Writing Excuses 16.6: Building Your Brand
Key points: Branding for your audience, staking a claim in the writing industry. What do you do really well that makes you stand out? How can you avoid being locked into a series? Make the fans follow your writing, not the series. What makes your writing unique? See what people are responding to. Your brand isn’t necessarily the whole soul of your writing. The articulation of your brand isn’t necessarily the message you want the fans to internalize. Take the highlights of your work, and turn them into pitches. Expand your brand into different genres.
[Season 16, Episode 6]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Building Your Brand.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] Awesome. We are back here in our intensive course on publishing business, and we’re going to talk about branding and what kinds of things we need to think about. What do we mean by that, Brandon?
[Brandon] So, this is something that I have come to realize I think about a lot more than most of my writing friends. Which is, when I was breaking into the business, and even still, a major idea in my head was how to brand myself to my audience. How to stake a claim on a part of the writing industry or part of the continuing dialogue or great discussion that is the publishing… A genre. Right? I very deliberately wrote a bunch of books and decided what it was that I did really well that made me stand out. I made that a major feature of my career. What this allowed me to do… My goal from the get go, I looked at the careers of a bunch of different authors and I identified some that… Whose career path I didn’t want to follow because they would often talk about being locked into a series, a certain series, and being only… People only wanting to read that one series from them. Then there are other authors, Neil Gaiman is a great example of this, that whatever that author wrote, the fan base went and read. I realized Neil Gaiman had done a really good job of branding Neil Gaiman as a writer, rather than branding Sandman or branding any other thing, it was whatever Neil writes, people are going to go read. Nora, N. K. Jemisin, has done a really good job of this recently in saying this is what she writes and the feel of her writing and whatever she puts out, we’re going to go read. Because we are into her writing, rather than branding to a series. Whereas some places that this happens the other way, a lot of YA writers I noticed accidentally fall into the series becoming the brand. So it becomes very hard, for instance, for Suzanne Collins to get another series or get people interested in something else. I have some other YA friends whose names I’m not going to mention because I don’t know if they want me talking about this with them, but have released other books, not in a series that they are well-known for, and they just vanish. Even though these authors can demand huge advances and lots of attention when they write in their series, anything else they try just fails. I think this is partially a branding failure rather than their other books not being good, because I’ve read some of these other books, and indeed, they’re very good.
[Dan] Yeah. I suspect that some of that, with YA specifically, is just the nature of the YA audience that has a very specific kind of blockbuster mentality that we don’t see often in others. But this branding issue is definitely there. I’ve done this myself. The first year that I was on twitter, my twitter handle was John Cleaver. It was Howard, I think, that finally convinced me to change that out and become Dan Wells instead and really work about building my own brand as me. It’s especially… I feel kind of especially stupid for doing that, because in terms of my actual books, I did make a strong effort to make sure that my second book series was as wildly different from my first as possible. So even if you’re thinking about this in some areas, it’s still an easy mistake to make in others.
[Brandon] Indeed. One of the things that really helped me in this was deciding what made my writing unique. Another… Pointing back to N. K. Jemisin, this is something very easy to see in others. Sometimes it’s hard to see in yourself. What does Nora write? Nora writes stories that are in the traditional fantasy tradition but that are using modern literary techniques borrowing from literary fiction. Kind of making a blend where you have the characterization and pacing of traditional genre fiction and the literary styling of literary fiction, and kind of marrying these two together. Each book or series she writes finds a different way to marry a different type of literary flourish with a different type of science fiction or fantasy. The series that won all the awards was, hey, she’s going to do a really cool magic system and marry it to somehow second person voice, right? Which is just like so literary, and it worked. For me, my branding, the thing that I did, is I said, “I’m going to be the magic system guy.” I was writing a new world with every book I was writing during my early years. I really fell in love with writing these kind of rule-based magic systems, kind of sometimes called hard fantasy. I don’t know if that term actually really works. But the idea is that you’re going to get a really interesting take on magic that’s very rule-based in every book of mine you pick up. I was able to pick that because I had written a bunch of books and known whatever I end up writing, this is something that I just naturally put into every book that I try.
