Business Musings: The Branding Surprise
I’ve had a fascinating week, filled with realizations and surprises on the business side of things. I just made notes for three future blog posts, so I won’t try to cram all those realizations here. And I still haven’t found the time to read the music industry study in depth, like I mentioned I would last week, but I plan to, along with the copyright controversy that blew up right after it all.
Every week, Dean and I meet with the publisher of WMG Publishing, Allyson Longueira. Allyson has a long background in graphic design, as well as in publishing. She started in newspapers, but she’s worked in book publishing for several years now, and has a firm grasp, not just on where the industry is, but where it’s going.
She mentioned at last week’s meeting that she’s having some serious trouble with a rebranding project scheduled for this week.
A little background: we could easily call July Rebranding Month. With the help of comic book writer, Lee Allred, Allyson and Dean redesigned the covers for Dean’s Poker Boy series. I’ll let them premiere that when they’re ready, but suffice to say, these covers are brilliant.
I can’t wait to show them to you.
I won’t say they were easy to rebrand, but, conceptually, they weren’t hard. We knew we wanted to do something different for Poker Boy, something that suggested superhero. And the design the three of them came up with isn’t something that can be done in two hours by someone who lacks design experience. It requires a lot of work and finesse, and tweaking of programs and things I don’t entirely understand, because I’m not in any way shape or form a designer.
But I do understand branding and cover design. In fact, I discuss them at length in my book Discoverability. Those chapters are also free here on the website. (The entire book is free, but out of order here on the site, since I wrote the book out of order.)
And one thing we had talked about for more than a year now has been a redesign of my Kristine Grayson books. We decided we needed a redesign because the initial design was looking tired. The books had to be updated on the interior as well, since they were among the first ever published by WMG, and the standards of the company have changed.
If anything, the redesign—and rebrand—were long overdue.
Allyson knew immediately what look she was going for with that series. WMG is marketing the books as YA fantasy, because the protagonists are teens, dealing with young adult issues. But in many way, those books are just straight fantasy novels—unlike the other Kristine Grayson books, which are romances as well as fantasy novels. (I’ve scattered Allyson’s new Interim Fates covers at the beginning of this piece.)
The Grayson romances have had a series of different covers from different publishers. From the comic to the weird to the magical covers, none of them captured the essence of the books, which is romance.
When the first Grayson novel hit print fifteen years ago, the book was part of a brand-new subgenre called paranormal romance. Paranormals in the year 2000 were often lighthearted, and always focused on something magical. The books might have vampires or werewolves, but they might also have witches and ghosts.
They also had pretty clear covers. The lighthearted ones had comic covers, like mine. The darker ones had something a little magical on the cover, along with a romantic pose. Or they might show a rather spooky landscape. But their paranormal element was clear, as was the romantic element.
In the last decade, the line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance got blurred. One writer described the difference on a panel at a science fiction convention I was at by saying this, “The only difference is that a paranormal romance has a happy ending.”
Not quite true—a paranormal romance has to be focused on the romance first, the paranormal elements second—but true-ish, especially since so much urban fantasy also features a romance. In urban fantasy, though, the fantasy (and urban settings) are more important than any romance and, indeed, sometimes the twists and teases of a romance novel get spread throughout an urban fantasy series.
But in marketing—and that’s what we’re discussing here—the covers started to blur. Many of them had those strong muscular women in tank tops, showing their tattooed backs to the reader, while holding a sword or a gun or a stave. Sometimes, in the distance, a wolf howled from a rooftop. Sometimes a bat swooped between buildings. But those women became the focal point.
Then, four years ago, Fifty Shades of Gray became the hottest thing on the market (pun intended) and erotica got mixed in with both genres. Both urban fantasy and paranormal romance always had subgenres within the subgenres that swung toward erotica, but in the last four years, erotica has become a larger and larger share of those markets.
And the covers got even blurrier.
So…back to my story. Allyson had set aside this week to rebrand Kristine Grayson’s adult romance novels. These novels are sweet romances (little or no sex), with a lot of banter (think the banter from 1940s films like His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story) and a totally magically weird (and funny) plotline. Voice heavy, character focused, and strange.
Nothing like the scary-gothic-vampire-love stuff that has branded so much of paranormal romance.
We had conversations about this all spring, because genres change, and definitions change, and we weren’t sure what, exactly, to call the Graysons any more. We left the decision until the beginning of this month, just because we had other projects (like the Retrieval Artist and Poker Boy and, and, and…)
Then Allyson drops a bomb at last week’s meeting. She can’t figure out how to brand the Grayson romances. She can’t find any good genre examples in the real world.
