On “The Death of Davy Moss,” Author Branding, and Nonexistent Recommendation Engines

Over the weekend I read The Death of Davy Moss by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She brought it up in her article on branding, and her calling it out as a romance when it looks nothing like a romance intrigued me enough to look at the premise, the premise interested me enough to sample, and after I started the sample I knew I would buy and finish that same night. I was glad to have a KKR book speak to me enough to buy; I get a lot of insight and perspective from her business posts, and have looked at many of her books to buy in lieu of hitting the tip jar…but none were quite the right mood or premise for my tastes.

Davy Moss isn’t really my normal sort of reading (it’s contemporary, and it’s about a celebrity, of sorts, at least), but I liked the set-up in the description – it fit my reading aesthetic. And I loved it. I would like to read more books like it…and I have no idea what they are or how to find them.

Herein begins my discussion of the other issues from my post title.

First, author branding. One of the frequent discussions I see among indie/self-pub writers is whether to use one name for everything or a different name for each genre. A lot of writers write in more than one genre, just as most readers read in more than one genre. When I see the argument for “use one name and brand the books to their genres, and let the readers pick what they want” it resonates. I think, As a reader, I would want to know about everything my favorite writers published. As a writer, I think, It would be so awesome to have readers aware of every piece of my writing oeuvre. This was the argument that Kris was essentially making in her post. Reading that post, I agreed.

Then I finished Davy Moss. I wanted a similar book. First thought: what are KKR’s other romances?

I went to Amazon and searched her name, which brought too many results to sift through. She has many genres attached to her name in the Amazon results that I can narrow the search to, but romance isn’t one of them. Therefore, I had no idea how to find her other romances in that moment. Had I been on my laptop rather than my phone, I could have done an advanced search on Amazon or checked her website. Since I was on my phone, with its annoying mobile versions/limited screen, I found having to do anything more than a basic vendor site prohibitive. I did not buy another of her books that weekend.

This is the problem with being both prolific and multi-genre: if a reader is in the mood for one of the genres but not the others, having all of it mixed together is not going to result in an additional sale; it’s going to result in a pissed-off reader who buys someone else’s book because your 200-title catalogue is too hard to sort through.

Now, I have never been entirely comfortable with the suggestion of writing under 1 name for all genres when considering applying it to my own writing, simply because I know that while some readers will be interested in all the same genres I am, not all of them will be. For every reader of romance who likes fantasy there is another who doesn’t, and for every reader of fantasy who likes romance there is another who doesn’t, and I don’t serve 2 of the 3 fans in question by mingling both genres under one author brand (name). My thought has always been to either acknowledge pen names openly (one website with sub-domains, or state the AKA’s clearly in author bio) or to use variations of a name. My reading experience with Davy Moss reinforces that I do not want to use the exact same name for all genres, if I do write in others. However, in the interest of making them accessible to all readers, I think the answer is to use iterations of my name: Lily White LeFevre, Lily LeFevre, Lily Emily LeFevre, L. W. LeFevre, L. E. LeFevre, etc. Similar enough to pop up in a search/obviously be the same person but yet distinct names that searches can be limited to. This is what Iain (M.) Banks did, using his middle initial for certain types of his books but dropping it for others. It helps readers identify in a glance if this is the brand they are looking for.

Now, the second problem that came up reading Davy Moss and wanting another like it was unrelated to KKR’s catalog: I could not get a decent recommendation for ANYONE’S book that would be similar in content and tone. This lack of good recommendation engines for books has been discussed in many places at length. The basic problem, as I see it, is that no one has a vested enough interest in creating a database and/or analysis program for books the way Netflix or iTunes Genius or Pandora did for movies/TV and music. The project of tagging, categorizing, and describing a significant subset of books available is manpower intensive. It would require thousands of hours and clear rubrics for when something qualifies for a tag or category. Once a database of consistently applies tags is built, Boolean inquiries can get a reader to a manageable subset of books. For example, with Davy Moss I would have searched “contemporary” + “sweet” + “not inspirational” (aka Christian-oriented) to start with. If that turned up an unmanageable list I’d have added “character driven” and/or “not small-town” to the search.

Library catalogs attempt to do this – certainly the applied tags and categories are standardized, at least among Library-of-Congress-approved cataloging programs – but I personally find library searches to be clumsy tools that turn up too many results, especially in fiction (because the categories are strictly fact-based, and lack any subjective descriptors like “sweet” or “character-driven”). Google Books has a much more effective search for specific strings of words, but if you are looking to browse a swath of books it is too limited…great for research but, again, terrible for fiction browsing.

The really sad part, in my opinion, is that ebook distributors/retailers actually have a chance to crowdsource the tagging and categorization of books but have chosen not to standardize it or provide clear guidelines for either publisher- or reader-generated meta-data. Fanfiction communities have managed to create and adopt community-wide standards; it is entirely possible to accomplish…the site just needs to publish clear standards and perhaps a tag cloud of “official” terms. That way you don’t get variants like “steampunk,” “steam-punk,” and “steam punk” that should all show up under a search but wouldn’t, expressed three different ways, or “sweet” as a euphemism for either Christian or G-rated (in terms of violence, theme, and language) romance.

As a reader I hold hopes that a true recommendation/curation/limitation database will hit the consumer market and be open-source enough that self-published works can be included. As a writer I am focusing branding efforts on clarity for readers, so none of mine end up frustrated by not being able to identify which of my books they actually want to read.

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Filed under Digital Revolution, Rants and Storms

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