Writers, Start Building Your Brand Early!

Photo Courtesy of Tony Harrison via Creative Commons
[Race Car]One of the great challenges for an indie author is dividing time between actual writing and marketing. And I would argue that the same goes for writers who are as yet unpublished. Sometimes, I like to think about giants like Joyce, Fitzgerald and Nabokov. How did those guys do it? Most likely, not at all—or very little. The work spoke for itself. But, hey, we’re talking about us. What are we supposed to do?

If I had to pick one person from history to travel forward in time and demonstrate how it’s done, it would have to be Mark Twain. That guy knew brand, and I’m sure he would do very well using Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Can you imagine? Here are a few of his most famous quotes. And look—they fit so nicely into 140 characters!

All right, then, I’ll go to hell.
I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.
There are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Truman Capote was another famous author who truly understood brand. How about this tweetable quote:

Fame is only good for one thing—they will cash your check in a small town.

Getting It Right
Okay, back to Twain. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the first thing he did was to fix his name. Mark Twain has a nice resonance, doesn’t it? It’s easy to remember and it fits nicely on a book cover. I’m not sure that’s what he was going for, but it certainly turned out well for him. Stephen King is another one. And he was lucky enough to come into the world with that moniker. Yay, Steve!

We all know Mark Twain as a writer, humorist, traveler, public speaker and general troublemaker. He had an amazing wit, and could really lay into someone around topics he was passionate about. I don’t know that he had a publicist, but it seems to me he was very conscious of his image—I don’t believe they called it “brand” in those days. We are all familiar with the wild shock of white hair, the white linen suit and the ever-present cigar. In my opinion, Mark Twain was a marketing genius.

Shy Will Get You Bupkes
I’ve met many writers over the years, and I will tell you that most are not comfortable in the spotlight. They are card-carrying introverts who love working behind the scenes, writing great stories which—if they’re lucky—get turned into movies.

If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I am an extrovert. I like being out and about, meeting people and engaging in interesting discussions. That’s just me. But I don’t think I would be comfortable being on the talk show circuit, delivering pithy one-liners in front of a studio audience. I’m better in small groups.

Which leads me to Brand. Many of the more seasoned authors out there know all about this. But there are those like you who are just getting started—who want to understand what it takes to not only write well but market well. As an aside, I haven’t figured it all out yet, but I’m happy to share what I know.

What is Brand Anyway?
Brand is rather a hard thing to define. I’ll use this definition from Merriam-Webster:

A class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer.

Now let’s modify the definition to apply to authors:

A collection of writings identified by name as the product of a single author.

How about James Patterson? You have only to utter his name, and book titles and scenes play out in your head. Never mind that he has a writer factory churning out books, he definitely gets brand, my friend.

When you do it right, here is what happens. Not only is your name recognizable but the name itself becomes embedded in the culture on a global scale. Kind of like Kleenex. How many people say, “Can you hand me a tissue?” More often it’s, “Have you got a Kleenex?” The same can be said for Xerox and Coke.

There’s a huge responsibility that comes with this identification, though. Call me crazy but I think the Kleenex Corporation wants to ensure that when you think of their products, you picture nice, soft little squares of heaven—scented and unscented—that will make you feel better, especially when you have a cold.

Getting back to authors. When you think of horror, what is the first name that comes to mind? Stephen King, right? Of course. He has spent decades building his brand. His name is synonymous with horror. Can we all hope to achieve that kind of brand recognition? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a nice living. People who love Stephen King don’t just read him. They read H. P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub and many others. It’s a huge playground.

Being Vigilant 24×7
So what does building your brand mean? For me, it’s awareness. I try to be thoughtful about everything I post. I don’t always succeed. But being aware is important because what gets out into the Internet stays forever. So no drunk tweeting, no profanity and no mean-spirited troll attacks on others. A good general rule is to always take the high road.

Linking your digital assets is important as well. There should be a synergy among the various digital destinations you have out there. Make sure your bio and headshot are uniform across the various social media sites. And use hyperlinks to cross-reference the other sites. This also helps with SEO, which is another topic entirely.

Here’s a quick tip to get you started. Want to know what not to do on Twitter? Don’t create a Twitter account, leave the default image and expect to get followers. I mean, seriously? Who in the world is going to follow an egg? Also don’t create some arcane Twitter handle with no description. People want to know something about you. Tell them. Remember, you are building your brand, and it’s supposed to stand out from everything else out there. More importantly, it’s supposed to mean something.

I’ll leave you with this post by Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia.com, “Branding for Writers: An Essential Step to Building Your Author Platform.” In it, he states:

This may sound basic, but many writers have a hard time embracing [their] identity. They see themselves as a writer only after the definitions of their day job, role in their family, etc. When speaking about your work, own that identity of being a writer.

Can’t get any clearer than that. You can write and publish all you want, but if you don’t pay attention to your brand you will have a tough time convincing people to buy your books. Best of luck in all your endeavors.

Want to Write Well? Learn to Research

Photo Courtesy of Ed Yourdon via Creative Commons
[New York Public Library]As writers, we like to pride ourselves on our ability to turn a phrase. And after having written for a while, we find that we’ve developed our own style—our own voice. But the best writing in the world can be ruined if we haven’t researched a topic properly. The cold blade of Truth will cut through our words and leave a wreckage of pretty ideas that, though appealing, make the reader want to scream. There’s a wonderful moment in Woody Allen’s film ‘Sleeper’ where the Diane Keaton character has written a poem (heavily influenced by McKuen) about a butterfly’s metamorphosis. The only problem is, she gets it wrong, with the thing ending up as a caterpillar. Awkward …

Some time ago I read a book that was, for the most part, enjoyable. The plot was taut, the characters real. And I probably would have given the author an excellent review, until I came to the part where he described the protagonist attending Mass. Now, I am Catholic and I know what a Mass looks like when I see it. And his description landed pretty far from the truth—to the point where I would have thrown the book across the room had it not been downloaded to my Kindle. Just imagine your readers tossing your book aside in disgust when they come across something they know to be patently false. Yeah, awkward.

