Most people, starting out as career writers, confuse branding and marketing. Authors are often the ones who have the most difficulty with this distinction. Part of that is because many people who teach workshops or have courses aimed at authors are teaching marketing, not branding. Yet the instructors often conflate the two in their instruction. Also, most writers don’t think of their articles, books, short stories, or poems as products. Therefore, branding seems to be something they can ignore.
I certainly made this mistake at the beginning of my writing career. I read lots of books and attended plenty of workshops, by well-meaning published authors, telling me how to “brand” myself as an author. This included things like building an author persona (marketing). Even advice on choosing a single color to brand me and my website (marketing). There was also advice on creating bookmarks, signage, and other paper products to take with me every time I did a book signing or spoke at a conference (marketing). All of that lead to website development, social media platforms, what to post and how to act. Again all of this was really about marketing, not branding.
It was exhausting! And, for a time I stopped doing all of it (outside of having a website) because it didn’t reflect me. I was spending far too much time thinking about how I should dress and act according to a made-up brand that was supposed to bring in more readers. I was spending more time branding and marketing instead of writing the next book. I didn’t want a “persona” to present to the world. It’s hard enough keeping the real me straight. Now I needed a second me to present to the world and remember how that person acted, dressed, and built perceptions for readers? No thank you.
After a lot of research, I realized I didn’t have to do any of that. My brand could be the real me. In fact, it should reflect me if I wanted a long term career that allowed me to grow and change and for my readers to experience what I was promising them I’d deliver.
What Is an Author’s Brand Really?
A brand is your promise to your customer regarding what to expect from your product. For a washing machine, it seems pretty easy to create a brand. The expectations are clear. I want a washing machine to clean clothes effectively without tearing them apart. Perhaps I even want some choices depending on the type of clothes I put in that machine.
In the case of writers, it isn’t as clear because the value of our product is really subjective and is in the mind of each reader. So what kind of a promise does a writer make to the reader?
A writer’s brand focuses on the kind of experience a reader will have when they read your work. The value of your product is that experience. Once the reader has an experience she likes, that reader will expect that same experience from future books, stories, poems, or articles that you write.
That’s where it gets tricky. That expectation that everything you write will generate that same experience is scary. Furthermore, if you don’t generate that experience the readers may leave you and search for something else. This is why novelists write series. They are promising the same experience. This is why some article writers stick with a single topic. It is easier to promise that same experience.
But most writers have a diversity of interests. I certainly do. I publish books in romance, science fiction, fantasy, and suspense. Also, most of my books are cross-genre and not centered in a single genre. I also publish nonfiction self-help books for writers.
Does this mean I don’t have a brand? Of course not. It just makes it more difficult to define my brand. I either have to create multiple brands — recognize I’m making a different promise for each genre or find what connects them all in one brand. Many authors do choose the multiple brands approach, even creating pseudonyms for each genre. Another approach and the one I chose is to find a way to define how I am creating the same experience — promise — for my readers no matter what I write.
As an author, you are your company, your brand. Even if you are traditionally published, you do not want your brand to be your publisher (e.g., Harper Collins or Penguin Random House). If you let your publisher build your brand and you leave, or they are no longer interested in your books, you have to start over.
You want to build an expectation that when someone reads one of your books, or comes to your blog, or interacts with any content that you produce, that they will have a specific kind of experience. The question is what is that experience? Is it a feeling — fear, joy, empathy, confusion? Is it the learning of important facts needed for a profession? Is it a life lesson you learned and hope will help others?
For example, if you think of Stephen King, you most likely think of horror. You most likely think of a particular kind of horror — one that is based on manipulating your mind to think one way so that you are surprised during the story. Stephen King has written more than 100 books. Not all of them are horror. However, I would guess that all of them do depend on manipulating your mind to think against the grain, to take a different point-of-view on the situation. And this is true both in his fiction and non-fiction.
Once you have a clear brand concept, you then have the means for marketing your work, building an audience, and consistently delivering on your promise of a specific experience.
What’s Involved In Creating An Author Brand?
For most writers at the beginning of their careers, their brand is not easy to identify. So don’t beat yourself up if something isn’t coming to you immediately full-formed.
For me, I had an amorphous idea of why I was writing the fiction stories I chose to write. I knew they were a reflection of parts of my own story and the stories of those people I cared about in my life. And parts of them were a reflection of the world that made me angry or sad and I wanted to fix it in my fiction.
