Author branding: who are you? What do you stand for?

Author branding: who are you? What do you stand for?

Branding is more than a logotype or a genre to write in…

I’m still thinking about the breakfast seminar I attended yesterday… Bear with me. In it, the number 76 was imprinted (branded?) on us. 76% of all marketing efforts of companies selling primarily online was aimed at strengthening their brand, NOT to promote specific products or getting people to buy stuff. Research from traditional marketing suggests that number be 60%. So why do online brands focus more on branding? The answer is that people buy your goods on marketplaces that do not bear your logo, places like Alibaba, Amazon et al. For me, as an author, I can add B&N, Apple, Smashwords, Kobo and all the many bookstores around the world. NONE of them bear my name (duh!) and none of them care the least about me. In order to make a dent, to be recognized, we need to focus on our brand image.

What is a brand?

According to Wikipedia, a brand is, I quote:

A brand is an overall experience of a customer that distinguishes an organization or product from its rivals in the eyes of the customer. Brands are used in business, marketing, and advertising. […]

Branding is a set of marketing and communication methods that help to distinguish a company or products from competitors, aiming to create a lasting impression in the minds of customers. The key components that form a brand’s toolbox include a brand’s identity, brand communication (such as by logos and trademarks), brand awareness, brand loyalty, and various branding (brand management) strategies. Many companies believe that there is often little to differentiate between several types of products in the 21st century, and therefore branding is one of a few remaining forms of product differentiation.

Here’s what I take from this for me, an author; words like customer experience, but also identity, communication, loyalty, and awareness. But also the last sentence, which is how I began the post. At the seminar, we were told that we live in an age where there is a bigger supply than demand. How can I make sure that a reader chooses my books among fifty million to choose from?

How to approach branding

One of the many swag items I produced.

One of the many swag items I produced. This coffee mug is the most expensive item, either sold at cons or given to those who buy several books in bulk.

I do not have many resources for branding. There are anecdotal stories about how a book reaches a big audience. One of the stories I recall hearing relates to the first English translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Apparently (I can’t vouch if this is true or just an urban tale, so take it with a pinch of salt), the English publisher passed out thousands of free copies of the book in the London subway to create a buzz for the book. If true, it certainly worked, as the Millennium Trilogy has since been adapted for the silver screen and expanded into additional books ghost-written after the author’s death. A lot of money involved. That would be considered an example of product branding. Who cares about a dead author? Not much to work with except of course legends (there is a certain amount of that going on here in Sweden, but that’s beside the point here)

I don’t have the money to give away thousands of printed copies of my books in the subway. I have tried to move books using BookBub, and in both instances, a book of mine was accepted, it worked out nicely. however, and I think this is critical, while both books became bestsellers,  the number of reviews garnered was low. Of fifteen-thousand plus copies sold of The Opera House, only thirty-five actually reviewed the book. Mind you, great reviews, but still. 0.0067% is a miserable conversion rate. My second Bookbub with Disease didn’t fare any better. While Bookbub will get you great sales numbers (at considerable cost!), it will not lift your book in the long run due to miserable conversion rates.

My (lacking) approach

So what else can you do?

The official logo of author Hans M Hirschi

The official logo of author Hans M Hirschi

What do I do? Swag is something that comes to mind, a logotype. I began creating swag in 2015 for conventions I attended (another branding aspect.) The logo came in 2016. I’m not a huge fan of swag and I haven’t produced anything for two years. I still have pens left over (the most sensible thing done) as well as buttons, key chains, and coffee mugs.

I have never really done my homework. Yes, I gave the designer of my logo instructions, but if you look at my author logo you may not necessarily get to the same associations about the brand I want you to. Then again, what logo ever does that? My logo is fairly masculine, despite the “crown” (which stems from my nickname “The Queen of Unconventional Happy Endings“) I still like my logo and even though I might wish to alter my brand image, I believe I can achieve that with the existing logo. Others have. Besides, I’m a writer. My logo isn’t the culmination of my brand. It’s only a facet of it.

