Business Musings: Brand Image (Branding/Discoverability)
The publishing industry has been shifting since 2009. Indie publishing has become a force since 2011 or so. At first, we writers made our work available, but the things that worked six years ago don’t work now.
The problem is that the marketing gurus for writers are just other writers with an okay idea. As I’ve said all along, we writers must accept that we’re small business owners and start acting like it.
One way we need to act like business owners is to accept the responsibility for the presentation of our products. I’ve been writing about that for a few years now, but I’ve also known that I haven’t done everything I could.
It took a few other things to push me forward on branding—not just cover branding (which I dealt with in Discoverability) but also with branding the way other businesses do it.
I’ve been idly noodling on all of this branding stuff off and on for weeks. Some of it comes from planning this series, but most of it comes from where my careers stand at the moment.
As I’ve said from the start, I’m doing this series for me. I know most of these business things, and I’ve never applied them to writing before, primarily because I got my start decades ago in traditional publishing.
So, I’m writing these blogs in public as an excuse to think out loud about all of these changes I need to make. I hope these blogs help you in the process.
Branding is a new area for writers, particularly on the level that we’ve been discussing throughout this series.
It’s something we all need to learn how to control and understand. We’re in this same boat together. We’re now in the position where we can apply general business practices to our writing.
When it came to branding, writers couldn’t do any of this work before.
Until the indie revolution, writers ceded all of their promotional efforts to traditional publishing. Fifty years ago, the branding that traditional publishing did was for their own publishing companies. I’m currently reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader. The section on his first career at Knopf is particularly fascinating—and particularly applicable to this series.
He worked at Knopf after Knopf’s brand had become synonymous with quality literature. The attitude that readers, critics, and booksellers took toward Knopf was that whatever Knopf published was excellent. (I remember this: I grew up in a snobby literary household. A lot of the books we bought were Knopf books—and they were good.) Previously Gottlieb had worked at Simon & Schuster, which had a different reputation.
He writes about the perceptions of the two different companies (and the impact on the work he did) this way:
… I had come to realize that I was not the only one for whom the Knopf name had always held great resonance. Once the house began to show renewed energy, there was no difficulty attracting writers to the home of the Borzoi. The quality of our design and production was a further attraction. Perversely, at first I found this phenomenon unsettling—even a little irritating. Nina [Bourne] and Tony [Schulte] and I had spent so much energy trying to convince the publishing world that Simon and Schuster was a place of distinction—“Please pay attention to A Legacy! Please try Catch-22!—that we weren’t sure how to behave in a situation where everything we published was presumed to carry distinction because we were…Knopf. It was particularly unsettling when books of ours that definitely lacked distinction nevertheless received the benefit of what was something of a free pass. We got used to it, however, the way one always gets used to being spoiled. (Gottlieb, Robert, Avid Reader: A Life, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016, hardcover edition, p. 147)
What he is writing about here is brand image. Brand image is the way that the customers perceive the brand, not the way that the business markets the brand. (I’ll have a more extensive definition below.)
Back when Gottlieb was at the height of his editorial powers—the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, the publishing companies had distinctive voices and personalities. I remember reading an essay from Stephen King back in the 1980s, in which he discussed how much he wanted to be published by a particular company because it was a prestige company (not something that published schlocky genre fiction). I remember feeling both happy that he confirmed my opinion about the company, and concern that he would change his own personal writing style to get into that particular company. (I worried needlessly. He did get literary acceptance—in this century—for the work he was doing, not the work he thought he should do.)
Traditional publishing companies no longer have the kind of brand recognition that they enjoyed fifty years ago. All of that is due to mergers. The imprints have vanished; the brands are gone. In looking up that Stephen King quote—which I did not find—I saw that he is published these days by Scribner. The company was founded in 1846, and run by the family for about 100 years.
In 1978, Scribner merged with Athenaeum. Athenaeum merged with Macmillan in 1984. In 1994, Macmillan merged with Simon & Schuster—yes, the very company that Gottlieb once worked for, and which was once trying to convince the world that it published quality work.
Scribner, the original home of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and more, still tries to hold onto its literary reputation, but it doesn’t have one—not in the way it did in the mid-20th century. Its identity has been horribly diluted by all of this merging and messing with the brand.
The same with Knopf. It went through two different mergers in the past twenty years, and while the publisher is still identified by its Borzoi colophon, it doesn’t really have the cache it once had.
Why is this important to what we’re talking about here?
