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

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When I do marketing posts, they tend to freak my loyal readers out. Sometimes, the posts freak me out too. What writers want from marketing blogs are simple suggestions that boil down to this:

Do x, y, and z, and you’ll get these fantastic results!

Only it doesn’t work that way. Or rather, it doesn’t work that way for everyone. I’m writing this on Sunday, after our weekly professional writers lunch. We have writers of different levels at the lunch, including writers who’ve worked for decades, and writers who are on their third or fourth year as full-time professionals.

We discussed Amazon ads, which we all jumped into at roughly the same time, using the same or similar methods. We all have had stunningly different results. Those of us who’ve been in the business longer haven’t seen the uptick that the newer authors are seeing—which makes sense, since the ads are about information and discoverability, and we’re better known.

Besides, the hot new thing in indie publishing marketing is only the hot new thing for a few weeks or a few months. Then everyone jumps on the bandwagon and the hot new thing becomes tepid. The innovators move on to other things, hoping some of those things will become hot, and everyone else waits for the xyz instruction on what to do next.

Sorry, folks, you won’t find the hot new thing on this blog. This blog and my book Discoverability (which you can read for free here albeit out of order) don’t provide a list of prescribed steps requiring exact action to guarantee success.

I don’t guarantee nothing.

What I’m doing in this series of blog posts is much more complicated. As I mentioned last week, I’m writing this series as a refresher for me. I’ve owned (and started) more businesses than I care to think about, and some of the branding stuff that I’ve done is just plain second nature to me. I never applied some of that branding stuff to writing before because I was traditionally published and I let my (inept) traditional publishers deal with the marketing. In theory, that was one of the reasons we partnered up. In practice, it was…well, the word “clusterfuck” comes to mind.

These posts in this series are meant to be read together, as one unit. (Yes, they will eventually be a book.) At the moment, I have no idea how many posts I’ll be writing. More than the initial three that I had hoped for, I can tell you that.

I am going to add one very important caveat, which will be in each and every post: If you bring any of this marketing stuff into your writing—your storytelling, your creative process—you are screwing up big time. You’ll ruin the very thing your readers love about you.

Your readers love your ability to surprise them. Your readers love the fact that you take them on a journey that seems both familiar and unusual. If you do what you believe your readers want, you’ll retain the familiar and jettison the unusual. You will never be able to surprise them again.

You will ruin your art.

Marketing is not about your writing art. Marketing is a separate art, one that will take study and diligence—and, most of all, patience.

I know, I know. You all want something that will bring results immediately. So do I. But building a brand is not about going fast or cutting corners. It is about continuity, reliability, and establishing your place in the market.

So please, please, as you read these posts, do not bring the marketing ideas into the place where you actually write and create the stories that are uniquely yours. Once you’ve finished those stories, then you can figure out how to market and brand them.

Last week, I discussed the types of brands.  If you haven’t read that, I suggest you do so.

Writers who have been in the industry a long time or who have more than one series or use more than one name might have many, many brands.

I will deal with that down the road. The information in this post will apply to all of your brands. I’ll be giving you a lot to think about, though, and if you have a lot of branded items, you might get overwhelmed. That’s a warning.

Last week, a few of you asked (in the comments and in private) when is the right time for a writer to start branding her work. Well, here’s the thing. The moment you publish your first piece, you’ve begun branding. Branding happens whether you do anything or not. (Traditional publishing has relied on that aspect of branding for decades now, letting brands develop and then jumping on them once they’re already established.)

Brand image—the way that customers perceive your brand—begins the moment a customer (reader) reads something of yours. That customer will get an impression of what you do, and that impression can be reinforced with other work.

If you’re the kind of writer who writes one character or one series, then your branding will focus on that singular thing. However, if you’re the kind of writer that I am, the kind who writes in multiple genres and in many styles, then you will have a brand image that focuses on variety and, perhaps, surprise. The readers, however, will define the specifics of your brand for you.

Think of it this way: you might describe someone’s work by saying, “He writes all over the map, but his stories always have happy endings” or “Her stories are always filled with great characters, no matter what genre she writes in.”

You can help brand image along by creating a brand identity. If, for example, you write fantasy and mystery, your fantasy books might have one look and marketing scheme, while your mysteries have another.

Those of you who are just starting out will have both an easier time of this and a harder time. Easier because you have less material to work with, and can shape the handful of things you’ve already done into a marketing campaign. Those of us with a lot of material and a history in traditional publishing will have a great deal of work that was mismarketed or allowed to die a horrible death or doesn’t reflect what we’re working on now.