So what will I need to do?

So many faces, so many expressions. Who am I? Which best expresses my core values? My brand?

So many faces, so many expressions. Who am I? Which best expresses my core values? My brand?

I need to sit down and figure out what I actually want my brand to signify, what I want it to imply. What emotions do I wish to evoke? What is it I want readers to associate me with? How broad do I want my branding to be (which speaks to my target audience), how do I communicate these values and emotions? I have a lot of work to do, and it’s not made easier by the fact that I have very little in terms of money to play with. If I could’ve asked my hosts from yesterday for help, I could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars in fees (before spending a dime on actual marketing) to answer these (and other) questions and reach success.

I remember a question that was put before me once by the GM of one of our countries in a company I worked for: what conversion rate do you envision? I was asking for funds for a campaign. He expected a 1:100 conversion rate, i.e. for every dollar spent he wanted 100 dollars ROI. Maybe he was just yanking my chains, maybe he was being realistic. At the time, I turned around and walked away. I barely knew how to compute ROI on training (different topic altogether) and we never saw the revenue of any sales. But that was then. Given that most of my books sell for five dollars, and we get maybe 50-60% of that, which I share equally with my publisher, I get about $1.25 per book sold. You do the math of how many books I’d have to sell to even afford a campaign, not to mention getting to that kind of ROI. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of ebooks. Compared to the 1,800 books sold last year. Yeah. Whatever approach I choose, it better be dirt cheap.

I have some ideas…

I have homework to do. Once I have figured out what kind of emotions I want my author brand to evoke, I need to work out how to communicate those. I need to think about how my genre-jumping (which doesn’t make things easier) can be aligned with the brand. And then I need to figure out how to communicate that to my readers (existing and potential ones.) Followed by actions on how I can convert that into sold books. I have ideas but need to carve out time to actually work on that. And I feel I really need to begin to focus on that work. I’ve always enjoyed marketing and PR work, although (in my previous life as a training and development executive) I used to have a fairly nice budget to achieve my goals. No longer. I may have to rely on guerilla tactics…

A speck of light in the universe: how can readers find me?

A speck of light in the universe: how can readers find me?

How can readers find my work?

I attended a breakfast seminar this morning, getting up way early to go downtown. The seminar was organized by the Dentsu Aegis Network in Gothenburg and it was all about the rumored, coming, pending, threatened (I could go on, you know…) arrival of Amazon on the Swedish market. This has been talked about for years, but only last year (or so) did they get the .se domain and rumors have it that they’re working on distribution and/or have that finalized. Whether or not they’ll open up, that’s a different question. Doesn’t stop companies from selling services or others from wondering about how to tackle the arrival of such a disruptive force in e-commerce.

Author, what are you doing there?

My logo, part of my branding

My logo, part of my branding. But hardly enough.

First, as a poor author, it would be stupid to say no to a free breakfast. Thanks, Dentsu Aegis! 😉 Second, duh! Amazon, right? I mean, where do I make most of my money (what little I make) if not through Amazon? I’ve been working with them since 2013, and even though I often want to pull out every last hair on my head, I realize that they ARE the most important sales channel for me. So I was curious to learn more about how I might improve my presence on Amazon, potentially learn about advertising as well as tips and tricks on how to beat the system. I left disappointed. The seminar wasn’t geared toward authors who possess no marketing budgets from which Dentsu Aegis could’ve recovered the cost for my morning coffee and sandwich. I already knew that before sitting down.

However, I did learn some interesting things, even though I qualify as “vendor” to Amazon and they fulfill everything. Things like the fact that most people never click beyond the first page of results, which is frustrating, particularly when you write queer literature, and you compete with naked torsos and Michelle Obama’s biography (WTF?) It’s a fact and not much I can do about. At one point, one of the speakers rightly pointed out that the more you sell, the higher the ranking, which leads to more sales. Mind you, he was referring to products not books, but we were first and bestsellers do sell best. Duh.