Because the attitudes formed in the period of time when publishers had distinct identities still inform writers today. Writers still believe that a publisher will help them promote a book—and one way the publisher used to help promote was with the publisher’s own brand.
You knew what kind of book you would get from Harlequin, from Knopf, from Scribner’s, from Pocket Books. With a handful of exceptions, that is no longer the case.
Buried in that Gottlieb quote was another thing that writers still expect, but which hasn’t happened for most writers since the 1990s:
The quality of our design and production was a further attraction.
Part of that design and production was coming up with a brand identity for each writer published by Knopf. Each writer’s books had a distinctive look, which also fit into Knopf’s brand identity. (Please look at Brand Identity so you can see how this works.)
Back then, a writer got picked up by another publishing house, back then, the new publisher usually purchased the entire backlist from the previous publisher, and rebranded.
In short, the branding was done by the publisher.
In 1991, when I came into the business as a novelist, this backlist trend was slowly dying. So whenever a writer switched publishers, her brand identity ceased to exist. Some publishers tried to create an illusory brand identity—such as pretend that all of the previous books still mired at other publishing houses did not exist—but readers rarely fell for that.
Writers who got their start in traditional publishing after 1990 or so have no consistent brand identity. None. Only a handful remain lucky enough to have stayed with the same publisher during that time, and those writers might have a consistent brand identity.
I say might because the publishers kept merging, and new editors and new managers came on board, and often the old designs—the old branding—got tossed as newer people took over the publishing house (only to get laid off four or five years later).
Traditional publishing houses no longer have identities. Neither do their writers.
When indie came about, most self-published writers copied what traditional publishers were doing to promote books. And if the traditional publisher was not doing something, writers failed to do it too.
Some writers had a vague sense that they needed to control their brand identity, and those writers did consistent work on their book covers or their series.
This is where the myth that says the only way to be successful is to write in a series comes from. Everyone knows that a series should have consistent branding, and so series are instantly recognizable. They’re easier to market, because they’re easier to identify.
If you’re a writer like me, though, or like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates or any one of a dozen other writers, you don’t like playing in the same sandbox each and every day. Your published works are all over the map.
Most writers act like traditional publishers in that instance, and throw up their hands (after eating them first—okay, I hate that phrase, but it’s appropriate here). Publishers believe it’s impossible to market a writer who writes in multiple genres, with multiple voices, and multiple tones. And because publishers believe it, writers believe it too.
But it’s not true. Fifty and sixty years ago, publishers used to market writers who wrote all kinds of things.
The difference is all about branding—both identity and image.
So let’s talk about brand image now.
The impression in the consumers’ mind of a brand’s total personality (real and imaginary qualities and shortcomings). Brand image is developed over time through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme, and is authenticated through the consumers’ direct experience.
Okay. There’s a lot to unpack in those two short sentences. We’ll leave the most fascinating phrase, “a brand’s total personality,” until last.
But I know some of you read the definition and immediately panicked. Advertising campaigns? You thought. I can’t afford an advertising campaign.
Ignore the word “campaign,” and go back to the post I did titled, “How To Build A Brand.” In it, I explained how branding is advertising, and how you can build a brand slowly. (If you need more ideas, pick up my book Discoverability or look at the free [but out of order] posts online.)
The key word in the front part of that sentence isn’t “advertising.” It’s “consistent.” Remember, we discussed consistency. In short, write the best books you can (of any genre), and then be consistent in your presentation. Everything from your logo to your typeface to your actual paid advertising (if you have any), even if that advertising is just Facebook ads, make sure you’re presenting the same message in similar ways.
Consistency is primarily about quality, though. And the quality is defined by you, whatever you do best. We’ll have more on that in future posts, and if this isn’t clear, then click the link I posted two paragraphs up.
The other important phrase in that first sentence of the definition? Developed over time. You can’t do this fast. No matter how much you want to.
We can’t ignore the fact that your brand image is “authenticated through the consumers’ direct experience.” How many times have you purchased a product only to discover it wasn’t as advertised? Sometimes it’s better than advertised. And sometimes, it’s not as good at all. I can’t eat dairy any more. I was happy to discover some vegan cheese that’s amazingly good, but so far, I’ve not been able to replicate pizza, no matter what all the advertising says. (And I’m sorry, chewy and sweet is not what I think of when I think of pizza.)
So you can tell your customers—readers, in our case—that you’re giving them the best book they’ve ever read, but all they’ll do is compare your book to all the other books they’ve read, and you’ll probably come up lacking.