For the sake of this blog, though, let’s pretend we all only have one brand. Just one.

We now need to build that brand—not with what we write, but how we bring what we write to market.

To build the brand, we have to do some things that are simple to say and very hard to do. I’ll give you the list, and then I’ll explain.

  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

There are a million other things involved in building a brand, and we will revisit this part of the topic as the time comes. That’s why this post is subtitled “The Early Stages.”

So, let’s go through the list from a writerly perspective.

  1. Define Your Business. The definition here is not I am a writer. You must be more specific than that. Start globally and work your way to the specific. And you must think about this from the outside in, not the inside out.

Rather than I am a writer, you could say, I write the multi-volume Made-Up World Fantasy Novel series. Or I write award-winning short science fiction. Or I write sexy contemporary romance novels set in Venice.

You might have an actual agenda, like some writers I know. Some write to give their readers an escape. Others try to improve the world around them. Still others present diverse characters in a modern setting, or characters who are differently abled and heroic or from some group underrepresented in fiction.

Some writers don’t have an agenda, and simply write.

One way to figure out how to define your writing business is to ask people what they associate with your work. Is it a marvelous voice? Great characters? A unique milieu?

Your business definition is something you will continually refine over the years, so you’re not completely stuck with it. If you want to understand how business definitions evolve, read Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. In many ways, that book is about the evolution of a brand. It went from selling other people’s shoes to creating shoes to selling apparel and other sports-related items, all the while maintaining the uniqueness of the Swoosh (the brand symbol).

Your business definition will evolve over time, just like your business will evolve over time.

  1. Define Your Target Audience

When you’re starting out, you won’t have an audience. You’ll only have a target audience. Those are the people you want to sell to. If you define your target audience as “all readers,” you won’t sell to any readers.

When I got the rights back to my Kris Nelscott novels featuring African-American detective Smokey Dalton, I knew immediately that my target audience was African-American readers. I know that’s strange to say, given that the series was traditionally published, and those readers should have been high on the priority list for my traditional publishing company.

But that company had no idea how to market books with an African-American protagonist and, I believe, had no idea that there were African-American book clubs, magazines, and bookstores. (Seriously.) So the moment I reprinted those books myself, I made sure that they were advertised in various African-American outlets. That has led to a steady growth for the series and the Nelscott name (which, I admit, are two separate brands, but the instruction applies).

Your target audience might be people who loved the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Or people who love World of Warcraft. Or people who collect Disney comics.

Just this month, KFC published a romance novel in which Colonel Sanders is the romantic hero. (I am not joking.) I’m assuming the target audience is romance readers who eat KFC.  I also have a hunch that this was a great marketing ploy someone came up with, because I saw news about this novel in everything from Adweek to The Washington Post to romance blogs. And here I am, giving the book free advertising as well.

The marketing ploy worked. Will it work for Taco Bell? Maybe. But if Taco Bell does it, and MacDonald’s does it, and Arby’s does it, eventually readers will stop paying attention and will move onto the next big thing.

So define your target audience. And go as narrow as you possibly can. You want to be specific here, not general. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to build your brand.

  1. Research Similar Businesses

Similar businesses are not similar writers (although it can be). You work in the entertainment industry, folks. So look at what others in the entertainment industry are doing. What you’re writing might be closer to the Sandman graphic novels than anything anyone else is doing in prose fiction. Or maybe you’re writing books that are like Sherlock, the BBC’s modern take on Sherlock Holmes.

It will be better for you and the brand you’re building if you can pull ideas from outside of the publishing industry, or even from outside of the entertainment industry. Perhaps, like romance writer Sarina Bowen, you’re writing books about hockey. Maybe your marketing should bring in elements of NHL marketing and elements of romance marketing. How do you brand that? Research and find out.

  1. Figure Out What Makes Your Brand Unique

Chances are you started writing to fill a niche that no one else was filling. You loved 1970s Gothic romances, and they went out of print. Now you’re writing Gothic romances for the new century, with strong heroines and brooding heroes. Or Gothic romances for the LGBTQ community. (Oh, that sounds good.)

When I talked to George R.R. Martin as he was developing the fantasy novel series that became Game of Thrones, he talked about writing historically accurate epic fantasy. If the world was build on a medieval society, then it needed to have medieval values and medieval cleanliness, and medieval violence. (I think he achieved that.) Those ideas were revolutionary in the genre back in 1993-1994. The made-up fantasy worlds back then had more in common with wish-fulfillment than they did with the historical past.

Again, drill down. Figure out what makes your work unique. If you aren’t writing in a series, figure out what it is about your writing that makes it yours.

