Monday, June 28, 2010
Does Branding Make Sense?
Branding started out as a way to sharply define consumer products for customers—to help assure them that they were purchasing, not only toothpaste or a soft drink, but the toothpaste that most dentists recommended or the soft drink that all the cool kids drank.
Over the years, marketing shifted to encompass a more holistic approach: experiential marketing. This means that you are not only buying a cup of coffee or an mp3 player, but in buying that product, you are also defining who you are and the kind of life you lead. You are often buying (and paying for!) the entire experience of being a coffee gourmand or discerning consumer of digital music.
So how in the world does that apply to a creative endeavor like writing?
Branding is an attempt by publishers to be able to assure readers the exact sort of reading experience they will be getting when they pick up a particular author’s book.
Now right off the bat, you can see the flaw in the system. What if not all of A Particular Author’s books are similar to each other? What then?
Branding seems to have originated in, and is especially suited to, adult genre fiction. Genre readers pick up books with very specific reading experiences in mind: cozy mystery, police procedural, paranormal romance, romantic comedy. Because those genres are pretty narrowly defined, it can make sense to not fight that expectation. But children’s and young adult books have not traditionally had as narrow of expectations put on their authors. It is accepted to write about different subjects and across different age groups. In fact, that’s one of the things I love about writing in for kids: the sheer openness of their minds. Most kids are willing to read fantasy and mystery and realistic fiction, where many adults have highly defined preferences, or at least expectations.
The other reason branding makes less sense for these age groups is that often good books will stay in print for years and years, but our audience outgrows our books. We are connecting with new audiences every three or four years, so to new emerging readers, our brand will be less meaningful than it would to adult readers. Yes, the brand will have some impact on the gatekeepers for these young readers, but many of these gatekeepers are actively involved with children’s books and tend to be fairly author driven, which eliminates some of the need for branding.
The opinions on author branding vary wildly, from embracing it enthusiastically to rejecting it body and soul. The question is further complicated by the fact that a lot of the talk about branding centers on taking what you do in your writing and creating a public persona or platform around it as a sort of value added experience for the readers. Sort of stretching and growing out your author’s voice or brand so that it encompasses the whole person. This way, not only do readers get to read your stories, but they can connect with you in a particular way.
In fact, often when people talk about personal author brands, what they really mean (to use another piece of marketing jargon) is Value Added Service. What extra connection/conversation/relationship will your readers have with you, and on what terms.
Cory Doctorow is a terrific example of this. He writes speculative fiction and is passionate about technology and how it affects our lives. It is a natural association with his writing and makes sense. His books are just one plank in how he communicates with people who are passionate about similar things.
Kate DiCamillo’s brand is the antithesis of that. Her books are, on the surface, wildly different. They have been about a girl and her dog, a brave mouse, and a stuffed rabbit. And yet, her name is one of the strongest in the business. Whenever you pick up one of her books, you know you’ll get a rich, wise, and emotional reading experience. She does not spend a lot of time online, giving readers “value added service” but that doesn’t hurt her or her brand one bit.
So just what should an author’s relationship with branding be?
Once again, as in so many things about this business, I think the answer can be found in the writing itself, what type of author you are, and what your publishing goals are.
(What’s that? You don’t know what your writing and publishing goals are? Then get thee to this post and spend some time answering the questions there. Seriously. All writers should at least be thinking about these things at some point during their writing journey.)
I do not think branding necessarily allows one to be in control of one’s own publishing destiny more than not being branded does. In fact, branding feels to me like relinquishing some of that control, specifically, creative control. You give up some creative options in exchange for a more straight line approach to getting your name out there. The thing is, there is no guarantee it works. Many authors who grasped the concept of branding firmly with both hands also managed to crash and burn. What feels like a safe harness can also end up being a noose.
Other times though, an author’s brand will be self evident—defined by your own desire to only write a certain type of book. Your brand will be clear from the start if you only ever want to write realistic fiction or romance or fantasy or humorous stories.
But perhaps the best way to think of a brand is to think of it as the encapsulation of your
author voice. The example that springs immediately to mind is Meg Cabot, who has written contemporary fiction (TEEN IDOL, ALL AMERICAN GIRL) contemporary fantasy (AVALON HIGH) and the paranormal-type books (JINXED) but throughout them all is her very distinct voice. You know that you will get that voice, a certain kind of heroine, and probably a romantic relationship as well. However, she didn’t start out to brand herself that way. In fact, some of her earlier books were historical romance. That brand evolved out of her evolution as a writer. It was not something she intentionally adopted early on. (At least I don’t think so, I have a call in to her to check on this.) (No, I don’t. I’m kidding.)