Advertising

I’ve never tried advertising on Amazon. I wish I could, but they won’t let me. As a non-US entity, I can’t advertise on Amazon and every time I try, I’m met with this lovely fuck-off message: “This account may not purchase licenses for this product due [sic!] country or region restrictions. Please check your country or region settings and try again.” Besides, I readily admit that I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s like contacting them and getting to talk to a human.

What I did take away from the seminar though was that branding, and focusing your ad money on branding was more important than focusing on pushing product, which feels a bit counter-intuitive until you think about it. Because when others push your wares (aforementioned Amazon), you need to have a strong brand to stand out against the rest, selling similar stuff. Mind you, as authors it’s a little bit different. A book isn’t a phone or a fridge. But there are similarities in that even writers have a brand, and it is important for us to focus on our brand, to cherish it, look after it, cultivate our image.

The speck of light…

 

I'm but a speck of light in the universe...

I’m but a speck of light in the universe…

Which brings me back to the title of this post: who the hell am I to help a reader find my bock in a place filled with over fifty million books? I feel like that one speck of light in the universe and the readers are literally lost in space looking for something. That something I so desperately want to be me? My speck of light? Will they be attracted to the brightest light? The most colorful? Probably a bit of both, and without overstretching the analogy, I can say that this is what I will try and focus on a little more going forward, to build a brand image of myself (inexpensively) to increase the lumen of my brand.

 

Do I have a brand today? I guess I do, but it’s obviously not nearly well known enough, so that’s one aspect. The other is obviously to make sure the connotations associated with me and my writing are such that readers want to read more, can’t wait for the next book.

Breadcrumbs on the way to success: reviews

There are obviously other aspects as well, particularly reviews. I don’t really have to worry about customer service, fulfillment etc, as Amazon handles that for me (and my publisher.) However, I do worry greatly about reviews and the lack thereof. Most people who buy my books do not leave a review, and that is sad because I know. I sold 1,800 books (not much, I know) last year, but only a fraction of those left reviews. I think that is probably my number one goal this year, to get more people to review my work on Amazon. If only 10% of those people had left a review, that would mean 180 reviews. My most reviewed book to date has 37 reviews. Mind you, that would make a HUGE difference. How to get there? That’s a different question altogether. Tips? Always welcome.

I’ll keep thinking about this for a day or two, and who knows, I might come up with more. Some things I know might help (e.g. stick to writing in one genre) I won’t consider. It’s not me. Others I may not be aware of yet.

Why am I still writing books? It’s certainly not a viable job…

Why am I still writing books? It’s certainly not a viable job…

The economy sucks, but I have few alternatives

This weekend I attended a regional book fair a few hundred kilometers north of Gothenburg. It was my second visit. Last year the organizers had asked me to attend and “sponsored” me. I was also able to stay with friends to minimize the cost. Not so much this year. I had sold decently last year and figured I’d do well again this year. Well being about ten books, if memory serves me right. We decided to take the weekend and take our son along, as he loves train rides and hadn’t seen this part of the country. While a fun day and fair for me, financially, it was a bad decision.

The economy of a non-bestselling author

Most people don’t like to talk about money or income. I don’t have much to hide. My royalties are non-existent and I still see (on average) a book or two per day, making my Amazon author rank zig-zag between 30,000 and 250,000. It goes up when I release a book and down again after a while. Every time I sell a book, it goes up drastically. Makes you wonder how many people actually make a living from their writing. I know authors who sell a lot more who still have day jobs. I don’t. More about that (and why) in a minute.

Let’s just have a look at this weekend and the cost I incurred: train ticket, hotel, a table at the conference, the cost of books v the income of books sold. Book fairs are fickle beings. Some years you sell well, some you don’t. This year, a combination of fair weather, plenty of other events and the “unknown” of the visitor composition meant that few people bought books. Writing in English, selling books in the Swedish countryside is challenging as it is, and given that some of my colleagues didn’t sell a single book, I have to be pleased with the two I did sell. However, comparing the cost I incurred (~$458), the revenue of ~$27.50 is a drop in the ocean. Two-thirds of my royalties spent in one weekend.

