Writing Excuses 14.34: Author Branding
Key Points: Branding, or making you and your product identifiable. How do you define your brand, how do you control it? Think about Hamburger Helper! What are the expectations, what kind of relationship do you have? What is the public persona you want to have? Separate your private person from your public persona. It’s a version of you, but selected. Think about what happens if you become famous. Be careful to build a brand that is big enough for the range that you want to work on. Think about a career brand, with series and book brands.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 34.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Author Branding.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dongwon] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Howard] We are talking about branding.
[Mary Robinette] Not Brandon.
[Howard] Not Brandon.
[Dan] Not Brandon.
[Howard] He’s not even in the room, because that would make it too hard to keep the words straight, because I always swallow the ing.
[Howard] Branding. I came from a marketing background. When we talked about branding, it was always huge, and we always tried to break it down into pieces that were easy to assimilate. I can’t imagine it being any different in the publishing world.
[Dongwon] One of the reasons I wanted to talk about it is when I talk to writers, they treat branding as this taboo word. Right? If you say branding, then suddenly you’ve violated some sacred trust.
[Mary Robinette] It’s supposed to be about the art!
[Dongwon] The Muses have now abandoned you and you’ll never write again.
[Mary Robinette] The Muses are fictional.
[Dongwon] They have excellent branding. The reason I want to talk about it is because it’s unavoidable. If you are publishing books, if you are asking people to go to the bookstore or go to the Internet and pay money for your words, you are already a brand. There’s no way to escape it. Whether you find that to be a dark apocalypse or a blissful mercantile utopia is irrelevant, because you have to live in it. So the more you can understand how branding works and what your role is in defining your brand and controlling your brand, the more you’re going to be able to build a brand that you’re happy with, you’re comfortable with, and that is sustainable for you over the course of your career.
[Howard] A good way to examine this for those who just don’t like the idea of a brand is to consider the grocery store. There are many people who have a favorite box dinner, like Hamburger Helper or Zatarain’s or something. And there are folks who say, “Oh, that’s terrible for you. You shouldn’t buy those branded goods. You should go get fresh fruits and vegetables.” Okay. When I walk into the grocery store, and I look at the fresh fruits and vegetables, that is the brand that I am looking for. It doesn’t come in a box. It was fresh. Doesn’t have to have a sticker on it that says what the brand is. But there is a judgment that I have premade for this thing that I am looking for. As an author, yeah, you can tell yourself you don’t want to be a box dinner, you want to be more like a fresh fruit and vegetable. That’s still a brand.
[Dongwon] To put it in publishing terms, you’ll often have people who will say, “Oh, I don’t want to be a brand, I want to be like this authentic author.” The David Foster Wallace’s of the world. Right? Somebody who’s a curmudgeon, somebody who doesn’t participate in the system. I hate to break it to you, but that is their brand. It’s extraordinarily well defined and extraordinarily effective. You will find someone who… You won’t find a writer who is better branded than David Foster Wallace was.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that you guys are kind of hitting on that I just want to break out a little bit is that what we’re talking about here is expectations and relationship. These are the two things that you are manipulating when you’re manipulating a brand. So when we talk about going to your favorite coffee shop, you don’t go there because they have the best coffee in the city. Like, the one you go to over and over again. Every now and then, depending on who you are… And those of you who I know are serious coffee drinkers, I apologize. But…
[Mary Robinette] The point being that frequently the reason you go to this coffee shop is because of a barista. Or because of the staff, and they recognize you, and that it feels like there’s a relationship. This is one of the things that encourages brand loyalty, why you keep going back. Why, often, you will go to someplace where it’s not the best coffee in the city. That it’s because of that relationship. So, as an author brand, a lot of what you’re doing is building the relationship with your reader. Then, the other aspect of it is their expectations. Giving them a sense of what that relationship is going to be like, what sort of experience they’re going to have. So, like the fresh fruit experience is very different from the boxed dinner experience. Both of which are valid, and both of which have audiences that appeal to them. But you want to know which one… Where you’re landing. So, like, I have the puppeteer brand. That tells people a little bit about the kind of expect… You can reliably expect that at least once an episode, I am going to talk about puppetry at some point. But the other thing that I have is that I’m open about aspects of my personality. Like, I’m open about the fact that I have depression. These are… This is part of the relationship. But I’m also… There are things about my life that I don’t talk about. So you can have an authentic open honest relationship with your… As part of your brand, and not have to word vomit your entire emotional experience.
