Traditional Publishing

The basics of author branding

By Theresa Meyers
President, Blue Moon Communications – Friday May 26, 2006

I know you've heard PR people mention the word "brand" and thought, "what is she talking about?" Well, here's a quick and easy discussion of what an author brand is, how it works, why you need it and what to do with it.

What is a brand?

First off, let me give you a concept to wrap your brain around. The word "brand" is used to refer to a product or company name or anything unique that identifies something using a logo or trademark. Many people think the marketing term brand was actually borrowed from the cattlemen in the 1800s when there were no fences and cattle were marked as belonging to a person via the brand on their hides.

The marketing term or concept grew out of a need to identify products and developed into a serious approach to why consumers were attracted to a specific product and how they made their purchasing choices. Author branding is an extension of that effort.

What is an author brand? 

Today when we talk about an author brand we are first talking about building an image, perception or identity that is used to create "emotional Velcro". Secondly we are talking about a perception of higher quality; and thirdly that little "something special" that no-one else can offer. Here's an example: When someone walks into a bookstore to purchase a novel by Nora Roberts, they don't say "can you tell me where I can find The Three Fates?" – they say "do you have the latest Nora book?"

How it works 

Let's take the concept one step further for you. If you were to look on the back of the mass market edition of The Three Fates you would find there is no cover blurb, there is no letter from the author. In fact, there is no wording at all. All there is, in full-colour glory, is a picture of author Nora Roberts. Her name, her face is a brand in and of itself.

Step one (emotional Velcro) is achieved because her readers love her stories and are moved by them. This in turn leads readers to believe that they have formed a relationship of some type with that author and understand him or her. Because of this emotional attachment, they are willing to purchase a book written by this author simply because her name is on it.

Step two (perception of higher quality) is achieved because this author brand has received accolades from every sector of the industry in the form of awards and top placement on the New York Times list. The author has garnered numerous RITA awards and is usually considered synonymous with romance, in fact being dubbed by media "the queen of romance". All of this contributes to the consumer's perception of higher quality of this material. If the writer wasn't good, she wouldn't be getting all this attention, right? (Not necessarily, folks... but we'll talk about that a bit later.)

Step three (a little something special or distinction) is achieved via the author's voice. Now this is unique to fiction as a product because in other product fields certain attributes of your product can be ripped off or copied by rivals. In fiction it's a totally different ball game. No one is going to write exactly the way you do. It's what's called your author's voice. It's the thing that will make a reader read to the end of your book in the middle of the night even though they know they have to get up early the next morning for an important meeting.

Wrapped altogether, a brand is an implied promise to the consumer that they'll be receiving a particular thing consistently from an author. That's part of the reason that publisher's don't like authors to change their writing style too much or hop from one sub-genre to the next because it might upset the consumer who feels that the brand hasn't delivered.

Brand building first; brand awareness second

Here's the problem. Even if you run out there a create a great buzz and get all kinds of brand awareness, unless you can define what makes your brand unique and different from others in the same product field (books, here), you're doomed to failure. That's part of the reason that advertising isn't enough to build a strong brand. Branding is more than a logo, colour scheme, tagline or message points. These are just tools to help you in creating a solid brand that you can then build and make people aware of.

Because branding at its roots is based first on establishing an emotional connection, publicity often works better than advertising to get your foot in the door. It is used to help you make a connection with people, create word-of-mouth through reviews, interviews, chats and workshops at conferences. If you can communicate clearly and consistently your brand, you will go a long way towards developing that emotional Velcro with your consumer. It's about creating distinction in the marketplace.

This is why I encourage beginning authors to get out there and get involved. By having your brand pop up all over the place online, at conferences, etc., you are getting people talking. This is also where media interviews come into play and using your message points. For your message points you need to focus in on what makes you different. This is why. It comes down to building your unique brand.

Ask yourself this. What good is it going to do if I see a commercial about a brand new soap that I've never heard of? There's very little chance I'm going to go race out and buy it especially if I like my old soap just fine, thank you very much.

Now rewind yourself to before sitting down and seeing that commercial. What if I've heard about it from some of my friends? What if I'd just seen the name of the soap in an article in a women's magazine about great new products? What if I got a sample and liked the smell? Now imagine that I see that commercial again for the first time with all of this experience behind me. I am far more motivated to find out what all the fuss is about and possibly take a chance on the new soap even if I'm still attached to my old soap. Does this make more sense?

Now you understand why advertising is one of the main tools you will use to help you create brand awareness, but isn't the foundation piece for building a brand. You need to create the emotional drive and connection first, then the perception of higher quality and finally make your point for why you are unique.

