Branding For Self-Published Authors: What it Is, What It Isn’t, and How To Use It

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Branding is a word you hear all over in publishing. It’s tossed around like a beach ball, “If it doesn’t suit your brand, don’t do it!” “You need a strong brand!” “Your brand must be relatable…” “Don’t write outside your genre or it will damage your brand…” “You must have a branding strategy or your project is doomed to fail!” Oh, good grief! It gives me a headache to even think about all the “branding” advice being tossed around without anybody telling the novice what the heck they’re talking about!

Well, part of that is because branding is actually quite complicated. This does not mean it’s hard. It isn’t hard, not by any means, not once you get the gist of what the heck you’re supposed to be doing and how to do it. In my opinion, branding is probably neck and neck as being just as important as marketing and advertising to aide you in selling your books, so it’s something that deserves to be gone over thoroughly.

First, let me tell you that branding is not your name. I mean, it sort of is, but it’s not. When you publish a book, you cease to be a “person”, in a sense, and you become an entity. Meaning, if you are not a human being, but an entity, or a company, if it helps you to understand my point, ask yourself these questions: What do you stand for? What are you selling? What is you level of quality? Are you a worthwhile investment? Can people relate to you? Do you have a service or a message that will benefit people?

This is the first step of branding. You need to take a step beyond what you’ve written, beyond who you are as a human being, and look at the very broad picture of what you’re offering the public. Decide the ultimate message you want people to perceive of you as a entity, or company, not as a person, and figure out a way to communicate that through your “brand”, which is the overall communication you have with your public and the image you project to them.

i know that was a lot of information and some of the questions posed are difficult, but only if you answer them as a person and not as an entity. Most authors are insecure. To ask, “What is your level of quality?” would make most of us shrivel like dried flowers, because there are few of us who think we’re awesome at what we do (And the ones who do think they’re awesome are usually not as great as they think). But that doesn’t matter, does it? Are you proud of what you’ve accomplished? Did you work hard and put your soul into what you wrote? Good for you. That’s quality. Not everybody’s going to love what you write and there’s nothing you can do to make them, but it doesn’t damage the quality of your brand. You have heart. You have soul. Show it. Make that part of you as an entity into part of your brand.

Example: Stephen King. His brand? He’s a horror author who will scare your socks off. He seems pretty down to earth, a little serious, and he’s a dependable, hard working author who puts out consistently quality material. There you go, that’s his brand.

See how that works? That’s what he SHOWS the public. He might be a maniac in real life. (I doubt it, but…) So, so you see how you are NOT your brand, but you are a definite part of it? It’s almost schizophrenic to brand yourself. It’s definitely tricky. It can be difficult to quantify your own image by and for yourself, but you must do it. You must separate, step back, and look at yourself as an entity, or a company, and not as a human being. You and your work both are a product that must be branded and then combined.

But first thing’s first! On to the rest of the branding stuff. I’m going to try to break this headache of a subject down as much as I can, using examples as I see necessary. Please bear with me, sometimes I get a little wordy,

BRAND STRATEGY 

Ah, you hear these two words all the time in self publsihing! “You must have a brand strategy to succeed!” Great! Thanks for telling us! Now, mind explaining what the hooky heck is brand strategy is, too? Well, they may not, but I will. Brand strategy, in a nutshell, is 1) how you are planning to sell your book, 2) what kind of book you are planning to sell, 3) when you are planning to sell your book, and 4) to whom you are planning to sell it.

Now, I will break these down in separate points.

The How

Are you going to sell only on e-book? Are you going sell strictly print? Hardcover? Softcover? Both? Releasing e-book first, then print? How are you going to approach making your book something people can purchase and enjoy?

It’s not a bad idea to make a list of answers to the questions above. It’s not a bad idea to write down the rest of what you plan on using to sell your books (It ties into marketing, too, but I’ll get to that on a different blog). Ask yourself questions. Write down your answers.You’ll see a pattern of how you plan to conduct your business.