Allyson saying she can’t figure out how to brand a cover is like Kobe Bryant saying he can’t figure out how to shoot a basketball. It’s stunning and startling. Clearly the problem here isn’t Allyson: she knows her business, like Kobe knows his. She’s an amazing designer, and she knows how to brand things.
She asked for help figuring out what we can do. We did some searching on online retail sites last week, starting with Amazon, and I’ll be honest: at that moment, I understood why Amazon changed the Kindle Unlimited rules.
I am a romance reader and I saw nothing I wanted to read. Moreover, much of what I saw were serialized books, chopped up to take advantage of the K.U. algorithm that existed before July 1. So, I figured this was an Amazon issue, and went to the most traditional publishing friendly website I could think of which was Barnes & Noble. There I looked at the paperback romances, not the ebook ones, thinking that I would see traditionally published books.
And found very little that screamed “Romance.” Not under the paranormal label. Either the books looked like they were urban fantasy (and boy, am I sick of that back to the camera wearing a tank top, showing off the tattoos and weapons pose). Or I saw books that looked like—I don’t know—a cookbook or a travelogue, something that showed a lovely garden or a house blurred against a brown background.
Every now and then, I catch myself thinking about publishing like its 1999. And, in my head, I’m not-so-subconsciously blaming indies for the bad covers. Because there are a lot of self-produced bad covers. Dean and Allyson teach an online covers workshop for WMG, trying to help writers improve their covers.
But this Barnes & Noble thing: it tings at me. There aren’t a lot of indies with paperback versions of their books. (Although, happily, there are more now than there were.)
Over the weekend, I headed to traditional publishers’ websites and look at their paranormal romance covers only to discover…that the damn books are branded like urban fantasy or like an E.L. James knockoff or like a cookbook or travelogue.
The indies, bless them, have been copying the traditional covers. Or maybe traditional copied indie—which is very possible, given the massive, massive success of indie published romance titles.
All of this points out a huge problem in the paranormal romance genre. There’s nothing that screams modern paranormal romance. Believe me when I tell you that readers look for such things.
I can tell you when I look at the cover of a historical romance what type of historical I’m looking at. If the woman’s in a flowing gown, holding a fan, chances are I’m looking at a Regency.
If her gown is coarser, and her hair is down, and she’s standing outside, then I’m probably looking at a medieval romance. Romantic suspense has become large titles with large author names and active colors—red, dark blue, orange—to mimic thriller covers.
But paranormal romance? It has gotten lost in the urban fantasy/erotica craze.
A few authors have ventured out. Kristen Painter and Michele Bardsley went for cartoon covers—very ten years ago, but with witty titles. Galen Foley’s Paladin’s Prize caught my eye because the cover is reminiscent of 1980s fantasy covers—sweeping, romantic artwork, not photographs—and when I first looked at the cover, I wondered how old the book was.
But it stood out from all the buff heroes and the bronzed heroines. And in fact, it —of all the books I looked at this past week—was one of the few that whispered Buy me right now!
I became concerned about genre branding as I went through all of this, so I scanned other genres outside of romance. Science fiction, fantasy (not urban), mystery, thriller, and found real obvious genre branding, and branding by author.
It’s clear what type of book the reader is going to get from the covers.
Not so in paranormal romance. The genre seems to have fallen apart.
The bulk of the reason for that is traditional publishing. About two years ago, it decreed that urban fantasy novels don’t sell. I couldn’t figure out why—especially when indie urban fantasy books and stories sell like crazy.
But as I looked at this genre branding stuff, I began to understand. To sell at the numbers that sustain a traditional publisher’s bank account, urban fantasies have to reach stratospheric heights not possible in a crowded market. The books have been purchased and published into this branding mess.
Is the book urban fantasy, with an ongoing mythology, lots of scary magic, and creatures that might or might not be friendly? With a strong female character and lots of combat? Like Ilona Andrews writes novels? Or something written by Patricia Briggs? Remember, in urban fantasy, the magic takes precedence.
Or is the book erotica with werewolves? Books that are about the sexual experience instead of the magical one? Because in erotica, the sexual contact is the most important thing. The rest is window-dressing.
Or is the book an actual paranormal romance? Does the couple meet cute, then run into obstacles, only to have a happily ever after? Some paranormals have great world-building, and some use the magical environment as window-dressing. Some do put the sexual relationship front and center, but combine it with the romance for that happy-ever-after.
