Business Musings: How To Build A Brand 2: The Intermediate Stages (Branding/Discoverability)

I’ll be honest with you: I struggle with these branding posts. Not because I am unfamiliar with what I’m writing about. I know this topic inside out, upside down and backwards. I’ve built two publishing companies. I’ve built retail companies. I’ve worked in advertising. I’ve worked for places that were so aware of their brand that they knew when a topic or a product deviated from that brand in a harmful way.

Unfortunately, the way that traditional publishing was—and is—structured, writers who work in that part of the industry have no control over their brand at all. (I can think of 1.5 exceptions—James Patterson took over his marketing right from the start, so he always controlled his branding; Lee Child also gave branding a lot of thought, but left the actual marketing to the publisher. He’s the .5 in the equation here.)

So when I write these posts, I feel a deep frustration. Because my brand, in almost all of its forms, is extremely messy. Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes all over the map, but was never marketed as a writer whose focus is diversity (in content as well as in genre). Kris Nelscott’s traditional publisher was so frightened of my skin color and my topic that they never ever came up with a consistent cover brand, let alone a marketing plan. Kristine Grayson’s two traditional publishers had diametrically opposed marketing plans for the books. (The first one worked; the second one…didn’t.)

I’m frustrated because I’m trying to fix something that is badly broken in my own career. Many other writers—once traditional and now hybrid or indie—have the same problem. And God forbid if we have tried different genres or had series abandoned in the middle. Traditional publishing was, in its way, antithetical to any kind of consistent branding, at least for the midlist writer, at least in the past 20 years.

These posts, as I said from the beginning, are for me, writing to myself about all the various things I can do to improve my branding or, in most instances, take control of it.

The simplest way for me to take control of my branding would be to pare down everything I do under Rusch to one series, one subgenre. That’s what Lee Child does. If I had his Jack Reacher series, I could easily rebrand it, take over the advertising, take over the brand idea and brand identity, and create something unique.

Believe me, I’ve thought of that. Not for Rusch, but for Grayson, and for Nelscott. I’m refining those latter two brands a bit.

But I have a hummingbird brain. I alight on different things at different times. I read that way too. I’m not the person who can do the same thing day after day, year after year for the rest of my life.

If I were in the lucky position that most of you indies are in, I could define my Rusch brand from the beginning as something that spans genres, that uses a multitude of styles, that promises quality of a certain type, but never compromises on some things.

I would make my hummingbird brain—my tendency to mix up genres and styles and moods—a huge part of the branding.

I’ll be doing that going forward, of course, but that feels a bit to me like closing the barn door after the horses got out—decades ago. (Hell, in this metaphor, that barn might not even have a door any more. It’s toppling, needs paint, and maybe needs to be torn down so we can build a brand new barn. {sigh}.)

I find the topic overwhelming, never more so than in this particular post. How To Build A Brand: The Intermediate Stages. The intermediate stages are, technically, where I am, on everything.

Only the foundation I’m building on—in the marketing side—is wobbly. The foundation—on the writing side—is so solid that you could take a jackhammer to it and you wouldn’t even chip the concrete.

This is the point where I remind you that everything we discuss in this series of posts is about marketing, which you should never, ever, ever take into your writing office.

If you write what authentically interests you, you will develop an audience. If you decide that you’re going to write Jack Reacher-light because it worked for Lee Child, and that’s the only reason you’re going to write it (a marketing reason, by the way), then you will fail at developing any kind of audience.

And as we’ve seen in previous posts, what you want is a loyal audience, one that returns over and over to your work because they love it, not because your work is cheap or because they’re waiting for the next Reacher novel and yours will do in the interim.

So…remember. Everything I’m discussing here is about marketing, not writing.

In mid-May, I published the first how-to-build-a-brand post. If you haven’t read it, you should so, because it explains a lot of the ideas and terms I’ll be using in this post.

For that post, I assumed you were building your brand from scratch. Maybe you had a few books or a series or a couple of series, but you had done no marketing, really, and hadn’t done anything more than considered branding your covers.

For this post, I’m going to assume you’ve been at the writing game for a while. You did the work from last week’s post on identifying your existing audience, and now you’re going to try to make use of that information somehow.

To review, here are the steps to building a brand, no matter what stage we’re discussing:

  1. Define Your Business
  2. Define Your Target Audience
  3. Research Similar Businesses
  4. Figure Out What Makes Your Brand Unique
  5. Figure Out What Your Brand Is Not
  6. Create A Brand Mission Statement/Tagline
  7. Be Consistent
  8.  Be Patient

Because of what we’ve been working on, I’m going to assume you’ve defined your business. I’m also going to assume that you now know who reads your books. (As well as you can know it, without doing expensive market research.)