Why I make these “horrific” financial choices

The indie author's daily reality: money down the drain.

The indie author’s daily reality: money down the drain.

Some might say I’m crazy. They might just be right. Some might not make the same choice. Why do I attend a fair like this, knowing full well that I will never recoup that cost. I will also add here that these events are like best-selling lists. Only a few will ever make money. At the fair this weekend, I reckon one, possibly two authors got their money back, one being the “star” of the show, the main event. Already making money, she likely made even more and was paid to appear. I’m not envious, but as these things go, the book world is a funny place: you need to be famous to get a book deal to make money which you already have, as you’re famous. Alas, it’s the world.

So why do I (and many others) attend these events? What could possibly motivate us to throw away money? Had I not better save that money for a rainier day (e.g. my retirement?) Obviously, I don’t. So why? I think for most authors, our “need” to tell our stories goes far beyond simply writing them. Many of us also invest a lot of money to get these stories published. ONE author in Sweden was lucky enough to be published by Nordic (and global) giant Bonnier last year. One author! I have a hunch that the picture is similar for the remainder of the “big five” (regardless of what country you call “yours”.) The rest of all debutants had to either rely on small niche publishers or self-publishing. Some might even have paid for expensive vanity publishing services. My publisher is a niche publisher, a small indie house, and they make about as much money as I do. The only real income is the love for stories and to be able to read and polish stories, to make them available for a wider public.

I think that applies to me as well. I enjoy meeting readers, to showcase my work, and the joy of someone buying a book (or two as it were) goes a long way. Will I make the same decision again next year, given the meager results? Probably not. But maybe attend another book fair?

An indie author’s drive

Money can’t be our driving force, that is clear. So what is? What keeps us going? Well, I think we have those stories bubble up within us and we just can’t help it. We have to tell them. And just as some people spend thousands of dollars renovating vintage cars, collecting stamps or coins, we spend money making these stories available, regardless of the cost (to a degree anyway.)

The decisions we make to arrive at where we are aren’t driven by what is most economically beneficial to us, or even from a marketing point of view. We often choose covers because they appeal to us, because they’re beautiful, not because they sell. We write blurbs that convey an emotion of the book, not one that hooks people into buying it, and we send our ARCs to those who would’ve bought the book anyway, in hope for a review, thus losing both money (and often enough not seeing a review.) We make decisions regarding our books from a place of love, not a place of making money.

Yet somewhere, in the depth of our subconscious, we all hope that some mysterious agent might pick up our work, that a film studio will stumble across it, despite the handful of reviews on Amazon, and love the story so much they’ll send us a contract worth six-figures to sign us  with all the fame and glory that comes with that. We all do. One in a million actually sees that contract. Just like the American dream, for most, it remains a dream at best.

Are you crazy? Get out and work!

I’m sure that most of the handful of people who will read this post will have this thought on their mind by now: why don’t you get a job? Why don’t you go back to working full-time? The answer isn’t an easy one, and it implies a shameful admission: it’s not as easy as it sounds. Today’s job market is brutal and we compete not just within our own countries but with bright, well-educated people around the world. I’m old, and at fifty-one (soon to be fifty-two) my education isn’t “fresh”. I’m also quite expensive (and no, I can’t call an employer and say that I’ll accept a 28-year old’s wage because they’d think I’m nuts/desperate) in the eyes of an employer given my thirty-year experience on the job market.

