Branding for Writers – Beginning Principles

Here’s a simple concept: You and your literary work are a brand.

An older term was identity. Now, brand is a newer, broader term to talk about the perceived, implicit promise of what your writing will deliver to a consumer of it.

Stephen King is a brand. His brand: thriller writer, author of familiar dark-fantasy works like Carrie with modern, everyday things like proms and favorite but spooky old cars, etc. He’s from Maine, and is a bit reclusive . . . His brand is that overall expectation that pops into your mind when you see his name on a book or story. Based on that preconception, do you want to read that thing with his name on it?

Think of Dave Barry. Another brand expectation pops up.
Think of David McCullough, nonfiction author of the John Adams bio, 1776, etc.
Think of J.K. Rowling.
Think of . . . you get the picture.

These are mega-brands, the “Coca-Colas” of the literary world.

Is a brand something you want to strive for?
First, you do have a brand. The real question is how strong, consistent, positive, quick is it?

Why would you want to strengthen it? A strong and positive brand pulls your customers to you.

The result of a strong brand: your customers (readers, editors, etc.) choose to come to you. They associate you with what they want: good writing just the way they like it, with style, with panache, with consistency.

So  . . . what are the most basic principles to think about when you start on a quest to review, identify, and strengthen your brand as a professional writer?

1. What’s your area of focus?

If someone hears  your name, or (assuming you’re not already well-known, if someone takes a quick look at your website, your bio, or your other visible aspects . . .what do people expect you to be writing about? And how specific can you be? (Clue: you want to narrow the area of focus down from, “Hey, I’m a writer!”)

2. What’s your literary style?

Within that area of focus, what do people think from knowing or eyeballing your “brand” – often, for newcomers, a quick scan of something you’ve written – about what kind of writing that you’ll deliver in your work? Is your style or choice of content or angle on what you’re writing about . . . humorous, detailed, practical, well-researched, gripping, conversational, succinct, provocative . . . is it filled with the dazzling use of language, are you a plain-talker or good explainer, etc.?

3. What’s your personal story as a writer?

You might think of this, as one brand strategist suggested, as your “Creation Story.” How did you get to be where you are as a writer? What were the beginnings, the influences, the key breaks, the current passions that keep you writing?

4. How can your brand imagery help focus & imprint on fans (current & future!) what your writing delivers?

These are the quickly visible things commonly thought of as branding: the tools that work together to build and reinforce your brand identity. The common ones for a writer include: an engaging short bio, and a logo (well, for many writers this is a bio photo). Also, you might invoke familiar phrases that characterize your work, memorable tag-lines (“slogans”), literary-genre labels, meta-data tags (often invisible except to search engines), images of you at work and play, images of your books, decorative elements highlighted on your website, typography, etc. . . . all working together to reinforce the brand message.

The main thing: a brand more than a logo or slogan. It’s the overall effect, the preconception that people carry with them (or gain quickly) that gives them confidence about what you’ll deliver that they like, want, need. Coca-Cola isn’t just its scripty type logo, red color, catchy songs, and such. It’s the impression that all of those aspects build that suggest (or remind) customers that your “product” is something they like, because they’re familiar with you, or that they will like soon . . . when they read what you’ve written.

For now, think about four principle elements of your literary brand:

  1. area of focus
  2. literary style
  3. your personal story as a writer
  4. the brand imagery to reinforce it all

I’ll go into more detail in follow-up articles on how to identify and strengthen these core elements.

Blog Post by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.

Art of the Self-Interview – Web Marketing for Book Authors

If you’re a book author, a great feature for your professional website is an author interview.

Surprisingly, one of the best approaches is a self-interview.

At first glance, this might seem immodest or an inferior version of a “real” interview with an outside journalist. But done well, it can be as good . . . if not better.

There are some things you can do in a self-interview that you can’t in a regular one.

  1. Get it done, anytime, on your schedule.
  2. Control the questions, to highlight the best features of your book or other work.
  3. Range freely, to bring in any offbeat, auxiliary, cross-marketing info.
  4. Show your humor, skill with words, insight, and all-around scintillating presence . . . which may lead to additional outside interviews, while impressing web visitors about your book.

