From the comments today, it’s clear that many of you are starting to get the hang of this branding thing. I’m going to email some of you privately to answer questions you asked today.
Next Monday evening, Allison Bottke and I will be doing a teleseminar on “Branding for Writers.” Allison knows ten times what I know about this subject and we’ll hopefully be able to clarify things a whole lot more. Branding is a tough subject to learn, so I expect that those of you who’ve been reading this blog will get more out of the teleseminar than those who come in cold.
Yesterday, I emailed my friend Brandilyn Collins with a few interview questions about how she developed her brand. Brandilyn is very well branded and very successful.
Here are my questions and Brandilyn’s answers:
Randy asks: Early in your career, you wrote suspense AND women’s
fiction. At a certain point, you had to make a hard decision to focus. Tell us a little about what went into that decision.
Okay, but some backstory is required here. I was writing for Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins (who remains my publisher). I had a three-book women’s fiction series (Bradleyville) published and four suspense novels on the shelves, two more in the pipeline. (I was in the middle of my Hidden Faces series, featuring a forensic artist.) Basically I wrote two books a year—one suspense, then one women’s fiction. My women’s fiction was popular, won myriad national awards, and one of the titles (Color the Sidewalk for Me) hit the bestseller list. Out of the four suspense titles, two were bestsellers.
I was MPD big time. Half the year I ensconced myself in deeply characterized, relational-type sagas. The other half I killed people. Sent my suspense readers on roller coaster rides (their typical adjective for my books), and snatched away their breath with twists (also their words, not mine.) All this was OK by me. I LIKED my dual personality. The women’s fiction writing urged me to more deeply characterize my suspense. My suspense writing taught me how to ratchet up tension in my women’s fiction.
However, when I started the Hidden Faces series, we decided to publish all those books in a row to gain momentum with my suspense readers. Then I’d turn to a new women’s fiction series.
So, at the time two Hidden Faces books were out, my publisher starting getting ideas.
In early January 2005 the Zondervan folks set a “marketing meeting” for me. They flew two editors and an outside marketing consultant from the east coast to my home in California to meet with me and my husband all day. Topic: direction of my career and how to market my books for the future. In that meeting it soon became clear that my split personality was presenting a real challenge marketing-wise. My suspense sales had gone up since I started writing the Hidden Faces series, even bringing a former suspense (Eyes of Elisha) back on the bestseller list. At the same time, my sales of the Bradleyville books were suffering because they didn’t figure into the current promotion of my suspense persona. My editors showed me the hard numbers. To build my suspense readers, then turn around and do another women’s fiction series would mean we’d have to start the momentum all over again with this different set of readers. Then, by the time I returned to suspense, all my readers in that category might be gone.
I loved writing in both genres, but I am a focused person when it comes to my career, and I’m practical. Looking at the hard data I could see it was far less likely to hit the numbers my publisher thought I could hit if I retained my dual personality. I needed to focus on one genre and really work on building a name in it. Because my suspense numbers were already higher, and I was in the midst of a series—voila. By the time we were a few hours into that meeting, my choice was made. I would kill people full time.
Randy sez: That was a tough decision, because you excelled in both genres. I liked the women’s fiction series and was sorry to see you abandon it. At the same time, I thought it was a wise decision. It’s hard to split your energy in two genres when your career is still rising.
Randy asks: What are the main components of your brand?
My trademarked brand is “Seatbelt Suspense.” I also have a registered tagline: “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …”
Randy asks: Can you tell us the process you went through in developing your brand?
We went on to discuss my brand at that marketing meeting. We discussed the kind of suspense I write for the Christian market. What made me unique among my colleagues? What should a reader expect when picking up a Brandilyn Collins novel? This was a fascinating discussion. It’s a real trick, taking everything an author is known for and narrowing it down to one creative phrase. We talked a long time about this issue. Eventually in follow-up weeks after the meeting, I came up with my “brand descriptor” of “Seatbelt Suspense.” This came after reviewing all the fan letters and e-mails I’d received for my suspense novels. (Yes, I keep them all—they can be very useful.) I want to emphasize this point. The brand came not from HOW I SAW MYSELF, but HOW MY READERS SAW ME. I kept seeing the term “roller coaster” and “twists” come up in these letters. Also my suspense was known for starting hard out the gate. First page, BAM, you’re into the story. All of this together led to “Seatbelt Suspense.”
The tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …” I already had. Again, this came from reader letters, which referred again and again to breath snatched away while reading my stories, whether suspense or women’s fiction.
Randy asks: How do you see your brand evolving in the future? Or will it stay pretty constant for the foreseeable future?
Yes, it will stay consistent for now. Since that marketing meeting two and a half years ago, I’ve written five more suspense novels, three of which are now on shelves, two in the pipeline. I am now moving away from writing series to writing stand-alones. This will give me more flexibility book to book.
One more thing needs to be said—on the creative side. This branding decision wasn’t easy. At first I truly mourned the loss of half of my writing identity. However, I found I could mix things up a little. In the very next series I went on to write (Kanner Lake), I took some women’s fiction elements (large list of eclectic supporting characters) and worked them into the little fictional town in which I created havoc. So there are creative ways in which I can satisfy the “women’s fiction” side of me.
Meanwhile, business-wise, the branding decision has absolutely been the right one. All three suspense novels published since that meeting have hit the bestseller list, and sales numbers are climbing. I have a long way to go to get where I want to be, but I can certainly see the progress.
Randy sez: Bottom line here is that branding is hard work. It’s a process. Brandilyn didn’t fully commit to a brand until she had seven books out (if I counted correctly). Before that, she had two brands going.
Note that Brandilyn had five books written and ready to go when she broke in. This is a bit unusual. Also, she has many years of experience in marketing. Both factors made it possible for her to write in two genres early on. But that wasn’t sustainable, and she made a hard decision to commit to a single brand.