At this point I have to stick in a word about author quotes. Author quotes in this industry are what we call Brand Equity. This means that whoever you are quoting has a certain worth in your consumer's mind. By having this author vouch for your work, you are in essence telling the consumer that this new product has the same or better worth than the product they are used to. This is why your publisher and consumer will get more excited by a cover quote from Nora Roberts than Samantha Smith. They know Nora, they love Nora, and they will for an instant transfer a teensy bit of that love to you, long enough to buy your book, with a cover quote from her.

Since most of us aren't going to get that, a cover quote from a well-respected person who writes similarly to you will do. Don't be afraid about asking for one, but do it professionally in writing and always let them know that you would like them to consider your book for a quote.

It takes between seven and ten impressions for people to recall your brand. This is the process of building brand awareness. By getting your name out there in reviews, interviews, ads, conference speaking opportunities, book signings and the like, you are going to be contributing to the development of your brand's awareness.

In publicity, perception is everything. It's the same with your brand. Even if you develop a strong brand and build a great awareness for it, if you don't manage it correctly, it can flop. To manage your brand you have to decide how you want people to perceive you. You can use publicity and your message points to continue to shape and manage how your multiple publics perceive your brand to keep it healthy.

At this point you might be scratching your head and asking "why do I need an author brand anyway? I'm small right now".

The point is you want to grow big, right?

You can take a long, painful, expensive trip to get from point A to point B without a road map – or make it there for far less expense, time and effort with a map. All I am trying to get you to do in creating your brand is build your map first.

Why does the brand matter? 

What are some of the benefits of a strong author brand? Strong brands bring in dollars. A strong brand will influence buyers to consider purchasing you first when they have only limited money to buy their books. It will create a loyal readership that will bring you bigger contracts from publishers. It will help you win awards because you stand out clearly against other brands in the same market space. It will make what your story is about nearly meaningless. Whoa. Did I just say that? Yep. I did.

Think back to the Nora book. The publisher believes so strongly in the Nora brand that they didn't even put a cover blurb about the book on the back. It didn't matter what the book was about. It was Nora. That was enough. That is where you want to focus to getting to. When your brand is that strong, you too will have a high rate of success. That is where we'd all like to be.

Building a strong author brand 

So how do you go about building a strong brand?

Step one: Have a great product.

Step two: Figure out what your message points are and what makes your brand unique and stick to it. If you aren't the first in your market category, then create a new market category for yourself. For example. My client Janelle Denison had been writing very successfully as an author of hot sexy books for Harlequin's Blaze line. But when she broke out into single title with Wilde Thing (due out in July), hot and sexy weren't enough. There are a lot of erotic writers out there who write hot. So what we did was coin a new phrase for her. She is an author of wild loves stories. Not wild as in Cheeta and Tarzan, but wild as in romances based on emotions and drives that are so close to the surface that they tap into a person's animal or gut instincts to just go for it. Find a word or phrase you can to define what you do or your unique aspect and own it.

Step three: Grab their emotions. Your message points are at the heart of your branding because they should reach in and squeeze an emotional reaction out of your consumers.

Step four: Build all aspects of your brand equally. Your brand has visual elements (what your website and letterhead looks like, what your professional photos look like), verbal elements (your message points that you should use in all your written and spoken communication and interviews) and kinetic or action oriented elements (how you physically act around your consumers at a book signing, being approachable after a workshop, and acting like a professional at conferences).

Step five: Be consistent in marketing your brand. All aspects of your brand need to communicate with one solid core of messages. Your image and how you act needs to back those messages up. In public you are your brand. When you are interviewed you are not you, the author, you are the brand. It has to be in everything you do. That's why it's so important that it comes from who you are and what you want people to remember.

Step six: Deliver on the brand. Consumers are fickle. You disappoint them, you'll loose them. Whatever your brand image, make sure that you stick to it. This is the reason that many publishers will require you to take on a new pseudonym if you are doing something different (i.e. Nora Roberts and J.D. Robb). The brands are different.

Step seven: Always continue to evaluate, build and refine your brand. The only way you'll know you're doing it right is by the success you achieve. Look at other author brands. Analyse them and see what makes them tick. Your brand's value will constantly change as society and your consumers change. Make it your business to keep your brand evolving to keep up with your changing career. When the image you have in the marketplace is not consistent with your brand, you need to refine the brand and adjust it to make it fit. This is a continuous process.

When your brand really begins to take off, it will be the brand, not your book that the publisher is paying for. That is why New York Times Bestsellers make so much more than other writers. Their brand as a bestseller is worth bucks to a publisher.

I'm not saying your brand will achieve success overnight. But if you have the map, you will get there.