Writers trained in traditional publishing have a tough time with this, because they’re trained to say what their work is similar to, not what makes it unique. Forget the similar to part. Focus on what’s different.

The more specific you get, the harder it will be for you to see what makes your work yours. So enlist the aid of others who love what you’re doing. They’ll tell you what makes your work special. Then you need to believe them, and run with that.

  1. Figure Out What Your Brand Is Not

You have probably said it, and have probably said it forcefully. “My novels are about a Cold War spy, but he’s not George Smiley.” “I write novels about crime scene investigation, but I write about the real crime scene investigators, not that magic stuff they did on CSI.” “I write novels set in space, with an Empire and people fighting the Empire, but I try to keep the series based in science, unlike Star Wars, which is more fantasy.”

And so on and so forth.

In this category, I often think about the comic Get Fuzzy, which is about a single guy living at home with his nasty cat and his very nice dog. Sounds just like Garfield, right? Only Garfield is gentle, and Bucky, the cat in Get Fuzzy, is a tiny little psychopath who brings terror on everyone near him. (I’m sure there are many other differences, but I haven’t read Garfield in years. I prefer the Buckster.)

  1. Create A Brand Mission Statement/Tagline

The brand mission statement really helps, particularly if you can do it in a paragraph or a single line. It depends on what part of your business you’re trying to brand. Debbie Macomber, for example, has been called “the official storyteller of Christmas,” but that’s only for one series of books. (They’ve been made into Christmas movies for the Hallmark Channel.)

My own pen name, Kristine Grayson, has a tagline which I did not think up myself (dammit). That tagline was one of the few good things to come out of my final Grayson traditional publisher. The tagline is “It’s not easy to get a fairytale ending.”

Yeah, that needs tweaking. (I hear Dean bitching about the passive as I type this.) But the idea is right, since the books are fractured fairytale romances.

Come up with something like that, something that can be as identified with your brand as “Just Do It” is with Nike’s, and you’ll really have a winner.

  1. Be Consistent

Most writers completely misunderstand this one. They think it means write the same book over and over again.

Instead, it means write the best book you can. Be consistent in your commitment to quality, whatever quality means to you.

If your books need to have a happy ending to satisfy you, then make sure they all have a happy ending. If you’re writing historically accurate Westerns, make sure that you don’t commit horse opera under that name. Or if you do, make sure you’re clear: Cowboy Dan, known for his historical accuracy, throws caution to the wind and writes a dime novel filled with exaggeration. He hopes you have as much fun reading it as he had writing it.

With that, Cowboy Dan is acknowledging that the consistency in his brand might not be the historical accuracy, but the Western time period.

Once your business is defined, once your audience is defined, and once you know what is unique about your work, then you know how to make sure your audience senses the consistency—even as you change things up.

Consistency also applies to marketing. Make sure that if you decide on a logo or a typeface for your book covers that you use that same logo everywhere, and keep the typeface consistent. Your series books should be visually related to each other. And if you do visual ads for those books, those ads should resemble the books in some way even if the ads don’t use the same art.

If your books are upbeat, make sure your marketing is upbeat. If you’re writing humor, make sure the marketing is funny. If your books are dark and brooding, make sure the marketing is dark and brooding.

If you’re consistent throughout your marketing, you’ll reinforce the brand itself.

  1.  Be Patient

You can’t build a brand overnight. You can’t even modify an existing brand overnight.

You can start branding, and you can make headway, but brands take years to develop.

I love how Raoul Davis expresses this in his article, “7 Keys to Building a Successful Brand” on the BusinessCollective website.

He writes, “Be patient with your brand. Take on every new outreach initiative with care.  Think of it as your baby. Just as you wouldn’t start feeding solid food to a 3-month-old, don’t rush any of your outreach activities, whether they be PR, advertising, or marketing materials.”

He’s right. Some of the things I’ll do for my long-established series would be completely wrong for your brandnew series. But it’s even more complex than that.

Brands and businesses morph. So do writing series and writing careers. I know many a writer who started in one genre, burned out, and moved to another. Some writers found their voices later. Janet Evanovich started as a romance writer, but felt constrained by the genre. She wrote 12 romance novels before she invented Stephanie Plum, the character who made Evanovich’s bestselling career.

Last week, I asked you to think about your brands. I also asked you to up your brand awareness, by examining the brands you use and the ones you ask for by name.

Your homework this week is to pick one of your writing brands (if you have more than one), and see if you can analyze it using the tools above.

Don’t be surprised or upset if you can’t find answers easily. That’s normal. This is a whole new way to think.

