Branding is a simple concept. For an author, in a nutshell, it’s what people expect when they hear your name attached to a book (or story).
If you think of the name Mark Twain, or Stephen King, or Toni Morrison, or J.R.R. Tolkien . . . many things likely pop into your head. For me, the name Tolkien conjures up images of a professorial fellow with a pipe, the smile of a raconteur on his face, eager to spin long tales that I suspect I’d like hear, maybe sitting close by in a comfy easy chair by the fireplace in his study, sipping a little sherry and traveling to a far-off imaginary land . . .
This post offers tips to help you think about your brand – how to identify it, strengthen and refine it, and present it to your adoring (right?) fans.
There’s an interesting book I read some years ago that comes to mind to help you think about branding. It’s called Primal Branding, by Patrick Hanlon, a marketing guru who’s worked on famous brands like Absolut, LEGO, IBM, and others. His book equates a strong brand with a culture of belief, one that is similar in many ways to a religious faith.
Before you get illusions of grandeur, let’s look at his points of comparison. Like a religion, Hanlon says, a strong brand has these key elements:
- Creation story
- Sacred words
It’s interesting to think in those terms about you and your author’s brand. To translate:
How often have you heard (and significantly, can remember) the “origins of how I got started as a writer” story of one of your famous authors?
This is always a good place to start when telling the story of your brand. What got it going? Why did you feel called to write? Readers like to hear a good story of how you got started. It sets the whole idea of a brand in motion.
As a writer, what do you believe in most strongly? What fuels your professionalism? What drives your writing? What core principles drive you to write fictional stories or nonfiction texts?
A belief in the power of love? A sense of the frailty of the human condition? Concern for the environment? A desire to help some build a better deck or take better care of their pet? A love of comedy? A love of the beauty of fine literature. An urge to reach out and share a good story to entertain?
These are examples of core things that drive us as writers, but they are not the same for all of us. What drives you to write?
This goes deeper than your “origin” story, into the inner drive that led you to pursue this career. Why struggle to nurse your stories into existence, to persevere despite the headwinds of so many things that conspire against the average writer?
How often have writers been asked classic questions about the rituals that drives their lives. In what part of the day do you write? Where? Do you slurp coffee or tea? When you get stuck or just to rest and refresh, do you like to talk a walk in the woods? Go shopping? Play tennis?
Other rituals involve interactions with your fans. Do you post every Wednesday? Will you post if you have an epiphany? Do you post a picture of your writing desk? Your pet who sits by your side as you write?
Do you celebrate each book that’s published in a particular way, and share this event with your fans? Do you post excerpts? Do you celebrate great reviews or fan comments?
The ultimate ritual, that had near-religious overtones, was the midnight gathering of millions of fans worldwide for the release of the later books by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series.
Why are rituals important to a brand? They are a way for us to come together, you and your fans, in an interaction of some sort. It likely is more muted than a Potter book hitting the shelves, and it’s probably a mix of live and online interactions. It’s the act of sharing not just the published book but also the wider spectrum of what it means to be a writer that helps to create that sense of a bond of togetherness between authors and readers.
For a writer, this is not usually a logo. You probably don’t have a Starbuck’s mermaid or a Target’s bull’s-eye. (Although on some excellent author websites, you might see the author’s name treated in a classic logo-like fashion.) But for you, the most important images are your author photo, and possibly the cover of your most popular book.
These images stand for you and your work. (Note to authors: get a great author photo taken. It’s worth its weight in gold.)
This touches on the key phrases that inspire you or the mantras that you chant or the slogans that you pin next to your computer. Take a look at Maya Angelou’s website. What do you see? Besides iconic images of her and the cover of her well-known book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I also see a line from that book: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”
What are the texts that you hold closest to your heart? What are your favorite books that inspire you as a writer? The Elements of Style. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Lord of the Rings. The Cat in the Hat. The Phantom Tollbooth.
As Hanlon says, to have the yin of believers, you need the yang of non-believers. It’s those idiotic folks who don’t agree with us and our literary tastes. The Philistines. You aren’t like everyone, and you don’t want to be. You want to stand for something.
Me? I’m a traditional printed-paper book guy, first and foremost; I don’t really like the e-reader experience with books as electronic files with their easy-to-publish-and-change-and-grab-and-read-and-toss aspects. I don’t like obscure poetry or academic mumbo-jumbo that makes my head hurt (I do like haiku and poems about real places and times of the year).
I don’t agree with self-publishing 95% of the time because it’s done poorly. I don’t really like Helvetica. I don’t like hyped-up ads and overblown promotions; I was taught not to brag, that good work spoke for itself, and cream rose to the top.
Not surprisingly, some of the blog posts I’ve done on things that irritate me (“Kindle, Schmindle”) have been among my most popular. The point: opposition to something else is a powerful uniting factor. It’s part of not being ordinary.
This is the easy part. For my writer’s brand, that’s me. For your brand, that’s you. This is one point where writers are already on the branding bandwagon; they know that it’s important to have a person who stands for your brand. For Virgin Airlines, it’s Richard Branson. For your writing, it’s you.
But of course, there are things you can do to build up and refine your personal story. What do we know about your first writing project as a kid? About influential people who have helped you become the writer you are, whether a high-school English teacher or a favorite aunt who gave you a copy of . . .
All of those things help us know you better. Learn to tell your story. Learn to shape it, to think about its drama and themes and lovable characters and opening lines . . . just as you would a beloved short story that you’d write and rewrite until it glowed and jumped off the page before sending in to your favorite magazine to be published.
Your Brand is a Culture of Belief
These ways to think about a literary brand might at first seem odd to you. But you can use them to help identify, refine, and present yourself as a writer more clearly to the rest of us.
What’s your brand? If we choose to follow you and your writing, what can we have faith in?
(See also related post on branding for authors: “Build Your Author’s Brand”)