I’ve applied for a great number of jobs, both within what the market considers my “core” competencies and within adjacent areas. The result: one interview in three years. I’m either considered over-qualified (aka too old) or I don’t have the right industry background. Add to that that every year that I’ve been writing widens the chasm to the so-called workforce and I’m considered too remote and useless. Spice it up with a pinch of Xeno- and homophobia and my job market is all but the Gobi desert. This is all doing a stellar job on my self-esteem. So I keep writing because I can’t sit still and twiddle my thumbs. I need to work, I need to do something. And yes, I’m keeping my eyes on job adverts, too. I am capable of multi-tasking. 😉

What’s next?

I honestly don’t know. I have no real WIP at this time. No inspiration for the next great Swedish novel (in English.) I’m working on a children’s book, but that’s a long-term project. Short term? Find my inspiration? Make sure my self-worth, my self-esteem and what Americans so often refer to as “confidence” doesn’t plummet further? I don’t want to appear as a pity-party because I’m doing well, especially compared to the millions and millions without a meal on their table, those who lose house and home to natural disasters or those who are constantly under threat from oppressive regimes. Who am I to complain? First-world problems, right?

 

Review: Beat Surrender by Bob Stone

Review: Beat Surrender by Bob Stone

Beat Surrender is an exciting mix of sci-fi and fantasy

I got to read this book, Beat Surrender, by Liverpudlian (yeah, who knew…) author Bob Stone through of our shared publisher, Beaten Track. Recently, they asked for people to proofread Bob’s latest one and since I had the time, I figured why not. Proofing is a somewhat different reading experience, but the book was in such excellent shape that it turned into a very enjoyable experience. For the author me, to find other people making mistakes was very refreshing (and soothing to the old self-esteem), too.

The Cover for Beat Surrender.

The Cover for Beat Surrender.

Beat Surrender is book two in a trilogy about Joey Cale, a young man from the Liverpool area in Northwestern England who ends up in a place he never could’ve dreamed of. Here’s the book’s blurb:

“Something came from somewhere else and crashed onto Trafalgar Square.”

Joey Cale thought he was going home but instead has ended up on another version of Earth just as dangerous as the last.

Aided by his friends, he must discover the cause of one of the greatest disasters Britain has seen. But a threat as old as time is pursuing him and will do anything to stop him.

Who are the sinister Green Jackets? Why are the birds gathering and watching? And what is buried in a wall deep beneath London?

Beat Surrender is the second book in the heart-stopping trilogy which began with Missing Beat.

Excellent read, in fact, a real page-turner

I haven’t read book one, yet, but I’ve purchased it. Therefore, I came somewhat unprepared to Joey’s arrival on the ‘other’ Earth. But even though I haven’t read what happened to him in the first story, I read this book without feeling I was missing things that hindered my enjoyment. I can always go back (which I will) and read the first one to get the background information. It works as a stand-alone. The book is excellently written. I was caught up in the story from page one and read it in three installments, simply because I had to take breaks every now and then to rest my eyes. I was proofreading after all, and I wanted to do Bob justice.

This is science-fiction I like, taking “ordinary” places we are familiar with, but adding a twist to them. No spoilers, but not unlike my own Golden One series, these seemingly regular people are more than meets the eye. While the concept of parallel Earths is one taken from sci-fi (or simply modern physics where the multiverse is a given), the talents our protagonists have are taken from the realm of fantasy. So are the villains.

Varying points of view keep it interesting

The story is told in what I found a most intriguing and captivating way. There are a handful of main protagonists: Joey, Raj and Emma, and about a dozen others who play secondary or tertiary roles. Yet the story is told in a standard chronological order, and every chapter has a different POV, sometimes two, clearly separated for reader comfort. Every chapter links back to the previous one and latches on, almost like a cogwheel, at times repeating a scene partially, but from someone else’s POV. Very well executed.

To heighten tension, new characters are introduced at times, even though they may only be mentioned right there and then. This is a risky endeavor, particularly since Bob can’t really flesh them out. But you don’t really notice, as you are too focused on the plot to wonder about a police officer or ambulance driver’s view of things. I was really impressed!