So, let’s move forward, shall we? We’re going to use my work as the basis of brand building here, and we’re going to do it on my two series that I mentioned last week.

Before we get there, though, let me be clear: What I’ll be doing on branding the Rusch business incorporates all of my Rusch books and all of my various Rusch series. In 2010 or so, I gave serious consideration to pruning my existing series and work down to one or two items.

I decided against it, not just because of my hummingbird brain, but because of my existing audience. I have readers who read everything I do. I have readers who only read the mystery short stories, readers who only read the fantasy books, readers who only read the time travel stuff—and readers who only read the nonfiction.

If I pared down to my two big science fiction series, I would be losing readers rather than gaining them.

That said, my series themselves are brands, with loyal readers who eagerly anticipate the next book. I’m not going to look at Rusch as the brand here, but at the series as the brand.

(If you don’t understand how the brand works on all these various levels, look at this post.)

Unlike last week, where I looked at the series separately, here I’ll look at them together.

Research Similar Businesses

As I mentioned in the original “How To Build A Brand” post, it’s almost impossible to research other writers. We’re still in the early stages of writers accepting that they are a business, let alone branding themselves as one.

However, I’m going to assume I did the due diligence on wider business brands—TV, gaming, movies—of a similar type.

Now, we’ll deal with similar businesses that my existing readers liked. That means looking at the other series and authors listed in the also-boughts on my books (listed last week).

Look at the covers, look at the way those series (or authors) are being branded, see if there are any similarities with your work, and then see if there’s anything those other writers/series are doing on marketing that you can do as well.

Mostly, you’ll be looking at covers, blurbs, where these writers got reviewed, whether or not they advertise on websites or do Facebook marketing, that sort of thing. Is the first book in the series lower-priced? Is there a hook that seems similar?

A lot of that research factored into last week’s post. I learned about the readers and what they’re interested in from the also-boughts, and showed you how to do the same. (There are other ways to go about it as well—market surveys, surveys that the film and TV studios do, demographic information in Ad Week and other places that will also help you research, if you’re so inclined.)

Figure Out What Makes Your Brand Unique

In your research (above), you’re looking for similarities. But while you use those similarities for things like key words and Amazon ads, you also need to know how to separate your work from the works in the also-boughts.

What makes your series/work different from those others?

In the case of my Diving series, a lot of the also-boughts are space opera or military sf (or both), but very few of them have time travel, and even fewer have the rather literary writing style that (for some reason) my brain keeps insisting belongs in this series. Also, the Diving series continues to win readers awards and also exists in shorter formats (short stories, novellas). While most of the series that are in the also-boughts started as shorter works, almost none of them have produced shorter works in the series once the series started.

How I’d use that, besides helping with the newsletter or Free Fiction Monday, I have no idea. But I’m sure I can come up with something.

As for the Retrieval Artist, most of the sf detective series follow the same-old, same-old plotline—detective encounters something weird, detective explores the something weird, detective solves the something weird.

The Retrieval Artist series, from the start, has been modeled on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, as well as Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series (which is incorrectly named). Both series feature multiple characters and often focus on one of the side characters without exploring the main character.

Unlike those two mystery series, though, I decided (for some reason) to try every subgenre of mystery in the Retrieval Artist series—from cozy to police procedural to locked room to thriller. The Anniversary Day saga was supposed to be one standalone thriller novel. Hah! Fooled me. Because I was dealing with sf, I couldn’t use shorthand to explain anything, so the single book became three became six. And that’s worth marketing all on its own.

There are a lot of similarities to the other series/works on those also-boughts, but there are a lot of differences as well.

When you go through yours, make two lists—one of similarities and one of differences. You’ll be surprised at the things you’ll dig up.

Figure Out What Your Brand Is Not

In doing the work of discovering similarities and differences, you’ll figure out what your brand is not. You’ll actually see it pretty clearly.

The also-boughts confirmed what I already knew about the Retrieval Artist series. It’s not military sf by any stretch. Sometimes it’s not space opera either. Even though it doesn’t have the literary stylistic tricks that Diving has, the Retrieval Artist series falls into the very center of the sf genre, which is why writers as diverse as Robert J. Sawyer and Connie Willis are on the also-bought list.

