What the Heck is this Author Brand?

Last week when I blogged about managing your author brand online a friend and writer sent me some questions that I am going to address in this post.

A brand is a promise to your readers.

Curious Author asked: “What is a brand supposed to do?   To set the author apart?  Is it supposed to be for readers?  The media?  If everybody’s coming up with short, snazzy “brands,” is mine even going to make a lasting impression?  If it’s not, why should I spend time trying to come up with something?”

I think Curious Author’s key issue was that she spends so much creative effort to make each book unique, she fears the search for the similarities dilutes the originality of each novel. “Am I  pigeon holing myself? she asked

Romance as a brand promises a happy ending. Hundreds of romance novels are published every month, so how can you stand out in this crowd? How can you help readers find you? How can you help your publisher market your book? How can you help yourself or your publicist, webmaster promote your novel?

The answer is by developing an author brand.  So, in answer to Curious Author, yes the brand is for readers to find/want your book and for the media and your publisher to help market your book.

Have you ever gotten the cover for your book and wondered what the heck your editor, art director and marketing director were thinking when they agreed this was the correct message to send out about your book? Did they even read it? Every publishing company has its own system for creating the book package and at Harlequin we have a very detailed art information package, but imagine the great direction you can offer with an author brand.

Does this mean you have somehow limited yourself?

Absolutely not. A brand is not necessarily a short snazzy statement (although that can be good) but more a promise about your strengths. Consider Nora Roberts. She writes a wide variety of romance novels including stories with paranormal, mystery, family relationships, historical and contemporary. She’s certainly written a lot of trilogies but if you think about her brand, it is her strengths: fantastic dialogue, strong characters. No matter what kind of book she’s writing you know you are in a Nora Roberts story. And, of course, she developed a second brand, J.D. Robb,  for her futuristic procedurals. I’m paraphrasing Nora here, but she refers to her two brands as Coke and Diet Coke.

New York Times/USA Today/RITA Award winner are all brands.

Harlequin is a brand. As are its many subbrands: Harlequin Presents, Harlequin Blaze, Harlequin Superromance, etc. Executive Editor Tessa Shapcott tells how Harlequin Presents was created to feature three authors: Anne Hampson, Anne Mather, and  Violet Winspear. It was Harlequin Presents Anne Mather.  It quickly evolved to “presenting” many more authors and the brand has evolved over time, but we all know its promise: international glamour, alpha heroes and passionate romance.

Debbie Macomber has a positioning statement that MIRA uses in its advertising and she uses on her website: Wherever you are, Debbie takes you home. It is simple and powerful and speaks to what she delivers in every story.

I’ve mentioned Love Inspired author Lyn Cote before because she attended a digital workshop the digital team held at RWA last year and she spoke about the kind of stories she wrote. Strong women overcoming challenges and came up with her brand: Strong women, brave stories.

A few others:

John Grisham – legal thrillers

James Patteson – his brand is so ubiquitous that he frequently has cowriters.

Ally Blake – fun, fresh,  flirty romance novels

Curious author also asked “Why is a “brand” better than a good quote on a website or blog?  Or is it?”

It’s not better. It’s a promise. Moreover, it is ongoing. Great quotes are excellent and you should definitely use them but they refer to a specific title as opposed to the body of your work. The brand shouldn’t hold you back in any way; instead it should simply highlight your strengths.

I work in a large company and there is a lot of corporate talk about developing your personal brand. Again, it’s about highlighting your strengths. Imagine you are a senior vice president assembling a team for a cool project. How do you select team members? If you are looking for someone who is creative, an innovator, aware of digital trends and a good communicator (hence my blog!) you might select me. That’s my corporate brand. You want statistical analysis? Move on.

I want to stress again, your brand is about your strengths. It can be broad or very specific. If you have an ongoing series you are writing that is part of your brand, but even if you write a wide variety of storylines there will still be your voice that is the unifying force. Ask yourself what you offer that is unique and that is the start of your author brand.

Curious Author said: “I most resist the idea of branding because of the fear of being locked into one style, one tone, one type of character and/or story because of how I’ve branded myself.  Is this justified?   If I try not to limit myself and my “brand” is too broad, won’t it be, basically, useless?”

When pushed further to think about her promise to the reader, she said, “That clarifies things a bit.  I’ll confess that’s not something I’ve ever really sat down and thought about as referring to my books en masse.  I think about what I want each book to give the reader (in terms of interesting characters and plot), but not something all-encompassing.  That’s quite a challenge, really, and maybe another reason I, and other authors, hesitate to do the branding thing.  I can think in general terms (entertaining, enjoyable read) but I don’t go deeper.

“Yoikes!  That’s like…shallow characterization!!!

