It’s no secret that readers do not connect with a publisher’s brand. Most readers don’t even know who published the last book they read. That’s because readers connect with the author’s brand.
Traditional authors with strong brands receive big advances and marketing support from their publishers. Independent authors with strong brands make enough money to provide strong marketing support for themselves, and they make a small fortune besides.
But authors with weak brands get ignored by publishers and readers alike.
Branding is important for almost all authors: fiction, nonfiction, published, unpublished, indie, and traditional. Unless your business card says “ghostwriter,” having a strong author brand is critical.
Most authors have weak brands because they fall prey to one of the ten classic branding blunders that will torpedo their brands.
If you have struggled for years, feeling ignored and unnoticed, you’ve probably blundered in building your brand.
What are the most common branding blunders, and how can you avoid them?
Blunder #1 Creating a Brand “For Everyone”
Beginning writers often believe their book can be used or enjoyed by everyone. The intent is generous and inclusive. But when I hear an author say they’ve written a book “for everyone,” I know they haven’t thought about how to sell their book or who will buy it.
The thinking goes like this: “There are billions of people in the world. Surely some of them will want to read my book.” Unfortunately, that is false. Billions of people don’t know who you are, and they don’t care about you. When you die, they will shed no tears.
Traditional authors who maintain this line of thought don’t receive contracts. Indie authors who think this way only sell a few copies of the book they spent years writing.
How to avoid Blunder #1: Define your ideal reader or niche.
The Saturday Evening Post was a magazine for everyone. It went out of business long ago.
Meanwhile, Onion World, a magazine for people in the onion industry, is still alive and kicking. Onion World is not a magazine for farmers. It’s for onion farmers. Since they’re not trying to thrill or inform everyone, they can specifically thrill the onion farmers. On the other hand, The Saturday Evening Post tried to be for everyone and ended up being for no one.
Many writers want to be The Saturday Evening Post, but the path to success in the 21st century is to be more like Onion World.
Blunder #2: Not Knowing Your Target Reader
Readers don’t want to read a book written for someone else. They want to read a book written specifically for them.
If your beta readers say, “I think people would like this book,” your book is dead. Instead, you want them to say, “I think Sally would love this book.”
There are no people, only individuals. If readers can’t think of a single person who would like your book, then they won’t be able to think of a single person who would love your book. Groups don’t buy books. Individuals do.
How to avoid Blunder #2: Focus!
Less than 1% of the population reads the most popular book of the year. Less than one percent. Most authors never reach more than .001% of the population. That may sound disheartening, but you can still make a living serving an audience that size. The key is to discover which 0.001% to target.
If you are not faithfully writing for a small niche, how can you earn a following at all? If the 20 people reading your blog or short story don’t want to talk about it, how can you get 200 people to talk about it?
If you want readers to spread the word about your story, book, or brand, you must thrill them. A great way to thrill your readers is to focus. If you have sold fewer than 10,000 copies of your book, try to focus on writing to one person. Find a real-life human being to serve as a representative of your whole market.
Once you identify your target reader, get to know that person. Follow her on social media. Take her out for coffee, and ask her about the books she’s reading. Learn to thrill this individual, and you will be on your way to thrilling a crowd.
Blunder #3: Picking a Bad Author Name
The most memorable element of your brand is your author name. It’s on all your book covers and at the top of every other page. Each book you write will have a different title, but they will all have the same author name. Your name is the glue that connects your books.
Choosing an author name is one of the most important steps in developing your author brand. You’d think authors would spend a lot of time thinking it, but it’s easy to underestimate the importance of your author name and just use the name you have.
Depending on your given name, that might be a good idea, but it could also be a blunder.
One common mistake is to use a name that is too similar to another author’s name.
I talked with one Christian author who wrote sweet romance. She almost lost a speaking engagement at a church because they thought she wrote erotica. She didn’t, but another author with the same name did, and she had some explaining to do.
There are three Thomas Umstattds currently living. One is my dad. His Austin CPA firm is named after him and is located on a major highway. In Austin, he is more famous, but outside of Austin, I am more famous.
How do we avoid confusion? He goes by “Tom G. Umstattd, CPA,” and I go by “Thomas Umstattd Jr.”
Look how different we made our names. I never use my middle initial, and I always use the “Jr.” He uses the middle initial, adds CPA at the end, and goes by “Tom.”
We have the same name, but we present different versions of the name to avoid confusion.
Using your middle initial is generally a mistake in the author world because people tend to leave it out. That’s why my dad also goes by “Tom.” The difference between Tom and Thomas helps people avoid confusion.
My son goes by Tommy. If he were an author, he could go by “Tommy Umstattd” or “TG Umstattd” if he wanted to distinguish himself from his grandfather and me.
