Discover Your Author’s Brand

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
  • Creed
  • Rituals
  • Icons
  • Sacred words
  • Non-believers
  • Leader

It’s interesting to think in those terms about you and your author’s brand. To translate:

Creation Story

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.

Creed

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?

Rituals

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.

Icons

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.)

Sacred words

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.

Non-believers

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.

Leader

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”)

33 comments for “Discover Your Author’s Brand

  1. April 28, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    What a great, fresh post on author “brands” and targets. I really enjoyed it. (Found it via Twitter, btw.)
    Thanks!

    • PhilipMartin
      April 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks, Judy. And I enjoyed taking a gander at your website; the Green, Louisiana series looked wonderful.

  2. April 29, 2013 at 11:17 am

    This is helpful and encouraging. Thank you.

  3. Ed Oahule
    April 29, 2013 at 11:29 am

    I honestly dislike the term “branding.” I think of either Cattle brands or commercial brands, like Folgers, or Palmolive. I have such a strong negative feeling to I that advice like this, as helpful and well-meaning as it is, just makes me want to shout, “I’m a human being, not a brand!” Someone needs to come up with another word that doesn’t have such negative connotations.

    • PhilipMartin
      April 29, 2013 at 11:50 am

      Ed, I honestly agree with you: I don’t really care for the term “branding” all that much as a word, given all the negative associations with Madison Avenue using branding to sell me laundry detergent that isn’t all that new or improved. However, I don’t like spending too much time in a blog post on the nuances of words; I like to get to the point, and have the deeper discussions over a beer later.

      The term that used to be used often was just “identity.” That’s clearly more appealing in its humanity; I think we all like to have a clear & purposeful identity.

      The part of the “brand” concept I do like is that it’s both a noun and a verb. So “brand” suggests that you do something. Many professionals suggest the brand is already exists, and you just look to enhance it and strengthen it. Actually, for an emerging writers, brand or identity is in active development, can be pretty fluid for a while. But at some point, a brand or identity starts to take shape — much like “voice” does in the writing itself.

      I do try to make the case that marketing isn’t inherently evil; it’s not just to fool the buyers into buying something they don’t want or need. I see it as “better communications for better results.” Good branding, or identity whatever, should be about making it more clear what people can trust about you, what they can expect, especially in the deeper realms of values and purpose.

      And to do it simply and quickly and in emotional, storytelling or visual ways.
      As I see it.

  4. April 29, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Whenever Jane Friedman selects a post, I know it will be good. This one comes at just the right time as I am finishing edits on a book to be published in September. I understand, and appreciate, the spiritual dimension of this process and like your language better than the usual marketing language. Thanks!

  5. April 29, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    What a great post written in language that I understand without the overhype that so many other “educators” wrap themselves in. This makes the work ahead of me doable and most likely enjoyable.

  6. May 1, 2013 at 4:44 am

    I find this post helpful to work out what is typical of what I write about, in other words, it shows up the sort of ‘personality’ my writing has. Great!

  7. May 3, 2013 at 9:41 am

    What I really liked about this ‘non-marketing’ marketing is the idea, particularly apt for writers, of seeing yourself as a character you might make central to a series. Then it ceases to be about you at all, and that I can work with! Thanks. Many thanks.

  8. May 3, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Great piece. It supports (and will definitively improve) my contention that marketing (branding) me and my book as a package works better than hoping an esoteric book about BP’s oil spill will sell itself.

  9. May 3, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Most marketing advice just makes me feel really, really tired – in fact, most book advice of any kind does. This is probably the first time I’ve ever read anything about the subject that made me want to just go and put it into practice immediately. Unfortunately, it’s bedtime here in London so I can’t. But I will do. Thanks a lot. By the way, I found this post from this link – http://janefriedman.com/2013/05/03/best-business-advice-for-writers-april-2013/

    Good night

  10. May 4, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    Really helpful article, Phillip. Deep, thoughtful insight regarding questions every author should ask her/himself. What do I stand for? What do I believe? This is much more than branding or marketing. Thanks for this…and for your warm, generous presence at OWFI.

    T.D. Hart

  11. May 5, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Where’s your Twitter button? I’d like to follow, but I can’t find it. Sorry, I’m a Tweeting neophyte.

    • PhilipMartin
      May 10, 2013 at 4:36 pm

      Linda, I don’t have a Twitter account, so I’m un-followable there for the time being. I liked to focus on fewer things; have my hands full with website and blog work. But . . . your comment did encourage me to at least add share button for Twitter, Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, etc. to make it easier for folks to share stuff found here.

      And I did note that a lot of people found this post through the tweeting super-powers of Jane Friedman and others. So maybe I’ll wise up & get my tweets in gear this year!

  12. May 5, 2013 at 10:18 am

    This is the most useful thing I’ve read about branding, Philip. It makes it very clear and much more simple than I’d believed. In fact, I realise that I’m doing quite a lot of it already.

    I love the analogy with religion. It gives it a real depth.

    I’m one of those self-published indie writers but what the heck.

    Martin Lake

  13. May 5, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks for Sunny Frazier for directing me to your excellent article, Phillip. I am more aware of branding today, more aware of how my actions will be seen by my adoring (right?) public. My vision of myself is as public figure (author, raconteuse, public wit), so I have to think about everything I say and do being a reflection of not only my family of birth (this was drummed into me from the cradle), but also a reflection of me, the author, the public figure.

    No more showing frustration behind the wheel with a middle-finger salute, no more scowly faces standing in interminable lines. No more indulging myself in pouts or moods, at least not publicly. :)

    Love the way you explained it all (like Clarissa) and organized it. Up it goes on the author wall of my office.

    Marta Chausée
    Murder’s Last Resort
    a Maya French mystery

  14. May 5, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    My undergrad degree is in business. I get this. So much of what you’re talking about comes down to basic marketing principles. As artists, we might resist the concept of being a brand, but if we want to be recognized for our product (books, articles, etc) and get our products in as many readers’ hands as we can, then we want to be savvy with our marketing. It needn’t be a conflict of perceptions but rather a cooperation. The journey and process of creating our art is ours. But the ability to help others recognize and appreciate our art requires branding smarts. Very good article.

  15. Augie
    May 5, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Philip, thank you for this post. I was directed here by ‘Posse’ leader Sunny Frazier (she’s like our Jane Friedman). I took your challenge (even though you didn’t ask) and responded to each term (this was fantastic). I then read your definitions. Thank you again. Augie

  16. May 6, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    The more I learn, the better I want to become. I’m in the process of strengthening my brand, will be changing my website, adding things, trying new things. This article helps.

  17. May 7, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Philip, I’ve known for ages that I needed to “brand” myself, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Because of your post, I will now make the leap and do it. Today. Really. Many thanks. By the way, I found out about this post through Jane Friedman.

  18. May 7, 2013 at 10:23 am

    I’m another who believes brand is about cereal boxes or fancy markings on a horse’s rump – but I loved this post as it takes the idea deeper than fancy packaging for marketing. I definitely think working through your checklist will help me talk about myself as a writer, and my writing, in a less self-effacing and more vibrant and interesting way. Thanks to Jane Friedman for passing on the link.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *