Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What's in a Brand?

There’s a buzzword in the industry that makes almost any author sit up and take notice: branding. Everyone’s talking about it; everyone wants to be effective at it. But…what is it, exactly? And how important is it that we learn to market in this way?

An author brand is like any other kind of brand—Coke, Pepsi, Kellogg’s, Andersen Doors. The most familiar brands evoke immediate recognition and association with particular products or even a level of quality in a certain product. Basically, branding translates into a sort of shorthand. I see a Nora book, I automatically know what kind of experience I can expect by reading it, so I pick it up without having to think twice or do any research. Branding is having a reputation and a loyal following and helps with all those impulse buys that are so critical in the book business.

Branding is important because it enables the author’s name in and of itself to become a marketable commodity. James Patterson is now using his brand to sell stories co-authored by other people. He’s even expanding his brand to include many different types of stories. Now that he’s so strongly associated with a good story, he can do that.

How did he build such a strong brand? By writing consistently great stories. That always has to be first. But there’s more to it than that. Branding is an on-going process and doesn’t generally happen overnight. It’s most difficult in the start-up phase. As well known as they are, Coke and Pepsi are still out there, advertising and building name recognition. It’s like pushing a ball uphill. If you stop pushing, it rolls right back to the bottom—something else encroaches and takes the attention of those you’re hoping to reach.

Specifically, an author brands herself by developing something that is consistent and unique in her writing. I do that by making sure every book I create delivers a deeply emotional, evocative story. How is my brand different from other authors who write in the same genre? My books are known for their deep characterization in a genre that is often more plot-driven (as you drift toward the suspense side). Once you know what you want your brand to be, you establish it through your writing style and “voice,” as well as your promotional efforts, until it becomes recognizable to others.

Some tools an author can use to build her brand are:

Paid Advertising
An interesting and constantly updated Web site
Strategic Contests
Blogs and chats (See? I’m building my brand right here )
Charity/Volunteer work
Joint-promotion with other authors and businesses
Writing articles
Press releases/media attention
Author response to fan letters/e-mails
Mailers to booksellers/fans

Your brand is your promise to your readers. When my readers buy my books they want to be able to count on a certain type of read. Therefore, I make sure I deliver that kind of read. Everything I do professionally is geared around building my brand and my career, so my Web site reflects that brand, my promotional materials reflect it, my charity auction reflects it, and my workshops/blogs reflect it.

Think about how solicitors make you feel. Because we are approached by so many who are trying to sell us something, the melee is deafening. We learn to filter and filter quickly, which means, in order to be effective in today’s marketplace, we have to be creative and effective marketers.
So my question to you is: How can you reach people who are already tired of the signals that are constantly bombarding them via the telephone, TV, computer, etc? How can you set yourself apart?

Throw out some ideas, and I’ll be happy to contribute. ☺

Remember to post a comment or question by Saturday night for a chance to win an autographed copy of Brenda's newest book, "Coulda Been a Cowboy."


Caren Crane said...

Brenda, thank you for being with us! I have been hearing about branding for some time now and recognize it is a powerful tool for published authors. What is your take on branding for As Yet Upublished (AYU) authors? Recently, I read that branding should not be undertaken by the unpublished, since they have not yet sold a story and it could diminish their ability to shift gears and writing something new and different to help them sell. Any cautions for the AYUs?

Trish Milburn said...

Caren stole my question! :) Okay, just kidding.

Brenda, thanks for being with us today. I am fascinated by the topic of author branding, and as an as-yet-unpublished I still brainstorm ideas of how I could brand depending on what book I sell first. I write three different types. Do you think it's more difficult to brand yourself as an author if you write different sub-genres, for instance romantic suspense, women's fiction and YA?

Terry said...

Hi, Brenda -- what a timely topic. My first two books are going to be jumping from digital to print very, very soon. I'd love to know the best way to shift from marketing an e-book (which is still so brand new to me) so that readers would know what to expect.