Here’s a glimpse of a self-interview, done very, very well. It is by author James Morrow, author of The Philosopher’s Apprentice, The Last Witchfinder (Starred Review, Publisher’s Weekly),  Only Begotten Daughter (World Fantasy Award), and other impressive books. He’s been interviewed elsewhere often, but chose to do self-interviews for his books on his website.

It’s a great tip for book marketing for writers of all sorts. The same kind of thing can be done by freelance writers, poets, anyone with a glimmer of moxie (and a creative personality).

For the Morrow interview, I’ll just give some of the questions. To enjoy the fun, interesting answers, you’ll just have to visit the James Morrow website!

James Morrow Interviews James Morrow on
The Philosopher’s Apprentice

Q: Your new novel, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, has an intriguing title. Who is the philosopher and who is the apprentice?

Q: Does Mason succeed in giving Londa a moral compass?

Q: Why is Londa’s mind a blank slate?

Q: So what is The Philosopher’s Apprentice really about?

Q: Morality is a mystery?

Q: It sounds as if you’re a novelist who benefits from interacting with editors.

Q: Is that why you’ve described the book as a cross between Shaw’s Pygmalion and Nabokov’s Lolita?

Q: Your previous novel, The Last Witchfinder — which is quite a good book, by the way …

Q: The Last Witchfinder also centers on a teacher-student relationship. The heroine, Jennet Stearne, is tutored by her beloved Aunt Isobel in “natural philosophy,” that is, science.

Q: Those scenes, yes. What the heck is going on here? On one level, the immaculoids are sympathetic, but I don’t think of you as being in the “pro-life” camp. The Last Witchfinder was a very feminist novel.

Q: You’re avoiding the question, Morrow. By bringing those wretched immaculoids on stage, don’t you end up endorsing the anti-abortion position?

Q: You obviously have a taste for grandiose themes. Where does that come from?

Q: So, for you, novels are a good way to keep experts from impoverishing our minds?

Q: We’ve talked about Shaw and Nabokov as influences. One of your pre-publication critics, covering the book for Kirkus Reviews, notes that The Philosopher’s Apprentice also “tips its hat with style to Mary Shelley.”

Q: It’s always nice to meet a fellow geek.

Q: Somebody once remarked, “Henry James chewed more than he bit off.”

Q: Nevertheless, when you named your main character Londa Sabacthani, you were obviously trying for a symbolic effect. Her name evokes Jesus’s famous cry from the cross in Matthew 27:46.

Q: You’re lying.

Q: I’m afraid we’re out of time.

Blogs for Writers: Simple Thank-You Posts

(This is part of a mini-series for writers, with marketing value to almost any small business. For related posts, click here: “blogging for writers.”)

In the last post, I talked about the benefits of a low-key, minimalist blog: one that functions as a mini-website, an online business card or directory listing. You post your contact info, bio, and services, and be done with it.

Except . . . hey, now your blog exists . . . and can be used for a couple of easy online marketing applications!

One is to post a public thank-you note, as a simple blog post, at the end of a project completed.

Here’s an example of a company that has a website-like blog that mostly is just that: Juxtaprose.

It doesn’t take long to write a short paragraph or two about a project, thanking the principal players and mentioning what was done.

But note: there are a couple of real benefits to you in that brief post that go far beyond what a traditional thank-you note would do.

1. You create a link to that company’s site.
This creates a little permanent linkage, for political benefit. If you praise the company or someone in it, you are doing that publicly. (And that person can share it by sending the link for that blog post to others in their company, which they probably will . . . if it speaks well of their company . . . and of that person in it . . showing them . . . and you . . . in a good and generous light.)

2. You get get to tell others specifics of services you offer.
By describing a bit of what you did for that company, you create search-engine terms in your thank-you post that highlight your services. It’s good to be both specific and general, so both types of terms appear.

In other words, you created a “press release for online use” (general service) and it was about the “independent bookstore scene in Milwaukee, and the economic challenge of running a small storefront business in the recession, and the growing awareness of the Buy Local / Shop Indie campaign” (which is in your area of expertise . . . or is now if it wasn’t before). Now you’ve created helpful key words to encourage search engines to notice your blog when someone is searching for info about that topic down the line.)

