Welcome to my monthly blog chat with writing guru, Sydney Smith, and best-selling author, Jennifer Scoullar. This month we talk about branding. Why, as authors, do we need it?
Author branding is all about promising a certain kind of reading experience. “Brand” means having a recognisable, consistent voice and approach from book to book, so your fans know what to expect. It doesn’t mean you have to write the same thing over and over. Take the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. His movies range from courtroom dramas like The Paradine Case to historicals like Under Capricorn, set in nineteenth-century Australia. But no matter what the subject matter, you always know you’ll get a taut, psychological thriller. Woody Allen movies are funny, quirky and character-driven, while nobody portrays alienated men living on the edge like Martin Scorsese.
I was lucky. My author brand just fell in my lap. I write Australian rural fiction with powerful environmental themes. Nobody else does that (I have no idea why!) and it became my immediate point of difference. The books I write celebrate a love affair with the wild, and it gives my publisher a clear idea of how to market my work. Kathryn also has a very distinctive style and voice. She writes fast-paced and funny romantic adventures. 'Fans of Stephanie Plum rejoice. There's a new undercover angel in town,’ said a review in Marie Clare. Bam, there’s her brand right there.
Identifying your particular brand isn’t always that easy. You have to figure out the goal of your writing, define your purpose and identify your audience. A consistent, core message should start to emerge. Everyone wants to appeal to a wide audience, but I think it helps to have a specific focus, especially in the beginning. On your blog, on social media, in the way you talk about your work. For me of course it’s the environment. Last week I blogged about Melbourne’s Environmental Film Festival, and tweeted about the repeal of the Wild Rivers legislation. Zeroing in on your own passions and interests helps define you in the mind of your audience.
I recently met a writer whose goal was to have her novel published. ‘But I wouldn’t want to do all that public-speaking stuff like you do,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t want people knowing my business.’
What many aspiring authors don’t understand is that the “public-speaking stuff” and your business go with the turf. It’s part of your brand. Who you, the author, are plays an intrinsic role in the branding game and, yes, if you want to really connect with your readers, it can be personal. Branding of course is all about marketing and promotion. It’s about finding that unique thing that sets you firmly apart from the crowd and puts you under a spotlight so that, ultimately, it’s your book a reader will pick up, thinking, ‘I’ve heard about this author. She’s the one who (insert unique thing).’ Your brand is like a fingerprint. If you nail it (pun intended), your brand will be so individual that you can honestly claim no-one does what you do.
There are two very important reasons to have a brand. First, to get publishers to notice you. And then to get readers to notice you. Getting readers to notice you can happen via publicity, and your brand is the thing that attracts the media. Every month in Australia, dozens of authors make their debut. In that case, why would any newspaper be interested in you? What’s so special about you? You’re a product. Yes, you are. So, market yourself. Find your brand. Your unique thing.
It’s not necessarily that easy to find your brand and, as Jen points out, she and I are lucky because, although we’re writing for popular genres, neither of us had to work very hard to find our points of difference. Jen writes environmental or eco-romance (isn’t that fabulous?). I write funny, romantic adventure novels. However, that’s not special or unique. Other people write books like that. I write “like Janet Evanovich”, but even that’s not unique because it’s “like Janet Evanovich”. I think my brand is (currently) my series character, Erica Jewell. Like Evanovich has Stephanie Plum, Helen Fielding has Bridget Jones, Lee Child has Jack Reacher, my Erica is the stand-out thing that sets my work apart. One day, when Erica and her man are finally tucked into boring happily-ever-after, and I write another book or series, then I’ll have to re-brand myself. I think it will always be “funny, romantic, adventure novels”, but still that’s a bit dull. Perhaps I can find a new name for that genre: Laugh-Out-Loud Romantic Adventure? LOL Rom-Ad? :)
Different and yet the same. Whenever a writer submits their manuscript to one of the opportunities out there, like the Friday Pitch or Manuscript Monday, they’re asked who they write like. They have to offer the same thing, but with something in there that’s different. Jenny, you quoted a reviewer who likened Kath’s work to that of Janet Evanovich. There’s that point of similarity. But anyone who’s read the Stephanie Plum books will know that Kath’s work is also unique to herself.
When you set out to brand yourself you have to be very careful. Is the brand you choose the one you want to be defined by? I didn’t give a thought to branding when I approached Text with my memoir. All I was thinking was that I had a good story to tell. But I know now that it was the wrong move, strategically. I’m “branded” as someone who writes literary narrative. But that isn’t who I really am. I have a literary bent, sure. I love reading Tolstoy and Henry James, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, Ian MacEwan and Elizabeth Kostova. I love reading fiction that makes me think about the characters and feel potent emotions.
But I also have a genre bent. I’m a crime fiction addict. I read five crime novels a week. No kidding! As a writer, I’m trying to access my inner psychopath in order to write about murder. This morning, I started my first murder story, having figured out that I might be able to get at it if I go by way of a missing persons investigation. Don’t ask me why that works for me and a more direct approach doesn’t. I’ve got no idea. I just know that I can work with a missing persons investigator, not with a homicide detective, even if, at some point, I have to get to a murder.
So what does that have to do with branding? Well, I suppose this is my brand. Or anyway, it’s the one I’m trying to create. It feels confining. I am a whole lot more than a single, narrowly-defined product. But there’s no way around it.
By the way, are there any crime fiction buffs out there? If you want to chat about crime fiction and crime TV shows, drop me a line.
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, please visit her blog.
Jennifer is the author of Wasp Season (Sid Harta), and romances Brumby’s Run, Currawong Creek and Billabong Bend (Penguin). Jennifer’s novels are built around themes of nature and the environment. Check out her website at www.jenniferscoullar.com.