August 20th, 2013 by Max Allan Collins
What Doesn't Kill Her

Barb and I are preparing to attend On the Lam, a conference in Seattle next weekend put on by Thomas & Mercer, the mystery/suspense publisher that’s part of Amazon. The attendees are authors published by T & M, with some fans and writer’s groups in Seattle receiving invites to the Saturday panels.

I’m on one, and the topic is “Building Your Brand.” Usually when I’m on a panel – I’m scheduled for two at this year’s Bouchercon – I frankly give the topic little if any thought. I prefer winging it. But this topic really has me thinking. In fact, it’s giving me fits.

Why? Because I’m pretty sure I don’t have a brand. I think “Barbara Allan” has already developed a brand as a humorous cozy author, and of course that penname for Barb and me was very calculated, from its folk-tune resonance to the female nature of the byline. Otherwise, I have rather stubbornly written almost everything else as by M.A.C.

And, accordingly, I have no overall brand-name. There’s a group of readers that thinks “Max Allan Collins” is a guy who writes movie and TV novels. There’s another that thinks I’m a hardboiled writer. Yet another considers me a historical thriller specialist. Some think I’m a comics writer or maybe graphic novelist. The most successful of my series – Nathan Heller, Quarry, and Mickey’s Mike Hammer – are their own brand names. For stuff I’ve done – like the upcoming WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER – that doesn’t fall conveniently into any of those boxes, I don’t have a brand at all…other than (judging by some of the advance Amazon reader reviews) my historical brand serving to piss some readers off when I do a straight thriller. I started noticing this on the two J.C. Harrow thrillers that Matt Clemens and I did for Kensington.

Thomas & Mercer have done a really good job in packaging my novels to suggest a sort of brand – starting with the Hellers, they have used typeface, photography and overall design to create a look that is less than uniform but still connective. This has extended chiefly to their reprints of the Disaster series, but also Mallory and even the “Barbara Allan” reprints, REGENERATION and BOMBSHELL (the latter an historical thriller). Amusingly, Amazon often lists Mallory novels among “historicals,” due to the books being so firmly entrenched in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I should note that a few Amazon reviewers, attracted to REGENERATION by the “Barbara Allan” byline of ANTIQUES fame, were outraged at finding themselves stuck with a rather nasty thriller. Was it asking too much for them to read the description and look at the cover, before ordering? Here is where “brand” is a hindrance.

If you are Stephen King or Dean Koontz, and work at least vaguely in the horror/suspense area, you can publish any damn thing you like and your brand holds up. Interestingly, J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous mystery novel sold squat before she was outed, but once exposed, her brand has carried it into bestsellerdom, cushioned and boosted by the way the secret came out.

I’m not sure a writer below King/Koontz level can have a brand, not unless that writer creates stories in a very narrow way. I suppose I could have used pseudonyms for each area I explored, but the one time I was talked into using one – Patrick Culhane – the results were near disastrous.

My wife invokes Bobby Darin here, who many of you know is my favorite pop star and an obsession of mine equal to my Spillane one. Darin was a chameleon, who was (as DOWNBEAT magazine put it) “the only real competition Sinatra ever had,” a rock ‘n’ roller whose “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” are classics of the form, an exponent of “blue-eyed soul,” a singer-songwriter pioneer in country rock, folk rock, and even a credible protest singer…and an actor whose small body of work includes some incredible performances, like those in PRESSURE POINT and CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D” (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Still, he is often dismissed as dilettante by fans of each of those kinds of music (and largely forgotten as an actor), though I have been pleased to see him in the last decade or so reassert himself in the public consciousness. Often he’s mistakenly referred to as part of the Rat Pack, and it’s clear his big-band vocalist persona is the lasting one (fine by me). If you could choose only one singer/musician to represent popular music in the Twentieth-Century time capsule, Darin is the only logical choice, because only through him would you find excellent examples of just about every kind of pop music that that century provided (such British Invasion groups as Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Seekers covered songs of his). But he will never be a superstar in the way Elvis, Sinatra, the Beatles or even Sammy Davis Jr. or Dean Martin are.

His only brand was talent. Oh, and excellence.

* * *

Bill Crider, that terrific writer who runs my favorite site on the Net, has given WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER a lovely and (in my opinion) insightful review. Check it out.

