by Gar Anthony Haywood

Quick:  What kind of book comes to mind when you think of this author?

Or this one?

Chances are, your answer to my first question was something along the lines of “a fast-paced standalone thriller featuring an ex-military policeman named Reacher.”

And your answer to my second question was, in so many words, “an eloquently written mystery featuring a diverse cast of African-American characters in an urban setting.”

How can I be so sure of this?  Because these authors have built a brand for themselves.  Their body of work demonstrates a consistency of subject matter and perspective that readers have learned over the years to recognize as their purview.  Granted, Mosley has ventured outside of his Easy Rawlins/Leonid McGill box on a number of occasions, with mixed results, but for the most part he is defined by those series and the specific type of material they represent.

Is this a good thing?  To have readers believe they know precisely what kind of fiction you write, and will continue to write in the future?

I believe it is.

Readers don’t like to guess what an author’s next book will be like, they want to have a reasonable expectation about it, and if you give them what they enjoy reading consistently, they’ll keep coming back for more.  Seeing you go off on a tangent contrary to their expectations can often disappoint, and not every disappointed reader re-ups as a member of the fan club once you’ve let them down.

The down side to establishing a static brand for readers to latch onto, of course, is that “box” I just placed Walter Mosley in.  No author really wants to think they’re confined to one.  The freedom to take your work in whatever direction your interests might demand, to write what you want to write, when you want to write it, is every author’s dream, as is a reputation for versatility.  Successful or otherwise, nobody wants to be looked upon as a one-trick pony.  That kind of pigeon-holing limits not only your creativity, but the scope of material publishers are willing to pay you to write.

Still, as I’ve mentioned here before, an author has to know his natural limitations, and not allow his creative wanderlust (or his ego) to take him places he is ill-equipped to go.  What we write at the start of our careers tends to be where our true passions lie, and I believe the time to stretch out and move beyond that material is only after we’ve both demonstrated a mastery of it and developed a sizable following for it.   Expanding one’s repertoire sooner than that could be premature, and throw readers and publishers alike a curve just when they are beginning to think they know — and can appreciate — what you do.

Ironically, all this is coming from someone who has failed to take the very advice I’m offering.  Since my first published novel in 1988, I’ve written and sold eleven more, and all twelve cover no less than four mystery/crime fiction sub-genres: hardboiled mystery (my Aaron Gunner series); comic cozy (the Joe and Dottie Loudermilk series); serio-comic, standalone crime (my Ray Shannon novels); and standalone thriller (CEMETERY ROAD and my latest, ASSUME NOTHING).  With the exception of my six Gunners and CEMETERY ROAD, which all feature an African-American protagonist seeking to solve one murder or another in present-day Central Los Angeles, there is little to connect one sub-set of my canon with another.  In fact, anyone reading a Joe and Dottie Loudermilk mystery, for instance, would be hard pressed to recognize me as the same author of either of my Ray Shannons.  The voice I use in each sub-genre is that different.

So why have I taken such a scattershot approach to my writing?  Because it’s been fun.  Changing gears on a whim, or as an anecdote to boredom, has been incredibly entertaining.  And on rare occasions, profitable.  But profit and entertainment are only part of the story, I’m afraid.  There’s also another reason for all the genre-hopping to which, quite frankly, I’m a little ashamed to admit: I’ve been greedy.  No mere cross-section of the crime fiction audience was enough for me; I’ve always wanted the entire pie, the whole enchilada.

Can you say “pompous ass”?

And not a very smart pompous ass, either, because I don’t think I did myself any favors by jumping the Aaron Gunner ship for the Loudermilks’ Airstream trailer when I did.  In my defense, St. Martin’s, who was publishing me at the time, gave up on the series after three books, so a re-evaluation of my fourth book and beyond certainly seemed to be in order.  But I made the decision to change my game without really exploring the possibility of selling the Gunners elsewhere, and it may be that in doing so, I disrupted the momentum of the series unnecessarily.

Even more to the point of this blog post, I may have also left the readership I’d grown to that point to wonder who the real Gar Anthony Haywood was: a hardboiled crime novelist in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, or a funny, family-friendly writer of G-rated cozies?

It’s a question, I fear, many readers are still trying to answer.

