The Business Rusch: Branding (Discoverability Part 6)
Last week, I got taken to task all over writer communities on the internet (and probably in writers’ group meetings as well) for telling writers with only one or two books out not to worry about promotion. The response I got in the comments to last week’s blog were mild compared to the vitriol my poor name got subjected to on the private message boards.
Apparently, most of the writers who decided to argue with me didn’t have the courage to do it here, don’t know who I am, and didn’t notice that last week’s blog post is marked Part 5 of a series.
That’s the risk of working on something long week-by-week in draft form. Eventually, the discoverability series will be a book—a much longer book than I planned—and people can read my thoughts in their entirety. It truly does no good to wait because I’ll get to their concerns in a week or two. Nor do they seem inclined to look at what’s come before to see if I’m making a point.
So…those of you in peer workshops that insist on critiquing a chapter per week, let that be a lesson for you. The problem I’m having in the comments and, more specifically, in the writer boards all over the internet is because people are reading these posts as individual items, not as part of a series. They have no idea what I’ll say next, so they don’t know if the information they’re getting is useful or not.
The reason I mention last week’s reaction is that these writers probably won’t make it to the stuff that they actually wanted to read in this blog series. That stuff starts with this week.
I’m going to make some assumptions in the next group of blog posts, and I’ll repeat those assumptions each week until I’m done.
Assumption #1: I’m going to assume you’ve read the previous posts, beginning with this post here.
Assumption #2: With only a few exceptions, we will be talking about fiction here. There are promotion techniques that work for nonfiction—even on the first book—that do not work for fiction. I don’t want to muddy the waters here. We’re discussing fiction in these posts.
Assumption #3: You have learned your craft well enough to intrigue readers. You know how to tell a good story, you have grammar, spelling, and punctuation under control, you create interesting characters, and you write what you love.
Assumption #4: If you have indie published your work, then your work has a good blurb, a great cover, and a well-designed interior. Your work is available in ebook and trade paper formats. (I also hope you have audio books, but for our purposes here, I’m not going to assume it.)
Assumption #5: If you have indie published your work, your ebooks are available in every ebook venue you can find. Your paper novels are in extended distribution on CreateSpace or LightningSource. In other words, if a bookseller whom you don’t know and never will know wants to order your paper book, that bookseller can call up a catalogue from a major distributor (Baker & Taylor, Ingrams) and order your book at a bookseller’s discount. We will not discuss discounting this week, so do not ask about it. We’ll talk about that later.
Assumption #6: If you are traditionally published, your books are with a company that makes the books available in e-book and paper formats, and your books are still in print. (If they aren’t, ask for those rights back and then publish the books yourself.)
Assumption #7: You have at least a minimal web presence. You have a website that readers can easily find. You have a list of your published books somewhere, also findable. You have some passive marketing in place. (A mailing list, a social media presence, or a contact button on your website. Something.)
Assumption #8: You have published more than one book. Most of what I tell you won’t work on one novel. You’ll need several—or at least a novel and some short stories. If you’re haven’t published much, make sure you’ve done 2-7, and write the next book.
Assumption #9: You will finish this discoverability series before you decide which of the things I mention is for you. Because one of the last posts I’m going to write is how to measure success. That should have been one of the first posts I wrote, but of course, I write out of order, and so it’ll go at the end. 🙂
Those are the assumptions.
Now, I have one big WARNING:
Everything I say here, everything, MUST take place after you’ve finished writing your story/book/novel. Do NOT take ANY of this advice into your writing office. None of it. Be an artist: write what you love. When you’re done, then worry about marketing it. This new world of publishing allows us to write whatever we want and publish it. Please take advantage of that. When you write, be an artist, be a great storyteller, not a marketer or a salesperson.
I know, I know. Lots of warnings and assumptions. But I had to be clear, because these points are extremely important. I won’t get to everything this week or even the next week. So…you need to be on the page that I’m on to understand what I’m talking about.