3. You get to reveal a little about how you work.
Are you cheery, experienced, detail-oriented? That can come through in your blog entry. What sort of tools are you in command of? How do you approach problems or concerns within a project (at the start or as things pop up). If you talk about those – briefly, positively, with pizzazz – you begin to build a better image of your business and its brand (what distinguishes it from the next shop down the Internet road.)

The ability to describe what you did in a positive, appealing way will help attract new potential clients who check out your blog. (They see it because you mention it to them; more about very simple ways to get the right people to read your blog in a later post in this series.)

Thank-you posts are similar in structure, which makes them easy to write. Just personalize them, add a couple of interesting details, and link to the client.

You may also want to send a hand-written note to the client . . . but the online blog post is a nice touch and doesn’t take long.

Let see now, did I put the right key words in this post? I’m saying this out loud for your benefit, to encourage you to realize that it’s a useful part of blogging. Business blogs, blogging, writers, small business, online marketing, branding, Litwave (my affordable coaching service to help writers, authors, and consultants set up effective, low-key, market-savvy blogs) . . . yes, I think I’ve hit the right notes.

(Next post: using blog posts as FAQ material.)

Oh, The Places My Brand Will Go!

I’ve been reading several biographies of the peerless Dr. Seuss, and realized how gifted he was . . . not just in the field of children’s literature but also as a practitioner of personal branding for writers.

If you’re like me, you grew up with Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, The Cat in the Hat, Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, and all the other zany creatures, places, and situations devised by this master of the rhyming, readable children’s book.

Pick up any Dr. Seuss book, even one you haven’t opened before, and you have a good inkling of what you’re going to get. And each book delivers. This is the essence of branding.

In a Seuss book, you expect:

Rollicking, read-out-loud rhymes. Smile-inducing lines that stick in our heads for years: “I do not like them in a box. I do not like them with a fox. I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am.” From Green Eggs and Ham, of course.)

A memorable, intriguing pen name. Seuss was Ted Geisel’s middle name, his Germanic mother’s family name. It originally rhymed with “voice,” but later was Americanized to rhyme with “juice.”) The “doctor” part was an imaginary self-awarded accolade, something he’d never earned in school. It combined one part respectability, one part the wacky world of a patent-medicine quack.

A delightful overdose of imagination unleashed. Seuss wrote and drew a pantheon of imaginative creatures and landscapes, the likes of which we’d never seen before (no one knew what a Grinch was before Seuss showed us his nasty, conniving, easily irritated soul).

A plain but playful vocabulary. A Seuss book tosses words joyfully back and forth like a jump-rope chant, with pleasure in silly sounds, multiple meanings, and odd associations of words that rhyme or just pop out.

In the end, a moral to the story. Geisel said that in a story, there are only two choices: the good guys win or the evil ones win. He made sure the good ones did, so Thidwick wanders off a happy moose, his goodness intact after his antlers fell off, while his selfish freeloading friends get their comeuppance.

All this adds up to Geisel/Seuss having become one of the most successful children’s book authors of all time.

Born Theodore Seuss Geisel in a German-American family in Springfield, Mass., he attended Dartmouth, then England’s Oxford, but was more passionate for classroom doodles and comic quips than for serious academic studies. He came of age in 1920s, the clever-quipping, convention-breaking era of the flapper. After graduation, he plunged into the advertising business in New York City, submitting cartoons and writing jingles. His big break-through was a jingle for bug-spray: “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” The short tag-line was the core of a 17-year campaign; it became embedded in the American consciousness, a line used by radio comedians like Jack Benny for a quick laugh. Branding at its best.

So like many successful writers, Geisel thought hard and professionally about how to capture people’s attention and imagination quickly. And in his books, he knew how to talk about important subjects: friendship, exploring the world, telling the truth, doing the right thing.

(And like many, he also had to endure some bad reviews, such as a letter received from a convict on death row in Texas. It read, “If your stuff is the kind of thing they’re publishing nowadays, I don’t so much mind leaving.” Ouch! Ted kept the letter.)

One of his masterpieces, The Cat in the Hat, grew out of a challenge from a friend and publisher, William Spaulding of Houghton Mifflin. Following the public furor of a popular book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, Spaulding presented a challenge to Geisel: write a book for young readers using only 225 words of basic vocabulary, a list he provided.