Even though I think of Diving as hard sf, the readers don’t. The hard sf writers/series in my also-boughts are writers like Linda Nagata, who writes hard sf, but with a military slant. Mentioning the core of the sf field is probably a lot less important to the Diving readership than it is for Retrieval Artist.

Some of the things that the books are not seem obvious to me, but wouldn’t to readers. While Diving is adventure fiction, it is more Christopher Nolan than Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Retrieval Artist books are more mystery than sf, even though they wouldn’t exist without their sf setting. The Retrieval Artist books always do what mystery novels do—they put order on chaos. Whatever the major problem is in those books, that problem gets resolved by the end.

But, because mystery readers are loathe to cross to sf, marketing to pure mystery readers is not what I should do in the intermediate stage here. Because, as the also-boughts show, pure mystery readers aren’t crossing over.

However, readers who like mystery in their sf and fantasy are crossing over, so more of the marketing should focus on them.

Create A Brand Mission Statement/Tagline

I resist doing that for each series because of who I am. It limits me creatively as a writer.

But as a writer brand—Rusch—the mission statement/tagline is something like All genres all the time. Or expect something different. Or something along those lines.

Of course, I haven’t been able to develop that organically from the beginning of my writing career (like so many of you indies can), so I’m reverse engineering this part.

As I was researching this part of the blog, I did find two cool mission statements for existing brands. I had forgotten all about Apple’s mission statement, which also served as its tag line for years: Think Different. Which continues to define what they do. They’re not just a tech company. They’re constantly trying to change how we live our lives. Trying to be different.

The other cool mission statement that I found comes from Nike. Their advertising tagline is Just Do It, which, quite honestly, I love. I find it inspirational in a good way.

But that’s not their mission statement. Their mission statement is this: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.

You see it in their products. Their product lines run from the person who walks to work and doesn’t put out much effort to the elite athletes who sign endorsement deals with them.

That statement informs everything they do.

Which is why I’m really clear about Rusch. My mission statement for Rusch is my mission statement for life. I need to challenge myself constantly, trying new things, experimenting and growing. That’s who I am as a person and as an artist.

The mission statement for Grayson is easier: It’s Not Easy To Have A Fairy Tale Ending. Grayson will always be goofy paranormal with a touch of romance, usually focusing on myths or fairy tales or both.

And for Kris Nelscott—realistic hard-boiled fiction from the not-so-distant past. That’s not a great mission statement because I haven’t refined it. But the Nelscott books deal with the search for justice in an world filled with injustice. I’m so certain of that brand that even though I set some stories in the 1960s and 1970s, I can tell you if they’re a Rusch story or a Nelscott story from the theme.

Nelscott is not quite noir because my protagonists get justice in every book. They don’t necessarily do so legally, however. But they do “win,” and they do their best to be heroes, even in a world that doesn’t accept them as such.

Have fun figuring out your mission statement. And realize that it might change down the road as your view of your own art changes.

Be Consistent

I pretty much said what I needed to in the previous blog about Building a Brand. Just because you now know who is reading your books doesn’t mean you should change anything. In fact, you’re building just fine with what you’re already doing. Just keep doing it.

If you want to see consistency on a smaller level—the cover level—look at Allyson Longueira’s blog for this week. She examines how she, as an award-winning graphic designer, thinks when she establishes the cover branding for a series of books. She uses art and examples. Take a look.

Be Patient

You’re still learning and growing as a business person. You may not get a lot of result from your branding…yet. What you’re trying to build is brand loyalty, and that takes years.

Inc.’s website has a good short article from 2013 about building a brand. The article emphasizes that it’s not the external features of the brand that are important, but how the brand makes the consumer feel. Does the brand give the consumer a positive feeling (as in Oh! I love the last book. I want this new one)? That’s the ideal.

What I love about this article, though, is this analogy:

Your brand is like a bank account. When you delight customers, it adds value to the brand. If you have a string of great products, customers will forget the occasional flop. Apple is a case in point. Few people remember that they’ve had some real stinkers.

Similarly, when you irritate customers, it extracts value from the brand, and eventually you end up overdrawn and even if you change your ways and come out with some great products, it may take years, if ever, for customers to forget the taint.

Building a brand happens slowly, one product at a time, one interaction at a time, one customer at a time. You can’t force a quick reaction. In fact, if you try, you’ll probably make a bad impression.

Think of all the complaints that readers are making about that sharing of newsletter lists among writers. That’s making a bad impression, just like constantly haranguing your readers to buy, buy, buy your same five products is also making a bad impression. The brand then becomes associated with something bad, not something good.