[Erin] I would say, if you don’t know that about yourself, you might be like, “I don’t know, I’m just trying to write the things. What is my brand?” As you start getting work out there, either publicly or even with your own critique groups, is to look at what people are responding to. Sometimes you can learn your brand by having sort of other people put a mirror up to you. I, for example, I write a lot of racy dark work. I don’t know that I would describe myself that way naturally, but when people over and over again are like, “Oh, no. Erin, I’m so excited about your next racy, dark thing,” I’m like, “Oh. Maybe that’s…”
[Erin] “A thing that I can cut out for myself.” If you’re all saying this and it’s not in opposition to what I write, why not embrace it? I would also say some parts of your brand, you can’t control. As a black writer, there are going to be certain maybe assumptions or things that people might put on you based on who you are that affects the way they see your writing. So not everything that someone sees in you, you have to necessarily claim as your brand. But it’s good to know how people see you and decide what of that you want to maybe lean into and what of that you want to push back against.
[Brandon] That’s really smart. One of the things that I want to mention that that kind of jogged in my brain, Erin, is this idea that the brand doesn’t have to represent the whole soul of your writing. Honestly, like when I branded myself as the magic system guy, I made some deliberate choices on that. But in reality, behind the scenes, I’m like, “I really don’t want to be the magic system guy. I want to be the really great characters guy.” Right? That’s what I think every writer wants. I want to be known for writing great stories. I don’t want to be known for this little niche. But the way that marketing works, the way that writing works, the way that the minds of fans work is they kind of notice things that make you stand out. Hopefully, we’re all doing great characters. So the fact that you do great characters who… Like, one of the things that’s really great about Mary Robinette’s writing is she has mature relationships between adults who legitimately love each other. That’s not going to be in every book she writes. But it’s a hallmark of her career. She’s like, “I’m going to show how relationships can actually function.” Because a lot of writers write dysfunctional relationships, because that’s a source of conflict. Where she has actively said, “You know what, good relationships are also a source of conflict. I’m going to deal with these things.” It’s a hallmark of her writing. Doesn’t mean that great characters aren’t, but that’s something that stands out. So the thing that stands out about you doesn’t necessarily always have to be the thing that you’re thinking of as the soul of your writing.
[Howard] There’s a marketing 101 concept here that I’ve talked about before, but I think I need to reiterate. That’s the idea that the articulation of your brand… I’m the magic system guy… The articulation of your brand is not the message that you actually want to be received at the subconscious level by the market. The subconscious level that you as a writer who wants to make money want to deliver to the market is, and I’ll use my own name because of course I’ll use my own name, “Oh, Howard Tayler. That’s the guy who I buy all of his books.” Okay? That’s the message. Now, I can’t come out and say, “I’m Howard Tayler. I’m the guy you want to buy all your books from.” Now, part of my articulated brand is humor, and self-deprecatory humor. So I can actually get away with saying that thing and people will laugh. But that’s not the same as the message being internalized. So what you need to do when you are building your brand is understand that at one level there are the things that you are articulating about yourself. I write jokes, I write humor that’s in dialogue rather than situational comedy type things. Science fiction. I’m kind to people online. I try not to be a jerk. These sorts of things that I articulate about myself are things that get distilled down to the reader, and as they absorbed them, some of those readers will be like, “Oh, my gosh, it’s a Howard Tayler thing. I just want that because I love his stuff.” Others will be, “Oh. It’s all silly. I don’t love it. I’m not buying his stuff.” The value there is that… And again, this is marketing 101 stuff… You really don’t want your brand being in the wrong place. I don’t want people who hate funny books to pick up my stuff and then be mad. Because now someone has a super negative association with me, which is that I wish I hadn’t spent money on Howard’s book.
[Dan] We, much later than usual, are going to stop for a book of the week.
[Dan] That’s okay. I’m actually throwing this back to you, Howard. Because you have our book this week.
[Howard] I do. I do. The book is called Blowout by Rachel Maddow. You’re probably familiar with Rachel Maddow’s brand as a commentator on MSNBC. Blowout is a nonfiction exploration of the petroleum industry written by Rachel Maddow, and she narrates it. I loved the book. I mean, as a… At a high level, the meta of we have a commentator who is doing a book and this is an extension of the brand, that’s all well and good. Understanding the way the petroleum industry influenced current events, influenced historical events, is not something that I had in my head until I read that book. It was fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. The audiobook is narrated by Rachel Maddow, which, she’s easy to listen to and that’s part of her brand.
