Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Branding is the bête noire of the modern author, an often frightening necessity that can mean the difference between worldwide recognition and total obscurity. It’s an aspect of business that has grown more and more important as social media has become the norm, and the days where it was a possible route to success rather than an outright necessity have ended.
If you think that all sounds a bit gloomy, you’re not alone. This is the attitude with which most authors approach their branding and marketing. Cultural norms can take a long time to catch up to economic realities, and many authors long for a time when they didn’t need to deal with the marketing side of publication. It can feel like a difficult job that you shouldn’t have to do, but there is another way to look at it.
Building a brand doesn’t have to be an awful task, in fact it can be an incredibly creative endeavor. Not only that, but it can put you in total control of your financial future. There are a lot of advantages to establishing your own brand, but this is perhaps the most immediate: you become the boss.
How brands work
A brand is more than a mark of quality; it’s a simple, direct expression of the many things customers can expect from a product. Eugene Yiga put it fantastically when he said:
Broadly speaking, a brand is a set of hooks the mind uses to organize its experience of a commercial offering.
These ‘hooks’ are the concepts that customers associate with your brand, and they’re surprisingly varied. Stephen King has one of the strongest, most effective author brands in the world; the hooks on which readers hang his work include ‘high quality’ and ‘horror’, but also include less definable features such as his individual style and the specific feelings readers experience when they engage with his work.[bctt tweet=”Stephen King has one of the strongest, most effective author brands in the world”]
These qualities are combined in the Stephen King brand, allowing readers to decide that a Stephen King book is for them before they know anything else about it. King’s success is firmly built on the quality of his work, but it also depends on a dedicated readership who take the presence of his brand as a personal recommendation.
This is an idea with which King himself has grappled – beginning in 1977, King published seven books under the pen name ‘Richard Bachman’. This was done for a variety of reasons, but in The Bachman Books King states that he had become aware that his brand was now so effective that it guaranteed a degree of financial and critical success. Troubled by this notion, and that he may have just been ‘lucky’, he used Bachman partly as an experiment to test the popularity of his writing when stripped of its brand.
Richard Bachman’s first four books did not sell well at all, perhaps partly because they were issued without fanfare… His final book, Thinner, had sold about 28,000 copies in hardcover before a Washington bookstore clerk and writer named Steve Brown got suspicious… and uncovered my name on one of the Bachman copyright forms… the fact that Thinner did 28,000 copies when Bachman was the author and 280,000 copies when Steve King became the author, might tell you something, huh?
– The Bachman Books, Stephen King
While King’s experiences were complex, his experiment shows how an effective brand can be a far more decisive draw than quality – Bachman and King both published works of nearly identical quality, but King’s books came with the pre-existing recommendation of his brand. Readers knew to expect something they’d enjoy and, just as importantly, knew how to find his work. With Bachman, readers who would have enjoyed his work (and we know they were plentiful) had no reason to investigate him as an author and, even if they encountered his books, had no particular reason to give him a chance.
This is another benefit of a brand – creating a consistent idea of your work that recommends future releases and builds reader loyalty. Nothing is so persuasive to someone as their own opinion, so get someone to decide they like your brand and they’ll keep buying what you’re writing.
Without a recognizable authorial brand, every book is your first book. With a brand, everything you do supports what you do next, and is supported by what you did before. Brands grant permanence to how your work will be seen, and that’s essential in a marketplace that contains more books – and more recommendations – than any reader could investigate in a lifetime.
I’ve talked about why you should establish yourself as a brand, and soon I’ll move onto how you can do it, but between those stages there’s a vital question that many authors forget to ask.
What is your brand?
During my own experiences with advertising, one refrain was common from creative leaders to those who managed the accounts: ‘People don’t know what they want’. In terms of branding and marketing, this meant that companies didn’t understand how they were seen and didn’t understand what qualities would endear them to customers. One of the most coveted skillsets in this kind of business is the ability to talk to clients in such a way that they can verbalize the impression they want to create.
This is the place that authors need to start with their own brand, since there’s no-one around whose job it is to coax it out of you. ‘High quality’ is an obvious starter, but you really have to dig deep into the emotional experience you provide in your work.[bctt tweet=”Author @neilhimself’s brand contains a unique blend of mythology and fairy tale”]
Author Neil Gaiman has done this almost perfectly, distilling his brand down to a melange of playful, gothic motifs and a unique blending of mythology and fairy tale. His brand is so identifiable that radio show Wits ran a ‘Bad Gaiman Challenge’, where fans would write in with purposefully terrible pastiches of Gaiman’s writing. The clip below includes some of the final entries.