But for now, let’s just answer the questions I asked above. If you are publishing straight e-book, that could be part of your brand. BAM! You’re an e-book author. Awesome. Write that down. Printing, too? OK, then you are an author available in e-book and print. Good for you! Now, if you’re doing print, are you only doing high quality hardcovers? Excellent! You’re a writer dedicated to high standards and quality! Softcover only? Just as good! You’re a writer who’s a bit more laid back. In the end, you may say, “I am an author of both e-book and printed novels, with a focus on high quality products.” Or, “I am a self-published e-book author whose focus is primarily on being affordable, accessible, and entertaining my readers.”

Bickety-Bam, Baby! You’re branded! See how that works? These decisions are all part of the process of branding. They all say something, not just about your product, but about YOU, and the entity you represent.

THE WHAT KIND

What kind of book did you write? Fiction? Non-fiction? Contemporary? Women’s? Literary? Fantasy? Horror? Romance?  The list goes on and on for genres, and many books blend them, but the “what kind” question, more or less, boils down to a question of genre you and your writing falls into.

There are many authors who write strictly in one genre, and if you are one of them, good for you! You know you’re a romance author or a horror author. It’s great, because the “what kind” is built in and you can use it immediately. Now, let’s say you know you are publishing only on e-book, so you can say, “I am an e-book author of spine tingling horror fiction.” WHOOT! Or, if you are only printing high quality hardcover books, you are “An author of high quality spine tingling horror fiction available in print from all reputable book sellers.”

Now, of course, as I mentioned, there are the authors who write genre bending fiction. I am one of these. It becomes more complicated to brand us. In that case, you often have to compromise. For instance, my brand would actually be, “Contemporary Literary Women’s Fiction”. Try finding that on Amazon’s genre list! So I had to choose two as search choices and I went with Women’s Fiction and Romance. But I also went with Chick Lit, because my book isn’t really a romance novel. It’s Contemporary Women’s Literary Fiction. But it also sports magical realism and has a twist of paranormal, too. So, what to do? What to do…

The truth is, you can’t do much if you don’t fit into a little box. You have to choose a genre the best that you are able, and then you have to be very flexible. It makes branding difficult, but you can always take the route and just say you write fiction. And then you can use your PR wits and sling it as such, “I am an author of quality, eclectic fiction. I combine elements of romance and paranormal subjects into a contemporary setting and spin tales in a world designed for the adult, female reader.”

See where this is going? You gotta get slick sometimes, you have to color outside the box. Again, you are not a person. You are an entity. Forget about who YOU are and all your shortcomings and focus on your BRAND. It SHOULD and MUST glorify you to the maximum degree without becoming dishonest. That sentence I wrote about eclectic fiction is exactly what I write, but it’s packaged and it leaves an impression in the reader’s mind. THAT is branding.

THE WHEN

The When is a decision of 1) when you should introduce your products, 2) and when you should be flexible with your brand, or 3) just flat out not do something at all.

1) When you should introduce your product. If you write romance and your new book is a Christmas Romance, don’t release it at Easter. It makes you look like an idiot. It’s worth the wait to put it out in late autumn. Don’t damage your brand by not using foresight.

2) When you should be flexible. If you only write soft, gushy romances and want to branch out into horror, let’s say, write a lovely little story about a romance that blooms during an outbreak of zombies at a resort in an exotic location. Release it in time for Halloween. You’re branching, but staying within your brand.

3) When you should just flat out not do something. Let me give you a real life for instance. There is an author who I shall not name, who put out a memoir detailing sexual abuse they suffered as a child. The book was graphic and disturbing and it sold very well. Almost immediately after writing this memoir, which I can only give the author the benefit of assuming was true, the author then released a book of short, erotic stories. Hardcore BDSM.

What did this say to readers? I’m going to knock either book. I am going to say that the two subjects do not mingle well with each other. Releasing them back to back put many of this author’s readers off. There was a lot of speculation that the fact that they were released within weeks of each other, by itself, proved that they were written at the same time. How could an author possibly write a heartfelt memoir about the horror of childhood abuse, reliving those nightmares, and at the same time write a book about what boiled down to sexual torture for pleasure? Many people could not understand. Some readers were outright angry about it and said so in damaging reviews.

In short, in the eyes of many, the author decimated her credibility and, thereby, damaged her brand. Not slick by any means and I am not sure any of that mess is repairable.

