I don't spend much time on writing these days. The day job, my husband and the long-overdue PhD thesis on the mythology of the new South Africa in advertising all rank higher on the list of priorities for my attention. Of the precious little time I do spend on writing, rather a lot of it is spent worrying about the name I should type on the title page.
Should it be Sarah Britten? (This is the name that appears on my two novels for teenagers that have been published locally.) Perhaps the more gender-neutral SJ Britten would make more sense. Or Sarah J Britten, for that hint of an American twang (or, once the #$%^&* thesis is done, Sarah J Britten, PhD. I'll need that PhD if I ever want to write a self-help book. Americans set great store by those three little letters.) I could use my husband's surname, which gives me Sarah Steyn and SJ Steyn; the latter might evoke JM Coetzee in euphony if not in ambition. Or, since I'm officially double-barrelled according to Home Affairs, I also have the option of using Sarah Britten-Steyn, SJ Britten-Steyn or Sarah J Britten-Steyn. The choices are endless: What to do, what to do?
I'm happy to acknowledge that this is a case of jumping the gun somewhat, since it is not as if any of my embryonic books are more than a fraction of the way towards term. Nonetheless, the problem keeps me awake at night, partly because it is easier than having to work out sticky points of plotting and motivation, and partly because I work in the advertising industry, and so feel that I ought to apply the same critical strategic thinking for which my clients pay me to my own vocation. The cobbler's children and all that.
Why should the name matter so much? I would like to think that writing is a calling, an endeavour that requires passion first and foremost, because it is a lonely slog and there is no guarantee of success. The name on the title page should be an afterthought. But because I quite like the idea of actually making money out of writing books (the total amount of cash I have made out of writing so far adds up to two months' salary), I have to be practical. Any writer who wants to get anywhere has to think like a marketer, and that means turning oneself into a brand.
The fact is that branding has assumed central importance in all areas of consumption. Whether this is a positive development or the greatest threat to the public good since fluoride in tap water is a moot point. I spend my days thinking about communicating in ways that will get the public to eat more of my client's cheeseburgers than anyone else's, book more of my airline client's tickets rather than flying with a rival, and buy more of my client's expensive brand of jeans - and when you think about it, books are a lot like burgers. As with burgers, you buy them, consume them, and enjoy them - or not. If the experience was a good one, you might think to yourself that you would like to try that kind of burger again. Or, as the case may be, look out for that particular author's next book.
This is where branding comes into what most writers of fiction must once have viewed as a private, intensely personal creative act. A brand is ultimately a set of expectations. Spot a name on the shelf, and if the author has been successfully branded, you'll immediately know what to expect.
In the advertising world we call this a customer value proposition. Successful writers follow formulas because formula sells. Stephen King will give you reliably scary horror, John Grisham legal thrillers of the reliably page-turning type. (Incidentally, Elmore Leonard has stated that no writer should ever use a word other than said to describe dialogue, but I don't trust an author who never uses a thesaurus. King, Grisham and Michael Crichton all use said to death.) Patricia Cornwell guarantees gruesome crime solved by hard-arsed forensic pathologists; Ruth Rendell crime solved by middle-aged, middle-class British police inspectors. Barbara Vine equals literary suspense (I prefer Barbara to Ruth). Martin Amis? These days, probably a novel you'll end up throwing across the room, half hoping that during its travels it will miraculously connect with Mr Amis's Extreme Made-over jaw. (This brings to mind one of Dorothy Parker's old chestnuts: "This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.")
Quite clearly, authors are brands, and choosing the wrong brand name in a market in which 300 000 books reach shelves worldwide every year can have disastrous consequences. For each book that does get published, dozens of manuscripts are rejected. So how do I present myself as a marketable prospect to agents and publishers, somebody worth taking a risk on, perhaps even somebody worth putting some of their marketing budget behind?
This is where I have to make some tough choices, not just about the right pose and outfit (black poloneck? white cotton blouse? hair up? hair down?) for the artful black and white portrait I plan to send along with the manuscript (so that publishers can visualise me on the jacket of the first edition), but also about how I position myself. I would love to work across genres, and the projects in various stages of incompletion are all what I suppose one would describe as riffs on everything from suspense thriller to chick lit. But I know that it's highly unlikely that, should I be so lucky to get one of them published, I would be able to put forward any of the others.
