Writing Excuses 17.5: The Promise of the Brand
Key Points: Your packaging needs to target the right niche. The cover is an advertisement, which needs to evoke the right feel, the right genre, and the right audience. Step one, go look at the current books like your books and see what the trend is. You get to decide which faces are public, which ones are private, and which face is the right one for this moment. Check out para social relationships. Ask people, let them tell you what they see. Let them be your mirror. Put themes of what you are in each book.
[Season 17, Episode 5]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, The Promise of the Brand.
[Kaela] 15 minutes long.
[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Megan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Sandra] I’m Sandra.
[Megan] And I’m Meg.
[Howard] When we began this series of eight episodes about expectations and promises, I mentioned the 2009 example of the Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice cover redesign. The design of the carton. This is, for me, the apex fail for brands, for making brands, for working off your existing brand. They took the existing brand, which was an orange with a straw stuck in it, and changed it to a nice sleek glass of orange juice. The ad execs had said, “You know, you’ve got this carton of pure Premium orange juice, and you know what, you never show people a picture of the juice. Let’s talk about what’s actually in the carton.” So they changed it to this picture of this glass of juice, and they change the, which is… It’s like a half gallon milk carton, the newer ones that have little plastic caps in the middle of the sloped face. They changed the little orange plastic cap to be a little half dome plastic orange. So it looked like an orange. They said, “So, here we’re sending the message that, yes, it came from an orange, and it’s full of juice, and it’s awesome.” As we mentioned, several episodes earlier, they spent $30 million on this redesign, and sales dropped by 20%, in large part because people just couldn’t find what they were looking for. They couldn’t find the Tropicana Pure Premium, so they were buying Donald Duck brand orange juice. “Oh, if I can’t get the Pure Premium, I might as well buy stuff from concentrate.” Whatever. Tropicana sales fell off so hard that they went back to their old design, and they lost like 50 million+ dollars over this whole thing. The mistake that was made here is that the ad exec assumed that we associate a picture of orange juice with orange juice, and we associate a plastic orange with authentic orange juice. It’s like they got their wires exactly crossed. In this episode, we want to talk about how, especially for self pubbers, how your brand is defined by cover art and text treatments and all of these other things in order to send the right message and make the right promises to your audiences. Sandra?
[Sandra] Yes. One of the… I talk about this a lot because I do a lot of the business aspects and packaging aspects for our business. One of the things that is very important to hold in your brain as a creative person is that you’ve written this glorious story, and now you need to package up the story you’ve created in a delivery vehicle that will aim it straight into the heart of your niche. Wherever you want your story to go, to package it in a way that will deliver it there. Because failures to package correctly means that your book ends up in a mismatched audience, who will then pan your book and tank your sales. This is why being mis-shelved is a problem. Because if your cover is saying mystery when what you’re delivering is a thriller, then the audience has picked it up expecting one thing and you’re delivering a pro… You’ve delivered something else. Your packaging promised something that isn’t there. They’re going to be frustrated with it. So one of the key things that… I always, always, always drum into people that I’m talking about this with is that a cover is not an illustration. A cover is an advertisement. It should evoke the feel of your story, it should evoke the genre of your story, it should evoke who the audience is. It does not matter at all character on the cover matches any of the descriptions… Well, qualification there. But you don’t have to match perfectly your description on the inside.
[Howard] Yeah. That’s… That principle happens… We see a lot in comics. The cover of a comic book is not a scene from the book.
[Howard] The cover of a comic book is an illustration of the conflict in this book. Spiderman is going to fight Venom and they’re going to do it in a big city. So we see Spiderman and Venom and cars being thrown around. But that panel never actually happened that way. But there are lots of other good examples of this, of the brand being… The brand wrappering the content in good ways. I’m aiming at Kaela and Meg now.
[Howard] Who’s ready?
[Megan] Okay. One of my favorite examples of a cover that really knew its audience is Eva Evergreen Semi-Magical Witch. It’s a middle grade fantasy for people who love Kiki’s Delivery Service. Right? So that first thing… Like, I hadn’t… Yeah, I love Kiki’s Delivery Service. I love Ghibli movies. I was just walking around and I look over and I see this adorable witch with an adorable animal companion on a broom who’s smiling. She looks slightly anime, but not full anime. She has a long dark dress and she looks adorable and she’s got her wand. I was like, “That gives me so strong Kiki’s Delivery vibes.” I went over immediately and picked it up. I was like, “I want to read this now.”
[Howard] I’m looking at the cover right now, and it’s not our book of the week, but boy, howdy, that cover knows exactly who it’s aiming for.
[Howard] If you love Kiki’s Delivery Service, you want to read this book. Is this book a repackaging of Kiki’s Delivery Service? No. But if you loved that, you’ll love this. You love fresh orange juice, you’ll love what’s in this carton. Because it’s got a picture of an orange.
[Megan] It may not be book of the week, but it is cover of the week. Good cover of the week.
[Howard] Oh, my. That is so brilliant.
