Monday, April 25, 2016

Designing Your Author Brand

Hi Everyone, Travis here. I'm going to be helping out on the blog more since we've so much to talk about. Today's topic is going to be a guide on designing your own author brand.

As you all know, Rachel and I just got back from RT 2016 not too long ago and we're bursting with things to share. While we were at RT, I went to probably 15 business, marketing, or industry panels in total. It was a lot!

One of the most common topics discussed was branding. Now I didn't hit every business panel, but there were easily 3 on branding alone. We hear about author branding a lot outside of the convention as well. I'm sure many of you have heard that you need to have a brand and that you need to manage it.

But what is you brand? How do you determine it?  What do you do with it? Well, that's what we're going to talk about today.

How to Design Your Author Brand

I want you to go get a piece of paper and something to write with. You can also just bring up notepad or your phone's note program. Whatever medium is fine. Come back when you are ready.  (Also, if you have more than one pen name, just pick one for what we're about to do)

Ready? Ok great. Now write down what your [author] brand is. You have 10 seconds. GO!

Time's up.

So, first off, were you able to write down what your brand is in 10 seconds? If yes, then congratulations. No back patting yet though, you have a second test to pass.

Did you write down your brand in 6 words or less? Ah! I bet most of you did not. If you did and did in under 10 seconds, then kudos to you as you probably have a good idea of what your brand is.

If you didn't pass one or either of those tests, don't worry. Fixing this problem is what we are about to get into. I do hope that, by the end of this article, you can retake this test and pass. If not, then hopefully you'll know what you need to do so that you can come back later and pass.

Both of these tests have to do with the single most important part of branding in that...

Brands Need to Be Specific

If you failed either of the two tests above, the very likely reasons why are either,
  1. You don't really know what your brand is yet.
  2. You are over-describing your brand and couldn't write it all down fast / concisely enough.
So if you couldn't put down your brand quickly and in very few words, you need to sit and think on it. You need to strip away contradictions, muddiness, and superfluousness. To help you along with this process, let's talk about the end goal of this exercise.

What does a brand actually do? This is pretty simple really. A brand is just something that signals customers to know what to expect when they see it. This is usually instinctive on the customers' parts. 

Once they've had experience with a brand, they will hopefully know in their guts what to expect from it. Ideally this is a favorable expectation that encourages them to buy your product, talk about you to their friends, and to take chances on your latest release.

To achieve these expectations, the brand needs to be something that people can understand. No one understands something like, 
"To build an informative matrix of wondrous collage experiences that navigate a narrative landscape of paradigm point of views and original synergies."
I might have over-killed the buzzwords here, but I hope that gives the idea of something that says a lot without saying anything at all.

Now, what about a brand like this?
"Daring, Thrilling, Romantic, Action Packed, Exotic"
Does that already start your brain moving as to what those books or movies would be? Are examples already popping into your head? What if I change it to...
"Daring, Thrilling, Sexy, Action Packed, Exotic"
That's a big difference isn't it? One was almost James Bond and the other might be more like James Bondage. 

Now, I'm sure you noticed that I used some very genre-esque words like Romantic and Thrilling in my above samples. That was completely intentional because I need to mention that,

Genres Play a Big Role

oops... not that kind of roll
What about the role of your genre with your brand?  First, its totally okay for a genre or a sub-genre to be in your brand description. Its really handy, actually. Rachel doesn't do this, though, and one look at her books list will tell you why. A specific genre can be limiting as a branding scope.

Whether or not you do this, you still need to consider this fact:
Genres and sub-genres are their own brands.
This is really important, so I made it extra big. A genre is a brand already. When you think of say, Urban Fantasy, does it come along with a lot of assumptions and story flavor? Do you know, roughly, what to expect from urban fantasy? Can you describe generic urban fantasy to me? If not UF, then  Fantasy? Sci-fi? Historical Romance?

For me, stock urban fantasy means,

  1. Hidden magical world now large and in charge
  2. Detectives, usually broke ones who are perpetually down on their luck
  3. Fae, Vampires, and Werewolves.

Your definition may vary as brand is in the eye of the beholder after all. Point is, you probably have some strong opinions or feelings as to what any given genre contains/reads like, and that's brand.

