Monday, July 11, 2016

Midlist Monday: Healing a Schizophrenic Brand

Note: If you don't know what Midlist Monday is all about, check out my last post here.

A few years ago, I decided to take the first few steps on the road toward publication. I’d written a few books, some of which a friend and I had put out on our own independent press, but I had one in the chamber that I really wanted to see on bookstore shelves, published by a traditional publisher. I knew it was good enough and I wanted to see how much better it could be with the editing, design, and marketing powers of a deep-pocketed corporation. I also, if I’m honest, wanted to receive a nice fat check before a single copy had sold.

For the uninitiated, this process begins with a whole bunch of “query letters.” The best way to get a book deal is to have a literary agent working hard to get you one. And the way to get a literary agent is through querying. So I started sending letters and copies of my book proposal to agents who represented some of my favorite authors. As is almost universally the case, I received an awful lot of rejections. The helpful ones came with some advice for how I could improve my book proposal or, more often, my “brand.”

I realized quickly that, even though I didn’t realize I even had a “brand,” I did, and it needed some help. The most common thing I heard was that my brand was too broad and diverse. When you googled my name, you found 1. my cheesy smile on the church website and a bunch of sermons, 2. the niche small press, known primarily for snark and satire,which I run with a friend, and 3. a fledgling web presence for Zachary Bartels, suspense author. It was too scattered, I was told. I needed to find a way to unify it or, better, trim it down so that Zachary Bartels’ online presence was largely limited to the suspense writer stuff. I did my best, removing most links and references to my sermons, nonfiction writing, podcast, and satire from my website and social media pages.

Eventually, I did land a great agent, who quickly got me a two-book deal with a major publisher (my first choice, in fact). But now I find myself feeling oddly pigeon-holed, like a type-cast middle aged actor who doesn't necessarily want to stop playing sitcom dads, but also wants to audition for some other roles.

Of course, conventional wisdom says that, if you must branch out to different genres, you should use a pen name. That way you can start cultivating a new brand identity without diluting the one you've already been working on. But conventional wisdom and I are not on the best of terms at the moment. And there are exceptions to every rule. My friend Carrie Stuart Parks has been writing award-winning Christian suspense under the very same name she uses for her instructional art books. Readers seem oddly unconfused by this. Steven James, bestselling suspense author whose endorsement has helped me greatly, has also written kids’ books, devotionals, and nonfiction without a pseudonym. And N.T. Wright, best known for his rather academic writing, uses the (non-)pen name Tom Wright for his popular-level books and commentaries.

At any rate, I’m in the process of re-consolidating my “brand,” as it stands. I’ve added nonfiction and satire to my books page on my website, and I’m currently working on a nonfiction book about pastoring a small church in the midst of a megachurch culture, another satire with my friend (and award-winning author) Ted Kluck, and two (or maybe three) suspense titles, obviously one at a time.

That’s an awful lot, you might be thinking. And you’re right. But more about that next Monday.

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To learn more about querying agents and the 
different paths to being published, check out. . . 


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1 comment:

  1. Write on ZB........... We look forward to it all!

    ReplyDelete