Readers can’t judge a book by its cover, and so readers, like me, are stepping back. After my genre-branding experience, I looked at the paper books on my to-be-read stack, and saw only five romances. Believe me, that’s down from my usual reading. And all of those five books are from favorite authors. Four are regency (including one indie [waves at Anthea Lawson]), and one is contemporary. I’m always looking for good romantic suspense, but I haven’t found much of that lately. And I completely stopped reading paranormals, except by indie friends, about two years ago.
I hadn’t realized it until I looked at that table. And I felt sad.
I remember twenty-five years ago when the same thing happened to the horror genre. All the books started to get the garish covers pioneered on John Saul books—black background with one creepy image (maybe a broken doll) and a two-word title such as The Lake or The Babysitter. The titles became so ubiquitous that Kevin J. Anderson started calling all of the books in that subgenre The Barfing, and from that moment on, I couldn’t look at those books without giggling.
That genre imploded, and while horror didn’t go away, the marketing category went away for some time. Just like paranormal romance seems to be going away as a unique category of romance.
All of that realization is great for nonfiction blogging and not-so-good for helping Allyson figure out covers for my Grayson novels.
At that meeting last week, Dean and Allyson discussed a fallback design, something romantic that suggested the Interim Fates’ series covers, but which branded the books in three ways:
Way the first: the covers had to be romantic. They needed a couple, not a woman by herself or a man by himself.
Way the second: the covers needed a suggestion of magic. Maybe a little fairy dust, maybe a magic wand, maybe some kind of something. (This’s where cover design gets into mystical arty talk, at least for me.)
Way the third: the books had to look like part of a series, and they had to brand to WMG’s Grayson design. They needed something to suggest the Interim Fates, but to be different from them. They needed something to suggest that the books were tied together, but one book (Completely Smitten) isn’t part of a series that WMG is publishing in full, so it needed to look slightly different.
Allyson and I e-mailed a lot on Monday about covers, and then we spoke the phone on Tuesday, after she nearly worked herself blind trying to find the right art to blend into the design concept she had come up with. She says she went through more that 1,000 images, trying to find the right ones.
I believe it.
Here’s what she came up with. I think the covers are truly creative and spectacular. There’s a reason she’s won a lot of awards as a graphic designer, and for the first time, she’s really had free reign. She’s not trying to fit into a genre brand. She’s truly creating her own brand.
(And wait until you see Poker Boy. Yowza.)
Anyway, I think these covers tick all the boxes we wanted ticked. They are clearly related to the Interim Fates covers. The romance covers brand to series. They brand to each other. They scream romance. And they have magical elements.
Allyson also did something I didn’t expect. These books deal with Greek mythology. The Fates are part of Greek myth, and they’re at the center of these books. So she put in columns that suggest Greece. Truly well done.
I have no idea how well these covers will sell. I hope they sell well. I certainly like them better than any Grayson cover I’ve had before. (Note: the books with the new covers won’t be available until next week.)
We put a lot of time and attention into the redesign of Grayson. It sounds like Allyson did it in a week, but that doesn’t count the decision to rebrand, the discussion of how we want to use the branding on future books, what we want to do with the various series, and how everything relates.
There will be new promotion on the Grayson titles as well, starting in the fall. The whole promotion thing led to another realization which I will discuss in future weeks. It’s time to put some of the plans I mentioned in Discoverability to use on Grayson.
The first was the importance of finding the proper brand. We’ve done that—as best we can, considering several of the Grayson novels are still in print traditionally. We’ll see how this all works.
One last thing on branding. In Discoverability, I mention that you’ll need to update your covers every five years or so. The first WMG romance title was Completely Smitten in 2011. So we’re right on schedule for the redesign.
If the redesign sells well, then five years from now there might not be any reason to do another redesign. Or there might be, if trends go far afield from where we are.
It’s our job as writers and publishers to keep abreast of cover trends so that we can let readers know what our books are at a glance. That’s difficult—especially in a genre in flux, like paranormal romance—but speaking as a reader first, it’s essential.
The thing I love the most about the publishing industry these days is that it is changing quickly. That means there’s always something to learn, and always something that surprises me. The lack of branding on paranormal romances surprised me. The solution Allyson came up with pleased me.
And all of it lead to some thoughts that you’ll see over the next few weeks, as this blog continues.
So many of you support the blog with sharing on social media and by commenting here. Thank you! And thanks to all of you who support the blog financially. That enables me to spend the hours every week that I could be working on something else writing nonfiction and thinking about the industry. Thanks for that as well.
“Business Musings: The Branding Surprise,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.