Today I am going to talk about the "B" word.
B is for branding. In this industry, if you want to have a successful career as an author, it is very important you discover how to do it.
What is branding? Let's start with a few examples.
1. Myrtle Ball, the "Scribe of Bren"
You're going through a convention and you spot a table. On this table are all sorts of medieval books and statues of wizards, and the author of the books, Myrtle Ball, sits behind a glossy map of her world (cleverly mounted to the table). On the left are short stories about small significant events that occur in her world, on the right are novellas that explore larger events like quests, and the author tells you she's in the process of writing a novel about the Kingdom of Bren's first civil war. She tells you about her plans to write more, and how every story she writes opens up the doors to others (and adds more to her gigantic world map, which will soon be broken up into a detailed book of maps next year). Myrtle calls herself the "Scribe of Bren" and refers to each of her books as an act of unearthing more about this previously undiscovered realm.
I don't know about you, but I'd stop at this table and feel I have entered the unique world of the books. The products I see build one thing and offer you more to come. It's exciting. It comes to life. I think I'd buy one of Myrtle's Books.
This is branding.
2. Mary and Marvin McKay, science fiction near and far
You wander a little further down and find another table with two science fiction authors, Mary and Marvin McKay (husband and wife) whose series of space-war sagas line up along their table. The husband deals with the Colonizer series, set 1000 years after the Foundation series (which the wife writes). The wife's books, on her side of the table, are arranged in trios based on the various trilogies they belong to, while the husband is writing an open-ended series that relates to events that occurred before the Foundation series. Every time Mary (the wife) adds more to her series, she tells her husband and he gets ideas for his thousand-years-later line. They sound passionate and excited as they talk about how the saga has unfolded, and where they're going with it. "This is the future of our technology as we see it," Marvin says, while Mary adds, "We like to write about how our world changes over time, especially the people who are at the heart of it."
I don't know about you, but I'd stop and be quite intrigued. Suddenly, this isn't just about books they've written. It's about what those books are. Even though this husband-wife team write two separate series', they have branded themselves and made these books into a collective whole. The collections promise more and, most importantly, promise me, the reader, that if I start reading, I'm in for an adventure.
This is branding.
3. James Jenkins, a man of many mysteries
I reach the far end of the aisles and here is yet another author. James Jenkins writes stand-alone mystery novellas. None of them are the same and each of them borrow from different sub-genres. The Blood in the Alley is a thriller-suspense mystery, The Source of A Scream is a horror mystery, while Who Killed Mrs. Molly is a romantic-comedy mystery. It goes on and on—classic mystery, fantasy mystery, even erotic romance mystery—everywhere I look I have something different. I might think James is all over the place, except James has given me one important clue: all of his works involve mystery and a puzzle to be solved (he's made sure this is clear by picking a tablecloth with question marks in the fabric). James' opening line, as he smiles and watches me scan the shelves, is, "What kind of mystery is your favorite?"
James, too, has branded himself.
What do these three examples have in common? All three authors have embraced not just a book to promote themselves with. They have instead embraced a brand and are at their tables promoting that brand.
So how do you brand yourself? More importantly, how do you brand what you write?
STEP 1. Discover what you want to write, and stick to it
The first way to discover your brand is to discover what it is you really want to write. Maybe you write detective stories and horror stories. Maybe you hate both but really want to write romantic comedy. After all, your friends said you should be a comedian before you decided to become a writer. So, what are you waiting for?
Perhaps you write women's fiction and horror. You do well at both, but deep down you've always enjoyed giving people a scare. Maybe your mind races with ideas for terrifying stories and you have a box full of ideas waiting to be turned into stories, but you're working your way through it slowly because you're busy turning our those women's fiction manuscripts as well. Maybe you're selling those women's fiction manuscripts like hot cakes, but you hate the detour (in fact, you're even thinking of turning them into horror stories).
This is the point where you have to ask yourself how long you can keep it up. Or, a deeper question: money aside, are you satisfied as a writer?
Passion is a key ingredient to branding yourself. Why? Because you're going to put the core of your energy into this one product and you're going to bring it to life. If it's not something you feel passionate about, you're going to burn yourself out, and, worse, your readers are going to see behind the facade. Your brand might not be your current bestseller, but take a risk and put all your energy into doing what you love, and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results.
STEP 2. Find a common ingredient
Branding is difficult if your "one thing" isn't easy to categorize. Often, a writer's first instinct with branding is to take everything he or she writes and try to lump it all together (see STEP 1 above - sometimes branding means closing some doors so others can open).
Branding yourself takes thought and time, and is more of a process than an instant change. As a personal example, I write epic fantasy. I am also a digital artist and web designer and a musician. (I'll leave out the math student-editor-computer programmer bit.) My website used to be a grab-bag portfolio of everything I'm good at doing. However, in the process of branding myself and realizing that my true passion lies in the art of storytelling and its application to the epic tales I bring to life every day at the keyboard, I've started making radical refinements. The digital mandala art I make will soon become a representative art form from the early ages of my world. My background in web design has allowed me to conceptualize a website that will be a central hub of free material for fans—to essentially create an environment where the world of the epic lives and grows while I take my time to craft each successive tale. The music, the math, and the computer programming are part of my personal life, and thus do not belong on my website at all. Granted, I'm still no Myrtle Ball, but at least readers who come to my site see a brand in development, not a labyrinth that promises to confuse.
Whatever it is you do when you brand yourself, you want it to have the effect of feeling like, "ONE". One thing, one entity, and you, the author, represent that entity. It's not a log-line, nor a catch phrase that you recite, nor a way of organizing your books. Rather, it's a way of putting them all together based on what they have in common, and your job, when you brand yourself, is to discover that and make it real.
STEP 3. It's a work in progress
Branding is a work in progress. It's not easy. You won't necessarily get it right immediately.
Take the first example above of our "Scribe of Bren". Maybe she wrote a short story and didn't know what to do with it. Maybe she tried a horror and it flopped. Readers wanted another story, so she wrote another one. That was when she drew the map. Things took off from there. (And, of course, she's been at it for seven years now.)
Or take the husband-and-wife team. Maybe they originally wrote unrelated science fiction works but wanted to promote one another. Maybe story number three for hubby related to something in his wife's world, then she started setting up her trilogies to relate to his. One night after a brief argument (he was wrong, by the way), they decided to name their series' and stick to the rule that the two were related.
Finally, look at our mystery man James Jenkins. In the beginning, he wrote in all sorts of genres. His rule of thumb was to never write the same thing. He wanted to change, "Like a snake shedding its skin," as he put it in one of his early interviews. One day his editor rejected his horror-comedy because they had no idea if it would sell. His editor talked to him about branding and after about a month, our author presented a horror-comedy mystery novel, invented the pseudonym James Jenkins, and presented a business plan to write more of these genre-benders, all with mystery as their common thread.
The need for branding
In this market, where millions of books are turned out per year, readers are easily distracted. As an author, you need to present them a magnet stronger than the other ones around you. A book by an unknown author is not going to do it, no matter how catchy the cover is. Nor will several books turned out every few months grab their attention.
You need something stronger. You need a brand.
Whatever that brand is, make it your goal to discover it, the same way you discover the stories that bring it to life.
Graeme Brown is a junior editor with Champagne Books. To find out more about Graeme visit his website: http://www.graemebrownart.com