18.17: Build Your Author Brand, 2023 Edition
Dolly Parton once said “figure out who you are, and then do it on purpose.” One of DongWon Song’s newsletter installments riffs on this, and in this episode we riff further, exploring good principles of author branding and the state of the technological tools we have at our disposal here in 2023.
Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Write down a list of “I am a writer who…” and “I am a person who…” statements to help you understand your brand.
Thing of the week: Kurzgesagt: In a Nutshell (YouTube).
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Key Points: Author branding on the Internet. “Find out who you are, and then do it on purpose.” Form versus essence! Own your own landing page. Who do you want to be on the Internet? Don’t chase virality! Be consistent. Think about what do you want to show the world, and what do you want to keep for yourself. Separate your personal brand from the brand of your fiction.
[Season 18, Episode 17]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.
[DongWon] Build Your Author Brand, 2023 Edition.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And it’s 2023 already?
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[DongWon] I’m DongWon.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I just got here. I’m Howard.
[DongWon] This week, as the title might imply, we are talking about author branding. Or, basically, building a brand on the Internet kind of in general. We’re still doing the deep dive on my newsletter, Publishing is Hard. This is specifically riffing off of a post I did titled Do It On Purpose. That title comes from a quote from one of my very favorite humans on the planet, Dolly Parton, who once said, “Find out who you are, and then do it on purpose.” For me, this is sort of a guiding light in terms of how to think about building a brand and having a brand. So I wanted to take a moment to sort of update our thoughts on this, 2023. The world has been evolving very fast on the social media front, on the technology front, on the publishing front. So, what does that look like in today’s world?
[Dan] First, I have to say this is the first time I’ve heard that Dolly Parton quote and I love it immensely.
[DongWon] It’s a perfect quote. I use it for my entire life.
[Dan] Yeah. It’s so good.
[Howard] Well, it cuts both ways, because we all know people who have decided, for whatever reason, to be assholes on the Internet. Like, oh, you’re doing that on purpose. Because that’s who you really are.
[DongWon] That is a brand. Right? Being an asshole on the Internet is a brand that has been hugely successful for so many people. I mean, the Logan Paul’s of the world have built empires on this.
[Mary Robinette] Can you imagine how successful Harlan Ellison would have been on…
[DongWon] Oh, good Lord.
[Howard] The thought.
[DongWon] That is a terrifying thought. I feel like I’m staring into the abyss right now.
[DongWon] But, I think, that’s a good example. You can say Harlan Ellison’s name, and for at least a certain generation of readership, they know exactly what they’re dealing with. He had a very strong brand, very strong identity. Was it a pleasant one? I wouldn’t think so. It’s not one I would want to have. But the only reason I bring that up is I love the Dolly Parton quote because the first part of it is figure out who you are. Then do it on purpose. Right? Figure out who you are means that your brand should be organic to who you are and how you are in the world. What choices do you make in your life?
[Mary Robinette] The last several years I’ve been working very hard on that from a different point where I’ve been looking at the idea of the difference between form versus essence. Which has been useful for me as social media shifts, because there’s the idea… I got this from Laura Levine who’s a happiness coach which sounds very woo, but her idea is that everybody has 5 to 7 essences that make them happy. An essence is about feeling, whereas form is about something you can touch or buy. So when I’m engaging with social media, I’m thinking about what are the essences of how I want to engage with this. When we had to do all of the shifting to go online during the pandemic, it’s like what am I trying… What is the essence of what I am trying to get at instead of trying to replicate the form of it. So, like, I watched… When I was watching people jump ship from Twitter, they were all trying to replicate the form…
[Mary Robinette] In some way, forgetting that… It’s like the essence of it was like rapid conversations.
[DongWon] Right. I think, to some extent, one of the challenges we have right now is the essence of what made Twitter great is a little bit not how the Internet interacts right now.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[DongWon] The Internet is interacting very much more in a broadcast mode, in a more passive stream mode, rather than an interactive one, and is much more a visual and video content… The famed pivot to video actually happened and that is Reels and TikTok. It just took a lot longer to get there and came in a form that nobody really anticipated. So trying to replicate the form of Twitter has been a real challenge, I think, for a lot of people as some competitors, which are very interesting competitors, haven’t quite gotten the traction in terms of being able to promote yourself and build a brand that Twitter used to have. Which used to be this sort of like cornerstone of having an identity online, especially as a writer. As Twitter becomes less and less important, for the moment at least, again, this is the 2023 edition for a reason, right? One of the things that has happened is Twitter is fading, TikTok is ascendant, Reels is ascendant on Instagram, things like that.
[Howard] One of the pieces that I’ve been recommending for literally decades is that whatever you’re building… Usually I was talking to cartoonists… You need to have a landing page that you own. Your website. Your domain. Because these…
[DongWon] Your email lists.
[Howard] Your email lists.
[Howard] These things where you are getting all of your traction right now, whether they are Twitter or Facebook or whatever, they are turnkey systems that can be taken away from you with the turn of a key. So the thing that hasn’t changed in the 2023 edition is it is still important for you to be maintaining a thing that is all yours that you have control of. What has changed is what are you going to plug it into. Are you still plugging it into Twitter? Are you looking for a way to create a Mastodon instance? Are you looking for newsletters? DongWon, I know you mentioned earlier Substack, and have since stepped away from Substack for reasons that I completely agree with. There are lots of alternatives to that for newsletters. So, 2023…
[DongWon] One of the most useful pieces about the Internet that I’ve ever read is Cory Doctorow’s piece about Enshittification. I don’t know if anybody’s heard of it.
[DongWon] [garbled] this idea. Basically, the argument is that any Internet platform that is for-profit will eventually be quote unquote enshittified by their pursuit of revenue. Right? Which stands in opposition to the utility that it has to us as users. So one thing I encourage people to do is, as you think about how to brand yourself, decouple your thinking, the essence as Mary Robinette was describing, from the form, whatever platform that is. Right? So it’s not about TikTok, it’s not about Instagram, it’s not about Twitter, it’s not about Mastodon. It’s about who you are on the Internet and what are you trying to put out there. How do you want to present yourself? Once you figure that out, then you can start thinking about what tools do I want to use to execute on that. Newsletter, blog, Twitter, whatever it is.
[Mary Robinette] So I have a great example of this from my own experience, which is that TikTok, every author is trying to like do the thing, figure it out. I discovered that what I enjoyed was going for a walk in the woods and talking about craft. Like, one of the reasons I like doing the podcast, I like talking about craft. In the process of doing that, I recorded a thing on ask versus guess culture, and how you could think about it in terms of characterization. That sucker went viral. Like, viral viral. Like, hundreds of thousands of people watching it. Every time I touch that topic, it is so many more people viewing it than anything else I write. But I don’t want to be the ask versus guess girl. That’s not… I’m not interested in having that as my brand. So I’ll talk about it occasionally, but I very aggressively am not going after audience numbers. Like, I’m not using that is my metric for have I succeeded. What I’m looking at, because it’s a thing that is more interesting to me, is the, “Oh, thank you. That unlocked something for me.”
[DongWon] Well, that’s actually a really important point, because I think so much of what you see in terms of online social media is a pursuit of the number. Right? People are chasing virality. I cannot emphasize enough that virality does not equal having a brand. Your brand is your identity overall. It’s what you do over time, it’s what you do every day. Virality is the thing that might happen if your brand is stable and good and exciting and interesting. Right? Virality… When you go big, when you get numbers… I don’t know how many people have experienced that themselves. It’s actually not a very pleasant experience subjectively. It is very stressful. People start saying a lot of very wild things to you. If you make a joke on the Internet and it goes viral, you may end up in corners of the Internet that are not your favorite place to be. So it is something to keep in mind that just because something went big doesn’t mean it’s going to serve your underlying brand, and just because your underlying brand hasn’t gone viral, that doesn’t mean you’re not doing it right. Those things are very much decoupled from each other.
[Dan] Well, let’s take this a step further. Because I worry that a lot of aspiring authors and people who are just getting into this are equating virality and sales. Because there’s no link there at all.
[Dan] Just because you have a lot of engagement online does not mean that anyone buys your books. Over and over again, there’s virtually no causal link whatsoever.
[DongWon] So let’s dig into a little bit more what it means to have a brand and what it does for you over time after we take a break.
[Howard] You’ve probably already heard of them. I love them and have been watching them for years. Kurzgesagt: In a Nutshell on YouTube. This is an animated sci-comm sort of short thing that… They touch on everything from Fermi’s Paradox to quantum foam to understanding how to actually be happy instead of being sad when you are struggling with that. I love this program. One of the things that I love about it is that… It’s put together by a team of people, animators, musicians, writers, researchers. This team of people has managed to create something that is cohesive and has their stamp on it, their signature on it all the way through. As a creator of things who… I love imagining that I can create a brand that is identifiable. I look at what they’ve done, and I can tell immediately, “Oh, that’s a Kurzgesagt thing,” and I love it. It’s super cool. Kurzgesagt: In a Nutshell. Head out to YouTube and have a look, have a listen. Learn something and maybe learn what it takes to make something feel like it’s you.
[DongWon] Okay. So, if a brand isn’t virality, if virality isn’t sales, then what does it mean to have a brand? To have an identity in the world? For each of you, I guess, what does that look like? How did you do the thing of figuring out who you are, much less do it on purpose?
[Erin] I will say, and it’s so funny to hear y’all talk about brand equaling virality, I generally do not like to be perceived on the Internet. I am pretty much afraid of people on the Internet, and everything having to do with social media. Like, I pipe up here and there, but I always find it really interesting for me because in person, when I’m out and about among people, I tend to be pretty chatty, but on the Internet, I like tend to hide a little more. I think because of how bad it can feel, and how I’ve seen other people feel really like, “Oh, my gosh. I’ve gone viral and now everyone hates me in some dark corner of the Internet.” So, but I would say is I actually feel like, for me, it is knowing where my strengths are. So a lot of the brand that I’ve built is in conversations with people in person, on Discord, in smaller groups. What happens is enough people get to know you in the same way, and then sometimes they will help build your brand for you in the ways that they speak about you. Because everyone feels like, oh, that’s really real, and that’s really consistent. Is that going to go viral? Probably never. But I think it feels very true to who I am. So that when I do speak up and say something, it feels genuine and I think that is what people vibe about me, is that I feel like I’m being myself all the time.
[DongWon] I love that so much. I mean, I think that’s exactly right. To have a brand doesn’t mean you have to be online in a certain way. It doesn’t mean you have to be speaking up on Twitter or recording TikTok dances or whatever it is. Right? Having a brand, to me, is so much about consistency. Boy, is it easier to be consistent if you are just being natural to who you are on the inside and the ways that you think. So, being yourself in person or in private spaces with people is as much brand work as it is to have a TikTok with scheduled posts.
[Howard] There’s an exercise that I learned back when I was a mid-level manager of marketing guy. You pick a few brands, like Coca-Cola, the Olympics, Chevrolet. Say the name, close your eyes, think about them. What are your impressions of them? For right or wrong, that’s what their brand has delivered to you. That is how their brand is being perceived to you. Now bring it home and say the names in the same way of a few of your friends. What do they mean to you in this regard? That is, whether or not they’re doing it consciously, that is the brand that they have created. Now, look at your own name. If I say Howard Tayler, I need to think of something other than just, well, obviously that’s who I am. No, what are the things that make me me? It can help to have somebody else say your name, and then tell you what they think your brand is. That can be a real eye-opener.
[Dan] A really wonderful example, by which I mean terrible example…
[Dan] Of accidental branding is what Pepsi has done to itself over the last 10 or 20 years. In an effort to compete with Coke in the marketplace, they started buying exclusive contracts with restaurants. Which is why when you go to a restaurant and you ask for Coke, they will say, “Is Pepsi okay?”
[Howard] Is Pepsi okay?
[Dan] That became their brand. Is Pepsi okay? To the point that they had to address it directly in an ad campaign a couple of years ago. Where I think it was Steve Carell would say, “Is Pepsi okay? Pepsi’s wonderful!” Because they realized they had boxed themselves into a corner by accidentally branding themselves as the thing you’re forced into.