Might I be a household name now had I published five or six Gunners in a row rather than take a three year hiatus after Gunner #3 to write my two Loudermilk novels?  Probably not.  But maybe I would be.  Who knows?  Maybe sticking with the Gunners for a more extended period of time would have better established my brand, and drawn more readers to it.

Nobody wants to be predictable, especially where romance is concerned.  But for an author, it’s not such a bad thing.

Questions for the Class: Authors, have you firmly established your brand by writing books that fit within the same basic framework every time out, or have you branched out to do other things?  Readers, what’s your reaction to favorite authors who split their time between writing what you love and writing what you don’t?


  1. Gordon Harries

    To be honest, my take as a punter (in all the arts) has always been that an artist is entillteled to go wherever he/she feels that the muse takes them and I am entitled to respond accordingly. For example, as a white guy from northern England who’s very interested in the history of music, history and how black culture has been entwined within the two, I’ve always found the Easy Rawlins books fascinating. And I’ll follow Mosley to the Socrates books, to the Leonid McGill books…but I’m not a fan of comedy, so I gave the Fearless Jones books a shot and moved on. His ‘sexistential’ thriller was so far outside what I read for pleasure, that I didn’t even bother.

    At the end of the day, as I say, it’s down to the author to go where his/her muse takes them. I suspect, however, that’s a semi-fanciful notion when one considers the multitude of bills that need to be paid.

  2. James Scott Bell

    Gar, I think branding is a necessary strategy within traditional publishing, for the very reasons you mention. I made a brand choice early on and it paid off. But I've always had other "fun" projects burning a hole in my writer's brain. This is where self-publishing comes in. What a great op to try new things, shorter form works, etc. It's like trying out a show in New Haven. For example, I want to do a series of boxing stories. I wrote one and now it's available and generating Starbucks money. Now I'm working on #2. It's a great break to do this on certain days when you need a short respite from the contracted work.

  3. Pari

    Breaking out, Gar. That's one reason I parted ways with my wonderful agent; I just want to write what I want to write.

  4. Judy Wirzberger

    If I enjoy a writer, I'll probably read any genre, any book because I like the way the author develops characters, plots, etc. However, I will stop reading if I don't like it. I may be a bit disappointed, but it won't stop me from reading what I love that the author produces….except for James Patterson. Won't read anything he puts out any more.

  5. Thomas Pluck

    What about the 800lb gorilla (okay, 170lb racewalker) in the room… Lawrence Block?
    Alternating between Bernie's drawing-room burglar cozies and hard-boiled Matt Scudder?
    Has it hurt his brand?
    Even early in his career he had Chip Harrison, Evan Tanner… he's bounced around and written what he liked. Perhaps if he consolidated or used pen names he may have sold a few more copies, but I don't hear him regretting it.

  6. Gar Haywood

    Thomas: Block's an excellent example of someone's who's made switching gears throughout their career work. But he was no overnight success. Over time, people caught on to how brilliant he is and started buying him by the truckload. But prior to that, I wonder if most readers really knew what to make of him. It would be interesting to hear his answer if someone were to ask him would he do things differently if he had them to do over agaiin?

  7. Thomas Pluck

    I asked Lawrence Block about branding:
    "A lot of talk about "branding" as a writer today. If you could go back, would you use a pen name for the Bernie books?"

    He replied:
    "@tommysalami No, Tommy, I wouldn't. Might be the smart commercial move but not for me. I'll let the readers sort 'em out."
    "I think that's the only way to keep on doing it. Otherwise you burn out. @tommysalami <I'd rather write what I please.>"

    And I agree. He's in for the long haul, as evidence by his prolific output and high quality, but he has written what he pleased. The readers will find you. That's what subtitles are for…
    "A Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery" or
    "A Jimmy Veeder fiasco" — on Johnny Shaw's great debut, Dove Season

    I think unless we reach levels of Don Westlake's output, we shouldn't worry about it. And to quote Mr Block again from The Liar's Bible, it didn't stop Isaac Asimov from writing fiction, nonfiction, all sorts of genres under one name…

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I probably would have written a third Hayden Glass by now if my publisher had signed up for it. When they passed, my agent said I should do a standalone – that no other publisher would publish the Hayden series if my original publisher passed.
    So, I've got this standalone to finish, and then I'm doing another standalone that I'm passionate about, and then most likely I'll do the third Hayden. I didn't realize how difficult it would be to go to a completely new character in a foreign land. Now I wish I would have done it as a Hayden piece to keep the momentum going for my series. Live and learn.