[Dan] Okay. So that is Blowout by Rachel Maddow.
[Dan] Now, we don’t have much time left, but I do want to ask a question. I love the way this discussion has been going, I love what Erin said about having other people help you find your own kind of brand identity. One thing that was pointed out to me several years ago that I had never intentionally done and had not seen on my own is that all of my main characters in all of my books across the six or seven different genres that I write, the one thing they all have in common is that they are all obsessed with an expert in some very specific niche of knowledge. I had not done that on purpose, but it’s absolutely true. Even in my historical fiction that came out earlier last year. So, what I have not yet figured out is how I can take that piece of knowledge and turn it into a useful marketing message like Howard was just saying. So, Brandon, what advice can you give us of how to turn your brand into a marketable thing?
[Brandon] So, one of the things to do is watch… Erin mentioned this… What are people saying about your work. What are they saying as the highlights of your work? You, as a writer, are going to have to come up with pitches to sell your work. When you are sitting on a panel, when you are even just writing a blog post, you’re going to have to give a three sentence pitch on each new thing you do. One of the ways that you can start making this a brand for you is incorporating these things into your pitches. So that your fans know how to talk about your books. If you were provided these pitches, then they will kind of start picking up on them. It’s kind of this feedback, back and forth.
[Erin] I would say panels… The mention of panels made me think that if you are somebody who goes to… Who’s able to go to conventions, they’re a great way to… If you’re able to speak on panels, number one, see where people place you is a good way… Sometimes it’s random, but if you’re on like 10 panels in a row about like unreliable narrators, maybe that’s a thing that people associate with you. Two, you can try to ask for panels or on a panel, like, talk about the things that are within your brand or that mesh up with your brand.
[Erin] It’s also a great way to kind of try out some ways of talking about it. Because most people are just going to absorbed the panel and go about their merry way. So you can kind of hone your messaging a little bit while trying to convey information about writing as a whole.
[Brandon] You can also kind of expand your brand. If you want to put something like I am the magic system guy, right? Well, magic system guy really focuses on fantasy. I wanted to write science fiction, and even I wanted to write some detective stuff. I thought a lot about how do I expand this to match what I’m doing in these other genres. So I actually have a couple of brandings. One is the Cosmere. I have an interconnected universe. So when I started doing my science fiction, I’m like I’m going to be doing a little bit of that. But there’s also this idea that more than magic system, it’s like these rule-based speculative elements that I was able to apply to my detective fiction. Because it’s a… There’s a magic system, even though there’s no magic in the world. The way that the person approaches solving crimes is very like one of my fantasy novels, even though there’s no actual magic involved. So being able to expand that brand and know how you can talk about these things in different genres is also really handy. Mary Robinette’s another good example of this. Instead of branding as historical fantasy, she’s now branding as I take some sort of cool historical item and then I change one thing. She’s doing like a larger alternate history sort of thing rather than just doing fantasy. Now she’s got science fiction in that and things like that. So you can still have… You can expand these things and make them umbrellas and cover a lot of things. Dan, you’re… You talk about you’ve got specialists in your stories. Well, I mean, specialists, a lot of different types of genres use specialists. If you could find a way to say, “I do deep dives into topics…” Michael Crichton made his whole career about a team of scientists get together and have a problem. That works in a medical thriller as well as a science fiction as well as… He did the great train robbery, which is a heist, all with a team of specialists get into shenanigans.
[Dan] That is a very good point. Lots of good things to think about here. We encourage you all to work on this.
[Dan] We’re going to give you some homework to help you work on this for yourself. Brandon?
[Brandon] Yeah. So your homework is to do something Erin was talking about, actually, is to go to your friends. You may not have readers yet, you may be newer, you may not have readers you don’t know, but you hopefully have a writing group or you have alpha readers and beta readers. You have been sharing your work with them. Have them make a list. Impose upon them, hopefully it’s not too much of an imposition, but say, “What are…” Ask them to write down the things that stand out for you as a writer in their mind. Do this with a couple of people. Because it’s so hard to see in yourself. See what different connections and themes are showing up time and time again in those lists that your friends are making.
[Dan] Fantastic. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.