The first few things I’ll discuss about what you can do to promote your books are passive promotion. You will have to learn these things, and you’ll have to learn how to do them effectively. Some of the passive promotion are things that traditionally published authors cannot do. But hybrid authors can, and indie authors can do all of it.
You’ll understand why I’ve insisted that you have a few books finished before you do the things I will mention in the rest of this series. What this blog post discusses is impossible with only one book. However, if you understand the importance of branding, then you can plan for it right from the start.
Traditional business has a very firm definition of the word “brand,” some of which applies to what we’re doing and some of which does not. So, I’m not going to send you to business pages or business blogs here, because I don’t want to confuse you. If you do a search for the words used in this piece, you’ll find more on the topic of branding.
Branding is a means of identifying a product. Traditional businesses think of branding this way. (Experienced business readers, please cut me some slack since I’m being very general here.)
First, there’s the brand itself. That’s the product (or products) that we want to lump together.
Then there are greater and greater levels of recognition for the brand. We’ll deal with just a few of these.
1. Brand awareness—that’s mostly what we’re talking about in this series. Brand awareness makes sure customers know the brand exists.
2. Brand experience—that’s just what it sounds like. That’s the customer’s experience with the brand. The brand experience, which is often an emotional reaction, can also be called brand image. That’s what the customer thinks of when they hear the brand’s name. Obviously, customers need brand awareness before they have some kind of reaction to that brand.
3. Brand recognition—that’s a widely known brand within its target audience. For example, I mentioned Beyoncé last week. All of my readers knew who she was, but not all of you had experience with her brand. She not only has a brand (her name) but she also has brand recognition—people with no brand experience might still know who she is. (And might have an opinion about her brand, which some would say fits in brand experience.)
4. Brand franchise—this one’s tricky. This is where a customer might recognize a brand based on images or some element of the brand without a mention of the brand’s name. For example, if you show an image of a bubbling dark soft drink in parts of the American South, people might identify that drink (regardless of what it is) as a Coke. A tissue might be called a Kleenex, even if it’s not. Those two brands are brand franchises.
Branding 101 For Writers
Readers identify these things as brands (in no particular order): Characters, Worlds, Series, and Writers. Readers rarely (almost never) consider a publisher a brand. There are exceptions—Harlequin has done a fantastic job branding its fiction. But most traditional publishers have not.
In fact, traditional publishers seem to have very little idea what branding is at all. They do branding on bestsellers, almost accidentally. Generally, the book’s designers have no idea how to brand anything. A few years back, Putnam decided to brand Nora Robert’s work, and the publishing trades made a big deal out of it.
But if you’re traditionally published, chances are your work has no individual branding—meaning, the branding is not tied to your writer name. The branding is tied to something else if branding exists at all.
Traditionally published writers of long-standing, like me, have books that look like mishmash of stuff, even if the books are in the same genre and same series. The lack of branding has hurt us. This is not an area where you, as indie publishers, should look to traditional publishing. You need to think outside their narrow little box.
You want your readers to identify your work as quickly as possible. You want them to find you easily. Hybrid writers who understand this are actually changing the industry. Their traditional publishers are starting to ask who their cover artists are and are copying the self-published designs of the hybrid writer, rather than the other way around. (Sad, isn’t it?)
Traditional publishers tend to brand 99% of their books in one way—by genre. Indie writers need to do this as well, because readers expect it.
Don’t tell me you don’t know what I mean. Every time you see a muscular woman with her back to the viewer, looking over her shoulder while brandishing a weapon, you know you’re looking at an urban fantasy novel. Genre branding is so ubiquitous that in some genres, it becomes cliché. Then some traditional publisher changes up the genre branding, and everyone follows suit.
I’m not telling you that you need to put that sexy mean babe on your urban fantasy novel. But…
The reason I use the phrase “indie published” instead of “self-published” is because if you write a lot and publish a lot, eventually, you will have a team helping you. Even if you’re only publishing your own work, you have become an independent publisher.
