I’ve had several people ask me for my thoughts on branding (currently a hot topic among authors and publishers). Some folks wanted it defined, others were looking for how-to’s, and still others are trying to weigh various interpretations of what branding means for authors. It seems like most of the information writers share about branding is a bit vague, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to clarify the topic a bit.
1. Make sure you understand what a “brand” is. In simple terms, a brand for an author is “what you are known for” or “what a reader has in mind when he or she walks into a bookstore and sees your book.” I once met with a branding consultant to talk about his doing a book, and when I asked him to define a brand, he said to me, “In many ways, a brand is nothing more than a series of perceptions people have about you.” So think about that for a moment… What perceptions do readers have about your from your books? If they were to read three or four of your books, what images/themes/messages/genres would they come away with?
2. A brand is like a promise. That branding specialist told me that one of the common phrases used by marketing consultants is that “a brand is a promise consumers believe in.” If you make them a promise to readers that you’re always going to deliver a taut action thriller with cheeky heroes and conspiracy overtones, you have to deliver that every time. So ask yourself… Are you ready to do that? Do you want to focus your writing so that book buyers know what to expect when they see your name on store shelves? Can you clarify what your brand is right now?
3. A great brand makes selling easier. A brand establishes a comfort level with readers. It fosters a relationship with loyal customers by creating trust with them. For example, I like Seattle’s Best Coffee. I trust the taste, look for it in stores, and am willing to pay a bit more to get it. You might be that way with a Mac, or with Godiva Chocolates, or Toyota, or any other strong brand. But think about that… If you haven’t heard of Seattle’s Best Coffee, the company has to work harder to sell you. Why spend extra on coffee you’ve never heard of? You have to be convinced it’s better than Folgers, and that it’s worth the extra time to locate it. But once you get it and love it, you’re a customer for life. Now move your thinking from “coffee” to “books” — If an author doesn’t have a brand with her books, each sale takes extra time and effort. And the author is counting on retailers, who have thousands of titles for sale, to promote and sell her books. On the other hand, if the author is known for a brand, she’s already got a following that will help her promote the books, and retailers can easily figure out who her potential readers are. A brand is key to marketing and growth, and thus to profitability.
4. There is a fallacy taking hold among writers that branding is nothing more than making a declarative statement. Let’s say an author declares herself “America’s Fitness Expert” or “The Queen of Cozy Mysteries.” Saying something doesn’t make it so — it’s on par with me declaring myself “the sexiest literary agent in America.” My stating that doesn’t make it fact. And if nobody else believes that, the statement isn’t going to do me any good. Experience trumps messages. So as an author you must reflect on whether or not you have a brand, or if you’re even ready to declare a brand. What do readers like about your work? What are you known for? What sort of books do you write? What’s the consistent message? As you think it through, you may start to clarify your own brand.
5. The first step in the branding process is to define it. What’s your voice? What’s your genre? What do you do best? What do people like about your work? What gets noticed? What “look” do your books have? Who is your audience? This research takes time and reflection — it can’t be done in a day, nor can it be done by asking your spouse and your critique group. You need field work — getting honest answers from those who don’t already love you. And part of having a brand is working closely with your publisher, making sure they’re on board and referencing the brand in everything they do for you.
More on branding tomorrow…