My work as Mickey’s collaborator is discussed in an article about ghost writers in the AV Club. Worth a look, even if I am not exactly a ghost writer in this case. Scroll down to page 3 (page 4 now) for some comments by me and others.

Ed Gorman, another fine writer with a great blog, has published a short but solid interview with me, discussing the newest publications (including forthcoming ones).

Kevin Burton Smith at Thrilling Detective, the definitive private eye web site, has a Quarry entry up. I consider Quarry a private eye of sorts, so I’m glad to see him included.

I think this great video review of TARGET LANCER has been posted before, but it got a new lease on life recently.

I will report next week on the Seattle trip.


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2 Responses to “Branded?”

  1. Paul.Griffith says:

    The article from the AV Club has pushed back your comments to page 4. Waded through page three to finally find them. Loved the review of TARGET LANCER, I feel it deserved much more recognition than it received. Currently reading EARLY CRIMES, enjoyed the first two short stories, especially liked the ending to The Love Rack! Haven’t started Shoot the Moon yet.

  2. mike doran says:

    As you can probably tell by how long I waited to respond, I’ve given this particular thread a lot of thought.

    Here’s an idea:
    Could “Branded” possibly refer to Thomas & Mercer itself?
    By that I mean establishing their brand as a publisher of genre fiction, at a time when so many publishing houses seem to be abandoning same?
    We’ve already discussed the Incredible Shrinking Bookstores here, and how hard it’s getting to find my older favorites (in several senses of the word “older”) on a shelf in a mall. Lately I’ve shocked myself at just how much stuff I’ve had to order online, simply because there was no other way to get it.
    Thus, Thomas & Mercer (are there really guys named Thomas and Mercer, or is this like Bartles & Jaymes?), starting up a line of books jsut as everybody else is cutting back.
    As a civilian bookbuyer, I can’t claim to understand any of this. I’m still resisting Ebooks (mainly for monetary reasons), and the scarcity of the stuff I want to read alternately worries me – and frankly pisses me off.

    Scorned as the one who ran!
    What can you do when you’re Branded
    And you know you’re a man?

    Sorry – had to get that out of my system …

    As “branding” applies to the Collins Group of Fine Writing …. I guess that’s just part of The Times We Live In.
    The troubling part of this is how writers like yourself get “typecast”, ususally by the first thing that people see.
    My first exposure to you was …
    … this is going back now …
    … letters you would write to THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE back in the ’80s.
    One I still remember was about some guy named Purcell (I think), who wrote what he thought was a scholarly takedown of Humphrey Bogart; you put him away nicely in two sentences.
    This is when I learned that you’d taken over DICK TRACY, and also had a (sort of) monthly comic book called MS. TREE – and also also had just written a couple of issues of BATMAN.
    And at the same time, I began seeing your name on books in the book department at Marshall Field’s.
    (Back when there WAS a book department at Marshall Field’s.)
    (Back when there WAS a Marshall Field’s …)
    These were the Mallorys from Walker, and the first Nate Hellers from St. Martin’s.
    All of that, more or less at once.
    I kinda dug that, and I jumped right in – in all directions.
    Eventually, the older stuff found its way into reprint, and the newer stuff came along, and I met you in person at that ComicCon back then …
    … and here we are today.
    I suppose that back then I had you “branded” – as someone I could rely on for a good read – indeed, for many different kinds of good reads.
    And that is the situation that holds now.
    These others, the ones who get thrown by versatility …
    … over on a blog called BARE BONES, they’re going through ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS by authors; currently they’re on Henry Slesar.
    Just the other day I sent them a comment about my brother who loved science fiction while putting down my love of mysteries.
    He’d seen Henry Slesar’s name on SF magazines, but when he saw that same name on one of my EQMMs –
    – ” … but he’s a SCIENCE FICTION person!”
    – as if the two were somehow incompatible.
    Sean was about 12, and I was coming up on 11, so maybe that explains that.
    But some of those you speak of here are most likely older than that, and that bewilders me just a bit.

    I guess that there are brands, and there are brands.
    You’ve got a bunch of them, and we get the benefits.
    And to those who would hold you to one …

    That’s not the way to die!
    What can you do when you’re Branded?
    Can you live with a lie?

    Sorry again … but when you put that title up …

    ‘Til November at C&S …