Yet in the end, the story always gravitates back to the main characters where Joey’s view is the most common one, followed by Raj and Emma.

Book one in the trilogy about Joey Cale, Missing Beat.

Book one in the trilogy about Joey Cale, Missing Beat.

Diverse characters and a very sensitive storytelling

Sometimes when I read books by het authors, I notice how truly blind mainstream WASP society is to the diversity all around them. Without labeling Bob (I truly don’t know, his bio reads as him “living with wife and cat in Liverpool”,) I am deeply impressed with his inclusion of the great diversity of people one will expect to see in the UK: people of color, LGBT, young, old, differently abled. This was, to a degree, not surprising, given that our publisher is specifically labeled as a “diverse publisher”, yet it was still refreshing, deeply satisfying and at the end of the book I felt this enormous gratitude. How often do you read a book that e.g. mentions someone in a wheelchair? I think I can go back on what I’ve read and count those instances on one hand.

The way Bob handles diversity is a true joy and I wish we’d see more of this in literature, even outside the queer community who is, for many reasons, sensitized to it yet often fails this very task, too.

Read Beat Surrender and look forward to the final book in this astounding trilogy

Well first, if you haven’t, you should go back and read book one, Missing Beat, available from all reputable resellers including Bob’s own bookstore in Liverpool. Second, read Beat Surrender. If you like sci-fi and fantasy “light”, with aspects of thriller and crime novel, you’ll absolutely adore this trilogy. I for one am already looking forward to the final book in the trilogy.

I don’t hand out stars or rate the books I read. I simply recommend them. This is a high-quality story, very well written. Be mindful that sometimes, the characters speak the local dialect, which may require you to look up an expression or two, especially if you’re not from England. There is a significant body count aka deaths in this book and a certain amount of violence is depicted. A fair warning to those sensitive to that.

Beat Surrender releases today, March 23, from Beaten Track Publishing as an ebook and as a paperback.

The Golden One–Deceit: Release Day or should I say Groundhog Day?

The Golden One–Deceit: Release Day or should I say Groundhog Day?

Happy Release Day to me: the Golden One–Deceit is out

Early reviews for Deceit are very encouraging.

Early reviews for Deceit are very encouraging.

‘Tis time again. A new book drops at midnight PST, which is about an hour from now. I feel pretty good about this book because the reception by readers has been very positive. Yet still, despite all of this, I can’t entirely shake that nervousness that always beleaguers a writer on release day. Which is odd, right? ARCs have been out for weeks, people have been reading the book, it’s been on sale for a month and we have an idea of how it does. Still. Nervous. Even though it’s my umpteenth release day.

A lesson in philosophy dressed as action-packed fantasy

What’s Deceit, or indeed the Golden One, about? On the surface, it’s “young adult” (read: teen literature) fantasy, a shapeshifter story. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a discourse about humanity’s treatment of Earth, how we treat the one home we have, the very fact that we are literally defecating our own living room, our bedrooms, not to mention our kitchen. If an individual were to do that, we’d commit them to psychiatric care, provide them with all the help and assistance they need. But on a planetary scale, we simply shrug and say “at least he shat in the corner!” or worse, we pretend it didn’t happen.

Another encouraging review.

Another encouraging review.

The way the climate is changing all around us reminds me of the old folktale of the frog and boiling water. Have you heard it? Throw a frog in boiling water and it’ll jump out immediately, but put a frog in cool water and heat it gradually and you’ll have a nicely cooked frog before you know it. Mind you, this story is a fable and not true, but maybe that’s because frogs are smarter than humans?

The Golden One is a mirror of how we treat our planet, and it seems to me, as an adult, that the young generation is the one we need to turn to because my own, and the ones who came before me are utterly unable (or unwilling) to tackle the challenges we face. To hear that Greta Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize is a great symbolic step. She and the kids fighting for the planet are the real heroes out there.