The insight needed to produce even these short pastiches is incredible – the entries don’t just deal with similar subject matter, but zero-in on the tone and cadence of Gaiman’s writing. Even more impressively, the contestants understand Gaiman so absolutely that they can take these elements of his writing and invert them, creating work which is purposefully ‘bad’.
Of course this is partially down to Gaiman’s unique style and the skill of his readers, but it also shows how thoroughly understood his brand is by fans. Authors should dream of having a brand so well-defined (and well-known) that it’s feasible to construct a competition, and resultant show, which depends on its aspects being readily recognizable, even in the form of parody.
It may seem difficult to identify your own brand in this much detail, but you can start with one question: how do I make my readers feel?
Start with a feeling
‘How will this make me feel?’ is the chief question that drives buyer behavior and brand loyalty, and this is especially true of the literary market, where emotional satisfaction is the primary use of your product.
Many authors wrongly begin their brand with genre, but genre means nothing without context. Some people buy horror to be scared out of their minds, while some merely find it intriguing. Some people read sci-fi for the intellectual stimulation of imagined futures, while some people just enjoy the aesthetic trappings such as aliens and robots.
Take, for example, sci-fi authors Douglas Adams and Philip K Dick. While both write within the same genre, their brands are completely different. Adams writes accessibly, focusing on absurdist humor and likeable characters. Dick writes ‘hard’ sci-fi; challenging works that provide intellectual exploration of deep philosophical concepts and possible futures.
Comparing some of the authors’ book covers shows how their distinctive brands differ:
While the above covers are only a sample, you can see how Adams’ brand-specific sense of fun and absurdism is communicated through welcoming fonts, amusing images and the frequently askew titles. Dick, on the other hand, uses incongruent images and bold, commanding fonts to communicate a weightier, more unsettling tone that verges on horror.
We’ve talked about cover design elsewhere, so suffice to say that the covers above clearly communicate the emotional experience the reader can expect from each book. This is important on a book-by-book basis, but it’s also vital to building a brand. Interrogating yourself about the emotional content of your work is a good start, but it may be that you need to consult with beta readers to get a good idea of how readers see your work.
Creating your brand isn’t about forcing yourself into an artificial construct, but about expressing what’s already special about your work. As Larry Ackerman (author of Identity is Destiny and The Identity Code) says:
Identity is cause; brand is effect. And the strength of the former influences the strength of the latter.
Your brand should emerge out of your existing authorial persona – it’s all about identifying how your work is perceived and selling that in the most effective way possible. Make no mistake, though, this initial stage may require the most work of all. These values are the foundation of your brand, and have to be strong and accurate enough that they can sustain a far larger system that uses them in a variety of ways. I’ve shown above how brand influences cover design, but it’s also going to feature in your web presence, the way you communicate yourself as an author and the way readers feel about their enjoyment of your work. Really dig down, be certain about what you offer readers, and commit to a set of ideals. As Mark Baynes, Chief Marketing Officer at Keurig Green Mountain Inc., says:
Unless you have absolute clarity of what your brand stands for, everything else is irrelevant.
It’s an important theory to grasp, but having gained some understanding on how and why brands work, it’s time to get practical about how you can apply them as an author.
I said earlier that with a brand, each piece of work is supported by what came before. Stephen King knows this – his brand has built up so much energy that each new release is guaranteed a readership – but it also applies to authors who are still on their first book.
The thing to remember about a ‘brand’ is that it isn’t any one thing – it’s not your book covers or your website or even just your writing. A brand is an idea, and ideas play by their own rules. One of these rules is that they exist through use – an idea is only an idea if someone’s thinking about it. That means that rather than waiting for your brand to form naturally over time, you should be shaping and building it from day one.
The first thing to do, as I’ve said, is think about what your brand is. Once you’ve done that, though, it’s time to start using that idea. Construct your online presence before you have a book to sell. Practically, this is just good sense; you need to have somewhere to send readers as soon as they’ve finished your work. Remember, though, that the brand is separate from the work. Readers might want to get an idea of you before trying your book, and your brand is the easiest way to do this.
Not only that, but it’s better to control your brand than to allow it to grow around you. This is something author J.K. Rowling found during her transition from the Harry Potter books to adult fiction novel The Casual Vacancy. While Rowling’s name at first seems to be a brand, and certainly carries weight, it’s one which has shown itself to be inextricably linked to the Harry Potter series. When Rowling wrote something which was a departure from the Harry Potter brand, much of the critical discussion focused on how her new book differed from what was understood about the children’s series. Newspapers in particular became obsessed with the adult content, and public perception of Rowling’s work was distorted as reviewers tried to understand it through the lens of Harry Potter.
“When she writes about sex it is like hearing your mum talk about rude stuff — uncomfortable!”