[Megan] It is. I’m the sort of person where I’m in a bookstore, and I’m looking for a book that I don’t know, I always go for an illustrated cover over a photo or a photo edited cover. Which has no indication, really, as to how much the writing would appeal to me, but I love beautifully illustrated book covers. That is actually a trend I’m seeing more and more of is fewer photos and more full illustrations. Sandra?
[Sandra] That is step one. When you’re trying to figure out how to position your book, step one is literally go to the place where the books like your book are shelved and see what is the current trend. Because a mistake I see from people of my generation is that they love these 70s style covers that evoke the 1970s because that was what they were familiar with. There writing a book for teenagers and this is what they loved when they were a teenager. That is a mismatch for today’s market. So you need to go find out what the current cover language is for where your aiming, so that your cover can be in communication and in dialogue with what the current trend is and just be the new cool thing.
[Kaela] Yeah. So, I think that one of the… My cover for Cece Rios… One of… What I love about it is how… When you think of middle grade, honestly, those sections, most of it’s blue. Just the colors are mostly blue. Sometimes you get a little purple in there, you might get some highlights in red, but for some reason, most middle grade books are just kind of blue colors. Blue shades. I thought it was so fun… I mean, one, because it’s appropriate, but, too, that Mirella Ortega and my cover designer Catherine Lee, and everything, did such a good job. Like, one thing I told them was high saturation because that matches Mexican culture as well. But they decided to go full on into these oranges. Which means that when you put it on a shelf with any of the others, it stands out automatically, because it’s the contrast color of most of the other colors on its shelf. While also still matching the vibe of all the other books on the shelf. Like, it’s illustrated, it’s got something about it that seems fun, it’s got a strong main character full front, like middle grade often does, but it’s done something to draw attention to itself at the same time. That is representative of what is inside, not just, “Oh, man, this is eye-catching. But it doesn’t match.”
[Howard] I’m looking at that cover right now, and it’s… It’s very, very warm. You mentioned that it’s complementary to maybe the blue or the purple colors that you’ll see alongside it. True, but there is lavender and purple right there in the cover text, so the complement… It doesn’t need to be sitting next to something else to fill the requirements of good color matching. This is really, really well done. Now most of us don’t get to design our own covers. The important thing here is that we need to recognize what the covers look like of the things that we will be sitting next to because the cover makes a promise. If I see a Michael Whalen or a Whalenesque illustration, a full wraparound piece of art, around a big fat book, I’m positive that it is going to be an epic fantasy. I’m 100% positive of that. If I open it up and it’s a political thriller, well, that’d be weird. That’d be super weird.
[Megan] Yup. So, like you said how most authors don’t have say… Not say, but most authors don’t design their own book covers. A lot of filmmakers do not get to cut their own trailers. So you will have… I think a pretty recent example of this is the Netflix show Q Force, which is an adult comedy about a set of LGBTQ superspies that end up coming together as a team. It is a comedy, it has fun elements to it, but it also is like very sincere with a lot of heart in the series. However, the released trailer pretty much only took the goofs and the jokes and made it look like it was a stereotype poking fun of those different identities. So a lot of people who would have, I think, deeply enjoyed the show were very off put by this trailer. Something that’s fun about this is a lot of times in film school, you’ll get the assignment to re-cut a movie into a trailer of an opposite genre. So I did not make this trailer, but one of my favorite examples of this is Scary Mary…
[Megan] Mary Poppins redone as a horror film.
[Howard] My favorite is Shining, where they took The Shining and they made it this family…
[Howard] Romantic comedy. Yeah, coming-of-age thing.
[Howard] We need to do a book of the week. We’ve talked about a lot of books that have had glorious covers. But we have an actual book of the week.
[Sandra] Yes. I have that this week. The book of the week I’ve chosen is Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This book is brilliant packaging at its finest. It is… Like, it’s a book with a slipcover, and the slipcover is actually clear plastic so you can see through it. So, there’s clear spots that you can then see text that’s printed on the actual hardback. Things are crossed out. So the packaging promises you kind of conspiracy theories and things that are hidden that you’re trying to puzzle out and reveal. Then, on the inside, they use typography to tell parts of the story.
[Howard] Sandra is currently holding this up to…
[Howard] Our WebCams.
[Sandra] Yes. It’s too beautiful. Like [garbled]
[Howard] The remaining three of us are here slack-jawed. Like…
[Sandra] There’s art inside. There’s a part where they’re shooting missiles and the text actually trails itself across the page as if it’s the missile trail.
[Howard] Oh, that’s glorious.
[Sandra] It uses fontography as storytelling.
[Howard] Well, what I’m looking at the cover and with the clear and the effects that they’ve done with that, that… Yes, it makes a promise about the kind of story that’s being told, but when I get to a page that has a missile trailing text, that is… That fulfills a surprising yet inevitable.
[Howard] Oh. Oh, you promised me this kind of design, but I had no idea you would shoot missiles with words.
[Sandra] Yeah. Seriously, go to your local bookstore and look at a physical copy of this book, because browsing it online does not actually give you the experience of it. Yeah. So, Illuminae. There’s three books in the series, this is the first one. They’re all brilliant, and the stories are brilliant as well.