Be patient with yourself. And think about this: the experts in marketing always talk about “building” or “growing” a brand. You don’t build or grow anything overnight.

One step at a time, one idea at a time.

And whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, set the marketing aside, and do what you love. Go back to your writing office, forget this marketing stuff, and escape into one of your stories.

Because without those, this branding stuff means nothing at all.


Here we go again. Another series, which will turn into another book. I can’t decide if this is Discoverability Part Two or if this is in the Discoverability series or if this is a revision of Discoverability. Only time will tell, I guess. Hmm, maybe I should be patient.

If you want to support the entire series, and end up with a free ebook of the finished book that comes out of these posts, then head to and hit the appropriate level of support.

If you liked this post or the short series I’ll be doing for the next few weeks, 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 to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: How To Build A Brand, The Early Stages (Branding/Discoverability),” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © © Can Stock Photo / OutStyle.


16 thoughts on “Business Musings: How To Build A Brand: The Early Stages (Branding/Discoverability)

  1. Yey, finally back from a trip! This is a great series, Kris. On my end, for my Olivette Devaux pen, my audience is gay men and straight, mostly college-educated women who enjoy LGBT romance. I write mine with a suspense twist, it’s never just a “meet-cute.” My tag line is “Melting frozen hearts…with a blowtorch!”
    My regular name, Kate Pavelle, is a catch-all basket for “mainstream stuff” and I’ll really have to think about what to do with it.
    The group pen is easy in terms of audience, but we should develop a tagline.
    Thank you, this is all good stuff! Also, just like above, I have no ideal what kind of a person would like to read about a 67-year old, retired, female martial arts teacher who leans on a sword cane.

  2. Terrific article, Kris.

    I struggle with branding too, especially since I write across genres and ages. I finally came up with “Smart outsiders who win.” This would also apply to my speaking engagements, courses, or coaching too.
    As for my audience, with some prompting from a friend, I figured out that they’re
    -like to laugh
    -enjoy the unconventional
    Research. Gak. Necessary, I know.
    What makes me different: voice
    What I’m not: formulaic
    Tagline could be the same as #1, right? But I could think of different taglines for different series.
    I’m working on consistency. Good point that it should apply to marketing too. Perpetual excellence is my goal regardless.
    Patience. Hmm. I want to take some risks and grow my business, and patiently figure out what’s working and what’s not.
    I’ll be mulling over this article and sending you a donation.

  3. Excellent post! Thank you, Kris! I dove into my homework first thing this morning, and found it all so interesting that I made it the basis of a blog post of my own. I’m hoping to “enlist the aid of others” who love what I’m doing, just as you recommend in step 4. 😀

  4. Thanks for putting this out there. Brand is something I often struggle with because I have several different series in different genres (historical mystery, modern day thriller with historical roots, comedy cozies, sci-fi one of these days) and I haven’t figure out a tagline that unites them all.

    1. I also write across several genres. It keeps writing more fun and interesting for me. I’m wondering if it’s necessary to have a tagline that unites everything I produce or if a tagline for each genre makes more sense.Wait—maybe a tagline for each genre and then something that unites those tag lines?

      BTW, thanks for the homework. It really helps me understand what you’re getting at. (And it’s not quite as stressful as a coast workshop because I have a week to finish it. LOL)

  5. I’ve been stumbling around this for the last couple of years, trying to make headway. It doesn’t help that I write in at least four different genres.
    Like MMJustus above, I’m continually baffled by who my readers are since I rarely meet them. That’s one of the drawbacks to all the online sales, I think. It’s not like meeting readers face to face.
    Thanks for giving us a starting place, Kris!
    On to the homework.

  6. I’ve been battling the “figure out your target audience” thing for years. I’ve never been able to figure out how specifically to do that. Every marketing article I read says to do this, but never spells out how it’s done.

      1. Yes please, I would love an explanation of the process. Using very small words 🙂 Explain it like I’m five, or an extraterrestrial visitor from the Outer Spiral Arm. Let’s say…the story is about a thief, who wants to leave her home planet but has no resources except hacking abilities. What would be the market for that? Computer geeks? I can generally follow the example you gave about Chinese-American steampunk, but finding the starting point when it isn’t that clear is what stumps me.

  7. I guess I never thought too much about branding with my work. I guess my blog Short Stories & Stuff is a brand of sorts. I publish every week a flash fiction piece, crap poems or today is a short story that takes place in a new world I am creating that might end up looking like a magazine of sorts. So, yeah, I guess I’m building on that but right now it is all about the writing and getting a library of work out. You have to actually have something to brand to and that means getting more stuff out.

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