Your book's genre is essentially a parent brand. A larger, less specific brand that brings in a wider audience, that you court for attention along with the others riding under that umbrella. Many people come looking for more urban fantasy but they might like your brand of UF (say dragons in Detroit?) more than others.

When considering what your brand is, consider what you are inheriting from your genre parent. Its a good idea to make sure they fit well. Now I'm not saying that you should adjust your writing to match a specific genre. Haha, we all know that Rachel certainly doesn't do that. Just be on the look out for what resonates and what doesn't. Such considerations should help guide you.

It'll Never Fit Perfectly

What genre is Nice Dragons Finish Last I ask you? Despite its genre blending, the book still has an Urban Fantasy voice and pacing. While it's near future and post-apocalypse (sorta), it's still contemporary enough to fit under UF, so we typically bill it as Urban Fantasy.

Case in point, the Heartstrikers series is very Shadowrun inspired. It has augmented reality, cyber-ware, and lots of action set in dense urban sprawls, all mixing with magic. We even put it under Cyberpunk as one of its BISACs.

I have to say, though, whenever I try to market it to the Cyberpunk crowd, it falls flat. This is because the Cyberpunk brand (gritty, dark, futuristic noir) and the Rachel Aaron - Heartstrikers brand (fun, dramatic, charismatic, action packed) just don't match well. On the other hand, I've had much more luck marketing Rachel Aaron - Heartstrikers to people who like The Dresden Files. So classic Urban Fantasy is a much better brand fit.

Now, what about this brand?
"Dramatic, Fun, Thoughtful, Fast Paced, Page Turner, Action, Mystery, Epic"
Does anything spring to mind when you read that? This combo doesn't do anything for me, personally. Its my example of...

Muddying a Brand (As in: Don't)

A muddy brand is one that is trying to do too much. It wants to be too many things to too many people. This is the #1 mistake of branding and it's a killer. No one will understand a muddy brand. Worse, customers' conflicting experiences the will teach them to mistrust your brand. Spending money on something is always taking a risk. People won't risk if they don't trust. It's the worst situation. 

You don't want this
You want this

I could write an entire post about muddy or confused brands easily, but staying on target!

I'm sure you are ready to dig in, so now that you know the rules of what to look for when making your brand, let's get to it!

Step 1 - Write Down Your Brand

The first part of branding yourself is a soul search. Think about the work you have done or are doing. Try to write down 4-6 words that succinctly describe it. This might take a while and finding a good fit might be tough. Break out your dictionary and thesaurus though and set to. 

Elicit help on this as well. Ask people who've read your work to throw some words at you. Part of this exercise is to incorporate how people see you. You want your brand to match your work well.

Here's an example of how this starts to come together, can you put your brand down like this?
Ad: "Hey do you like daring, thrilling, romantic, action packed, exotic books?"
Person: "Yes! *clicks*"
Ad: "Great! Then you'll love She was the Paradise Spy"
(disclaimer, I have no idea if that's a real book or not)
Now, for most authors, their name or pen name is their brand. That's what's natural for our industry. No problems if you go this route.

Rachel's two names, Rachel Aaron and Rachel Bach, are two different brands. One is for the witty, and mostly P-13, Eli and Heartstrikers series. The other is 'rated R' and more romance for the Paradox series. Yes, we used movie ratings as part of the brand description. You'll see why when we get to step 2 of designing your brand.

The Goal for Step 1: you want to produce an actual document (or post it note at least) that says exactly what your brand is. I feel that documenting what your brand is important. You need something that can be used as reference. Opinions drift over time and a fixed point is extremely useful.

Bonus: Also put down some of the things your brand isn't. If you have definite lines you don't want to cross or don't feel belong in your work. For example, one of Rachel's is "No Rants". Not to say that won't or hasn't ever happened. In general though, Rachel doesn't want to be one of those angry, bitter people who yell a lot on the internet. Its neither her nor her brand.

Anyway, the reason for formally writing down your brand that is the second most important part of branding...

Consistency is the Soul of Your Brand

This is all about managing customer and potential customer expectations. Since we're talking about something that is formed from experiences and which operates on an instinctive level, consistency is key.

Brands are also about trust. Customers have to feel like they can trust your brand to deliver something that is consistent with their existing experiences with it. If I read a book and its fast and exciting, that's what I have learned your brand is. So if you publish a book that's slow and introspective, and I buy it not realizing that, I might be pretty mad that it wasn't what I wanted.

