Monday, June 28, 2010

Does Branding Make Sense?

There has been a lot of conversation about branding swirling around the blogosphere for the last couple of weeks, and I thought I would weigh in since branding speaks to the heart of what we focus on here at SVP: the balance of the often conflicting requirements of commerce and art.  (And by weigh in, I mean write a small novella. I apologize in advance for the length, but there's a lot to talk about on this subject, especially since once upon a time in my former life, I was a marketing manager.)

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.


Katy Cooper said...

What a wise, thoughtful, thought-provoking post! I didn't realize how I was not-quite-consciously stressing about branding until I read it... (because I relaxed while I was reading it--that was the sign).

And now I need to revisit my goals...

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Oh my. This is the best thing I've read on branding. I need to bookmark it and do the exercises. Thank you so much!

myletterstoemily said...

an excellent novella on branding and so

i think it is better to recognize one's
brand rather than to try to develop one.
it is so much easier on us.

i will try to figure out mine. . . as soon
as i have a minute!

AlexisInCA said...

Reallyinsightfu, and helpful post. Thanks, Robin!

R.L. LaFevers said...

Oh Katy, that was exactly what I was hoping some people would take away from this--a sense of unclenching. :-)

Well that's quite a compliment, Tricia, considering just how much there is on branding out there. I think you'll find the exercises eye-opening. I know I did.

myletterstoemily, I agree that recognize is the key word. Good luck finding a minute!

Thank YOU, Alexis! :-)

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Wow, what a wonderful post, Robin. So much to think about, but in a calm, un-stressful way, so thank you!!! I've been reading a lot of those branding blog posts and thinking about it off an on and was starting to do the panic thing about not having a brand because I'm writing MG and YA and historical and now I have 90 pages of a YA paranormal set in a castle in the Victorian era!

Under contract though, I have the two southern/bayou MG novels, one coming out Thursday and the second I'm currently writing, but then Scholastic also bought my edgy YA about belly dance set in the Middle East that will be out maybe late 2011. A whole different audience and my editor says that they are so different you'd think the MG and the YA were written by two completely different authors!

BUT what is also interesting - and which speaks to your thoughts about taking a look at your themes that will emerge the longer you write - is that I'm realizing my books have mother/daughter, family and faith themes to them. So maybe I do have a brand within a wide range of books.

Time will tell as they begin to be published, I guess . . . for now I'm going to stop worrying about it and just worry about writing the best book I can. That's hard enough!

R.L. LaFevers said...

I love this, Kimberley, that you've identified such a strong core issue in such a hugely varied body of work! Thank you for proving my point so elegantly for me. :-)

And that's what I wish for all writers: a cessation to the worry so they can just WRITE.

Irene Latham said...

I love the reminder that brands are evolutionary, in flux, not something to imprison a writer, but something to grow through.
Trying to be all zen,

Wendy S Marcus said...

Great info.! Thanks for putting it together!

Anonymous said...

Fantasic post on branding. And more evidence that I'd be terrible at it. :(

Stasia said...

Great post. Very informative and I good way to think about this topic. Found your blog through Nathan Bransford's--happy to be following along!

April Henry said...

My books are definitely branded, for better or worse. I write mysteries and thrillers for adults and teens. The times I have tried to stretch past that I have not succeeded.

The first photo with this post looks just like the cover for my fall release, Girl, Stolen.

As an adult, I tend to think of authors - even children's authors - as having brands. So when my kid loved Predicktions by John Halliday, I requested Shooting Monarchs for her from the library. She was in 3rd grade. Then she made kind of an offhand comment and I looked it up on Amazon. It got great reviews - but it was for grades 9 and up. It's about a teen serial killer.

Lisa Manterfield said...

Really excellent post. Thank you. I've been battling with how to tie the memoir I've written to the YA I'm working on to all the other ideas swirling in my head. But I see clearly now the themes that run through all of them. Quite a revelation.

And yes, I have also stopped hyperventilating. :-)

Unknown said...