“The book is very gritty and very brutal, almost like JK Rowling is rebelling and trying to make a point… Unfortunately there is no last chapter set 15 years in the future where everyone is happy again.”
After months of frenzied speculation and cloak and dagger secrecy JK Rowling’s first novel for adults is here – and it’s as far removed from Hogwarts as you can imagine.
The Casual Vacancy features scenes that would make Harry Potter blush and it definitely isn’t for children.
Lovers of Harry Potter are in for a bloody great shock… [it] is a billion miles away from the charm, magic and innocence of Potterland.
When a brand grows by itself, it can focus on areas that you may feel shouldn’t define your writing. Instead, take the bull by the horns and steer it in the direction that’s right for you.[bctt tweet=”It’s better to control your author brand than to allow it to grow around you”]
This means establishing an internet presence based on your brand, and making conscious choices that feed the idea you’ve created. The content you share and create online feeds into your brand, as do the visual decisions you make in terms of site design. Creating a brand involves a process of refinement – finding out the best ways to communicate the concepts of which it’s made – and it’s best to go through it before you need that brand. Aspects of presentation like font, logo and self-description need to be hammered out, because they’re going to see wide use later on.
The idea of a brand is to streamline the vast array of qualities associated with your work and express them in a way that helps you sell your product. There are a lot of ways to do this, but brand unity is one of the most important.
Establishing brand unity means ensuring that everything associated with you is perceived as part of a whole. Practically, this could mean deciding on a font for your name that will be used on your own website, social media and book covers. It could mean creating a logo or deciding on a color scheme, easy visual tricks to communicate that wherever a customer encounters you, you can be understood as the same entity. This is something I explored at length in The 6 Essential Features of a Fiction Writer’s Website, which I’d recommend for tips on applying brand signifiers online.
These are important steps following your definition of your brand, and can be worked out as you experiment prior to presenting it to readers. Remember, though, that the brand needs to be fed. You can’t say ‘this is who I am’ and then sit idle until you have a book to sell. Share and produce content, include every aspect of your professional self in the branding, and you’ll find that when you want to sell a book, it will already exist within a clear context of what readers can expect from your brand.
Branding isn’t just for other people – it can help you produce better work and more effectively advocate for your own success. Saying that you’re ‘not an author yet’ might be commendably modest, but it also won’t inspire anyone to want to read your work. Setting yourself up as an author – deciding on and conveying a clear brand – is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It means that when you go to a publisher, or when you attract reader attention, you already exist as a package. One book, supported by a fully realized brand, is enough to make that brand feel real. The reader can see that you have clear values, they can see those values expressed in a work, so what else would they be waiting for before getting on-board?
Some authors may find it advisable to create a separate authorial persona around which to build their brand. This might involve simply identifying an author ‘you’ and a regular ‘you’, and applying only the aspects of the former to your brand decisions, or it might mean inventing a whole new person. Many authors have adopted pen names for exactly this reason – it gives them an identifiable persona with which to work, free from considerations of all the parts of them that have nothing to do with writing. This is often a canny move, since you’re able to adopt a pen name based on the nature of your brand. It’s been speculated that the presentation of author J.K. Rowling’s name was a purposeful move by publishers, who wanted to obscure that she was a woman and invite comparison to fantasy writer J.R.R Tolkien, apparently to pursue a young male readership.
Author branding: The first step
At this point you might feel daunted, but don’t worry. Brands build according to the snowball effect, getting bigger and bigger by their very nature; it’s just a case of making sure your initial efforts go in the right direction.
I’ll end this article by suggesting a short exercise to get you started thinking about your brand, something that you can do in three easy steps.
- Set a timer for one minute. During that minute, write down the way your work should make the reader feel. Don’t restrict yourself, just get down as much as possible. I suggest just scribbling adjectives and/or descriptive phrases on a piece of paper. (For best results, complete this step before reading step 2).
- Think of an author who you’d like to be compared to, especially in terms of how they make readers feel. Circle the five words or phrases you’ve just written that best describe them.
- Now, taking as long as you need, whittle the entire list down to the three adjectives that you feel most accurately describe your aims when writing. As you eliminate some or all of the circled words and phrases, spend some time reflecting on how you’re different to the author you chose.
You don’t have to be bound to the words you’re left with, but the process of picking them out should help you to start thinking critically about your values and the type of brand you’d like to create. It’s an exercise that flows from instinct to critical thinking, and it might surprise you. Once you’re finished, let me know what you ended up with in the comments and how the exercise made you feel about your brand.
For more marketing and branding advice, check out The 6 Essential Features Of A Fiction Writer’s Website, How To Find Your First Ten Readers and Grow Your Author Brand Through Networking.