No, it’s anything but boring…

Think this sounds rather dull? Don’t worry. The Golden One is action-packed, exciting and there is always something going on. Who is “good”, who is “evil”? Just that question will keep you busy during the second installment of The Golden One. Jason and his friends struggle with this question and they don’t really know the answer. Not even at the end. And what is driving people to do what they do?

v

Even though from my husband, but this is the reaction I wish all readers had…

Deceit is also a reflection of adult life vs that of children, the different perspectives we have, and what drives us. Without the burden of grown-up responsibilities, children are able to view the world differently. They have the luxury to see patterns that transcend our adult ability which is clouded by having to earn a living, making sure that we (and our progeny) have clothes to wear, a roof over our heads and food on the table. Kids take that for granted, at least in most of the world today.

Release day, so what?

Yes, it’s release day today. For the rest of the almost ten billion people of the planet, it’s just another Thursday, another day to go to work, another school day. Sunny in some places, rainy in others. A handful of people look forward to Deceit. I am very happy about that, of course, and I nurture a dream that more and more will discover the story of Jason and his four valiant friends. This is certainly a story worth any attention it gets. I say that in all humility.

Tonight, I’ll be celebrating the release of Deceit with a few friends and we’ll look at the final cover for the series, for the third book, Reckoning, which will release in September. Another release day, waiting for me…

 

Bad, bad artist! How do you deal with your idol being a “bad” person?

Bad, bad artist! How do you deal with your idol being a “bad” person?

The documentary “Leaving Neverland” highlights an age-old conundrum

I haven’t seen the documentary yet. So no comments on its merits, artistically or in terms of assignment of guilt. I am a staunch believer in our justice system and the basic tenant of “innocent until proven guilty”. This post isn’t about who said what or who did what, nor about Michael Jackson specifically. As a survivor of sexual assault as a child by a grown-up, I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it either. Some things need not be remembered needlessly. But the discussions that have followed in the wake of its screening around the globe have led me to think about the topic as such, and how we, as consumers of art, can deal with instances when an artist we enjoy/love/adore turns out to be less perfect than we would like them to be.

Through history, artists have always been human…

Stating the obvious first. Artists (writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, filmmakers etc.) have always been humans. And as such, they’re all deeply flawed. Some even claim that it takes a highly flawed person to create great art. Wasn’t me, but I can see how that might be true. In order to create art that touches people emotionally, art that annoys, makes happy, saddens, etc., any artistic product must appeal to our emotions and in order to achieve that effect, whoever creates it, must be able to access deeply rooted feelings and emotions, good and bad.

A bust from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples depicts Julius Caesar, whose popularity skyrocketed after his conquest of Gaul, threatening the power of Rome’s nobility. Photograph by De Agostini

A bust from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples depicts Julius Caesar, whose popularity skyrocketed after his conquest of Gaul, threatening the power of Rome’s nobility.
Photograph by De Agostini

I remember reading the works of Julius Caesar in school, in the original Latin. He was a brilliant writer, his storytelling unique, yet as a statesman, he was also quite ruthless and brutal. Hardly the ideal human being, and I remember our teacher telling us that we had to see his stories as what they were: a victor’s account of historical events. Hardly objective. And there are many instances through the eons of artists we may treasure, but who fell short on the human front. Here are a couple of my favorites: Richard Wagner, one of my favorite classical composers, yet an asshole (pardon my French) as a human being, not to mention an Anti-Semite of the worst kind. Knut Hamsun, one of my favorite Norwegian writers, brilliant stories. He even won a Nobel Prize, but yeah, he was a staunch supporter of the Nazis and German occupation of Norway. Fast forward to someone like Woody Allen, and the many movies of his I adore, particularly “What you always wanted to know…” but on a human front? Yeah. Then there are Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R Kelly, Kevin Spacey and countless others. And we’ve already mentioned the King of Pop whose musical legacy is astonishing, but who leaves many wondering: can I still listen to his music after these allegations?

Boycott or no boycott?

