Monday, December 21, 2009

How to Brand (a stab in the semi-dark)

I know it's Christmas week and I should be waxing poetic on the snow (we're going to be dumped on), the season (it is magical) or how excited I am to see my kids' faces on Christmas morning (they're going to be so excited!). But instead of getting all sentimental on you, I'm going to be diligent and finish the conversation I began in Branding (not the cow kind) and Author Branding (a needle in a haystack). I'm not done inflicting my half-baked ideas on you. Merry Christmas. ;)

Anyway, after bringing up the issue of branding, what it is and why we do it, I thought it would be helpful to talk about some practical ways that author branding is achieved. I've seen it done poorly, and I've seen it transform careers. But whether or not you think it's a great idea or a pathetic attempt to peddle more books, I do believe that having a working understanding of branding is helpful to both aspiring authors and readers. Why? Well, if you hope to be a published author someday, I think you will be well served to have a firm grasp of who you are, what you write, and what sets you apart from the other 95% of the US population (yes, that's a true stat!) that longs to write a book, too. And if you read, I hope that this conversation opens your eyes to some of the marketing strategies authors and publishing houses use, and that the information you glean allows you to become a more informed reader eager to seek out the books and authors that will truly stir your soul (not necessarily the ones with big bucks behind their name).

So, how are authors branded? I honestly think it's part perception, part accident, part divine appointment, and only a small part intention. Let's deal with perception first.

Like it or not, it only takes a moment for someone to form a first impression of us. Our God-given looks, our self-imposed hairstyle, make-up application, and wardrobe, our personality, social skills and shortcomings are all pretty evident within the first five minutes we meet someone new. For an author, these things are summed up in a head shot. Or a video-interview. Or an encounter at a booksigning. And whether or not it's a true reflection of who we are, it is carefully orchestrated. Take a look at these author headshots. Can you guess who writes mystery/thrillers? Literary fiction? Women's fiction? (Do you know who these authors are? Take a guess in the comments!)

How others perceive us has to have something to do with our brand. I don't think I'd ever succeed as a female Stephen King. I'm not spooky enough. Nor do I want to be. Maybe this aspect of branding is much more organic to who we are than I'm giving it credit for.

If you're an aspiring author, ask yourself: Who am I? How do others perceive me? What about my looks/personality/interests/hobbies/etc. can I play up? What about me might readers be able to relate to? And if you're a reader, it doesn't hurt to be aware of what you're drawn to... The lovely lady in the final picture above (the one with the candy) so intrigued me that I bought her book simply because I loved her website and who I believed she was... And she remains a dear author to me because of her charm, whimsy, and wit. (You can see that about her in the photo, can't you?)

The second thing that I think contributes to brand is accident. Maybe that's not the perfect word for what I mean, but I do believe that at least some part of branding is more or less fated. It's who we are, like it or lump it. I consider these contributions to branding almost accidental because it's not like we set out to write this way. It just happened. For me, these characteristics of my writing include several things. The literary, almost poetic quality of my prose is not something I try to do. It's just how I write. In fact, when reviews started coming in for my debut novel and "poetic" seemed to be the buzzword, I was honored and completely stunned. I had no idea I was writing such lovely prose. My work also has a certain dramatic flair, an ability to connect deeply with human emotions. Again, I didn't set out to do that, and I was blown away when I started receiving emails from people telling me that I had written the words of their heart. Really? Cool.

If you're an aspiring writer, I advise you to take some time and try to identify those things in your writing that are just a part of who you are. Maybe you can't discern that for yourself... and maybe you shouldn't. I thought I was capable of writing humorous vignettes--until a few friends were kind enough to tell me that I simply wasn't funny. I'm not sure that we can always see ourselves clearly. Do you have a writing partner? Someone who critiques your work? Ask them what things stand out in your writing. What things set you apart that you may not have even realized? And if you read, what things are you drawn to in a good book? I long for lovely prose (maybe that's why it comes out in my work), a story that lingers in my heart long after I close the final chapter, and moments of vivid truth and beauty. How about you?

So this doesn't get too long, I'm going to finish the last two components of branding (divine appointment and intention) on Wednesday. Then, hopefully, I'll wrap this all up and move on to new things in the New Year. Believe it or not, I do think about more things than just branding. :) In the meantime, join the discussion! Am I right on or way off-base? If you're an aspiring author, are you beginning to piece together an "author identity" for yourself? If you're a reader, have you ever bought a book because you felt an affinity with the author? Do tell!


  1. * I feel like great things happened between me and Jennifer Donnelly's book, "A Northern Light." The story could not capture more the situation I've felt myself in for the pasty several years.

    * Like you, I am drawn to "vivid truth and beauty" in writing. I appreciate authors who create ligatures of gritty, unflinching characters and stories; who illustrate coarse, authentic situations, problems, issues. I like to read stories of characters rubbed raw, but who are connected to the beauty of nature, simplicities, and old, worn treasures; characters whose souls are soothed by epiphanies and life lessons learned. I appreciate authors who are aware that their audience members, such as I, appreciate those things and execute that awareness in their style, format, structure, etc. (Ex.: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, The Last Summer (of You and Me) by Ann Brashares, Dreamland by Sarah Dessen, Anything by You ;). This one isn't particularly a favorite of mine, but Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro really spoke to me in terms of self-importance and human worth/purpose.)

    * In conclusion, I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm a Romanticist. I long for simple beauties (I have this odd fetish with deprecated wood), and William Wordsworth said it all, to me. I see the worth in the intangible smile of a sunrise. :)

    * As for being an aspiring writer, I'm beginning to piece together my "author identity" slowly but surely, every passing day.

  2. I find this "branding" thing quite interesting! I've never given it much thought until reading your post. I am also a hopeful, wanting someday to see my books on the shelf of a bookstore somewhere. And now that I've just graduated college (yay!) I feel like it's a more tangible goal. I hope that people will see me as a girl who likes adventure. The moment when people get so drawn into a story that they forget there is a real world around them is great. I love getting lost in a book, and I want to be able to create that same feeling for readers. Whether it happens in 3 years (I have a lofty goal of getting a book published by the time I'm 26) or 33, who knows. But I'd like to share that with the world at least once. Thanks for the topic; it's has brought about many new things to think about :)