All of this has its roots in consistency. You can write down what you think your brand is every day for a year and it won't matter unless you conduct yourself such that what you wrote is the reality people get.

So please don't write down, "Sexy Dark Adventures" and then go write cozy cat mysteries. Well, you can, but you are merely deluding yourself as to what is what here.

Designing your author brand starts with identifying what it is, but is also an ongoing effort of using that document to make sure that everything you do publicly as that brand matches up to what you set down.

Here's an example of everything coming together. I took this picture at RT2016. Check out this brilliance. (More on this image in another post, one about covers)

Branding level = over 9000
Ok, hopefully you've been thinking, or even better working on, your brand now. Once you have your basic document, we need to do another thought exercise to finish designing your brand.

Step 2 - Know your Customer

We've posted about this before, but now its time to hit it from the branding angle. I have but one question for you, "Who is your brand's customer?".

Can you describe to me one person, not a group, just one realistic person who would be a likely customer of your brand? (darn, that was two questions wasn't it? now three! ack!!)

Most people I've seen do this will invent a customer (that link is awesome BTW check it out!). Let's use our sample brand again.
"Daring, Thrilling, Romantic, Action Packed, Exotic"
This is all IMO, but this brand's customer is Stacy. In my mind, Stacy is a college graduate who works an office job of some kind. She's probably in her 20's or 30's and drives a pretty long way to work. She dreams of travel and struggles with work/life balance. She's in a relationship, but maybe not married. I don't think she has kids yet.

I immediately feel like Stacy probably uses audio books more than ebooks. Her commute likely takes away a lot of her reading time. So having an audio format is important for reaching her as a customer.

(Sorry if your name is Stacy and this doesn't match you haha)

Now, don't feel like you have to have only one customer. Make up more if you want.

ok.. maybe this is too many...

I'm sure that, for most authors, the most likely customer is, well, yourself. That's certainly true of Rachel and it's true of many authors I've met as well. She is the target customer of her brand. Fortunately, 30 something educated white ladies buy and read a lot of books. They aren't the only demographic reading her books though, not by a majority even.

Its completely OK to be your own target customer. Most all authors fall into this category. That's great, that means you are writing true to yourself and not bending your creativity over backwards chasing something you don't care about; like the latest trend. (post about this here)

What's important about this exercise isn't to create demographics for marketing targeting either, though that is good to do, its to answer two questions,
  1. Is this customer realistic?
  2. Is this the customer you want to court?
Question 1 is pretty simple. If the fictional people your brand appeals too are completely unrealistic, then you probably have an issue with the appeal power of that brand. You might just appeal to very niche tastes (like occult romantic horror), which is fine and knowing that can help you embark upon a specific strategy to work with it.

(Speaking of which, would anyone be interested in a post about what to do if your writing has super niche appeal?)

Anyway, unrealistic customers at this stage usually means that your brand is likely not specific or clear enough. Go back and do more research. Hit that thesaurus again. Look at books similar to yours and see what words they use. Repeat step 1 and then take another crack at step 2. I think it will be enlightening.

Question 2 is not simple. If you strongly feel your sample customer is right, but feel that they aren't what you want, then you have new soul searching to do. Who are you writing for? Why are you writing what you are writing? I can't answer these questions for you. We've just helped identify the dissonance is all.

Asking Your Target Customer Questions

Having made up some fictional people (ya'll are good at this right? ^_~), it's time to put them to use.

When you are putting together covers, titles, ads, posts, and more, occasionally ask yourself, "Would Stacy buy this?". Stacy being my example of course, your fictional person goes there. You don't have to do it all the time, but doing this exercise regularly will help you keep your brand's appeal on target. 

Here's an excerpt from The Five Rules of a Very Successful Indie Game Creator, my fav part! (They are making a pony mobile game for tweens in this article btw)
“This is Amanda. Meet Amanda.
“Amanda doesn’t care about embedded skill trees. She cares about her Pony and she wants to feed it sugar and pat it every day.”
From that moment onward if there was ever a difficult decision to be made — about design, art, direction, anything — Matt would just point to that picture stuck on the wall.
Does Amanda want upgradeable horse armour for her pony? No. No she doesn’t."
(I am perpetually amused at the idea of a bunch of gamer guys trying to put complex skill trees and armor crafting systems into a tamagotchi pony game for young girls. LOL. My kingdom of an image for this LMAO)

*cough* Ahem... anyway...