And as an independent publisher, you must make decisions within your publishing house about branding. On this matter, your publishing company needs both a name that’s different from yours and it needs a logo. Keep the logo simple and small, so that it can fit on the lower spine of a paper book.
Then you must decide how your publishing house will distinguish between the genres you write. If you only write in one genre, and you only write a series, then it’s pretty simple. We’ll discuss that in a moment.
But if you’re a writer who writes in more than one genre, like I do, then you will need different branding for each genre you write in.
In other words, your stand-alone romance novel cannot look the same as your stand-alone mystery novel which should not look the same as your stand-alone fantasy novel.
I’ll be using a lot of my covers as examples here because I’m most familiar with them, and because Allyson Longueira at WMG Publishing is fantastic at branding. I’m not going to discuss all the elements she puts into the covers. But I will say this: she uses different font families for different genres, as well as different kinds of art for each genre as well.
Here are three standalone examples of mine from WMG:
These are in-house genre brands.
You must brand by genre. Readers expect it. They want to know what they’re picking up. For example, many romance readers read the genre to escape the difficulties in their lives. They have enough tribulations; they don’t want those in their fiction. They would be horrified if they picked up Sins of the Blood, without some clue that it’s a horror novel, not a sweet romance like Davy Moss.
You want to be discovered? Being discovered by genre is a fine way to do so. Make sure your tags on the various bookstores are correct as well. If you don’t know genre—and most writers don’t (even though they think they do)—then learn it. WMG offers a genre structure class that’s really valuable for that.
When you identify by genre, you’re going for brand identification. A reader likes romance, so she’ll pick up a romance novel by someone she’s never heard of. What you want from your genre-identified book is for it to move to the brand experience (and brand identification) from the genre to the author.
And that’s our next step.
If you write under different names, then you’ll want a different look for each name. In the past, changing names was the only real way that an author could control her branding.
As a traditionally published author, I chose to have pen names not to hide my work, but to make a clear line between my graphic horror novels or the brutal realities of some of my science fiction works, and the sweet romances I wrote. (There were other marketing reasons for the pen names, which I’ve discussed before, that are not relevant to this post.)
Savvy writers knew that different pen names in different genres would get a different branding on the books—branding that would not confuse the reader. I’m glad I did this for the reasons I used, but it leaves me with a problem now. I’m many writers, not just one, and each writer has her own following. I’ve chosen to continue some of my pen names for that reason, rather than publish everything under Rusch.
If I were a beginning writer in today’s marketplace, I would probably use Rusch for everything, and Let The Reader Beware.
But I would still make things easier for the reader by branding by genre, like I mentioned above. That way, the reader would know just from the cover design that Sins of the Blood is a very different book from Spree, but that there are elements that a lover of one of those books might like in the other.
When you brand by author, you develop a specific design that reflects that author. Note the way my name is on all three books, above. It’s at the top of the book, with the title below.
The Perfect Man is romantic suspense, so its design is slightly different from the contemporary romance, Davy Moss, but the placement of the name is different, and there are other subtle (and not so subtle) differences. The font family, however, is the romance font that WMG uses, so the eye recognizes that font.
As I mentioned, Putnam has gone to great lengths to brand Nora Roberts. They have little circle near her name (called a “bug”), an NR logo that long-time Roberts readers know means this title is brand new. (Her books have been reissued so many times, that readers actually complained about being unable to distinguish new from old, so the readers forced the publisher [or rather, Nora did] to identify the new books.) See the similarities in design, despite the different romance subgenres?
However, note the very different branding on her J.D. Robb pen name. Same person, but different look for a completely different kind of book.
You want your readers to identify your books by their covers. You get to decide how you want to brand your author name.