A bad piece of writing advice goes like this: “Write what you know.” Well, here’s what the author Joe Haldeman has to say about that:

Bad books on writing tell you to “write what you know,” a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.

The point is this—if you are a horror, fantasy or sci-fi writer, then obviously you cannot write what you know. You are creating worlds that don’t exist, for crying out loud. But that doesn’t obviate the need for some solid research. You need to describe places and things, and how stuff works. But here’s the beauty part—most of the time, all you need is a great Internet connection.

Learn to Become Self-sufficient
I am a member of several online groups catering to authors. And nothing gets me more wound up than someone posting a question like this: “If my character gets shot, how long will it take for him to bleed out?” I have three little words for you, Mr. Lazy-ass writer: Look it up! Here’s a better question: “I’ve been researching gunshot wounds, and there seems to be a discrepancy on how long it actually takes for a person to bleed out, depending on where they were shot. If my character takes a bullet in the abdomen, what do you think is a safe estimate to make my story believable?”

Now, that’s a great question. The author has taken the time to do the research herself, and she’s also told us what she learned. Finally, she’s made her question very specific. A gold star for you!

Wikipedia is Good But …
Look, I am as guilty of this as the next guy. I use Wikipedia prodigiously. The key is to not treat this well-known site like Encyclopædia Britannica. Typically, when I find something of interest in Wikipedia, I also check one or two other sites to see if they are saying the same thing. If so, then I’m pretty confident that what I’m reading is accurate.

Another great source of information—especially when you are writing about how things work—is YouTube. It’s utterly amazing the stuff people post there! Want to know how to assemble or disassemble a particular weapon? Need to know what the inside of a morgue looks like? More than likely, there’s a video that will show you. Related to that are television shows. Many of the better ones hire real-world consultants who advise the writer and director on how something actual works. I recently finished watching the brilliant new Amazon series ‘Bosch’ (based on the Michael Connelly books), and I have to believe these guys know what they are doing.

The other thing to check for accurate writing is online product catalogues. I am currently completing my horror-thriller trilogy, THE DEAD SERIES, and all of the books reference weapons, both large and small. There are gun shops in my immediate area, but they don’t necessarily carry RPGs and Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns. Both YouTube and online gun catalogs have proven invaluable.

The Joy of Research
In my view, research should not be burdensome. I’m the kind of person who likes to learn new things. So, the fact that I have to stop the creative process momentarily and look something up doesn’t bother me. Now, I may not get everything right. I’m not a trained doctor, soldier or police officer. So I may find things that are technically accurate, but would never work in real life because those people just don’t do it that way. Think ‘Bosch.’ And if I get something wrong, I always appreciate a reader contacting me and telling me so I can fix it.

Writing is not just about creativity and a command of the language. It’s about discipline. And doing research is a very disciplined way to approach your craft. Oh, and here is a link to a post about gunshot wounds and bleeding. In case, you know, someone in your story just got shot.

Authors and Goodreads

Photo Courtesy of Chris Dunn
[Cracked Matador]Sometimes, it’s hard being an author and a marketer. We want to spend all our time on our passion, which is writing. But in order to create awareness for the purpose of gaining more readers, we also need to market ourselves. Yikes! And we do this typically on two main platforms—Twitter and Facebook. But there’s another platform we seem to gravitate toward, and that’s Goodreads.

Goodreads started out as an independent platform devoted to readers—people who love good books and want to discuss them with folks who share their interests. Some time ago, Amazon took notice of the large membership and decided to purchase them. Now, as a destination, not much has changed. You can still add books that you have read or want to read to your shelves. You can create lists, and you can join lively discussion groups. To me, Goodreads is like a gigantic online book club. Except you don’t meet at peoples’ houses, and there are no Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Readers vs. Authors
Here’s where things get interesting, though. Goodreads also allows authors to join and, further, to identify themselves as authors, with their own profiles. My guess is, Goodreads did this primarily so they could entice authors to purchase advertising. I’m not sure how effective that is, and after having participated in Goodreads as an author for the past two years or so (you can check out my profile here), I’ve come to a startling conclusion.

Authors should stay the hell away from Goodreads.

Now, I realize that some of you will be upset with me. What does this idiot mean, stay away? Okay, so I didn’t want you to take me literally—I was trying to make a point. What I actually meant was, in my opinion authors should not attempt to promote themselves in Goodreads. At all. It would be like me showing up at your Wednesday night book club meeting, hawking my horror-thriller novels to your unsuspecting guests and tippling the Merlot when you weren’t looking. First of all, I wasn’t invited. Secondly, how did I get a key to your house?

The Well-behaved Author
Goodreads should be a place for readers, not writers. I think authors should have the ability to maintain author profiles there, but it should be purely for the purpose of interacting with fans who want to ask us questions. Goodreads features a wonderful section in the author profile called “Ask the Author.” Readers can post their questions, and authors can reply. I’ve done this myself, and I really enjoy it. You can check out my Q&As here. And if readers want to know more about the kinds of books I write, they should visit my website.

Well, what about reviews? Authors read too, you know. And if I really like a book, I want to tell the world—just like any other reader. I see nothing wrong with authors posting reviews on Goodreads. I’m not even sure my reviews carry any more weight than some of the best book bloggers out there.

So, what do you think? Should authors be active participants in Goodreads?

Note: This video is hilarious, but it’s NSFW.