My focus is on characters, and although the market seems to lump everything into "romantic suspense", my books aren't really all that "suspenseful." I prefer the mystery format where the reader doesn't know anything until the h/h pov characters do. I've got "Romance with a Twist--of Mystery" as my tag line on my web site, but I don't want readers to be disappointed if they're looking for a thrill ride.

Anna Sugden said...

Hi Brenda - welcome to the Bandita's den! Great post which we should all print out and use!

As a former marketing person, you are so speaking my language! It's something I think is very important for any writer (or business), both published and unpublished - yet getting it right is difficult!

The key is 'unique' or to use a favoured three letter acronym - USP (Unique selling point/proposition). What makes you different. In a crowded marketplace like ours, it's very difficult to be unique - I advise friends (and constantly look to it myself) to look at their writing and analyse how it is different from anyone else's in their genre.

I also think too many spend money on a variety of promotional items that are not well-branded. You only have to look at a goody room table! Not just branding in how they look, but in the item itself. How much spent isn't as important as properly targeting and branding. (Our own Tawny Weber's stuff is fabulous - consistent, cohesive and well-branded)

Oh and branding isn't just about one book!

(I'll step down off my soap box now! Sorry - you can see I love marketing and branding - could witter on for hours!)

I have a question for you - you are known for the wonderful, wonderful work you do with your auction for Junior Diabetes. I know this is a cause close to your heart and that is why you do it. How do you think it feeds into your branding? It clearly has an effect on how people percieve you as an author. But how do you feel it translates into the books you write?

Kate Carlisle said...

Hi Brenda -- Thanks so much for being here today! I have a question -- are you secretly TWINS? Because you're so busy! How do you do it??

Seriously, I do have a question about unpubs creating a brand for themselves...but I see now that Caren might've asked it already. (Caren--you're up early!!)

So I'll try to put a different spin on it. All of us here at RB created some buzz last year by finaling in the Golden Heart. How important do you think it is--especially in this brand-crazy market--to take advantage of those fleeting moments of glory? Is that the time to get a website up, start a blog, whatever, to get the publicity ball rolling? I guess I'm asking for positive advice on the the subject since I've already done all that, LOL! Any hints on how to sustain the excitement while we're waiting (and waiting and waiting) for The Call?

Thanks again, Brenda!

Joan said...

Welcome Brenda!

I'm beginning more and more to understand the concept of "branding" (unlike Anna the only brands I know are at the supermarket :-)

For me though the actual WORD branding feels harsh. Branding instead of reputation. I also do not like the word editing prefering revising instead.

I like the concept of branding based on a reputation of strong characters and/or riveting plots instead of, say a particular subgenre. I hope to publish my Roman historicals but there are contemp paranormals circling my brain also. How do I start taking baby branding steps as an AYU?

Anonymous said...

Hi Brenda! I have a question somewhat similar to Trish's: how would you advise an AYU who has manuscripts she's marketing in YA, historical romance, and contemporary? Focus on one genre and develop a brand before you try something new? Develop more than one brand by using different pen names? Or try to straddle the genres with a single "author" brand?

Thanks so much!!

Stacy S said...

I don't have an anwser for your question. Just wanted to say love your books.

jo lewis-robertson said...

Thanks, Brenda, for visiting us today. Everyone stole all my thoughts with their wonderful ideas, but I wanted to comment on the great article. Very timely and important. We have four recently published authors on our blog and many VERY SOON to be published :-D

Brenda Novak said...

Hi everyone! Thanks for the warm welcome. I'm happy to be here today. :-)

The answers to a lot of your questions are (and probably will always remain) a matter of opinion. Some may think it wise to handle branding one way, others will disagree. As with my writing, I make my marketing decisions instinctively (I don't have a degree in marketing), but I'm happy to share my own opinion, drawing on what I've done (and haven't done!) for 25 books.