This paragraph illustrates so wonderfully how this whole post today comes together. By setting down a specific brand, we are also able to identify and stay true to a vision of a customer. It provides another tool in the arsenal for vetting all those great ideas.

Now that you've jumped through all these hoops with me, thanks btw, let's get to the last part. Which is,

Step 3 - Applying the Brand

Once you have a brand and some customers, you need to find out if the following things match it,
  1. Your book(s) content
  2. Your book titles, covers, blurbs
  3. Your book(s) BISACs
  4. Your social media profiles and content
  5. Your blog and website content
  6. Your mailing list content
  7. Your advertisements
  8. Anything else you do publicly as that brand
This is a lot of work I'm sure. Especially if you've never done it before now. I'm hoping you find that everything already lines up with how you see your brand. Don't fret if they don't! Just make a to-do list of all the avatars, images, profile descriptions, and so on that don't match and then fix them.
Don't worry about a few mistakes and don't worry about past mistakes. Look forward! Brands are living things in many ways. They can be hurt, they can die, but they can also heal and flourish.
Anyway, as you work and publish and market, come back to your brand document frequently and ask yourself, "does this match my brand? does this appeal to my customers?". I don't think you'll regret it.

What to Do When Something Doesn't Line Up

Sometimes you'll want to do something, a blog post, a tweet, or even a book, that isn't in line with the brand you are trying to build. Exceptions do happen. We're not robots after all and a lot of publishing is creatively driven work that can easily veer into new territory.

brand vs inviting side project
For intentional diversion from your brand, many times you can just let people know its an exception. Saying something like, "I don't normally talk about this but" works pretty well. Just make sure the "I don't normally" part of that is true. If whatever it is you're doing becomes normal, well, you should probably re-read this post then.

For something big, like publishing a book that doesn't match your brand, you should exercise caution and have a plan. If the book is very different from your normal brand, then you should seriously consider a pen name for it. If you don't want to have another pen name, who does really, then come up with a strategy for how you will help set reader expectations.

For example, using a different artist to get a very different look and feel for the cover. Make it really stick out from your other covers so people don't just assume it's what they are used to getting.

Lastly, once you have sold some books and run a blog/website for a while you need to consider...

Step Infinity - Maintaining Your Brand

Given how long running Toy Story is now, this image is most appropriate
Branding is a long game. It's like a garden, a child, or any other slow growing, nurturing metaphor you prefer.

My advice here is to gather data. Specifically, go look at who is reading your books and clicking on your ads. Run Google Analytics on your website/blog. Read your reviews and try to figure out who these people are. There's lots of clues out there if you study and pay attention. You can also just ask. Reader survey's are gaining in popularity after all.

Its important to start adding information feedback into your brand. Everything we've done up till now is purely theory work. Once the rubber hits the road, you need to check to see what actually happened versus what you thought would happen.

Rachel's Paradox series is a good example. We thought that the romantic side of that would make it a very female book. Turns out the readership is almost 50-50 male-female. The guys are like, "Well, it does have some kissing in it, but the powered armor fights are awesome!". The girls are like, "Well it has a lot of fights and powered armor, but the romance was good". I'm stereotyping here (guys can like kissing! girls can like powered armor!), but those are very close to actual quotes we've read online.

Point is, we were initially wrong about the Rachel Bach brand. This was eye opening and has prevented us from making what would have been some shameful mistakes. (No one is perfect!)

So, as you see, you need to evaluate your efforts. Ask, "a m I hitting the mark as intended?" Also, is this working to generate sales? Is this brand effective? These are big questions, without knowing your brand and gathering data on it though, you'll never know.

I've Said "Branding" Enough Today

I couldn't do this post without hitting the obvious pun at least once!
One final bit, you'll notice I haven't put up Rachel's full branding documents here. There's nothing sinister or darkly secret for me to hide. It is instead the final rule. Brands are invisible themes. 

That is a whole topic we probably need to write a post on, but I need to wrap up here. Invisible themes are themes you the author know, but which are never spelled out or mentioned directly to the reader. That's because, the moment they are [called out], they go from message to sermon. Same for branding and most marketing really.

