If there’s one word that’s widely hated by novelists, it’s the word “branding.”
I’m not sure why that is. I know that branding is hard work. But it’s also rewarding work. If you look at the top novelists working today, all of them are well-branded.
What Does It Mean to be Well-Branded?
Being well-branded means that your fans have a very good idea what they’re going to get when they buy your next book. So there’s no decision to be made. When they see you have a new book out, they open their wallets and buy.
Being well-branded also means that people who’ve heard of you have a clear idea of what they would get if they bought your next book. If they’re in your target audience, they might well buy one of your books eventually. And if they’re far outside your target audience, they probably won’t ever buy one of your books. (That’s good. You don’t want people way outside your target audience buying one of your books, because they won’t like it and they’ll write bad reviews and cause bad word-of-mouth for you.)
Being well-branded also means that people who’ve never heard of you can quickly get a clear idea of what you write when they do hear about you. Maybe they’ll hear about you from one of your fans. If you’re well-branded, your fans know how to explain what kind of book you write. Maybe they’ll hear about you from somebody who isn’t your fan. If you’re well-branded, people outside your target audience can still explain what kind of book you write. Maybe they’ll just come across you at random on the web or in a store. If you’re well-branded, even that will be enough for them to figure out if they’re in your target audience.
An Example of a Great Brand
These days, one of the best-branded writers I know of is Lee Child, who’s been writing the Jack Reacher series for a couple of decades now. Jack Reacher is an ex-military cop. He left the Army with the rank of major and has been drifting around the US ever since. He hitchhikes wherever he feels like going, carrying no luggage except a toothbrush. He works odd jobs for cash and wears the same clothes for days at a time, until they get dirty or worn out and then he throws them away and buys more. He’s a big guy, a lethal street fighter, and extremely smart. He absolutely cannot be corrupted. But he will always bend the rules if the rules get in the way of real justice. Wherever Reacher goes, he finds trouble or trouble finds him, and he gets caught up in a mystery of some sort, and he solves the case and moves on.
Some people will say that if you’ve read one Jack Reacher book, you’ve read them all. That’s true and it’s not. If you’ve read one Jack Reacher book, you know Jack Reacher. The point of reading the next book is to hang out with Reacher. The plot will zip along at light-speed. Reacher will be up against powerful unseen enemies bent on evil. He’ll get into several vicious fights, always at a major disadvantage, but he’ll outsmart and out-fight the bad guys. There will often be a beautiful woman and a bit of snuggling, but in the end she’ll part ways with Reacher. The story will sometimes seem wildly implausible, and yet you’ll find yourself believing it could happen anyway, because actually it could. When you get to the end of the book, you won’t be able to remember all the twists and turns the storyline took, but you won’t care. Because you had a good ride on the roller coaster with Reacher. And you like Reacher.
That’s a great brand. Why? Because you know what you’re getting in every book. You’re getting what I described in the previous paragraph. You’re always getting a crazy adventure with Reacher. And yet every book is different. Different location, different problem, and mostly different major characters.
The same, and yet different, in every book.
So How Do You Brand Yourself?
Branding yourself is a process that will take some time. Your end goal is that you want to be able to answer some or all of the following hard questions (or hard questions like these—you may want to choose your own questions):
- I want to be the best writer in the world for __________________________.
- When people hear my name, I want them to think ______________________.
- When people hear my name, I want them to feel ______________________.
- When people read my books, I want them to have this kind of an emotional experience: ____________________.
- The things that are common to all my books are these: ________________________.
- The things that can be different in each of my books are these: _______________________.
You may be wondering where a tagline fits into this. My view is that taglines are overrated. I don’t think Stephen King has a tagline. Or J.K. Rowling. Or Lee Child. And yet they’re all well-branded.
You won’t work out your brand in one day. You probably won’t get it all done in a year.
But it won’t hurt to start thinking about your brand now. And you’ll probably want to rethink it after every book. A brand is something you evolve into. And a brand will also evolve right along with you.
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