Caren--I think you can build a brand any time you're ready to get started and have made the decision to do so (whether published or unpublished). You're establishing a respected presence in the community, which is a good thing. I even read on-line somewhere that editors/agents may Google an author who has submitted and be so impressed by said author's Web site/bio/blurbs that it might bear in his/her decision. But I would caution as-yet-unpublished writers not to get TOO caught up in promotion (and you all already know this) simply because it's SO much more important to spend your time writing the absolute best book you can write. It's a time when you are not under pressure to promote. Believe me, that will come soon enough! LOL

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Trish--Yes, I believe it's more difficult to brand yourself when you write more than one genre. I struggle with that myself because I write straight romance for Harlequin's Superromance line, and I do the bigger romantic suspense books with MIRA. The "spooky" atmosphere of my current Web site promotes the romantic suspense novels because branding can have more impact in that arena (promotion, in general, has more impact on single titles), but it doesn't reflect the tone of most of my Supers.

It was a tough decision, but I decided to have one brand (and one name as opposed to using a pen name), hoping my readers will like my RS books well enough to try the Supers, too. Straddling the two isn't easy from a marketing perspective, but I'm creating one mailing list to which I promote all of my work.

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Trish--With your tag line, it sounds as if you've figured out where your books fit and where they're different. That's the tough part. Now you just need to get that message out there, to be sure that you're consistent with it and creative in the way you entice folks to sit up and take notice.

Congrats on your success!

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Anna--I agree that unique is the key. We have to set ourselves apart from the pack and that's not always easy to do (but it's fun and can be as creative as writing a book).

You asked about my auction. I think that a side-benefit of charity work (besides the sense of accomplishment and hope for relief from The Problem that are much bigger pay-offs) can be a positive image and name recognition in a particular community, but I also believe it has to be sincere in order to make an impact on anyone. I would be doing all I can to fight diabetes with or without a writing career, because my son suffers from this disease and I live in daily fear that the side- effects will destroy his health and happiness. It's my career as a fiction writer that makes it possible for me to run such a successful auction (the traffic at my Web site and the community of writers to which I belong are integral parts), so one feeds the other, but it is also, to a degree, symbiotic. I think there are those who might try one of my books because they've become aware of my work with diabetes, but I also believe this is probably quite limited. Most people won't put out money for a title unless they're pretty sure there's going to be a pay-off in it for them (someone has assured them they're going to love it, they've read the author before and been rewarded with a positive experience, etc.) For those who do try my work simply because they're aware of my efforts to beat diabetes, whether or not I retain that reader depends completely on how well she liked my book. It always goes back to the quality of the writing, doesn't it? So, even if I run a wildly successful charity auction, I can't build a readership unless I have written a really great book, and if I have written a really great book I should be able to build a readership without a charity auction. LOL

Anyway, I mentioned that any charity work you do has to be sincere and I fully believe it. Anything short of total commitment, and the person doing the charity work would give up. It's WAY too much work to do it half-heartedly. It really must be a labor of love. My son is the object of my concern (and others facing the same problem) and that is infectious. It's what convinces others who also care to assist me in making a difference, and I'm so grateful for those people.

The auction figures into my writing in deeper ways than any possible promotion value, though. It actually inspired my next romantic suspense trilogy (TRUST ME, STOP ME and WATCH ME due out next summer) in which three women who have been victims of violent crime in the past come together to launch a charity that assists other victims with everything from hiring a better attorney to providing physical protection to taking up the cause of various cold cases deemed unsolvable by police. I understand the motivation such heroines would feel because I feel that same motivation with my auction. I'm so committed to it that I spend hours of each day building and promoting it and I invest a lot of my own money on the infrastructure (advertising, soliciting materials, etc.) to make it happen.

Sorry for such a long answer! LOL

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Kate--I WISH I had a twin. LOL I have a book due this week, along with revisions on another book; my mother, who has MS just fell and broke her hip; and I'm trying to get ready to take my family of seven on a 10-day vacation to Hawaii. (Can we say laundry? LOL) It's a crazy time in my life!