A writer who takes the injunctions of branding to heart must have a clear idea of both the profile of the target market and how he or she wishes to position the manuscript - that is, the product - he or she is offering to them. Take the suspense thriller I'm working on. Here is a genre in which, for all the Patricia Highsmiths of this world, men still dominate. The reason for this is presumably that most readers of thrillers are male.
Now, in an ideal world I would position my book as a thriller with brains (designed to be read twice: the first time to find out what happens at the end, the second to properly absorb all the detail). My protagonist is a man, and much of the book is driven by an identity crisis with its roots in his platteland upbringing. Gut feel tells me that attempting to get this book published with the author name Sarah Britten would be a mistake. Even if I were lucky enough to get it published, it would be sure to languish in some kind of polite women's fiction ghetto. (The Orange Prize doesn't make it worth it.) Look at Joanna Rowling, who was famously advised by her publishers to render her name as JK Rowling in order to sound more masculine and, presumably, lend Harry Potter more gravitas.
While I don't want the book to be judged by the name on its cover, I don't have the option of choosing a nom de plume that suggests I am a man; that sort of thing went out with Currer Bell and George Eliot. With author tours and book signings being essential to get copies moving, the ruse would soon be up. On analysis, SJ Britten would probably get me further. Two syllables, quite strong-sounding, hopefully easy to remember - and, more importantly, because the only other Britten I could find on amazon.com was Rhonda Britten, who writes books with titles like Change your life in thirty days and Fearless living: live without excuses and love without regret.
If the rules of branding really do apply to bookselling - and the evidence suggests that they do - there is an added complication. If a brand is a set of expectations, those expectations can be a terrible burden (look at JD Salinger). If I do succeed in getting the thriller published, I know that I'm almost certainly committing myself to that particular genre indefinitely, and if I want to write something very different (as is the case with all the other novels brewing inside of me), I would have to publish them under different (brand) names.
Very few authors are permitted the luxury of crossing genres. John Grisham, for example, has departed from legal thrillers in A Painted House, Skipping Christmas and Bleachers, but few of his fans would forgive him were he to take too many sabbaticals from his bread and butter. Margaret Atwood qualifies, perhaps, since her novels of ideas range from historical fiction to science fiction. But she has become a big enough literary star for genre to have become irrelevant. (Serious fiction, of course, tends to regard genre with "lang tande", but genre is where the money is.)
The Waspish-sounding Sabin Willett is an interesting case. This Harvard-educated partner in the law firm of Bingham McCutcheon Ilp - he sounds like a character out of Ally McBeal - was compared with John Grisham with his first novel, a legal thriller. He then experimented with an implausible political thriller in his second, before earning comparisons with Tom Wolfe in his third, a biting social satire of millennial greed. Explaining this curious progression, he has said, "I wrote the first thriller because I thought it would be easiest for a nobody to publish a thriller. I wrote the second thriller because the first book was a thriller." He has compared the third book to riding his sister-in-law's horse: he had to let the book go where it wanted to go. After two attempts, he has reached a point where he is able to write the kind of books that really interest him, and I think it's laudably accommodating of Random House to let him follow his heart.
It's doubtful, though, whether I would be able to get both a suspense thriller and a satirical riff on chick lit published under the same name; unless I were to be lucky enough to be positioned as a more literary-yet-readable type of author, I wouldn't want to confuse the reading public anyway. The upshot is that I will probably have to make a choice one way or the other, and abandon all of the projects that don't fit the bill. (Goodbye to the riff on chick lit, "snot en trane" romance and the historical novel.)
At the end of it all, no matter how hard a writer works on building his or her brand, the product still has to deliver. It's got to be good enough to get past an agent, escape the publisher's bin, get into prominent positions in the bookshops, considered worthy of a review and, ultimately, avoid ending up in those depressingly huge piles of books you see at Exclusive Books sales. That's something else that keeps me up at night: what if I do get my precious books published, and they don't sell?
I'm jumping the gun again. If I am going to worry about the fate of my books, I should probably get them written first. Starting with the title and the name of the author.
SJ Britten it is.