[DongWon] Don’t make your brand…
[DongWon] Being the second choice. Yeah. I mean, one thing I want to emphasize is we’re talking a lot about figuring out who you are, do it on purpose, those kinds of things. That doesn’t mean you need to be able to list in a bullet point list here are the five adjectives that I am. Right? Sometimes it’s a feeling. Sometimes it’s a vibe. You don’t have to be like, “Oh, I’m just this person who does this one thing, and I can’t do anything else.” It’s about emphasis. Right? When I think about having a brand, I think about, okay, what am I putting out in the world and what am I holding back for myself? Right? What things do I do online versus things that I do in my own personal life that I don’t need to be talking about all the time. Right? There are ways in which I think my life can look very transparent online, but, obviously, most of my time is doing other stuff. Right? So what I choose to put out there in terms of here’s my newsletter, here’s my thoughts about publishing, here are my clients, here are the author books I work on. Then, I like have a couple other things. Like, I do woodworking. I like to cook, I like to take photographs. Those are the three things I put on. Right? The other hobbies that I do, the other things I spend my time with, the people I spend my time with who aren’t work related, I ain’t putting that online. That’s for me. That’s my own personal life. Right? So knowing what you keep for yourself versus what you put in the world, I think, is a really big part and a really important part about not only having a brand but making it sustainable. Right? Because what you don’t share with the world, that will become more and more precious to you the more exposed you are in all those other things. So, keeping some of your life insulated from being perceived, whether it’s on the Internet or in person or whatever it is. I cannot overstate how important that is.
[Mary Robinette] Yep. Yeah. Something along those lines that I want to kind of draw attention to people… Draw people’s attention to, is that there’s… We’re talking about your brand as a person, which is different than your brand… The brand of your fiction. Like, my fiction brand is that I write meticulously researched stories with happily married couples, and that they’re generally… There is some hopeful element to it. That is what you know you’re going to pick up, you’re going to get from my books, regardless of which genre I happen to be writing in. My short fiction, all over the map, good luck. But my personal brand is different. Because my personal brand, I insulate my husband from the Internet. So, I am part of a happily married couple, but that is not the personal brand that I am bringing. I don’t talk about Rob a lot online, because that is a choice that I’ve made. Those are two different things.
[Erin] I’m thinking back to that idea that Howard was talking about, about how other people see you. I would say one of the best ways, with your fiction, like, your brand of your fiction, is to listen if somebody ever introduces you or talks about you in a conversation, like in a group. Like, they’ll be like, “Oh, meet so-and-so. Like, she writes dah-ta-dah-ta-dah.” Like, you’ll be surprised sometimes what another person will say about your fiction brand. Or your writer brand, that’s very different than what you might think of for yourself. But it lets you know what’s the shorthand that at least is in one person’s mind.
[Howard] I will forever be grateful to our departed friend, Jay Lake, who introduced me at WorldCon by saying, “This is Howard Tayler. He writes Schlock Mercenary, which is the best science fiction comic being published today.” I was like, “[gasp] Hi, Jay, thank you. Um. Yes, I’m…” How do I step up to that?
[Howard] But this was my brand being communicated in a way that I couldn’t communicate it. That was wonderful.
[Dan] Yeah. Erin, that’s such a smart thing. It can be difficult. I wish, in advance, that we had prepared this to be like let’s talk about each other’s brands.
[Dan] Because hearing someone else describe you can encapsulate you in a way that you hadn’t realized. Several years ago, somebody described my fiction as, “He writes books about characters who are deeply obsessed with one specific area of knowledge.” Which is 100% true, and I did not realize I was doing it. Now that I know that I’m doing it, I can lean into it and I can use that, I can take advantage of it. But, yeah, that’s an aspect of my branding that I was blind to.