Readers make up their own minds about good and bad. What they like about your work might not be what you think at all. So, if you advertise your romantic suspense novel which has a touch of humor as chick lit, the chick lit fans will probably hate the book—because your branding, once authenticated by the customer’s direct experience, came up lacking.
So, what was brand image for writers before the indie revolution?
It was entirely predicated on the writer’s name. J.K. Rowling was quite aware of this when she wanted to write downbeat mysteries. She knew her name was associated with a certain wizard and a certain tone. Her mysteries are nothing like that. So, she tried a secret pen name. Even once she was outted as Robert Galbraith, she kept the name, because that’s a signal to readers that the Galbraith books are significantly different than the Harry Potter books.
It’s good news for writers that our brand is tied to our names—even now. Because that way, readers will know what they’re getting, just by seeing your byline.
Sometimes that reader expectation is fairly narrow (Harry Potter for J.K. Rowling), and sometimes it’s quite wide (all kinds of mystery/suspense/horror/literary genres and subgenres for Stephen King). The consistency isn’t necessarily in the genre of the book or even in its characters. It’s in the way the writer writes—the way the writer thinks. (More on that in future posts.)
So…if you’ve been publishing for quite a while, like most of us who started in traditional publishing, you have a brand image. It might be small, known only to a handful of readers, but their experience with your work gives them an opinion about what you do.
Please note that sometimes the experience they have with your work is like my experience with The Walking Dead. I know the TV show exists. I know lots of people love it. I also know I will never, ever, ever watch it, no matter how many times someone implores me to do so.
That show’s brand image is both a positive and a negative thing. I have judged The Walking Dead and determined it’s not for me, based on reviews, advertising, clips, and the conversations of my friends. I won’t sample it any further. My perception of the show (true or not) is that it is not Kris-worthy, so I’m avoiding it.
Those of you who are just starting out have no brand image. None. You haven’t published anything yet. Or maybe you haven’t published enough. One novel does not a brand make.
So let’s finally get to that phrase brand personality.
A brand is an entity, something that exists by itself.
Gottlieb discusses that in the paragraph from Avid Reader. There was a perception of Knopf that was separate from everyone who worked there, separate from the building and the actual list. It was a perception that anything with the Borzoi colophon on it was a quality book—whether that was true or not.
Here’s the ironic part: even if a reader didn’t believe a book published by Knopf was a quality read, the reader didn’t blame Knopf. The reader either blamed himself for not understanding what made the book quality or the reader would say something like, “Well, that wasn’t up to Knopf’s usual standards.”
The reader would never say that the book itself was bad or unworthy of being published.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it would have taken a whole mess of really bad books to convince readers that Knopf was not a high quality publisher. It would have to take a lot of evidence to show that Knopf was in decline. That house published Nobel and Pulitzer winners in higher numbers than other publishing houses. Knopf also won a lot more of the other literary awards. The decline would have had to have been across the board—in reviews, in awards, and in the loss of the really big “literary” writer names before people stopped associating Knopf with quality.
You’ll note that this decline has happened in the past twenty years. Most of you have never heard of Knopf.
The word Personality should be heartening to you. Because if the writer is her own brand, then the writer’s personality becomes an essential part of the brand.
A writer personality is just like a human personality. Wait! It is a human’s personality. With all of its quirks and foibles, with its sense of humor and its vitriolic anger. Readers who like a writer (as opposed to a series) expect to see different sides of that writer, just like you expect to see different sides to your friends.
Determining Your Brand Image
Sometimes it’s pretty obvious. Newbies have no brand image at all. None. Zero, zip, zilch. No one has heard of you, so you can build from scratch.
If you’re a famous writer, you’ll see your brand image reflected back to you in the media coverage, reviews, and—if you’re traditionally published—in the way your publisher blurbs your books.
If you’re a midlist writer or if you’re indie or hybrid, you probably have no idea what your brand image is. Amazon reviews aren’t helpful, and you won’t have media coverage.
At this point, early on in your branding adventures, I would say that you should ignore your brand image. In other words, follow your parents’ advice: Stop worrying about what everyone thinks of you.
Just do your own thing.
Part of your own thing, though, is developing your brand identity, which we talked about last week. If you follow the steps in last week’s post and if you are consistent about it, you’ll be able to control some aspects of your brand image.
Big Business And Brand Image
Big businesses (not publishing) often hire polling companies to determine what a product’s brand image is. The polling company does double-blind tests, comparing one product with the business’s product, to determine what the consumer thinks.
Unless you’re a truly rich writer, you can’t afford to do this kind of work, nor should you.