On maximizing the impact of your finalist status, I would suggest that it's much more important to promote this to agents and editors than the general public. I'd focus on polishing more than the first three chapters of your book and submitting to as many agents/editors as possible, using the fact that you're a GH finalist to get you out of the slush pile (which means, of course, that you state it clearly in the cover letter). Are you submitting?

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Joan--I understand your distinction between the various terms. I feel the same way about "schmoozing" vs. "networking." LOL

What can you do to begin branding? Figure out what's different about your work and devise a plan to present your stories in such a light that it "shows" this uniqueness and appeals to your target market.

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Kirsten--You're facing a very difficult decision. LOL Unfortunately, I don't have the answer. It will depend on how well you think you can promote three different names (if you choose to go that way). Maybe you should consider how much time you have to devote to the promotion end of your career and what you're willing to do for each name or brand. Then take a realistic look at whether or not you'd be able to effectively build AND maintain three brands at one time while keeping up with your writing and other interests. For me, the answer was no (and I was only talking about two brands). I think building a name is hard enough (especially in the beginning stages) without having to build two or three at the same time, so I decided to go with one Web site and one name, for now. Once I gain the type of recognition I hope to gain, I would be more willing to split off with a second brand (but I'm a tunnel thinker and like to put all my energy toward reaching one major goal at a time, and you may not be like this; you may be more of a juggler, like my husband). I have aspirations of writing straight historicals someday. If I manage this, I will probably use a pen name and create a new Web site that I feel would more appeal to the target audience that would enjoy that type of book. But at the beginning stages, I'd probably suggest what I have done myself--start with one and go from there.

Brenda Novak said...

Thank you, Stacy. What a nice comment. :-)

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Jo--Thanks for having me. I'm excited to hear that so many of you are experiencing such success. Shows how savvy and prepared you all are!

jo lewis-robertson said...

Let me step in to say something about Brenda's auction. The first year, she raised about $34,000, the next year, around $62,000 and this year a whoppping $141,000 (sorry, Brenda, if my figures are off), so the event really has had a spiraling effect, which is marvelous.

Anna Sugden said...

Thanks for a great answer, Brenda! (and all your great answers - I'm a gut instinct marketing person too, despite my former career *grin*) I agree with you 100%!

I think it's interesting that you've created a new series that features characters with the kind of strength, commitment and motivation you show - can't wait to read it. That's exactly what I wondered about when I asked the question. As I said, I know you don't do it for yourself, but I think it inevitably has to feed back.

I also think it's intersting that you don't promote your Category work in the same way as your ST's. As a (hopefully) future category writer, do you think there is a difference in the impact promotional work can have category vs ST?

DMacMeans said...

Hi Brenda! So glad to see you joining the bandits for the day. My first book, an historical, - oops - a "witty and seductive historical" is coming out this fall. I just wanted to 1) say that I love your books and 2) remind everyone attending the Golden Network's dessert reception that hears me singing to remember it's branding, and obviously not talent. (Big grin)

Brenda Novak said...

Promoting series books is much more difficult than promotiing single titles, for several reasons. The first is shelf-life. You have barely a three-week window when your book is on the shelf. A single title is on the shelves for around six months (if you have good distribution and a good buy-in). It's much easier to promote something that is visible and readily available. Selling a book that readers have to hunt for after the fact asks them to do a lot more work, and the harder it is on the end consumer, the less likely they're going to be to put forth the effort.

It's also harder to affect the sales of a series book because the publisher (Harlequin) is so good at doing their own branding, and they're branding the line as a whole. They're (typically) not doing things to make the individual author stand out. They don't send out press kits or buy ads for individual series books. Their marketing goals for this type of book are understandably different. So you're left with the whole ball of wax.

Another formidable problem when promoting a series book is public perception. When a reader sees a series book, she typically has one of two reactions. She's familiar with them, has read them and loved them and is willing to try another one. Or she's convinced of the stereotype that "those little books" aren't as good a quality as a single title. Overcoming this resistance can be very difficult, but Harlequin has wisely set up a widespread sampling program that is doing a lot (I hope and have faith) to dispel this misconception. Still, in the current market, you face this resistance. I've found that it's much easier to convince someone to try my single titles than to convince them to try one of my category books. That doesn't mean it's impossible--just more difficult.