“And suddenly, I’m seeing the light and the angels are singing because THIS make sense to me.  I should approach branding as I approach my characters – start with the surface, the obvious, and delve a little deeper, to perhaps what I do well?”

Yes, your strengths.

Does that clarify the question of author brand at all? I’m happy to answer questions!

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14 Comments

  1. If you still are confused, remember also that your author brand isn’t about your books as much as it is about you as a writer, which is why you aren’t going to be boxed in by it. Your brand will cut across genres, and it will be inherent in everything you write as fiction.

    Sometimes your brand isn’t an obvious statement that you are going to use out in public. It’s deeper, hidden in things you repeat in your stories and how you tell them. Sometimes it can even be cliched (You can never go home. Still waters run deep. Family Matters.)

    Look back through your stories, find what you consistently put in your stories as themes. What do they have in common? Whatever that is, that’s the core of your author brand.

    You can then build on that using taglines like Debbie’s “Wherever you are Debbie takes you home.” Debbie’s core brand is that Family Matters. That’s why all her stories are about finding connections, building a family, even if you don’t have one you’re born into. Learning how to cope with the ties that bind because they are part of who we are. Small towns and people who need family.

    The coolest thing about an author brand is that every author is unique. Unlike other consumer products like soda, nobody else can produce exactly the same thing as you. Yes, your brand might look similar to another author’s, but the taste, the texture, the experience of your story will be what keeps readers coming back over and over again.

    How do I know all this? In my day job did branding work with Carly Phillips and Vicki Lewis Thompson before they were picks for the Kelly Ripa Bookclub.

  2. Great article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    In a similar vein, I think of branding as being based a lot on author voice. You know when you pick up a Nora Roberts that you are going to get that sort of flowing magical prose that may lean a bit toward frothy, but always comes back to the emotional punch. You know you’ll have fully formed, interesting characters, even in the secondary and tertiary characters. When you pick up a Linda Howard, you know you’ll get harder-edged, more abrupt prose with an edge of wry humor in strange places and raw sexuality. You know when you pick up Jacqueline Carey that you will get dense, descriptive prose, thoughtful and intense characters, and extremely dense, expansive plotting. These are the things that make each author unique, and why six authors can write the same trope and come up with six very different reads.

    Distilling your unique author voice into a phrase is hard – very hard. But I think it’s definitely worth it.

  3. Great post, and I agree with everything you say. For me, branding meant associating my name with hot stories and that HEA finish. I’m hoping, when my new series debuts in March, readers familiar with my Wolf Tales will follow me to the new mass market releases, but it’s got to be on the strength of my name and my “voice,” since the two series are so different–the new one is not erotic, yet, because both are paranormal romances, they should reach many of the same readers. I rely on name and genre for my brand. The proof as to whether or not it works will be the sales.

  4. How long would you say it takes for an author’s brand to be established and how actively should an author be pushing that brand as part of their publicity?

  5. Malle Vallik

    Hi Yvonnelindsay

    I really don’t know how long it takes to establish an author brand (Debbie and Nora are both at 100 plus books, but I think their brands have been established for some time). I think it takes a body of work and I think it is the rare person who could really define their brand after one book. Some become bestsellers with book #1 and others build to it.

    I would instead concentrate on what Elise and Theresa suggest about how to figure out your brand. But in answer I think you need a few books. Perhaps it is truer to say that by book 5 you should be able to express, understand your author brand.

    The brand should be part of your publicity in that you are highlighting a strength but publicity for an individual book is about that book.

    Last, none of this is a perfect science and will vary from author to author. Watch what authors you admire do and learn from them. Don’t necessarily do the same thing; learn and figure out what/how to apply to yourself.

    What do others think about how long it takes for an author’s brand to be established?

  6. Anonymous

    Thanks, Malle. Would you say it’s possible for an author to develop two brands successfully, e.g. a category brand and a single title brand–particularly if an author is writing completely different types of story, or do you think their ‘voice’ determines their brand for both markets?

  7. Oops, sorry, forgot to sign in for the last email.

  8. Great article! I worked very hard to develop my brand. Writing with co-authors and across genres made it more difficult. But I’m more than happy with the brand I settled on.

    JOURNEYS OF LOVE (brand) every woman needs to take. (tagline)

    I’ve gone as far as to service mark it as my own.

  9. annk

    Very interesting. Do you have any thoughts on whether to use your own name or a pseudonym? I’m hoping to publish a paranormal romance but I also have a regular, rather conservative, 8-to-5 job.

  10. Malle,

    Thanks for the great reflection on author brand.

    Re: how long it takes for an author’s brand to be established: I think an author can develop their brand with their first book, especially in nonfiction. In fiction, a first book can define an author’s brand in the mind of the reader. My 2-cents.

    Beth

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