Len Tyler is asking hard questions over on the Macmillan New Writers blog. Genre. Branding. Pen names.
“Genre” is one of those words with triple meanings. Even in literary criticism, it can be used as meaning Aristotle’s categories (Tragedy, Comedy), or the form and diction level of the story (fable, tale, epic, saga, realist, metafiction…). The latter usage is what John Gardner means when he says that “the writer’s primary unit of thought is genre…”. The third meaning, and, increasingly the dominant meaning, is the marketing sense, which ever gets sliced thinner, as in “Sensuous Time-Travel Romance” or “Christian Urban Dark Fantasy.”
I believe it was Lawrence Block who said that genre in the marketing sense was a concept that was useful to everyone except the writer.
I never really thought hard about the topic of genre when tackling a project. When I wrote Shock and Awe, I didn't plan to write a thriller, but it soon became apparent that's what I was writing. I'm not overly fond of the thriller genre, and, to tell the truth, don't read many thrillers, but it was the right form for the story I wanted to tell and the issues I wanted to wrestle with. And now--ka-zam!--I'm a thriller writer. Luckily, it turns out I enjoy writing in the genre, even if reading in it can get iffy.
Until my current work-in-progress, I had never set out to write something in particular. Now I find myself trying to write the kind of book the author of Shock and Awe might write. It's a bit odd, and poses new kinds of challenges for me.
A couple of my other books tend to be more humorous and a little goofily postmodern, and if you had to bin them, they'd probably end up in the "fantasy/sci-fi" bin, even though most fantasy/sci-fi fans would probably loathe them. (Most sci-fi fans also loathe it when you call it "sci-fi." I'm not sure why.) I think that a pen name will be important for those. I'd hate to have someone who bought Shock and Awe buy Tomorrowville expecting more of the same.
Now, under the MNW contract, Macmillan has the first option of publishing my next book. And I have the option, legally, of submitting whatever I like, and saying,“There it is—that’s David Isaak’s next book, this Time-Travel Romance.” And Macmillan would have the option of telling me to shove off and take it over to Boon and Mills (where, no doubt, they would find I was the author of Shock and Awe, and tell me they might have a few marketing problems with my image. And in case you’re wondering, no, I haven’t actually written a Time-Travel Romance.)
But I can’t see how this scenario benefits anyone. I’ve written a thriller. It's an extremely unusual thriller in terms of its approach and even some of its techniques, but I can't imagine anyone sorting it into another bin. Whatever small credibility my name carries with readers is as a thriller writer, and that credibility is less useful further afield—and indeed in some genres, is a definite liability. Therefore, I believe that both MNW and I agree that the next thing of mine they publish ought to be in at least the same general vein as Shock and Awe, and that when they pick up the next “David Isaak” book there can be surprises—but that the sort of book it is shouldn’t be one of those surprises.
Let me hasten to point out that this applies to me, but doesn't apply equally strongly to all MNW authors. It would have been very weird indeed if, say, Edward Charles hadn't followed up his first book with another historical novel. And Brian McGilloway would be tarred and feathered if he didn't follow Borderlands with another Devlin novel. But many of the other MNW books don't fit as neatly into slots as mine, or Edwards', or McGilloway's did. So some of you have more latitude.
But I have other books, none of which fit in the thriller box, and I’d rather not leave them buried forever, so the only rational thing to do in the long term, crass as it sounds, is give them their own brand. (MNW still gets right of first refusal, of course, but these are things they won’t want.) And the number-one branding of fiction is the name of the author. Pen name, here I come.
I know the Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks or Roger/RN Morris thing seems to work well enough, but "Isaak" sticks out a bit more than Banks or Morris, so I'm inclined to adopt something farther afield. Or maybe I just like the multiple identity/secret identity aspect of it. (WANTED: David Isaak, aka Joey “Bonkers” Bonello, aka Doctor "Dogz 'n Kidz" Roofieman aka The Scarlet Pimpernel…)
I mean, even Winnie the Pooh lived under the name of Sanders.