[DongWon] Yeah. It’s really one of my favorite parts of the job is getting to help figure out what a book’s brand is, what an author’s career brand is, and what their personal brand is. Right? Because I’m constantly introducing people to the world. That’s kind of what my job is, introducing people to other people at conventions, to editors, to the public in terms of writing book copy or whatever it is. Helping them figure out how do I write my bio. That process of really figuring it out, of like who are you, what do you do, what do you want to be in the world, how do we make this sustainable. Those are like really big questions. It is such a joy to like be able to, like, figure out strategically what makes sense and how are we going to execute on it.
[Mary Robinette] There is one like… The double-edged sword of this aspect of it is that once you’ve decided this brand and it’s the thing you communicate, that the do it on purpose part is the part we really have to… Again, I want to draw a line under is because… Dolly Parton… Dolly Parton can never have a bad day.
[Mary Robinette] Like, she can never lose her temper at anyone in person now. Because that would completely… That would be not doing Dolly Parton on purpose. As people, we are complicated, we have moods, we have good days. Everybody’s allowed to have a bad day. But there was a story about James Gordon going to a restaurant…
[DongWon] Balthazar? Yeah.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Getting mad because they brought his wife something that she was allergic to twice. Like, that is a thing, like, all of us have… We all know you are good to the waitstaff, you are… But everybody has like a day where they’ve slipped. It’s usually when you’re protecting somebody else. But because his brand is he’s a nice guy, it was so completely out of character that it blew up into this ginormous thing.
[Erin] Yeah, I just want to build on that to say that’s making me think that… I think one of the reasons that happened is some people have like sort of this natural distaste for him. That can happen, too. Sometimes, the brand that people have in their mind for you is just incorrect. A lot of times, it can be influenced by their own prejudices and knee-jerk reactions to things that are as broad as like ethnicity and gender, or as specific as you have the same face as their ex, or who knows what. But sometimes people will just decide that you are a way. That can be, like, kind of a brand trap. I think it’s good to know about it, because if you know that, like, there’s a whole swath of people who see you X Way, at least you’re aware. It’s like you know what’s going on. But, I think that’s… I’m curious how you would say to deal with that, because I think that can be a really difficult thing on the Internet.
[DongWon] It’s really tough to fly directly contrary to the brand. Right? So, James Gordon example, there are a group of people who think he’s an unpleasant person. He spends his entire brand saying I’m a very pleasant person. Those two things… There’s no overlap between them. So it will never resolve in a way that’s manageable. So if you know that a certain sector of the audience thinks of you a certain way, then… Not play into it, but try and move it 10 degrees rather than moving it 90 degrees. Right? So, for me, over time, I think when I started, there was a certain set of… I could come off as like arrogant, sometimes. You know what I mean? I think in the early days, especially when I was younger and, like, didn’t quite know how to navigate certain social situations. So I have worked really hard to shift that by degrees to be a little bit more fluid, a little bit more open and generous while still kind of like playing into certain angles and certain people’s expectations of me. Whether that was I would go to a con wearing a really nice suit. Like, there were elements of, like, how do I move this very slightly over time to be in a place that’s more comfortable to me, that is more aspirational for me. But I never tried to do a 90 degree, 180 degree pivot from you think I’m this, no, I’m this thing over here. So I think that’s one way to think about it. When you shift your brand, you want to do it slowly and over time. Right? Because brands evolve with you. Sure, you’ll find yourself haunted by some ghost of a thing you did or said 10 years ago. That’s a thing that will happen. Especially on today’s Internet. But be thoughtful about how you evolve that over time. I think you can get to a place that will make you happier with how you want to be seen online.
[DongWon] I think we will leave it on that. Erin, I believe you have our homework this week.
[Erin] I do. The homework is for you to write a list of… That starts with sentences that start with “I am a writer who…” Or “I am a writer that…” Trying to go as broad as possible. It could be “I am a writer who writes romance.” It could be “I am a writer who likes to get up at dawn and write first thing in the morning.” Then, write down a list of things, “I am a person who…”, “I am a person that…” Look at that list and think what of the things on this list are the things that I want to give to the world, what I want the world to see? What are the things that I want to keep for myself? I would also suggest doing it for you now, and also for the writer and person that you aspire to be.
[Mary Robinette] In the next episode of Writing Excuses, we’ll go over email marketing, building an audience, and LARPing as a newsletter sender. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.