This is particularly important when you write cross-genre novels, like Dean Wesley Smith’s Against Time. The romance font is suggested on Against Time because it has a heavy romance element. But it’s not the same font. The look of the book is very, very different than the look of my books, because Dean is a different writer. This was a tricky design, because the book is SF too. So Allyson hinted at both romance and sf. (Told you, she’s good.) She blended the genres in the entire design, from fonts to art to placement. Not to mention Dean’s author branding. As his WMG books start appearing this month, you’ll see how the author branding shows up on his work.
Allyson did something similarly cross-genre for my Kristine Grayson books. They’re sweet romances, but they’re paranormals and because I wrote them, they’re heavy on the fantasy. WMG decided to put covers on those books that would intrigue fantasy readers as well as romance readers. So the look is unique to Kristine Grayson.
Your author brand should have similarities throughout your titles (name placement, etc), so that readers know how to find your work. They know at a glance what your books look like, and they’ll pick those books up.
What you want to do, through your storytelling, is move your readers from brand experience (they liked one of your books) to brand recognition (Hey! Look! There’s another book by one of my favorite authors!).
They can make that move without your constant tweeting, promotion, ads, and everything else if you’ve figured out how to brand your books by author.
This is something that traditional publishing stumbled into, and doesn’t always manage to do. When St. Martin’s Press published my Smokey Dalton series, they never branded the covers. Each book looks very different from all the other books, which is death to a mystery series. (Yes, pun intended.)
However, Roc books does a lovely job in general with series branding, and they did a good job with branding my Retrieval Artist novels. If only they had left the previous books in print when the new book came out…
Please forgive that personal moment of ennui.
When WMG Publishing published both series, the company took care to brand each series. But that means that my traditionally published first editions look very different from the current editions. You can buy each book in the new format, although Amazon doesn’t always show it that way.
This happens with all authors who are traditionally published. If they have jumped publishers in the middle of a series, then that series lacks a uniform look. Look at Robert Crais’s first novel in his Elvis Cole series as published by Bantam:
then look at a mid-series novel published by Hyperion:
And look at how the series is being branded now by Berkeley:
His books have never gone out of print, so his series is scattered between several publishing companies, which hurts the branding of the series. Readers still find them, but it’s better to be branded uniformly by series.
Compare to George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, which most of you know as the Game of Thrones series. It’s been with the same traditional publisher from the beginning. This is the look of the books now. (Yes, I know. Tiny. Sorry about that. I couldn’t find much at the right size. However, you can see the design even though they’re tiny.)
Initially, the publisher had no idea how to brand the first book, and tried several looks. You can see all of them, if you look at the oldest (and most expensive) copies of Game of Thrones. I’ve posted tiny versions of the first hardcover (the silver thing) and the first paperback (with the horse). Even though George has been with the same publisher, the books have gone through at least three different looks. But the entire series gets rebranded every time the look changes.)
WMG is working hard at branding my various series. The Smokey Dalton series has a dark historical look.
A middle book:
They share the same font family though, and some other subtle things that Allyson does with sf design.
Allyson brands across different series as well. I write Christmas novellas as Kristine Grayson, and they have a slightly different look that the Grayson book above because they’re in a different series:
Allyson brought that look into Fiction River (which has its own branding) when I edited a Christmas anthology under my Kristine Grayson name. (Take a look at Hex in the Cityon the widgets to see the Fiction River design.) In other words, she combined two series brands so that readers would recognize both.
That’s high art. Allyson has degrees in design and has worked in graphic design for years. She’s also studied branding. She’s focused on this, and you’ll see more of these branding things on my work as time goes on.
Using The Brands
In 2012-2013, Allyson redesigned all of WMG’s books so that they would have the proper look by genre, author, and series. In 2014, she’ll take that design into the websites. You’ll see changes on this website as we brand it. Kristine Grayson’s website will reflect the book designs, as well the websites for the Retrieval Artist and the Diving series.
The brands you design can cross into other forms of advertising as well—print ads, visual ads, etc. But you must design the look first, so that you move into brand recognition—and maybe brand franchise. Only one author I’ve mentioned in this piece has achieved brand franchise, and that’s George. He didn’t do it himself; the HBO miniseries did, and that’s why his books look so professional now. The traditional publisher mimicked what HBO did. (All of the Game of Thrones merchandise uses that branding.)
