The author as franchise

Self-publishing authors are often advised to turn themselves into a brand, and much advice is to be had on the internet on how to go about it. But the subject of this post concerns established writers, where ‘the brand’ may morph into a franchise.

This is a subject I knew nothing about till I bought a book in a garden centre. It was one of those offers, buy two for £5, and so had a sticker on the front to tell the buyer that the title in question was included in the offer. The title was ‘The Paris Option’ by Robert Ludlum, which I bought because I had not read any of his books. This proved to be a mistake because it had actually been written by one Gayle Lynds, whose name was on the front cover but artfully, or accidentally, concealed by the sticker.

As far as I can tell, Ludlum wrote to a formula and so met the criteria authors are advised to meet if they hope for commercial success. For a start, most of his titles follow the same pattern – The Something Something. For example: The Bourne Identity, The Icarus Agenda, The Aquitaine Progression, The Scorpio Illusion, The Parsifal Mosaic. It can be quite entertaining making up more for ourselves: The Ecclefechan Toadstool, The Snodgrass Carbuncle, The Spook Erection. (I did not invent the last, which was used by people who put up  outdoor markets overnight. Witty, right?) And after the title, the books follow a formula too, which I am not motivated to describe but several authors seem to have copied.

Again, as far as I can tell, Ludlum came up with the book concept and story-line. If he didn’t write it himself, he would farm it out – in this case to Ms Lynds, who did the writing for him. So the book could be described as Robert Ludlum’s, since it was his idea, but the writer is also credited. All this is above board, so the foregoing is a description, not a complaint. However, it does raise another question

If we have, say, a humburger franchise, the customer will expect that regardless of which outlet he goes to, his Big Greasy will look and taste the same. Likewise, if a customer buys a book with Robert Ludlum’s name on the cover, he would expect the experience of reading it to be much the same, whether it is written by Ludlum himself, Gayle Lynds, or Jamie Freveletti. (Ms Freveletti was chosen by the Ludlum estate to continue his Covert One series.) In fact, we have now had six writers working for this franchise at various times. The following link is to an article about Jamie Freveletti.

In the article cited, Freveletti says ‘she’ll have to stay true to the characters that are already part of an eight-book series tackled by five other authors.’ The subject which never seems to come up is whether these six authors also have to ‘stay true’ to Robert Ludlum’s prose style. There are two ways to look at this. The first is that Ludlum did not have an identifiable style. A reader might guess he was reading a Ludlum book from the content but not from the way it is written. Alternatively, if Ludlum did have a prose style, then all the franchise writers copied  it so effectively you can’t tell them apart.  So whatever the reader can expect, it isn’t the frisson of pleasure from savouring  distinctive prose. They all taste the same.

In recent years here in the YUK, Katie Price, an ex glamour model, has taken to writing novels. Except she doesn’t write them, someone else does. I believe she has said that writing is the easy part (citation required). But I know for a fact she takes an interest in her book covers, where she likes two colours to predominate and  – wait for it, authors out there –  dons clothes of the same colours as part of her marketing strategy. As far as I know, this technique has yet to find its way into guides for authors.

Katie Price illustrates a route into authorship which also isn’t in the manuals: become a celebrity, get someone to write books for you, then watch as the marketing department uses you and your celebrity status to move the books.

Of course, to do this you have to become a celebrity in the first place. Too high a price for most of us to pay.

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