So, you see, the WHEN of things is extremely important to a brand’s longevity. You have to always be aware of what you’re doing and how it will appear to the public. Like it or not, you published a book. You are a now public figure. You have to keep your brand in mind at all times or you’ll suffer the consequences of the backlash.

And, remember, if you want to cross genres, like, let’s say, write children’s books and erotica, too, it’s not a big thing. Just do it under two different names. In that case, the “when” wouldn’t matter. You’d just have two different brands to manage.

THE TO WHOM

This, I think, is probably the easiest bit of branding. Of course, we are all writing with the hope that everybody will read our books and love us. And many books do have a broad audience. But, of course, children’s books, for instance, must appeal to both children and adults. Be careful, though. I’ve seen a general consensus that target mom’s along with children, but we can not exclude dads. Dad’s read to Becky and Johnny, too! In most cases, don’t be too narrow. Erotica, on the other hand, for obvious reasons, must be directed at an adult audience. Start branding with puppies and baby ducks and attract a younger audience, and you’ll find legal trouble.

It’s really not hard to target your audience if you use common sense and it’s easier if your book does fall into a specific genre. There is a wealth of information on the net as to who your target audience is by genre, and that information will include average age, interests, education, etc,, so you should do some research and find out who the majority of people are that read your type of literature. If you are the author of a multi-genre book, choose a couple target groups and make them your focus, but allow yourself to shift to the maybe’s as well. See who embraces your brand and focus on them.

The real trick of the To Whom, is to figure out who is most likely to read what you’ve written, focus on them as a primary target, but not to isolate anybody else. It’s not as hard as it sounds. Just be sure to be inclusive and family friendly (or not) with your branding.

Remember, branding is what attracts people to you and your books. It’s your overall company image. Keep that in mind and it will make things a whole lot easier to know who to focus on when you start to market your work, because the target audience will be the same people that are attracted to your brand.

SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS AND POINTERS ON BRANDING

1.Once you have decided on your personal brand, be consistent with it. Don’t confuse your readers or you will lose them. This is NOT to say you can’t write in different genres or branch out. Just make sure that it’s clear from the start that you are not a one track pony if you do. And if you are a one track pony, stick to your track.

2. Always try to connect on an emotional level. You are authors. You write books. Stories are journeys of the soul. We all know this and readers do, too. You can not put your soul and the whole of an experience into a book and then be a stiff kitten while trying to sell it. Be yourself. Be warm and excited. Let your light SHINE in your branding just like you did in your book. I know it’s scary. There are a lot of really, really mean people out there!!!! Don’t listen to them. The nay-sayers, the haters and the non-believers do not matter. What matters are the people you can connect with, the lives and minds you can change. So CONNECT. People will love you even more for it.

3. ALWAYS respond to your reader…if it’s positive. You can’t stop haters and they are not even worth your words to argue with. Report them if they are offensive, but remember what I said above. No matter what is said by somebody who can’t relate to your work, you can still cultivate love between you and your readers. It only takes a second, a simple return e-mail to say thank you for reading my book. It’s almost more sincere done privately than in public, although public thank you’s are good, too. Personal contact in general is like a virtual hug. If it’s sincere, it endears you to your readers. Remember, they can always find another author to enjoy and new books to read. You need them. They are everything. Treat them like it.

4. Pay attention to what’s working with your brand what isn’t. Don’t be afraid to adjust and change as needed. If you’re focusing on romance, let’s say, and you’re getting mediocre reviews, maybe you’re more Chick Lit. Research it, change your metatags and your approach to branding on social media. Then watch your sales numbers and see if things improve. If they do, you’re on the right track. if not, something needs to be adjusted. Don’t give up, just change your strategy. Sometimes it takes awhile to get it right.

5. Don’t EVER let the “experts” tell you what to do. Always follow your gut, always do what feels right. NEVER spend money you don’t have!! Always ask fellow authors for advice and always take the good stuff and chuck the rest of it. Find what works for you and do it. Don’t ever get into a hurry. Branding takes time, probably at least a year from the moment you start, but it’s a worthwhile investment. Stay focused. You’ll get there.

I think that’s it, but I’ll be back with more blogs covering a few more subjects. Until then, be BRAVE, be SMART, be YOU, and KEEP ON WRITING!!!!

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