[Dongwon] One important thing to think about, and this is one of the differences between having a personal brand versus a corporation having a brand. Right? Those do operate slightly differently. Is, as a person, really what you’re branding is having a good set of boundaries. What you’re going to start doing is drawing lines around certain things that you’re comfortable talking about in public with your fans and certain things that are only for you and your close personal friends. Once you are a published author, you are no longer just a person. You are now a person and a public persona at the same time. Knowing when you’re talking to a person, if they have expectations of the public persona version of you or the actual you is really important. When I see this relationship go awry, when I see fans get their feelings hurt, or when I see other writers interacting in a way that ends up causing drama, it is often around this disconnect. So having a crystal clear idea of what is you, what do you keep for yourself versus what do you put out into the world is going to help you manage that and make being a public persona much more sustainable for you, and much less taxing when you’re at a con or online or whatever it is.
[Dan] On that note, it’s important, I think, especially for an author, when it’s just one person instead of a corporation, you’re not so much defining a brand-new identity for yourself as you are defining a version of the self that already exists. I… My brand is basically me, but slightly flavored for the Internet or whatever. It’s not an entirely different person that I have to think of and then maintain constantly. That’s more work than you need to put into this.
[Dongwon] You just find the murderer within and put it on stage.
[Howard] Part of what you’re describing here is a compartmentalization. In 2004… 2003, I think, I was still working at Novell, and I was briefing a bunch of salespeople. I was the hard-hitting, knows all the facts, project manager. I was managing an audience full of people who were really kind of hostile, because the salespeople don’t always want to sell what it is that you’ve made. You need to convince them to do that. At the end of the presentation, one of the guys came up to me and said, “So. My son read stuff on the Internet.” I said, “Oh. Okay. Yeah. I’m the same guy.” “No. Hear me out. He reads this comic strip and he says it’s by a guy who works at Novell.” “Yeah, I’m the same guy.” “No, hear me out. It’s this guy, he’s named Howard.” I’m like, “Dude. It’s me.” He stopped for a moment and stared at me, like, it can’t be you. That was where I realized that my brand as a cartoonist was incredibly different from my brand as a guy who is talking to the salespeople. To the point that this person couldn’t even imagine that I was the same person. Do I feel two-faced for that? Not really. Because I had two different jobs. I’m the same guy doing both of them. That was one of the first points where I realized that I never wanted the brand of me as a project manager to be the person that people see as the cartoonist. Because the project manager was the designated jerk.
[Howard] That’s not the guy I want to be.
[Dongwon] But one thing I want to point out there is that both were authentically you. Right?
[Dongwon] Therefore, both are sustainable almost indefinitely, right? You may not want to sustain the angry project manager guy because that sounds exhausting after a certain point in time, but it’s really important that you aren’t constructing a totally artificial brand. If your brand is the exact opposite of your personality, you might be able to sustain that for a few years, but at some point, it’s going to start breaking down, and just the mental effort it’s going to take to keep that up online every day or in newsletters or personal appearances, it’s going to be very draining. It’s very important to try and make sure that when you’re choosing your brand and you’re developing it, you’re making choices that are really organic to you.
[Howard] I’ve got the book of the week. I got to read… About a year ago, I got to read Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone. I’ve been waiting for this thing to hit the streets ever since then, because I was so excited by it. It is like post-singularity space opera launched by a near future sci-fi thriller. That twist where we make the shift from the near future thriller to the post-singularity was beautiful. I mean, it wasn’t seamless because I’m like, “Well, that was abrupt.” But it is beautiful. I loved loved loved loved loved this book. It is… I don’t need to say anything about it other than that. Max Gladstone and Empress of Forever. When I was tweeting with some of my author friends about it, I’m like, “Oh, I just got to read this thing by Max.” The response was, “Uh. Oh, that thing with the Empress? Oh, that thing! Oh, that thing.” Nothing but enthusiasm. My friends, you need to get this book. Empress of Forever, Max Gladstone.
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that I’m just going to say as a counter to creating a brand is that it is actually possible to create a brand that is artificial. The person I’m thinking of is Gail Carriger, who’s open about the fact that she has created a persona as her author persona. There are absolutely personality traits that are completely in line with the real person. But the physical nature of the brand, the choice in clothing, the set dressing, the costuming of the brand is different than the real person. That was a conscious choice, because she wanted to be able to go to conventions and go incognito. So while it would be lovely if this was a concern that all of us had that what happens if I become famous… It is actually a thing to think about. Like, what happens if you become famous? Because George R. R. Martin can no longer move through space without anyone saying, “[gasp] You’re George R. R. Martin!”
