Authors as brands sell books even if an independent author wrote a better story
Have you ever noticed with books by a famous author how on the front cover the author's name usually takes` up more space than the title? Examples of this include James Patterson, Lee Child, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich and Jodi Picoult to name just a few.
These authors have enough of a fan base that their name alone sells books. When I used to work in a bookshop people would see a new Jodi Picoult, and bring it to the counter to buy. As I rang up the sale they would read the back of the book to see what it was about...and then they'd let me bag it.
Over time, an author gains momentum, writing enough good books that readers will buy their books, irrespective of the story--they figure if their favourite author wrote it, the story must be good. Of course, this level of expectation does mean that if an author writes a mediocre book or two they may lose some of their fan-base.
Authors as brands, and how they got there
Every author starts off an unknown entity. Stephen King tells of his huge pile of rejection letters that he collected, then he started getting short stories published and then eventually he published "Carrie" --that was 1974. Forty years later Stephen King is still producing quality entertainment for his readers. J.K. Rowling was rejected by about a dozen publishing houses before someone thought "hmm, I see the market potential of this story" -- that was 1997. Now, nearly 20 years later, Harry Potter has left its indelible mark on an entire generation.
Every author had to start somewhere, and then through consistently telling good stories they have created a brand around themselves. Few authors would ever say they've got it easy--all those lonely nights in front of a laptop just them and the voices in the head...actually it's not that lonely when the voices are buzzing...
Authors and genres: why it's harder for some authors to break out
Have you noticed authors like Jodi Picoult, Marian Keyes, Stephen King and James Patterson tend to stick to their genre? Every now and then they'll do something a little different (James Patterson wrote "Zoo" Stephen King did "The Dark Tower" series and the book about the dragon...and Jodi Picoult wrote a YA novel with her daughter).
But on the whole if you're looking for a crime novel you might go straight for Patricia Cornwell or Michael Connelly because these authors have established themselves in the genre--want good fantasy? you've got Patrick Rothfuss, Terry Pratchett, Sara Douglas, Robin Hobb, J.R.R. Tolkien, Kylie Chan, and so on.
An author's name as a brand isn't simply indicating "hey, here's a good story" it's indicating "hey, here's a good [insert genre here] story."
...and the point is?
I realise that talking about an author as a brand can sound dehumanising, but that's almost the point. When you pick up a book in a bookshop or unpack your bookmail you aren't holding a person. You're holding a book which is either going to (hopefully) entertain and/or educate you. J.K. Rowling isn't sitting down next to you telling you the story of Harry Potter. Robert Kiyosaki isn't across the table from you explaining how it's theoretically easy to earn money through passive income.
It's just you and the book. You still might say "at the moment I'm reading the new Janet Evanovich" or "yeah, I just finished the latest Chuck Palahniuk, it wasn't as good as Haunted." The author's name becomes synonymous with their books, and some readers almost forget the person because they only ever see the books--you know, the ones where the author's name takes up half the front cover and the title is relegated to a font less than half the size.
The author's name stops being a person, a gender, a history and becomes the quality of the story between the front and back covers of their books.
Thank you for reading.