I knew that I wanted to show how each person could be a hero in her own life. It tried to craft a series of choices that each character makes involving facing their past, discovering their power to create a better future, and then following that path even though there were setbacks and scary and sad parts along the way, but prevailing in the end.
That’s all pretty messy, isn’t it? Even knowing all of that, I wasn’t able to articulate those promises until five years and eight books into my fiction-publishing career. Maybe I’m a slow learner. Or maybe it just takes time to figure that out for a writer — particularly someone who never chooses to write in just one genre. So, it’s okay if your description is messy too.
Once I articulated my fiction brand, I realized it was the same for my nonfiction as well. Why? Because my brand is derived from who I am, who I want to be, and who my readers perceive me to be. And the best part is I don’t have to pretend to be anything other than who I really am.
Let’s begin with the first two questions. Who you are and who you want to be as a writer is based on your core story. Whether you are a nonfiction or a fiction writer, ask yourself why are you writing the articles, the books, the stories, the poetry you are creating right now.
The answer to this may be something deeply personal like: “sharing my personal trials and triumphs may help others to realize they are not alone.” or “talking about how I overcame challenges may help someone else to see options they hadn’t considered.”
But, your brand or core story doesn’t have to be serious or deeply philosophical. Some people write just to be funny or just to be entertaining. That’s okay too. It just has to be true to you and your writing. It might be something as simple as “Love is the answer,” or “Be careful where you step” or “Entertainment and escape” or “Providing a chuckle each day.”
Once you have some general ideas about who you are as a writer, ask yourself who do you want to be as a writer?
Some people may think the answer to who you are and who you want to be is the same. That is possible if you are happy with your progress and your reach and believe you are doing as much as you will ever be able to do with your writing. However, most people recognize that they want to be better, or earn more money, or help more people, or use their writing to accomplish a specific goal that is in the future.
For me, who I want to be as a writer is to reach more people with my work and to diversify the way in which that work is presented (e.g., audiobooks, possibly video, translations). I also want to become better at my craft. I want to be sure, particularly in my fiction, that I’m not only getting my themes and messages across but that I’m still entertaining as well. After all, most people don’t choose to read fiction for a message. They want to be entertained, taken on a journey.
Once you’ve completed both questions, go back and try to capture your core story (themes, characters, messages) in two to three lines. The way I do this is by thinking of the keywords that describe that story.
For me, those disjointed pieces, broken down into keywords, became my tagline: Stories of people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time.
Probably, as you read that line you formed some opinions about my books, and maybe about me too. The question is: Do your perceptions of me match what I intended with that tag line? Here’s what I intended it to say:
- I’m a serious person.
- I’m interested in everyday heroes.
- My characters aren’t going to have it easy. Those “messy moments” mean conflict and being unsure whether they will win the day.
- Every step of their journey will require them to make some hard decisions — heroic choices.
- The ending will be satisfying. Heroes always win in the end.
The Reader Perception Part of Branding
When you read my tagline, did you think of any of those things I put in the bulleted list? This is where the reader’s perception of me and my writing plays a critical role in finding the people who actually want to read I write. If the reader didn’t get at least 50% of those bulleted concepts when reading my books or articles, then I’ve failed to deliver on my promise.
I may not have been focused enough on my themes. My writing craft may not be strong enough to get the readers to empathize with my characters or to understand their journey.
Or I may be wrong about what I’m writing.
The last part of branding is understanding how readers perceive what you write. The only way to know that is to get feedback. Feedback can come in a number of different ways, claps, highlights, and comments on articles. Reviews, personal letters or emails in books. Or you can actually ask the question: “What is it you like about my writing? Why do you keep coming back?”
I used all of these techniques. Reviews and comments from readers who could actually articulate their feelings about my books were really helpful. It showed what stood out, what promise I delivered to them. I do occasionally get personal letters, but it’s hard to generalize from one person’s experience to the experience of a thousand readers. But the survey I sent to my mailing list was the most revealing.
It appeared that I was delivering on my promise for those items I articulated for a third of the respondents. However, I also learned that for many readers it wasn’t about my themes and life lesson messages. It was really about the entertainment, the adventure, and the happily-ever-after. In other words, don’t always take myself so seriously.
Branding informs marketing. Once I understood my brand — both what I wanted it to be and what my readers thought it was — my marketing became much more effective. I was no longer shooting in the dark or doing what everyone else did. Instead, I was being me. I was reinforcing the experience my brand promises.