In the wake of the Jackson documentary, several radio stations have stopped playing his music. That is, of course, their prerogative. However, I’m not sure that is the right way to go because it derives us, the audience of the possibility to come to that determination on our own. If I am disgusted by the allegations, I should be able to come to that conclusion on my own and change the station or turn it off. However, if I want to continue to listen, I should be allowed to do so as well.

I don’t like it very much when other people make decisions on my behalf, but that’s just me. If I don’t want to attend a concert by an artist because they’ve been accused of something horrific, that should be my choice, and the same should be true for reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie.

I have one caveat though: be open-minded, and educate yourself. Often enough it is very difficult to assess whether someone really is a bad person, or not. And posthumously? There is no defense possible, and in the case of Michael Jackson, there are no criminal convictions. Which isn’t to say he didn’t do it. Legally, though, and that is our common framework, he’s to be seen as innocent. And that is true for most artists, particularly deceased ones. They can no longer defend themselves, or explain their thoughts or why (or why not) they chose to do this or believe that.

My personal principles with regards to artists

I try to tackle this with a two-pronged approach: a) separate artist from the person and b) don’t be a putz! Educate yourself.

Richard Wagner in 1971

Richard Wagner in 1971

I will always love Wagner’s music, even though I know he was a racist and Anti-Semite. How do I reconcile the two? I have always maintained that the art, the work, is more important than the artist. It is separate from them and should be judged on its own merits. Allow me a short excursion into HR, where many organizations these days use anonymized resumes to make sure applicants have an equal opportunity. We know that hiring managers will sort people by name, gender, race etc. long before digging into the actual competencies of someone. Remove that information and they will be forced to view the actual competencies without knowing if it is a man/woman, someone white/black/Asian, etc. who’s behind a resume.

If you heard pieces from e.g. the Ring without knowing who wrote the score, would you deem it less valuable? As a writer, this is particularly important to me, as I find my works should be judged as they are, not based on who I am. Having studied literature in college, I know that we tend to look to the author’s life to explain this or that in their writing. I’ve always found this rather “offensive”, particularly since I’ve begun to write myself. Yes, I may find inspiration for my writing in my life (duh!) but the end result is never a reflection of me, never something that can be used as a basis for psychoanalysis of me and those near me. I’ve written about this in the past.

Educate yourself

It’s easier said than done not to be a putz when it comes to our darlings. We tend to see our idols through stars in our eyes. That is quite normal. And even if you feel that your idol has been falsely accused, and you feel strongly about that, which is fine as long as they have not been convicted in a court of law, educate yourself about the crime/behavior they have been accused of. Not the specific case, but learn about e.g. sexual assault, and how frequent it is, who the victims are, the perpetrators, circumstances it happens and the powerplay involved. Learn about child abuse, the causes, and who victims and predators normally are.

Let’s face it, you can’t really judge anyone unless you know a hell of a lot more about the alleged crime. Just because someone sings a lovely song, writes a great book or is an incredibly talented actor says absolutely nothing about their potential lives. Nothing.

My take?

I can listen to Michael Jackson, at least the songs I like and will continue to do so. However, if he were still alive, I’d not allow my son to spend time near him. Ever. Better to be safe than sorry. I can still watch a movie by Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allan, but I wouldn’t have coffee with them. I can still enjoy a novel by Knut Hamsun, but I’m mindful of his views expressed, and I look forward to “The Valkyries” at my opera house this fall, and to learning more about Wagner’s life and the despicable views held by him, his late wife Cosima and many in his family for generations, still infecting the Bayreuth festival every year.

That’s my take on it. What is yours?

Finally

We are three days away from the launch of my next book in the Golden One series, Deceit. And while I’m far from being a perfect human being, the worst I’ve done is getting speeding tickets and running a stop sign. LOL So don’t judge me too harshly. But more importantly, judge my books on their own merits, not by what you think of me, my views or my actions. You can learn more about Deceit right here, complete with purchase links to get your own copy.