Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Author Branding, Part Four

Now that we’ve decided on our brand image, the next question is, How do we convey this brand to the world?

For authors, this can be tricky, since the two most important and visible ways of conveying an authors’ brand—book covers and book titles—are the two things over which an author has little or no control. But I suspect that the writer who talks to her editor and her house’s publicist, and comes up with a coherent and promising brand image, will dramatically improve her chances of keeping her titles and getting covers that convey her brand’s image.

Keeping in mind my newly formulated Sebastian St. Cyr brand image, I took a look at the titles of the first four book in my series. I realize that I intuitively selected titles that conveyed my brand image of mystery and danger. The “question’ words immediately evoke mystery, while “Fear”, “Die”, and “Serpents” are all “danger” words. Even “Why Mermaids Sing” works, since it calls to mind the image of Sirens luring sailors to their deaths. No sex here (except, I suppose, in the Mermaids image), but in brainstorming titles for the fifth book in this series I’ve come to realize that it’s very, very hard to come up with titles that convey both sex and danger and yet don’t sound like the title of a porno flick.

In analyzing my covers, I now understand why the cover of my second book, WHEN GODS DIE, didn’t work. I’ve talked to many readers who liked that cover, but I never did. Now I can articulate why: it’s totally static, with no movement or danger or threat. It’s just a guy standing there looking at a building, and does nothing to convey the series’ image. When it comes time to cover conference my next book and my editor asks for my ideas, I’ll be in a better position to articulate the kind of covers I think we need to come up with—dangerous, action-oriented, sexy.

But if covers and titles are out of an author’s control, the one obvious way an author can influence his brand’s image is with his website. In looking at my website I realize that, again, I intuitively chose images that were dark and dangerous, and the site plays up my background as a professional historian. No emphasis on the sexy hero, though. Hmmm…

Another important way to convey your brand is through interviews. Once you know what that brand is, you can repeatedly make it a point to emphasize it. Fantasy writer Charles Gramlich always mentions Burroughs when he talks about his Taleran books, and he says it works. Journalists are busy people; give them a good hook and they’ll use it.

The important thing to remember is that, once you’ve decided on your brand, you need to stay consistent. This is why so many writers rebel against branding, and yes, it can be a straightjacket. But it doesn’t have to be. And being consistent doesn’t mean staying the same.

If you think of a brand as a personality, then you’ll realize that if it’s always the same, it starts to get old and boring. When I was young, I used to like a band called The James Gang. I bought a couple of their albums, but then I quit. Why? Every song sounded the same as the last, which is probably why the band disappeared. Now think of the Rolling Stones. They’ve been around forever. Why? Because they evolved with time. Every time they come out with a new album, it’s a little bit different. Only 5-10% different—you don’t want to change too radically all at once, or you’ll lose people—but it’s still enough to keep them interesting. We all know authors we once read but dropped because each book was just like the one before. (Judging by those authors sales, obviously many readers are not troubled by this!)

But what if your brand does start to feel like a straightjacket? What if you write fast-paced, dangerous historical mysteries about a sexy Regency Viscount and you get the urge to write a contemporary thriller about a twenty-something female remote viewer? Does this mean you can’t do it?

No. But it does mean that it’s a good idea to write your contemporary thriller under a pseudonym, and create and market a new brand. Because the truth is, not all of your old readers will want to follow you. Some people read both historical mysteries and contemporary international thrillers; some people only read one or the other. But if you come up with the right image and convey it well, new readers who’ve no interest in historical mysteries but love contemporary thrillers will find you.


Blogger Shauna Roberts said...

Thank you for this series of posts. They've been useful.

Now that you've done this analysis using yourself as an example, will you be making any changes in your business cards, Web site, marketing strategies, etc.?

7:27 PM  
Blogger cs harris said...

I am discussing some strategies with the editors of my Sebastian series, Shauna. I wish I had thought about these things three years ago. I'm also doing some hard thinking about the marketing of my new thriller series.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Steve Malley said...

I think there's an unconscious reason why you emphasized dark & mysterious setting instead of St. Cyr, and it's valid.

James McGee's 'Hawkwood' (Ratcatcher, Resurrectionist) walks the same streets as St. Cyr. By contrast, Hawkwood is sort of Jack Reacher of the Regency.

The covers for those books always put the hero (face obscured by hat brim, of course) front and center, with a bit of olde London faded in there.

McGee's books are action-thrillers, totally hero-centric. It's right that the hero take center stage. St. Cyr is cut from the same dark and dangerous cloth, but he's much more a creature of his time, and you definitely give us a MUCH better picture of the world in which he moves.

Your choices (on the website certainly, where you picked the images) tell us that we're about to enter dark, brooding, mysterious, dangerous world.

And yeah, you deliver.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Shauna Roberts said...

Isn't it amazing how explaining something to someone else clarifies the subject in one's own mind? I hope your editors and the marketing department listen to you carefully now that you have determined what draws readers to your books.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

I probably should have written cold in the light under a pseudonym. I too much wanted to see my name in print. If I do another thriller and make any sort of breakthrough I'm thinking of a pseudonym for it.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Kate S said...

Now, Candice, I'm one of those readers who liked the cover of WHEN GODS DIE. It didn't seem static to me at all. It looked like a mysterious man walking through a deserted, intriguing area at night.

The back of the man walking made me think of Jack the Ripper or someone who might have been trying to catch him - the only thing that slightly ruined that effect was the brightness of the building in the background.

Oh, well. Nice posts, great book. :)

5:54 PM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Interesting, Steve. I've only recently heard of James McGee's Hawkwood, and need to read him.

Charles, now that you've written both genres under the same name, I'm not sure it'd be a good idea to go with a pseudonym.

Lisa, I'm so glad you enjoyed GODS. And I do seem to be about the only person who didn't like the cover! Ah, well.

7:22 PM  

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