It wasn’t easy. It was like trying to make, Geisel said, “strudel without any strudels.” But he stuck with it, and eventually the wily cat with the goofy hat and his canny cohorts, Thing One and Thing Two, came into the world to delight and enchant generations of young readers.

Laura Backes of Children’s Book Insider wrote, in a wonderful article, “What Dr. Seuss Can Teach Us” (reprinted in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007), why The Cat in the Hat not only encouraged kids to read but offered a new kind of literature:

It also changed how children’s book authors learned to write. Instead of telling a thin story based on a simple, everyday incident, Seuss packed the plot with action that escalated on every page. Rather than relying on one-note characters, he populated his book with quirky, complex and surprising personalities that didn’t always cooperate with one another, thus creating tension and conflict.

I highly recommend the biography, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, by journalists Judith and Neil Morgan, for wonderful insight on how Geisel’s successful techniques in marketing himself and growing a career. He invented a new brand of children’s book. And he built it one book at a time, thinking about young readers and what they liked to read, think about, imagine.

Myself, I never imagine a Dr. Seuss book except as a well-worn slim volume, held in my own hands as I read it to my kid brother . . . enjoying each page, again and again, as much as he did.

The books of Dr. Seuss are reliable in delivering a distinctive product: a combination of bright imagination, flowing rhymes, crazy critters, and a sense of what kids really like to read.

Now that’s branding.

Mark Twain and Personal Branding

“Earn a character first if you can, and if you can’t, then assume one.”
– Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Clemens)

Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, was one of the first American writers to become a national celebrity. Clemens recognized and practiced many of the features of personal branding:

  • He wrote in a distinctive style. He adopted a downhome conversational style, a homespun flavor, full of sardonic humor, laced with folk wisdom and dialect. He made fun of fools and pompous people. He championed the virtues of plain speech and storytelling, the richness of choosing the right word (“the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”), the clear phrase, the memorable image.
  • He assumed the visual trappings of brand image: a white suit, a cigar, a distinctive mustache.
  • He adopted a pseudonym: Mark Twain. (The phrase came from his day as a professional pilot on Mississippi riverboats. The pilot would get calls from men working a sounding line, dropped to measure the depth of the river. “Mark twain” meant two fathoms, or twelve feet. A big riverboat typically needed a fathom and a half (nine feet) or more, so “mark twain” meant the river was passable, but just barely. It seems a choice that fit Clemens’ self-deprecating persona: just enough to get by.)
  • He tried other pseudonyms early on, but abandoned them. The likes of “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab” were comical but impossible to remember. Mark Twain is punchy, plausible, memorable.
  • In addition to his novels, he published many brief pieces: speeches, articles, short stories in newspapers and magazines.
  • He pioneered new styles in literature, like the fanciful comic travelogue, and experimented with new technology, like the typewriter (Life on the Mississippi is thought to have been the first book typed before being sent to the printer).
  • Besides writing books and articles, he got out on the lecture circuit, honing his delivery skills in public presentations, meeting his public, hearing live feedback, polishing material old and new, making his name well known.
  • He knew how to speak in “sound bites,” to deliver zingers, to offer up short, quotable epigrams. (Such as: “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to.” Or, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Or, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” Or, “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”)
  • He had a good understanding of book marketing, actively encouraging his publisher to push advance sales by door-to-door subscription peddlers, rather than just relying on bookstores to passively display his works.

In a 1908 speech, he talked about a conversation with Robert Louis Stevenson, talking about the role of that broad public awareness:

Robert Louis Stevenson and I, sitting in Union Square and Washington Square a great many years ago, tried to find a name for the submerged fame, that fame that permeates the great crowd of people you never see and never mingle with; people with whom you have no speech, but who read your books and become admirers of your work and have an affection for you.

. . . [I]t is the faithfulness of the friendship, of the homage of those men, never criticizing, that began when they were children. . . . and you will remain in the home of their hearts’ affection forever and ever. And Louis Stevenson and I decided that of all fame, that was the best, the very best.

Samuel Clemens was a practical man. He knew that commercial success as a writer required skill in craft, plus business savvy. He made sure in many ways that people knew who Mark Twain was and what they could expect from a Mark Twain story.

In short, he knew the secrets of personal branding. Creating a brand involves, he realized, not just earning it but also assuming it.

You don’t develop a brand without some active involvement in creating its form.