Whew! Long post today!

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. I hope that you got some good, actionable tips from me today about how to design your own brand, use it, and manage it. Keep in mind, and here's the "dun dun DUN" part, if you produce something the public can see, you have a brand one way or the other.

Brand is perception. People beholding your output creates a brand. You can try to direct and control that, or you can leave it to chance. Some people are lucky enough for that to happen on its own. The rest of us are probably better off having a plan and checking it twice.

If you didn't pass my test at the top of this post, please go back and give it another try. Otherwise I hope that this post has helped send you in the right direction. If you have some branding questions for me, please feel free to put them in the comments below or hit me up on twitter @TravBach

So do you know what your brand is?


Kessie said...

Awesome! Thanks so much for compiling this for us neophytes! I write in different genres (contemporary fantasy, historical paranormal romance, contemporary romance), but all of them involve the fantastic, romance, and they're pretty funny sometimes. I already see that I need to rebrand some of my covers. :-)

Hannah said...

Thank you so much, Mr. Travis! I always love hearing the business side of writing. I had always just assumed you wrote a book and published it, and that was that. As it turns out, writing for a living has more to do with business, numbers, and advertising than I ever imagined. I had never realized branding was important, and I didn't even know it existed. I haven't done much with my "brand" such as it is yet, but as I finish editing my first book, I will certainly make sure I can pass your test.

And I would be very interested in seeing a post about what to do if my book has very niche appeal.

Thanks again!

Ann de Vries said...

Thank you for the post! It's the first branding article that's really clicked with me. I've been brainstorming since and finally making some progress.

I know and understand that you don't wish to share Rachel's branding document, but is there a template you could share?

I would also be interested in the post about what to do with books with very niche appeal ^_^

Travis Bach said...

Thanks for the compliments ya'll. I'm glad this is helpful ^_^

@Shadawyn can do with templates!

Here's a template for designing a brand

and here's an example of how I'd fill it out

Ann de Vries said...

Thank you, Travis!

Ani Gonzalez said...

Thanks for the post, Travis! It spelled out a lot of the branding struggles I've been having. I write paranormal romance, but it wasn't until I started seeing reviews about my "sweet, hilarious, quirky" books that I realized that I was actually writing paranormal romantic comedy. I switched my sexy purple covers to funny cartoon covers and my books are doing much better now. Sometimes it's hard to figure out your brand and this post is dead on.

Elizabeth Poole said...

This was wonderful as usual! I look forward to your posts as much as Rachel's!

I've seen other people say to make up an average reader but until you put yourself out there and gather do you know if you're even close? The age, gender, and demographic can really skew, even inside the same genre.

For example, urban fantasy is read by men and women in equal portions, but the men lean toward the covers that seem more mystery oriented like The Dresden Files, and the women seem to lean toward the covers with the badass chick on the cover because those are usually the ones with a very heavy romance subplot.

Those readers are in the same genre for different reasons. What is hard for me is I don't know how to parse through who would be a more likely candidate.

I do write for myself first, and I've also tried to find books like mine to study their readers, but I always come back to the issue of I don't know what they like about that book. It's like the Devi assumed the deal breaker for the guys was the kissing, but the action stuff was so cool they did t care.

Maybe it's not this dire to get right at first? I don't know, this is the best post on branding I've seen so maybe you have ideas?

And yes PLEASE to the post on marketing to a very niche genre. I genre blend a lot, and it's...hard. It's one of the things I LOVE so much about the Heartstrikers. It's like a stew of my favorite elements of other genres all together (which is also an example of branding working because I'd never read Rachel's fiction before the Heartstrikers. I read the description and HAD to buy the book).

Travis Bach said...

@Elizabeth Poole thanks! awe, that makes my night. ^_^

The exercise for making up a customer isn't to fully represent your customer base. Trying to cover all the bases with fictional customers is a slippery slope that ends in madness. The point of the fictional customer is to create focus for your brand, its there to help you be specific with the brand. If the brand definition is the arrow then the sample customer is the target. Firing 10 arrows at once, unless playing Diablo 3, results in missing everything. Trying to hit 10 targets at once results in hitting very little as well.

Branding towards one customer doesn't exclude other demographics anyway. Its actually really hard to custom tailor a brand so tightly that it only appeals to its target audience so don't worry.

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