[Howard] Now. We have talked at great length, and only scratched the surface about the visual elements in our brands. These are the things that for most writers, most authors, it’s out of our control. A huge part of your brand, however, is within your control. What is… What are the things that you, your name as a brand, means? My name, Howard Tayler, people associate me with Schlock Mercenary. I have a twitter feed that doesn’t drop f-bombs and that doesn’t do piles and piles of negging. These are things that are part of my brand. They’re inherent in kind of the way I am, so it’s easy. But at this point, I have now made a promise. If I were to start just trash talking everybody and throwing profanity in my twitter feed, I would be breaking a promise to the people who have followed me on twitter because of my brand.
[Sandra] I think it’s very easy, for creators, especially people who are young in having a creative career, no matter what their chronological age may be… There’s this adaptation. Where we have to figure out and figure out who we are as authors and how we present ourselves. It can be very anxiety inducing. The thing that I always come back to is in the Phantom Tollbooths, which is a fun adventure story, there’s a set of characters called the dodecahedron That people who have heads that are literally dodecahedrons. They have a face with happy on it, and a face with sat on it, and a face with mad on it. They turn the face forward, whatever is appropriate to the moment. So their heads are actually rotating as they emote. That is a useful visual image, because you are also a dodecahedron, and you get to decide which of your faces are public and which of your faces are private, and which one is the right face to be putting forward at this moment. I’m in a book release cycle, so I need to be putting this face forward. Okay, now I’m in a lull cycle, so I can put together… I can let this other face show more often. All of it is you. You are not creating a character. Some people do create a character that they inhabit. But I find that that is mentally and emotionally exhausting over time, and it’s much better to just show aspects of yourself, rather than trying to maintain an entire façade.
[Cough. Hans. Cough.]
[Sandra] Yeah. Hans. Yeah, that’s…
[Sandra] Here we go. So it’s a lot to decide and it’s a lot to navigate and again, we could talk for hours just on this. Search term for you. Para social relationships. If you are going to live in a public life in any way, learn about para social relationships and how they work.
[Kaela] Yes. I’d also… This is just something I’d recommend, like a tool for you, but… I know that some of the older Writing Excuses episodes from I think January 2021, the business of being a writer, goes into this a little bit as well. But asking people, trying to get a finger on what other people are receiving from your brand, because you’re bringing your self to the table. Right? You know, again, you’ve got all of these faces, so you’re like, I don’t know which ones other people see all the time. Kind of like how you don’t really know how you look, you just see yourself in a mirror sometimes. So being able to get a pulse from other people, what your brand is. Like that, I have my writing group and I have some people from my family who read my books and things like that give me a few notes on… I’ll say, just tell me what you… When I write something, things that you think happen a lot I found that they were like worldbuilding, luscious stuff, high-stakes mixed with very potent emotional exploration. I was like, “Okay.” That gave me a pulse on like… When I’m sitting down to write something, in my delivering on at least some of these promises. Not every book is going to be the same book, but it should have themes of what I am in each book.
[Howard] That sounds a lot like you’re not going to be able to just pour concentrated… From concentrate orange juice into that carton and make people…
[Howard] And make people happy.
[Howard] Any other final words before I throw homework down?
[Megan] I had… A thing I do periodically is go through a social med… I’ve got a Facebook and I’ve got a Twitter and I’ve got an Instagram. I periodically just read through my feed to see what the balance of content is there. Is it… Am I re-tweeting a lot or am I… Has this been a complaining week? If it’s been a complaining week, then maybe I should throw a cat picture. Just trying to see that I don’t fall into the habit of posting just happy on Facebook and complain on Twitter. Trying… Just to see how I’m reading.
[Howard] That’s… I feel like we need to can of worms that, because we could talk about that sort of…
[Howard] Oh. That’s a ton of work.
[Howard] Instead of that is a ton of work, it’s a ton of work homework for you. Okay? Here we go. This is two phases, and this is deep stuff. Describe the perfect cover art for your work in progress. Now, when I say describe, you can use comp titles, comp pictures, to your heart’s content. For instance, remember that Star Wars poster where Luke is holding the lightsaber up, and you got Darth Vader’s silhouette in the background? Yeah, it’s kind of like that, except the setting is forest greenery with mist and fog and there’s eyes peering out of the forest. Okay. Well, you’ve now used words to give us a picture that we can kind of see. So, do this description. Then explain why this is the perfect cover. What promises does that cover make to the audience? How does it account for audience bias? Here’s part two, and part two is easy. Okay? What is the right typeface for your name? Is it serif and san serif? Is it weathered or is it crisp? Is it larger than the title? Hello, Brandon Sanderson. Or is it tiny, down in the corner? Hello, me. What is… You probably have lots of fonts on your computer. Experiment with this and see what text treatment seems to fit what you imagine to be your brand. Then write down why. Why do you think that text treatment makes the right promises about who you are? I said it was big. It’s huge. You’re out of excuses. Now go write about pictures and fonts.