First of all, thank you for this post and the one with the questions about writing and publishing goals. I do sometimes feel like a fish with feathers. My work identity has been tied up in being a reader rather than a writer (I've been a writing teacher, a production coordinator at a press, an indexer...), but now I've got a book coming out, and I feel I owe it to that book to do my best to help it succeed. I enjoy writing. I guess I'll just wait and see what sort of things a fish with feathers can do.
Thanks again. Sincerely.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting piece, thanks!

As an author with ten books out now, the first one well before people really started talking about 'branding' in publishing, I do sometimes wonder if we're chasing their tails (tales?!) and getting worried about something that's been going on for eons. I suppose my 'brand' evolved naturally (as you mentioned, from voice - such a great point). But isn't Dickens 'branded'? And Shakespeare?

We can over-think these things. It always, always, always comes back to a rockin' great story and word of mouth, despite branding, despite platform etc..

Unknown said...

Thank you for this excellent post!

"Branding" is to authors what "developing a signature style" is to painters.

In both cases the objective is to gain market value and to improve sales numbers; in both cases forcing your brand or your style instead of letting it develop in its own time can dry out your most precious sources: your creativity and your enthusiasm.

You might climb the mountain very fast - only to realise it's the wrong one. And unless you descend and start all over again you're stuck where you don't want to be.

Yat Yee said...

Robin: thanks for synthesizing all the different ideas and opinions into one wise and thoughtful piece. I know I'll be re-reading this.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Welcome to all you new people!

Irene, zen is good. Tricky, but good.

Interesting that you have not had good luck stretching past your own brand, April. I'm assuming you mean in terms of market acceptance. I'm guessing that's when publishers suggest authors take on a second pen name, to circumvent that reader expectation?

Lisa, SO glad you found a revelation in the post!

Blythe, I'm laughing at the 'fish with feathers'. What a great image. And maybe a fish with feathers will be great at both flying and swimming!

Anon with ten books - I think you make a most excellent point about the possibility that we are chasing our tails and trying too much to define something that happens naturally. Because of course Dickens and Shakespeare both had distinctive brands. And yeah, I'm a BIG believer in a rockin' great story and word of mouth.

Katharina, I love the comparison to a signature style for painters. Exactly! How devastating it would be to discover one had climbed the wrong d@mnded mountain!

You're welcome, Yat Yee!

bed frames said...

Definitely great post. Your topic is very informative and very helpful. I am looking forward for your new post.

Edgar Adrian Lopez Moya Valenzuela said...

Quite an interesting piece. I was just looking for information about branding and out of the blue. Thanks, it is very helpful.

tanita✿davis said...

I think Blogger ate yesterday's comment on this post, but my short recap is that I appreciate you going over this so in-depth. It's bewildering. I don't think I WANT to be branded, but I am -- my editor wants another few novels like Mare's War and has passed on a couple which are different. And I have to decide: do I want the branding to run me, or do I want to run the branding...?

Choices, choices...

Marjorie said...

I have three blogs and each has a different style. One blog is a memoir, another is filled with interviews and photos, and my recent blog contains caption-driven cartoons.

I cannot develop a brand because I am constantly evolving and trying to become more creative with each entry.

I am having so much fun blogging with marjorie-cartoons.

Mimi Hawthorne said...

This was so interesting for me. I have a marketing background, so I jumped into branding myself via a blog before my first book was finished. And then I found it was draining the energy from my book. So I stopped the blog and focused on the book. Now I am so much more productive, and I'm confident the brand will emerge from a strong book, much more so than from a forgettable blog. Thanks. Love, Another Shrinking Violet named Mimi

Jessica Peter said...

Hi Violets, I'm finally commenting after finding this post through Nathan Bransford's site . . . and then reading through pages of old posts.

A) This info on branding is what I was looking to discover! I've been really curious about this whole author branding thing....

B) This whole blog really sings to me. I never considered myself an "introvert" in the past because I *gasp* enjoy public speaking and don't have any particular trouble talking to people. . . but I prefer to be alone, don't consider it a break from work unless I'm not talking to people, and travelled to Europe solo for 9 weeks (my answer to when people said "You must be so good at meeting people!" was, "No, I just enjoy my own company." If people decided to meet ME, it's just icing on the cake).

- From your newest Violet

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