[Howard] He must traverse now with a bodyguard of sorts. A handler.
[Dan] That can be something as complicated as what Gail does, and you’re absolutely right. I should have thought about her earlier. Or it can be something as simple as I wear my hat. In Latin America, which is the only market in which I get recognized on the street, I can take that hat off and turn invisible and nobody knows who I am. Then put it back on and be recognized. I did want to talk about a problem that you can have with branding. I’ll use myself as an example. But first, I’m going to use… I’m going to go back to Hamburger Helper, which is where Howard started us off. So let’s imagine the beginning of Hamburger Helper. I don’t know what the first flavor they had was, but I’m going to pretend like it’s stroganoff.
[Howard] I think it was helper flavor.
[Dan] Let’s say that some guy invented this cool stroganoff thing, and he’s like, “Oh, I can sell this. People can make it in their homes for dinner, and it’ll be great.” He could have decided that he was just going to be the best stroganoff for dinner guy in the world. But what he… He took the time to look at it and say, “Actually, no. What I want to be is the person who helps you make your own dinner, regardless of the flavor.” So he focused his brand in that direction instead, and Hamburger Helper now represents much more than that initial stroganoff idea.
[Howard] In terms of brand, it’s not just that. It’s that when you are buying hamburger, which is a thing that you might be buying anyway, and which comes in all kinds of grades, and maybe you’re making burgers and maybe you’re making tacos, and I don’t know what you’re making with it, you go out to buy hamburger. Hamburger Helper is a thing that you know will go with this thing you just bought, because it’s right there in the name. They put that in the brand. It’s are there ways for you as an author to create a brand that is similarly associative?
[Dan] When I started, I branded myself wholly around my first published novel. My first Twitter handle was John Cleaver who was the character in the book. I was that guy. I was the John Cleaver horror guy. And very quickly realized no. I want my career to be so much more than this one character and this one series, and had to rebuild my brand, let’s say three years into my career, so that I could encompass the much wider range of stuff I wanted to work on.
[Howard] Can I… Oh, go ahead, Dongwon.
[Dongwon] Just to the point there. Branding is a very tricky thing. Because what you want to do is have your own career brand. Then, underneath that, you need to make a bunch of smaller brands for each book or each series that you’re doing. At this point, Mary’s maintaining four or five different brands, in addition to her career brands, which is actually two or three brands put together. Right? If you map it out that way, it can feel enormously complex. This is part of why I encourage make your brands as natural feeling as possible, because it’s easier to maintain a bunch of them at once, because they’re different parts of you and they’re different parts of your work. Then, you’ll have structured ways you can talk about each series, structured ways you can talk about each book. But when you’re thinking about your personal brand, your author brand, Dan’s absolutely right. If you tie it to one book or one series, then immediately when it comes to transition to the next thing, you’re going to find yourself in a lot of trouble and having to rebuild more than you would want to at that point in your career.
[Mary Robinette] Let me use Calculating Stars actually as a quick example of what you’re talking about with the managing of the brand. I am picking aspects of Calculating Stars to put forward that are the things I’m already interested in. So I have a character who’s a mathematician. She’s a woman in STEM and working in rocketry. Woman in STEM and rocketry, super excited about math… I really don’t care. I’m terr… It’s not… I think it’s a wonderful thing, but it’s not something that I have any personal enthusiasm or passion for. So when I am pushing my brand, my Calculating Stars brand, the stuff that I put out on social media, the stuff that I’m super interested in… Like, saying, “Look, I’m at NASA. I’m looking at rockets. Look at this really interesting woman in STEM.” You will… If you look at my Twitter stream, I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted anything about look at this cool math thing. Because I’m sure that they’re out there. But I don’t understand them. It’s… So it is, again, you can make something of a brand that is still an authentic representation of you, while being part of that sub brand.
[Howard] I’d like to try something that might not work. But I want to try it anyway. The four of us sitting here. Do you have a short description of one of our brands? I’ll go first. Mary Robinette. Didn’t see it coming, historically accurate, makes me cry.
[Mary Robinette] Huh. Nice. I’ll take that. Which is funny, because I would say happily married couple for myself is a core part of… Or happy relationship.