Polling your newsletter subscribers won’t help you here. They’re a self-selected group of people who like your work. Your brand image includes people who like your work, people who avoid your work, and people who hate your work. Ironically, the same attributes probably influence all three responses.
The only time that brand image should matter to you at this early stage of building your brand is when your brand image goes seriously awry. By seriously awry, I mean things like Chipotle’s e-coli problem a few years ago. Chipotle was known for fresh ingredients without preservatives, and some of the coverage of the e-coli incidents said that the lack of preservatives caused the e-coli problem.
Chipotle has been doing serious damage control ever since, working very hard to rebuild and repair its brand. Coke did the same kind of rebuild more than thirty years ago now. Some genius came into Coke Headquarters and decided to get rid of the signature product, replacing it with another product. That lasted less than a year, and Coke spent nearly a decade rebuilding its brand image. (That’s where the phrase Coke Classic came in. Once upon a time, that was what Coke was, and nothing more.)
Writers rarely need that kind of damage control. When they do, it’s for something truly serious.
Janet Dailey plagiarized Nora Roberts. (Dailey was having issues in her personal life, and couldn’t meet her deadlines, so she tried stealing instead.) Dailey still has a career, thanks to the intervention of one editor who had championed her from the beginning, but Dailey’s brand is tarnished even now.
George R.R. Martin is on the cusp of something seriously awry as well. Every year that goes by without a new book in his fantasy series tarnishes his reputation even more. Much of the large fan base he was building has peeled off in disgust. Will they return when (if) he publishes the next book? Probably not all of them.
Is this a serious enough problem for him to worry about? I don’t know. I would be worried about it. But I’m a different kind of writer, with a different personality. The same kind of pressures (the whole world is waiting breathlessly for your next work) nearly sank J.K. Rowling, but she managed to get through it. Whether George does remains to be seen.
If you are lucky enough to know aspects of your brand image, you can play to that image in marketing. Use the positive—and the negative—to attract readers. Sometimes going straight into the face of the negative gets the attention you want for marketing.
As an example, let me use my antipathy to The Walking Dead. If I were designing an ad campaign for the TV series, I’d do a lot of what the series is doing now—all the positive reviews, all the great comments, all the surprises. But I’d also have one series of ads that would say something like this:
Think The Walking Dead is all about the zombie apocalypse? Zombies, zombies, zombies all the time? Then you’re missing one of the best shows on television about hope, forgiveness, sacrifice, and what it really means to be human. Zombies—they’re just a metaphor. Except when they devour your brain…
That might bring in a few viewers who didn’t realize the show has depth.
The Important Difference Between Brand Image and Brand Identity
Brand image is all about the past. Brand image is what people have experienced with your brand. Past tense. You hear it all the time when folks discuss Stephen King. They think he’s a horror writer. That’s still his brand image to some people. But he’s much more than that.
They have no idea what he has written in the last twenty years.
Brand image looks backwards.
Brand identity looks forward.
Brand identity is all about the future. You build a brand identity. You can change it, too. Slowly, of course. You can rebuild your brand identity—and if you do it right, you’ll eventually change your brand image to something that comes closer to what you want it to.
The biggest difference between brand identity and brand image, though, is control. You control your brand identity. You’ll never completely control your brand image.
I find those concepts freeing. I would rather be working toward the future than struggling to control the past.
That’s why I tell you to write the next book.
When you try to figure out what your fans “want,” or what they expect, you’re looking backwards. You’re saying, What did I do right and how do I do it again? rather than remembering the passion that brought you to writing in the first place.
What you did right, back then, was write without thought to your “fan base” at all. Write the next book, finish it, market it while you’re writing the next book, and stop obsessing about what other people think.
Your brand image will take care of itself, particularly as you learn how to market your current projects.
Worry only about your brand image if something goes seriously, horribly wrong. And let me reassure you here: most writers never have a Janet Dailey level problem in their career. The chances of you suffering through a horrible, serious wrong are pretty slim. You’re not going to have fiction contaminated with e-coli.
If you’re savvy enough to understand your brand image, use that. If you’re not able to see what your brand image is, ignore it.
The real key? Stop worrying about it.
Write the next book. Be consistent in your branding. Market as best you can.
And move forward.
Any time you get stuck in the past, you’re making a mistake.
Writing is all about the future.
Keep looking ahead, and you’ll be just fine.
I love the way you folks are responding in private to this series of posts. So glad that the series is a jumping off point for you!
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“Business Musings: Brand Image (Branding/Discoverability),” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.