  9. Ronald Tierney

    I'm far from a brand name despite my publisher's determination to make my name several times larger than the title of my books. And each new book, whether in a series or not, seems to be an iffy undertaking as a financial investment. However, I do not regret the non-series books I've written, even though few have been published. And while I hope to reach the widest possible audience, that's not the only reason I write.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gar

    Interesting post – I'm planning to diversify from my Charlie Fox series next year, but whether I do it under my own name or another is something I'm still working out. Should be fun, though, either way.

    Most name changes, it seems to me, are publisher rather than author driven.

  11. Allison Davis

    It's a mixed bag, as the comments reflect. Especially when I was young, I devoured series, Rex Stout, John D. MacDonald, Robert Parker more recently (but never read his cowboy books), but I wrote three different manuscripts, that could have overlapping characters but certainly aren't a series. On the other hand, I've read all of David Corbett's books, and they are all stand alone, as are Louis' books. I read Robert Parker's books because of Hawk mostly, but then for some reason I liked Jesse Stone so go figure. Sometimes I won't pick up a book because I'm not in the mood for that kind of story. I like Barbara Hambly's books on New Orleans (the Benjamin January series) that take place during slavery, but not big on her fantasy. A brand is good, but the brand ultimately should be about the quality of the writing. No "easy" answers.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is an uncomfortable question for me. I started out with somewhat of a profile in horror (first two books) even though I think of what I write more as supernatural thrillers, heavy on the psychology. My second two books were even more psychological, but still supernatural. But I had fans who were too scared to read me and a fantastic opportunity came up to write a paranormal romance series with friends, so now I'm on my second one of those, which have way too much sex in them for most horror/thriller readers (which honestly, I don't get) but are still spooky and edgy enough to scare off some paranormal readers.

    And then there's my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors series, too.

    So now I'm writing a thriller that has no supernatural in it at all (almost) and another paranormal. Is that being a multilple personality in a way that's not serving my career? I don't know. What I do know is that it's WORKING for me, in the sense of making a living. But would I do better if I just committed to ONE genre? I just don't know.

  13. Gar Haywood

    Thomas: One add to Larry Block, he's pretty damn prolific, so I don't think he's ever kept a huge Matthew Scudder fan waiting for his next Scudder for such a long period of time that they've lost interest. When you write as slowly as I do, it can be years before you go back to a series once you've changed gears.

    Allison, I agree that the quality of the writing should be brand enough for any author. But I'm not sure it always works that way. Word of mouth generally operates based upon a book's content first, quality second, as in: "I just read this terrific private eye novel that reminds me of the work of Robert B. Parker." Few recommendations are as generic as "I just read this great book. The writing was fantastic."

  14. KDJames

    Gar, I don't have enough experience to address this as a writer other than to say that, considering what I'm writing in the WIP and what I just published, I hope readers are more flexible and forgiving of variety than you presume.

    As a voracious reader, I can tell you there are writers I'll read no matter what they write. But I read across many genres and am not likely to be daunted by something different. If a writer goes somewhere I'm not willing to follow (in a BOOK, people, clean it up), I'll just wait for the next one and hope it's more to my liking.

    A word to those of you considering different pen names for different work: Please don't. You might get contradictory, and perhaps better, advice from publishing professionals, but I would hate it if I missed exciting new work from you just because I didn't realize it was YOU. There is SO MUCH stuff out there, don't handicap yourself by starting over from a position of obscurity.

  15. PD Martin

    Interesting one for me too! I'm moving genres at the moment. Who knows how I'll go on the agent/publisher front with the new book (if I ever get it edited).

    I was thinking about this the other day. I feel that I'm a story teller. And if you think about story tellers who maybe sat around a fire telling stories, I doubt very much they would have been limited to one 'style' of story. That probably would have been boring, in fact.

    So while everyone talks about the caveman diet, I'm going to talk about the caveman story teller!


  16. David Corbett

    Tried to write a more comic thriller, got slammed down by publishers — but they might well have said no regardless of style or content, given the style and content of my numbers. I'd rather stick to one kind of book, I branched out trying to broaden my audience, but didn't get the chance. And who knows, maybe it'll all work out. Maybe, as you say, I need to establish more of a consistent following before taking readers places they don't expect.

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