[Howard] This is me speaking as a consumer of your books. Not necessarily is someone who knows you personally. Because the brand is expanded for me.
[Mary Robinette] Nonono. But that… For my books, that is the thing. Happily married couple. That is the thing that… I feel like that is one of the things that you’re signing up for when you pick up one of my books is that there is a committed relationship someplace in there. Yeah, that’s an interesting exercise. Like…
[Howard] Anybody else want to try it? I had more time to think about it.
[Mary Robinette] I would have if you had warned me.
[Dan] Yeah, I don’t think I can do it off the top of my head.
[Mary Robinette] So, my brand for Howard. Jerkface McJerkface.
[Mary Robinette] Mic drop. Comic drop. Excuse me, comic drop. Cartoons.
[Howard] You know, you said you didn’t like math.
[Howard] But that… The math checks out.
[Dongwon] For Dan, I mostly have murder and hat.
[Mary Robinette] Not…
[Dongwon] It’s murder and hat. It’s not a murder hat. It’s not like the Dexter outfit.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s what you think.
[Dongwon] It’s very hard to get blood out of leather.
[Dan] It does underline something I’ve talked about before, which is the trouble that I sometimes have trying to sell science fiction. Because I went in so solidly on that horror brand when I started. Like I said, about three years in, I had to rebuild it. I am still in the process of rebuilding it.
[Mary Robinette] That was one of the things, having seen other people do that, with my first series, that was one of the reasons that I did a different elemental genre with each novel while I maintained the same set dressing. So that I could try to train people that look, I can write more than one thing.
[Dan] Well, Brandon’s not here. But I’m going to confuse Howard by talking about Brandon’s branding. We often, on the podcast, when we are behind the scenes planning out what guests we want to have, we’ll talk about getting someone who’s in YA. Mary Robinette and I will both say, “Oh, that’s great, because we need more YA.” Then Brandon will be like, “I’ve got three different best-selling YA series.” But nobody thinks of him like that. He’s the epic fantasy guy.
[Dongwon] Which is both the power and peril of a brand. A brand can be limiting in some ways. As Dan is pointing out with his work and with Brandon’s, sometimes it can be hard to break out of that if your brand is very strong. That said, you have the upside of you have a strong brand, which is in the category of good problems to have. Doesn’t make it not a problem, but it does mean that you have already taken up mind share among a group of readers, and that’s a great place to be.
[Howard] Can I do Dongwon?
[Dongwon] Do it. I’m dying.
[Howard] Okay. Knows everybody I know.
[Howard] Knows people I didn’t know were even people. Can sell any of them anything.
[Mary Robinette] You left out fabulous dresser.
[Dan] That’s true.
[Dongwon] I’ll take it.
[Howard] That is… I was just picking three.
[Mary Robinette] I know, but…
[Dan] He’s the only one of us… We wear these stupid headbands when we record. His actually matches his outfit. And it’s not even fair.
[Mary Robinette] What’s amazing…
[Dongwon] I would say Mary kindly gave me the one that matched my outfit. I could have ended up with that orange one.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Well. No, you couldn’t have, not while I was in the room.
[Howard] Okay. So you’ve just seen us struggle with this exercise. It is not easy. I believe Mary Robinette has some homework for us for you.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Time to do some soul-searching. You need to identify your brand. For this, what I want you to think about is the aspects, the core aspects, of your personality that you don’t mind highlighting for the public. The things that… It doesn’t have to be your entire personality. Like, focus on three things. If you look at my bio, I say puppeteer, author, and… Audiobook narrator. Like, what was my third thing?
[Mary Robinette] Those are three jobs. Right? But I could… You could also define my brand as historical fantasy, mentor, and theater person. You can pick three things and figure out what you want to do. But pick at least three. Pick, like, your three major things. Make sure that they’re things that you are… Topics that you’re passionate about, that you will probably be passionate about for your entire life. Make sure they’re not a transitory passion. Try to find something that is a passion that is not strictly tied to your books. You will notice that in the things that I listed, I did not list Regency although I love it. I did not list space, although I love it. I did not list World War I, although I love that too. It was a bad time, but still…
[Mary Robinette] The point being, pick things… Pick three core aspects of your personality that you want to highlight, three core things that you’re passionate about that you want to highlight that are not directly related to your work.
[Howard] Thank you very much. The bar has been set pretty high, and you watched us fail to clear it. This is Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.