Character Matters

There’s still a lot of marketing psychobabble here, stuff that makes most writers run and hide. I found the perfect way to think about a brand for writers, though, in an article called “How To Build A Brand From Scratch” by Seattle marketing firm Audience Bloom.

The post’s author Jayson DeMers has this lovely analogy right smack in the middle of the article:

Instead of thinking of your brand in the colorless term of a “corporate identity,” instead, think of your brand as a human being—a fictional character. What would this person be like in real life? How would they talk? What would they look like? How would they dress, walk, and act in different situations? Can you see this person making a good impression with your target demographics? Why or why not? Make adjustments accordingly, and sculpt your character as you would for a character in film or literature.

He then points out that, for years, Apple used this very concept in its Apple versus PC ads featuring Justin Long and John Hodgeman. Those ads were memorable and spot-on in the way both brands were perceived at the time.

You folks do character sketches all the time. This is in your wheelhouse. So give that little exercise a try.

Finally…

In this intermediate stage, you’re still refining your brand. You haven’t finished building yet. (You’ll never finish building, but you will be able to slow down on construction at some point.)

Give it time. You don’t have to do all of this at once.

Remember, the best thing you can do is produce the best product ever. Write the next book. And the next book. And the next book.

Yes, marketing is important. But you’re a writer, not a marketer. You will be building a brand just by publishing more than one book.

Go slow, be patient, and remember that you’re in this business for the long haul.

The most important things you can do? Write and publish. Devote 90% of your time to those things. Then focus on the marketing for the remaining 10%. As you do, think about building a brand. Think about adding to that brand bank account.

Do one or two things, then go back to writing.

And have fun!

***

This branding series is nearly done. When I finish, I’ll have another book on marketing. I can’t decide if this is Discoverability 2.0 or if it deserves a different title. Ah, branding fits in everything we do.

But I’ll worry about that when I am done.

If the rest of the series goes as planned, I’ll be done the first week in August, and we’ll turn to other topics. I’m already dealing with other topics on my Patreon page. I posted two blogs there that won’t see the light of day here until mid-August at the earliest. I’m halfway done with a third for the Patreon page as well.

Yeah, I have a lot to say these days. Who knew?

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post or this series and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: How To Build A Brand: The Intermediate Stages,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.




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10 responses to “Business Musings: How To Build A Brand 2: The Intermediate Stages (Branding/Discoverability)”

  1. acflory says:

    I wonder if you shouldn’t do a Robin Hobb and simply rebrand ALL your writing as Rusch? We’re Indies, we don’t need to be pigeon-holed any more. 😀

  2. […] 4. Building your author brand can sometimes be just as important as writing the book. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has some pointers for you here. […]

  3. Thorn Coyle says:

    This article just came out today and is quite interesting.

    How to market when your brand is brand-less – and your product is all over the map:

    https://www.fastcodesign.com/90133294/lessons-on-branding-from-a-company-that-has-no-brand?

  4. Thank you! I have been following this series since the beginning. I’ve been digesting and meditating on these principles as I continue to lay the foundations for my publishing company. I started with changing my bio and revamping my website. I’ve begun with branding my author identity to be the umbrella for all the genres I write in and have redone my publishing company site to better brand the genres. Branding the individual books needs some smaller revisions that I will do here and there. I’m happy this series started while I’m still in the early phases of list building.

  5. Kate Pavelle says:

    Thank you, Kris! This is all good stuff, and I’m now glad that my writers know that I’m me under more than one name. Please relay fan-girl squee to Allyson as well, her post does not allow comments. I thank her for the step-by-step Photoshop sequence on altering that cover art. That’s solid gold for me. I can pull that off… if I’m careful. Isolating the eye was pretty slick 😉 FWIW, in gay romance, it’s virtually impossible to find a new stock photo guy of the right age that hasn’t been used on a cover of a colleague’s book yet, because they usually travel in pairs.

  6. lindajordan says:

    I really hope you do a post looking at your whole body of writing as the brand, for those of us who similarly write all over the map and need some guidance. That said, I’m enjoying the way your showing us your thinking on branding the individual pieces of the map. Thanks for all this!

  7. Vera Soroka says:

    This is why I choose to do pen names. I can brand each name to the genre or what I write. Under my own name I want readers to think of me as a faerie tale novelist and cat novelist. I don’t have an audience or sales right now. I need to focus on the writing and producing the products for sale. I am getting ready to publish what will be my debut full length novel under my own name. I will do some marketing for that. Might try an amazon ad, we’ll see.

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