Four Different “Brands” to Manage on Your Road to Writing Success
Welcome, novelist. Like it or not, you’re an entrepreneur selling a product, or a line of products.
I think it’s useful to break the idea of brand up into several elements that you, a writer of fiction, should be considering. Let me start with two overall ideas, relevant to all the brand-specific concepts I’ll discuss.
One: brand is how you get recognized. You want people to hear a snatch of story and say, ‘that sounds like it was written by my favorite writer.’ You want people to see you, or hear your name, and immediately connect with the kinds of stories you write and other things that amuse and delight those people.
Two: to a surprisingly large degree, your brand is something you discover, rather than something that you choose. As a writer, choosing your brand can mean slow and painful change. But even when you don’t choose your brand, you communicate it, so it always pays to be thoughtful.
Book Brand, or Brand Proper, belongs to the writing. If you write consistently across all your fiction, it may be that you have a single brand, e.g. hard magic systems or retold fairytales. Not all writers stick to a single brand, though. Where they write more than one brand of fiction, they may use different names, e.g. J.K. Rowling and her thriller pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, or they may use variants of their name. I write as Dave Butler for children and D.J. Butler for older readers. Some writers use the same name to write multiple brands of fiction—did you know that Rick Riordan writes adult thrillers, too? But Rick Riordan, writer of classic mythology repurposed as a contemporary setting for middle grade adventure stories, and Rick Riordan, author of the thrillers about Tres Navarre, PhD, tai chi practitioner, and unlicensed detective are nevertheless two different brands.
Book Brand should be simple, easily communicated, and easily recognized. Disney’s films are magical family fun. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote adventure on strange worlds. H.P. Lovecraft wrote monsters on nihilist earth. Jules Verne wrote scientific travel adventures. If you’re not sure what your brand is, try asking people who know your books to describe your brand in three or fewer words. If you think you may have more than one brand, ask the question about different series, and see what results you get. Another question to ask a patient reader might be, “If this book didn’t have a cover, how would you know it was a book by me?”
Knowing your Book Brand(s) will help you keep readers as you continue to write in the same brand, giving readers more of what they like you for. It will also help you choose appearances, covers, and marketing collateral, because you want all of those to scream your Book Brand as loudly as the books themselves do.
Shtick is the collection of incidental things that are not in your actual writing, but will help people remember you and your books. Some of the things that make up my shtick are: height, a mustache, changing and unusual hats, a guitar, book giveaways, and public singing, including in filk circles. I know writers who give away candy, wear sandwich boards to conventions, dress all in black or purple, give away Tarot cards, and cosplay.
If you are self-published, it makes sense to think of the physical appearance of your books under this same heading. Are the books that you want branded together (see above) printed in the same format? Do they have similar covers—fonts, colors, styles? Do you use the same cover artist, to get a consistency of feel?
More than any of the other element in this post, shtick is chosen. So choose shticks that highlight or bring out elements of your brand or persona. Your shtick can be whimsical, sober, manic, sturdy, wry, generous, or challenging, but it should be consistent with and point at your Book Brand and your Persona (see below) to communicate and underscore what you want readers to think about you and your books.
Like it or not, readers don’t just invest in books, they invest in writers. They want a writer in whom they can see themselves, or with whom they’d like to sit down for a drink. Persona, of these four elements, is the least chosen. You are who you are.
Still, you are a complex person. A reader may get to know your complexity if she meets in you in person, or through reading your books, but you should think about what you’d like to project. Choose your Persona and govern your public behavior accordingly. Are you witty? Generous? Wise? Stable? Brave? Patient? Mercurial? Pick a small number of traits you would like people to know about you, and think about how those are communicated through your actions. Run your social media and your con appearances and your bookstore tours--and anything else you do publicly--through this lens.
This is the least chooseable of the four traits, but it’s not unchooseable. But be aware that if you want to communicate to people that you’re generous, and you’re in fact not generous, you’re choosing soulcraft and an uphill road. What you may in fact end up communicating to readers is that you’re not everything you’d like to be. That could be okay, just be thoughtful about it.
Personally, I’d warn you away from two types of Personas. Most of us should not choose to emphasize our politics as a way to reach readers. I know it works for some, but I suspect that for most writers, emphasizing politics is a way to lose rather than gain readers. I also would urge you not to trap yourself in pity-seeking Personas—don’t be the writer who is always wrecked, lost, has writer’s block, is depressed, needs cash. People can be surprisingly generous and will often help, but that’s not the way into bestsellerdom. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever complain on Facebook about feeling overwhelmed or struggling with mental illness, but I am definitely saying that if you do those things a lot, they will define your Persona for some people. You may gain sales; you’ll definitely lose some.
As a writer, you have a fourth, special brand, that faces the editors of the world (though not them exclusively). What are you like to work with? How long does it take you to produce a story or a book? Can you write to order? Are you cheerful? Do you require much editing? Are you wildly creative, or more prosaic? Do you hit your deadlines? Do you give lots of advance warning when you know you’re not going to hit your deadlines? How many books and stories do you produce in a year? Can you write across genres? Do you promote? Can you travel? Can you read contracts? Are you sophisticated about the publisher’s brand, and about your own brand?
Everything you do in your interaction with editors builds your Editorial Reputation, with editors and with others (editors talk, and they move from one publishing house to another). Everything you do in your interaction with agents, including agents who do not represent you, builds your Editorial Reputation. To some extent, everything you do in public affects your Editorial Reputation, so one way to think of this is a specialized aspect of your Persona.
Editors care who they work with, and they want their publishing houses to work with writers who will help bring the team success. A strong Editorial Reputation will bring you deals. A poor one will shut doors.
Meet the Author: D.J. (Dave) Butler has been a lawyer, a consultant, an editor, and a corporate trainer. His other novels include Witchy Eye, Witchy Winter, and Witchy Kingdom from Baen Books, as well as The Cunning Man, co-written with Aaron Michael Ritchey, and the pseudofantasy thriller, In the Palace of Shadow and Joy. He also writes for children: the steampunk fantasy adventure tales The Kidnap Plot, the Giant's Seat, and The Library Machine are published by Knopf. Other novels include City of the Saints from WordFire Press.
Dave also organizes writing retreats and anarcho-libertarian writers' events, and travels the country to sell books. He plays guitar and banjo whenever he can, and likes to hang out in Utah with his children.
About the Wilding Probate:
Bucky McCrae won't take nonsense from anyone. Not her dad, friendly, charming, and a little bit short on ambition, running his law practice out of the back of a bowling alley in the rural northwest. Not poor Evil Patten (named, with bad spelling, after Evel Knievel) who just wants to be Bucky's boyfriend and get through the summer without an accident at his construction job.
Not even a stone cold killer who has Bucky in his sights.