Brenda Novak said...

Hi dmacmeans! Congratulations on your debut. The tag line makes it sound great. What's the title? What publisher are you with? I'd like to look for it.

Caren Crane said...

Thank you, Brenda, for your thoughtful answers! I figured the to brand or not-brand thing probably boiled down to personal preference.

I've chosen to do what's easy. Update my website once a quarter or so (hey, I don't have new releases, so I go by the seasons) and blog. My personal blog gets much less attention than this group blog, though, because the group blog is so much easier! *g*

It makes me queasy to think about building two or more brands. Ack! You multi-genre people are made of stern stuff.

Tawny said...

Hey Brenda *waving* Thanks so much for coming by and sharing such fab wisdom :-) Your answers have me thinking a lot - especially the one about category promotion (as a new Blaze author, its always on my mind).

I *think* I've branded myself in terms of my site, my writing, etc... they are all on the same page- so to speak LOL. But the question is always how to take it further. Once the brand is in place, where do you take it?

Thanks again for being here!

Brenda Novak said...

Caren--Group blogs are awesome for that reason. I think they get old, though, which is why so many of the really popular ones are (sadly) shutting down (squawk being one of them).

Tawny--Once your brand is in place, it's a constant effort to get it out there. It takes continual work and continual creativity. You have to keep your web site as interactive as possible, and you have to keep it updated. You also have to think of other fun ways to get your name in the public eye. I'm actually teaching a workshop on this. If you're coming to national in Dallas in a few weeks, definitely attend. (I'll be teaching it with friend Rachelle Chase, who is really creative. And we'll be holding a drawing among the attendees for a paid registration to the conference in SF next year.)

Anna Sugden said...

Thanks again Brenda! I owe you a drink in Dallas for all your hard work answering my questions! It's such helpful information.

I'm like Caren, as an AYU, I've got my website as my main tool.

It sounds like for category, it's all about longer term gain and building the author brand, as opposed to ST which can be about both book and author.

Thanks again!

Tawny said...

Aggressive Promotion, Saturday at 3:15. I've already got it marked to attend, Brenda! It looks fab, I can't wait to hear it.

Brenda Novak said...

Thanks, Tawny. I'm glad you'll be there.

Anna--EXACTLY. I guess I couldn't said that and saved myself a bunch of typing. ;-) It's a longer, slower build with series. With single titles, you can appeal to the press on an individual book basis much easier, so you sometimes get a little help there, too.

Dorothy said...

What I do is concentrate on getting my name, website and blog into the search engines. I don't bombard people with my services...they find me instead, which I think works better because this way, you are coming off as a commodity that they want instead of something someone else tells them they need. If you have optimized your website and blogs with your key search words, people will come to you. It's a little trick I've learned over years and years of trying to find ways to get people to buy my books. Virtual book tours are a good way to advertise your book without actually looking like that's your intention. It's like those people who come to your door trying to sell your product. They look like they need your business. If you can come off as not appearing needy, you have just conquered a major step in learning how to pump up your books.

Dorothy said...

Oops, how rude. Thanks for being here, Brenda! ;o)

Christine Wells said...

Ooh, ooh, am I too late? Brenda, it's 6am in Australia, so I hope you'll forgive my tardiness if you're still with us. Thank you so much for all your wisdom. This has been a fantastic learning experience for a newly published author.

I wasn't entirely sure what my brand was going to be until all my author blurbs came in for Scandal's Daughter (out in September from Berkley Sensation). Almost every one of them said three things: sensual, witty, charming. So, I'm happy to go with those!*bats eyelashes in a sensual, witty and charming manner*

Brenda, if you're still there, what do you think about carrying the authorial persona into blogging, etc? Obviously, someone like Jenny Crusie is as funny as her books. I, however, am not always witty and charming.LOL Do you think readers expect and like you to have the same voice in person as you do in books?