You know that HBO knows branding. Just think of that sound which starts every single HBO program. It’s brand franchising. The sound makes you think of HBO before you even see the logo.
Branding helps new readers discover you (genre branding) and it helps regular readers find new works (author branding/series branding). It will sell your work without you doing anything after you’ve finished with your cover design.
For a few years, at least.
The Bad News
Think you’re done after you’ve branded all of your work? You are…for five to ten years. And then you need to modernize the brand’s look—particularly if you’re only doing genre branding.
At some point, the dominant look will become stale. (Yes, I’m using produce terms.) I’m already tired of that muscle-bound woman on urban fantasy covers. I’m usually right on the cusp of trends like that. If I’m not happy, then other readers aren’t either. They’ll pass over that woman, thinking the contents are as stale as the cover. Or, that they’ve already read the book.
After five to ten years (and I can’t tell you specifically when) you will have to redesign the book’s cover to make it more reflective of a newly published book.
Think of it this way. The three-year-old you see now might, twenty years from now, be the perfect reader for your urban fantasy novel. Twenty years ago, the term “urban fantasy” did not exist, although the book type did. Twenty years from now, that term might be dated. She might look at your muscle-bound woman cover and think she’s seeing something that won’t interest her because it’s old.
Design a new cover for a new generation of readers.
That will mean a redesign of all your urban fantasy books. And if they’re in a series, then you’ll have to do a series redesign—from the ground up.
You might want to redesign to refresh, like Berkeley is doing with Nora Robert’s very first book. Originally published by Silhouette, Berkeley acquired the rights years ago, and has done a couple of reissues. Here’s the 1981 Silhouette edition:
And here’s how Berkeley repackaged it in 2012 to match Robert’s other contemporary romances:
Refreshed and redesigned for a new generation.
Or you might want to redesign because of some new cultural phenomenon. William Morrow did that with Phillip Rock’s books to capture the Downton Abbey readers. Here’s the original 1979 cover:
And here’s the Downton Abbey fan’s cover from 2012:
Branding. It’s truly an art. But it’s an art that aids discoverability. If you like Downton Abbey, then you should pick up Rock’s book. The branding tells you that, even if you’ve never heard of him. The Passing Bells is part of a trilogy, so all three books have a similar look. That’s brand recognition.
How To Brand
You don’t have to get a degree in design, like Allyson has. You can hire a designer, and help that person along with examples and explanations. If you can’t afford to hire someone with experience, then do something simple.
Make sure your genre covers look like other covers in the genre. Have a clench on your romance; a gun on your mystery. Make your series books have similar covers.
If you want to learn how to brand on your own—in design—then WMG has a course for that too, taught by Allyson and Dean. (You’ll find it in Book Cover Design.) She will be doing some basic lectures in 2014 as well, so look those up, and they’ll have tips on how to do simple design.
You don’t have to learn branding from us, but you should learn it. You are in charge of your own publishing company, after all. You might not do the design. (I certainly don’t [and the world is grateful!]) But you need to know terminology and know what you’re asking for. You need to know what’s right when you see it, and what’s wrong.
Once you have your branding set, though, your sales will go up because you’ve made it easier for your readers to find you.
And that’s what discoverability is all about.
Sometimes people discover my blog because I say something controversial. If I were actually using this blog to promote my fiction, I think I’d be a little less forthright. But I’ve been doing this blog for four years now, so I’m not going to change. I do it to pay forward (since I can’t pay back the folks who helped me), and also to discuss the changes in publishing with like-minded folks. The blog does take time from my fiction writing, though, so I appreciate donations to support it.
I also appreciate the comments, links, and e-mails. I read them all. Thanks for the kind words and thoughts, folks.
“The Business Rusch: Branding (Discoverability Part 6)” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch