiting to see what happens."

As an author, I appreciate that approach, but it doesn't mean I was initially thrilled to be re-branded. There can be drawbacks to re-branding, especially when it's done so close to publication. In my case, the book about to be released was pulled and another book of mine, unrelated to that series, was moved forward. This required some shifting around of deadlines and a lot of initial insecurity on my part. But my publisher felt they could better re-brand me starting with a fresh book, not the last book of a series. That last book's publication date was moved back almost a year, even though ARCs had gone out and early reviews—all positive—had come in.

The Re-Branding Process

I had a lot of questions about re-branding and my editor, agent, and even the CEO of the publishing company walked me through the process. It definitely helps if an author is notified as early as possible that a publisher is considering re-branding her. Even if a re-brand isn't being discussed and all is going well, it's important for an author to maintain a dialogue about sales numbers and author brand with the editor. There's never any harm in bringing up the ways in which your publisher is branding you—cover, book title, hook—and discussing how well it's working and how well you feel the brand fits you.

Author Tamara Hogan (Chase Me, 06/12) says from the look and feel of her latest cover concept, "it's clear to me that someone, somewhere, has put a lot of thought into how my books, and by association, me, should be branded. But it's not a discussion I've had with anyone."

It was never a discussion I had with anyone either, and I was slotted to publish my tenth book when the re-branding occurred. Tamara Hogan expressed my thoughts perfectly when she remarked during an online discussion that she "can't help but wonder if having more robust branding discussions with the author, early in their contract or career, might be one possible way to reduce the risk that re-branding might occur." As authors, we should not rely on our agents or editors to suggest such a discussion. We need to take the initiative.

Once the decision to re-brand has been made several people in the publishing house are involved. According to Deb Werksman, "the editor researches the marketplace and proposes new positioning in terms of title and hook." For me, this happened when my editor took a look at reviews and reader reaction to previous books I'd written that sold well. As an editor, she wanted to know if I was doing something different with this new series. I wasn't. The same reviewers who disliked my other books, disliked the new series, and those readers and reviewers who loved my other books, loved the new series. So we moved on and examined the series titles and covers. As one would expect with a series, the titles and covers were related. The first book is titled The Making of a Duchess, the second The Making of a Gentleman, and the third book—the one to be re-branded—The Making of a Rogue. All feature covers with women in lovely dresses being held by a man from behind. I thought the covers were beautiful, but the more I discussed them with my editor, the more I realized that the covers didn't really portray the kind of story I write. I write fast-paced, adventurous Regency romances. A staid cover with a woman in a pretty dress doesn't express that brand to readers.

Another concern was the similarity of the titles. My editor feared because the titles were so similar some readers might have mistakenly believed they already read the second book when it was released. We wanted to avoid that problem with the third book. Finally, the series features three aristocratic brothers who escaped the French Revolution as boys. As those of you who follow the historical market know, the French Revolution is not one of the most popular settings with readers. The books were set in the 1800s, after the French Revolution, but we couldn't seem to shake that French Revolution stigma.

So, my editor proposed a three-prong solution. We'd re-title the third book. We'd give it a cover that better reflected my brand, and we'd move my stand-alone book up because it featured Regency spies and had no ties whatsoever to the French Revolution.

At this point, Deb Werksman says "sales is consulted for their feedback and sometimes we ask buyers for their input as well. The design department works on new concepts and marketing/PR do the launch."

Author Emery Lee (Fortune's Son 11/11) was also recently re-branded. The first book in her planned series "was released as general fiction in trade paperback." Lee loved the book cover and the idea but "didn't feel the look of the book really captured the strong romantic elements of the story." And she heard from readers who didn't initially buy the book because of its "unromantic" look. Sales were not as robust as expected, and she "feared her career was over before it had even begun." By re-branding Lee with a more romantic look and in mass market paperback, Lee and her editor expect sales to increase. The right brand does make a difference.

Communication with Readers

But what do you do when you have a book slotted for release, excited readers waiting for the book, and then you get that re-branding phone call? The title, the cover, and the release date may very well change. Reader confusion is sure to ensue, and as agent Joanna MacKenzie acknowledges, "re-branding can slow an author's momentum in the market." This certainly happened with me. I had been publishing two books a year, and suddenly readers had to wait almost a whole year for a new book from me—and not the one they had been expecting!

When I found out about the re-branding, I asked other authors how they'd handled it. Terry Spear (Dreaming of the Wolf, 12/11) had the second and fourth books in her werewolf series re-branded. She blogged a lot about her new covers and emailed sites featuring the books to offer them replacement covers.

Mia Marlowe (Touch of a Rogue, 02/12) had to "reinvent my web presence completely—new website, blog, social network...everything!" Readers can be resistant to a change like this, especially in the middle of a series, so it's important to put a positive spin on the changes. Marlowe informed her readers of the re-branding by being "positive and forthcoming about it." She sent newsletters and hosted a blog moving party.

Sidney Ayers (Demons Like It Hot, 12/11) held a contest on her website. She asked readers to help her come up with new title suggestions for the second book in her Demons Unleashed series.

I also involved readers in my re-branding. My publisher held a Twitter poll for readers to help pick the new title of the re-branded book. Readers overwhelmingly chose the original title. They wanted continuity in the series above all. But the readers' second choice was something my editor and I had been thinking about, and we went with it.

But even when authors do their best to communicate with readers and involve them in the changes, sometimes readers just aren't happy. Many of my readers have emailed me to say they do not like that the third book in my series will not have a cover and title to match the first two. b2bMelanie, an avid reader, blogger, and reviewer, puts it this way: "For die-hard fans of tie-ins this [changing the brand mid-series] frustrates/annoys/bothers." Reader Shabana Y says, "when a brand is changed midway it can be annoying because I like sets that match."

Author Linda Wisdom (A Demon Does it Better, 01/12) encountered a lot of reader anger and confusion when her Hex series was re-branded. Many of her readers "said if the first book in the series had the cover they use now, they might not have picked up the book." Wisdom articulates the author's dilemma perfectly: "The problem is, the author is always blamed and we have to explain it's not always us. That we don't always have control over what happens."

I asked readers who had tweeted, emailed, and posted on Facebook about my re-brand for their impressions. Most said they never gave an author's brand any thought. Reader Shabana Y says that "Eventually the titles drop out and I purchase in terms of the author and type of story I've grown to expect."

This is heartening news, but as my editor pointed out during one discussion, the re-brand is not targeted at established readers. When a publisher embarks on a re-brand, they want a particular author to pick up new readers.

It's Going to be Okay

Obviously, re-branding is extremely stressful for an author. Werksman reassures her authors by reminding them "re-branding often produces great results." MacKenzie points out that "in an ever-shifting marketplace, re-branding can give an author, or series, new life." Sourcebooks' publicist Danielle Jackson says, "re-branding refreshes everything, and it gives me an opportunity to reintroduce an author to the reading public."

So what should you do if you receive word you're being re-branded? Everyone agrees an author should try to keep an open mind. If you have an agent, contact him or her. MacKenzie states that an agent can assist by keeping "an open, continuous dialogue with the publisher to make sure everything is on track with any and all re-branding efforts." Werksman agrees that an agent can help by "facilitating the process, doing his or her own research, supporting the author and answering questions or asking great questions."

Next, talk to other authors who've been through the re-branding process. Almost all of the authors I spoke to said they felt the re-branding effort was successful, and most agreed with Amelia Grey, who said, "publishers want our books to succeed. If they feel branding or re-branding is what is needed, I feel we should trust them to know what is best."

A good dialogue with your publicist is also helpful. Jackson says it helps her if authors are "flexible and willing to re-brand." Specifically, she suggests authors update their websites with new information, the new covers, or the new titles as early in the process as possible. Since ARCs and reviews for my book had already gone out, my publicist and I had several discussions about what steps she would take to make sure the re-branded book received attention again. ARCs of the book with the new title and cover were sent to reviewers, and she solicited new reviews or asked reviewers to hold off posting their original review until closer to the new release date. Jackson keeps "very detailed lists of where I send books. When a release date changes, a new title is given or a cover is updated, I let my lists know as soon as I have confirmation." Check with your publicist to be certain they are doing the same.

Your publicist is also invaluable in sticky or confusing situations. RT Book Reviews magazine reviewed my book in its April 2011 issue under the original title and then nominated it for Best Historical Romantic Adventure. Unfortunately, we couldn't accept the nomination because the book's publishing date had changed to 2012, which made it ineligible. Not to mention, we didn't want publicity for the original title. We'd just spent months telling readers about the new title. It's hard to turn down any nomination for an award, but my publicist handled everything with RT very professionally.

If you're re-branded, engage readers through Facebook, Twitter, and your website. Be upfront and positive. Involve readers in the process if possible. Reader Gayle C liked my Twitter poll because it "was a fun way to let people know what was going on and gave people the feeling of having a voice in the process."

Finally, take a deep breath. Mackenzie reminds her authors careers are "always evolving, so it's important to look beyond this one moment to five or ten years down the line." And if that doesn't help, remember your publisher wouldn't waste time re-branding you if they didn't believe in you. In the words of Sourcebooks' Editorial Director Todd Stocke: "The books that are really important get tortured; everything else receives a sound beating."

© Shana Galen

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