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Christine--Funny is always good. But it's hard. Trying to be funny and falling flat is a real danger. I think it's important to be yourself, because it's the only way you can remain consistent. I wouldn't suggest becoming the voice of your main character because you're looking at a career in writing, which extends beyond one book or even one series. You may want to write dark and dramatic stories one day (like me--LOL). You can be different from your characters and still be engaging. The most important advice I can give on this is to be very honest about who you are. Honesty will never get you in trouble, never goes out of style and always appeals to people. Show them what's good about YOU. Part of you goes into absolutely every book, so you are representing your work at the same time. :-)

Brenda Novak said...

Dorothy--Great tips. I could take some advice from you!

Aunty Cindy said...

LOL, Christine!
Whatever do you mean? Your wit and charm are always apparent!

And I agree, Caren, the Bandit blog is sooo much fun AND educational too! Like TODAY!

Thanx SOOO MUCH, Brenda for hanging out with us! I feel like I've attended an excellent workshop on author branding. And all from the comfort of my own desk chair. ;-)
I'm with Kate, you MUST be twins to get all the things accomplished that you do!

KEEP IT UP, Girlfriend!

DMacMeans said...

Brenda -

Thank you. My "witty and seductive" historical is THE EDUCATION OF MRS. BRIMLEY due out in October as a Berkley Sensation Mass Market. Check out the absolute fabulous cover in the sidebar or the blog. I'll be in Dallas. Like Christine, I don't know if I'll be exactly witty or seductive...but I will be the one with the BIG grin on my face.


heidi said...

Brenda, I so love visiting in Stillwater with your books. In fact, when we have down time at the hospital, I log on to your website and watch your trailer. Everyone loves it and several have gone straight to the bookstore to buy the books.
I'm straddling the fence on the brand thing. If it's good and it fits, then I'm all for it. But, I've seen a few catchy lines that seem too contrived and it turns me off worse than a drunk at the bus station. Thanks again for the entertainment.

Brenda Novak said...

Hi AC--I can tell already that you'd a lot of fun. Thanks for chiming in. I'm glad you enjoyed the blog.

Brenda Novak said...

Donna--I've been wracking my brain for your first name. You're familiar to me, but I can't remember why or how. Do you know? Is it through the Golden Network? The auction? Anyway, even the title of your book sounds familiar to me, so we must have corresponded about it at some point. Great title. I'm looking forward to reading it!

I apologize for all the typos in my posts, ladies. I'm usually more careful. I have a book due tomorrow and am SO behind, but this blog is addicting and I keep switching over for a quick fix. LOL

Brenda Novak said...

Hi Heidi--Sounds as if you're helping me promote. Thank you so much! There's NOTHING (no replacement whatever) for word of mouth. That's the best way to promote, bar none.

You make a GREAT point about trying too hard to be catchy or witty. I really believe you have to be yourself. Show people where you're different, appeal to the right audience, but always be yourself.

Thanks for joining us!


DMacMeans said...

Brenda -

HeHeHe - see - my branding is working. Actually, I should abandon the witty & seductive thing and go with - "I'm the person you see on the street and think you remember but in fact you never met in your life."
I've been a member of TGN since 1998, so you could know my name from there. I won the GH last year - I was the one with adding machine tape instead of a bonafide acceptance speech. I'm presenting the Long Historical GH this year, so you'll definitely be able to put a face to the name then. But I'm so flattered that I sound familiar. You made my evening.


jo lewis-robertson said...

It's 9:30 California time, so before everyone checks out, I want to thank Brenda for her great post and insightful responses to all the questions! Isn't she great? And she's a wonderful person too! Thanks, Brenda.

The winner of Brenda's book will be announced on Sunday (as soon as AC tells me how to randomly pick -- tee hee).

Aunty Cindy said...

Never fear, Jo-Mama!

I'll bring my handy-dandy random number generator to our critique session on Sunday afternoon. And I'll even let you pull the lever. ;-)