Friday, April 26, 2019

Becoming Brand New

By Abir

If you could be really good at one part of the business side of your career, what would it be? (Being a better speaker? Being better at organizing your events? Being a promotion god?)

It’s funny. In all the time you spend before becoming a published author: in writing your manuscripts; contacting agents; fielding rejections; finally getting signed by one; getting rejected by a bunch of publishers; and then, ultimately comes that blessed day when somebody agrees to publish your first novel. You think you’ve made it. You’ve achieved the greatest ambition of your life. 

But then someone whispers in your ear. 

This is just the start. Now you’ve got to go and sell your books.’

Sell the books? I thought that was the publisher’s job. Turns out it isn’t. Not really. It’s yours. And suddenly you realise that there’s a lot more to writing than…err…writing.

As Jim, Brenda and Dietrich have mentioned, there’s a whole world of promotional activity which an author needs to do, just to get the word out: from TV, radio, blogs and press interviews; through speaking on panels at festivals; to giving away freebies. Some authors are brilliant at it…and some of us (i.e. me,) find it incredibly tough to balance it all and fit it in around the writing. 

But it’s got to be done, and so I do it.

If this sounds like I’m complaining, I apologise, because the truth is, I actually love the marketing side of things: going to festivals; visiting new places; meeting new people; having a room full of them listening politely while I talk nonsense on stage for forty five minutes (I insist the doors are locked so they can’t escape) - for me it’s my dream job!

I’ve been incredibly lucky. In the space of a few years, I’ve developed a loyal readership who’ve invested in my characters, Sam and Surrender-not, but I’m acutely aware that there’s a long way to go. 

There’s also a problem. My name.

I suffer from what is known in the business as ‘Funny Name Syndrome’. (OK, I just made the term up, but the condition is real.) You see, it turns out that a significant number of readers (in the UK at least, though I suspect also further afield) are put off by a name they can’t pronounce. What’s more, a friend of mine carried out some audience testing on a range of potential pen-names, and found that those which performed worst with his target audience of British and American readers were Asian names. As you can imagine, this made me want to bomb things. (Not really).

funniest people names
Funny Name Syndrome. OK, so it could have been worse...

The fact is, if I want to sell enough books to make a career in writing (and enough money to provide for my family), I’m going to need every sale I can get, and having people being put off the by name on the cover is hardly a good starting point.

Now, there’s no point in dwelling on what the causes of Funny Name Syndrome might be. I think it’s far better to work out how to counter-act it.

The obvious way would be to adopt a pen-name. Plenty of authors do it, and for a variety of reasons. I could choose a nice, inoffensive British name like Reginald Thoroughgood, or a punchy American name, like Lance Strongarm, and maybe I should, but to me that seems a bit of a cop-out. My parents named me Abir Mukherjee and I’ve stuck with that name for forty five years in the face of more mispronunciations and misspellings than I’ve had hot dinners. (Once, after carefully spelling my name out over the phone: ABIR MUKHERJEE, I received a fax back from the person addressed to ARCHIE MURCHIE). Me and my name have gone through a lot together and I don’t fancy changing it now.

So, what’s the alternative? Well, there is one … sort of. It’s a bit chicken and egg, but it turns out that Funny Name Syndrome can be overcome by becoming better known. In the UK there’s a young woman of Bangladeshi origin called Nadiya Hussain. A few years ago, she was just another ethnic minority woman, living with her family in East London. Then she won the first series of a TV show called The Great British Bake-Off and shot to a degree of national fame. But Ms Hussain didn’t rest on her laurels. She was smart, got herself a PR team and diversified. Since then, she’s presented documentaries, published a series of novels (ghost-written) and now has a range of clothes. In the space of five years, she’s gone from quiet home-maker to national-treasure. In short, she built a brand that inoculated her against the ravages of Funny Name Syndrome.

Image result for nadiya hussain
Nadiya Hussain (National Treasure)

So what does that mean for me? Don’t’ worry, I’m not going to release a clothing brand or a range of perfumes (though Eau de Mukherjee has a certain ring to it), but I do feel I need to widen my name recognition, and to do that, I think I might need to build a brand which is wider than simply writing mystery novels. That’s going to entail a range of things – I’ve revamped my website, I’m starting a podcast next month with some other writers, I’m hoping to do more press articles, and most interestingly, I’m exploring the possibility of doing TV documentary work about the British Raj, alongside a proper historian. A lot of these things are at an early stage and I’ve no idea if they’ll work, but I’m going to enjoy the journey. And if it doesn’t work out…I’m going to go on The Great British Bake-Off and burn a lot of cakes.


Brenda Chapman said...

Good post, Abir. I believe a unique name is an asset, but agree, the trick is getting a bit of fame to make it a brand. In Canada, we have an ongoing push to recognize multicultural writers, which appears to be gaining traction as readers discover new and exciting voices.

Abir said...

That's really great to hear, Brenda. I'm always impressed at how forward thinking Canada is!

Susan C Shea said...

At least your name isn't Barack Obama! It's a perfectly nice name and it not only means you're distinctive (try Susan Shea, of whom there are three in my own county) but it means we get to broaden our own embrace of a larger world. And then add Surrender-not and you have me!

Anonymous said...

At least your name isn't Ellen Allen, although I have had a great amount of fun with that name. Wouldn't look too good on a guy, I guess.
You are positive and witty and I'll read your books and probably love them. Don't change your name to make readers 'comfortable' (judgmental, they are).
The best to you in your new endeavors, I doubt you will have to burn any cakes.

Therese Rickman Bull said...

Do a tv programme about the Raj. In the U S there is always interest in historical epochs, surely this would be magnified in Britain, the birthplace of the Raj's policies and practitioners. Perhaps you can find people who remember how it affected their families, their businesses and careers Good luck. PS I adore Surrender Not.

Abir said...

Thanks Susan! You are no doubt right. It's tough sometimes though!

Abir said...

Cheers Anonymous! And thank you for your kind words. I do hope you get a chance to read the books.
All my best

Abir said...

Hi Therese
That's great to know about the States. I need to make a plan to come and tour. I was in NYC and Tampa last year, my first time in the US in over 15 years, and I fell a little bit in love with the country!

All my best

Therese Rickman Bull said...

Please come to Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, great reading cities. Plus Bellingham is about one hour south of Vancouver, Canada, another great book city.

Abir said...

Hi Therese
I will definitely try! I'll let you know when I've planned my trip.
All my best

Therese Rickman Bull said...

FYI - there is a substantial Indo-Canadian population in Surrey, just south of Vancouver, British Columbia.