Finding Your Author Brand
For authors, I think the absolutely best way to “discover” you brand—let it evolve naturally. The problem is, you can’t do that until you’ve written or published a few books. You need to see where your creative passion takes you. Once you have a handful of books under your belt, a sense of who you are as an author starts to emerge. Your author brand can, and often does, develop all on it’s own.
Maybe you only are drawn to dark mysteries or humorous realistic fiction. Great. Your brand is both fairly immediate and obvious.
But what if you are drawn to a number of different “genres” and types of stories, dark and light. You still have a brand, but it will take you longer to define it.
Perhaps you write mysteries and historicals and realistic fiction, but maybe every single book also has witty repartee as a mainstay.
Or there is always a big dollop of humor.
Or an arch, omniscient voice.
Or you consistently take your characters to the mat emotionally with every book.
Or themes always seem to revolve around mothers. Or brothers.
Or animals are always featured prominently in your work.
You get the idea. I am willing to bet there is some hidden core there that links all your stories to YOU. There is the nugget of your brand. Here are some questions to get you thinking about that.
List a dozen words that describe your work. Don’t be shy or falsely modest. Really think about what qualities your writing has.
List five stories you’d love to be able to write someday. Write a short paragraph that captures the essence of that story—the story juice that ignites your imagination and passion. What is it about these five stories that set your imagination on fire?
List the last five books you wrote. Again, write a sentence or two defining that core idea in that book and why you were compelled to write it.
Is there a pattern you are beginning to see between these lists? Possible connections that could be made? If so, you are beginning to see the nugget of your author voice.
Developing an Author Brand into a Personal Brand or Value Added Experience
But now what? What exactly are you supposed to do with that? How do you take your author brand and turn it into a personal brand? Well, now that you have a sense of your author’s voice, you see if you can create sort of an authorial mission statement around it.
Even though you write mysteries, historicals, and realistic fiction, if each one deals with mothers then you are exploring the landscape of mother/child relationships. Or maybe it’s more specific than that, mother/daughter relationships.
Or you write stories to help readers recognize the absurdities in life. Or you like to explore the limitations (or lack of limitations!) of emotional connections, or to help kids on the road to empowerment.
Once you’ve identified that, you can decide if it’s something you want to build a brand around. Or if it makes sense to build a brand around.
This kind of Branding is personality based, and seems to work best when books are just one cog of how an author wants to interact with the world at large.
You can let your core mission statement from the above exercise be the centerpiece of your interactions, then build on that. Instead of only writing books that deal with those topics, your tweets, your blogs, your school visits, your author talks all at least touch on some aspect of that core mission statement.
Is It For You?
So how do you know if branding makes sense for you and your career? How do you know if you will gain more than you lose by trying to brand yourself? Here are some questions and angles to consider.
Why do you write? To tell stories? To communicate? To connect with people? It’s the only thing you’ve ever excelled at? Clearly some of those answers lend themselves more to author branding than others.
Are you comfortable taking your book personality and trying to develop it into a broader, overarching personality? Do you have the energy for that?
Are you one of those people who have a dozen different story ideas buzzing around in your head? Or does it take you years to nurture and develop and fertilize that one little seed until it grows into a full-fledged idea? If the answer is the latter, branding is probably not going to be the best focus of your energy.
Is writing one of many things you do well, or THE one thing that is your all-consuming passion?
Who is your audience? Are they even online in ways that would take advantage of your branding/Value Added efforts? If not, what about the gatekeepers?
Is your definition of success the quickest straightest shot to the best seller lists with whatever book will get you there? (Not that branding is a guarantee of that, mind you.) Or are you more inclined to follow your muse?
And do you know enough about yourself as a writer to know how you will feel if you are limited to writing just one type of book?
If you can, try to arrange a conversation with your agent and/or editor and get their take on author branding and how they see it fitting into your writing career.
Even as you answer those questions, you will begin to see if you would benefit from branding or not. If those questions exhaust you and make you begin to tremble, then turn around and slowly walk away. If writing is your primary goal, then everything else should serve that in some way. If all these considerations sap your writing energy, then it is not for you. Many, many authors have done very well without all this value added, personal brand stuff.
But if, as you look at all these elements, it excites you, you realize that writing is simply one way to connect with people and thinking of all those other ways to connect is energizing, then you should most definitely take a hard look at branding.