The biggest blunder would be for him to publish under the name “Thomas G Umstattd.” “Thomas Umstattd” and “Thomas G Umstattd” are too similar, especially since readers usually leave out the middle initial. Readers would get us mixed up.
How to avoid blunder #3: Research.
Before you start building a brand around your given name, do some research.
Do other authors use that name? Is the domain name available?
I have a couple of episodes detailing how to choose a good author name:
In those episodes, James L. Rubart shares how his middle initial has caused him trouble.
Blunder #4: Building a Generic Brand
No one sets out to have a generic brand, but many authors end up with one anyway. Genre novelists often struggle with this blunder, but it can happen to anyone.
If you write Amish, military sci-fi, or romance, it’s easy to allow your genre to eclipse your author brand.
I’ve read some great fantasy books, but I have no idea who the author was. I enjoyed the books, but there was nothing distinctive about the author (or the story for that matter) to help me remember him or her. It was just another dragon book I enjoyed and forgot about.
How to avoid blunder #4: Develop the courage to be yourself.
To avoid building a generic brand, develop the courage to be yourself, and allow your quirkiness to show. If you are too buttoned-up and corporate, you become forgettable. When we say “everyone is unique,” we mean that everyone is different. In other words, “everyone is weird.” The more you hide your weirdness, the more generic your brand becomes.
If all the other authors in your genre are cussing online, and you don’t cuss, then don’t cuss to fit in. Be different, and readers will remember you.
Show Your Personality
You can avoid being generic by allowing your personality to show.
- Develop a clear voice in your writing. Master the fundamentals of the craft so you know when you can break the rules and get away with it.
- Write a letter to your reader at the end of your book that shows a bit of your personality.
- If you write nonfiction, incorporate personal anecdotes to illustrate your points.
If you want a distinctive brand that readers will remember, discover how you are different from other authors. Then allow your readers to see how you are different.
Blunder #5: Building a Strange Brand
Blunder #4 and Blunder #5 are like gutters on a bowling lane. Going too far in either direction leads to failure. While you don’t want to be generic, you also want to be too different.
If all the other authors in your genre write in English and you write in Mandarin, readers won’t read your book. That’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the point.
Authors tend to build a strange brand when they write in a genre they have not voraciously read.
It also happens when an author writes for an audience they don’t belong to.
For example, if you are no longer an evangelical and write about how evangelicals are terrible people, evangelicals will find you too strange and will be repelled by your brand.
If you want to write a romance for readers who don’t like romance, but you don’t read romance, you’ll face the same challenge.
Each tribe of readers has its own set of expectations. You need to know those expectations. It doesn’t mean you have to meet every expectation for the genre, but when you violate an expectation, you want to do it on purpose.
I recommend authors read at least one book in their genre every month.
Your brand should cause readers to say, “This author is one of us,” but it also needs to be intriguing. You don’t want to be so weird that you are no longer “one of us.” On the other hand, you can’t be so similar to other authors that you become generic and forgettable.
How to avoid blunder #5: Know your reader.
The only way to find this balance is to get to know your readers. Meet them for coffee in real life. Ask them questions in your emails. Learn what they love.
Blunder #6: Embracing Style Over Substance
Writers often leave a branding workshop with visions of beautiful websites, eye-catching fonts, and striking design. But those workshops are usually taught by graphic designers. They focus on the services they sell rather than the elements of an enduring brand.
When you build a website, you may be tempted to spend more time on the style than the website’s words and substance. Readers don’t visit your websites because of your pretty fonts. They visit your website because you offer the substantive content they want.
If you are curious about why readers visit author websites, what they want, and how to thrill them, I have a free course on how to develop an amazing author website.
Logos, fonts, and colors may remind people about your brand, but many successful author brands don’t have any of that. “Steven King” has a different typographical treatment on every book, and yet he has a strong brand. Why? Because the substance of his brand is strong. He writes the same kind of book over and over at a consistent level of quality.
If you are in a conference workshop where the speaker spends more time talking about business cards that match your website than about identifying your reader’s expectations and surpassing them, stand up and leave that session. The speaker doesn’t get it.
How to avoid blunder #6: Write the content your readers want.
Build your brand on substance rather than style. For an author, this means consistent, quality writing. Authors with the strongest brands have consistently met and surpassed reader expectations with their writing.
You don’t have to ignore fonts and colors, but you can only answer those questions after you have first answered the more important questions about who you write for and what they want.
Blunder #7: Picking the Wrong Shelf
You know an author has a strong brand when two things happen:
- People know about the author.
- When they hear the author’s name, they know what kind of books the author writes.
Building a strong brand requires discipline. You must continue writing the same kind of books, ideally in the same genre or family of genres. Most authors don’t think this rule applies to them, and most of them are wrong.
A handful of authors can write in multiple genres, but those books usually sell to the same readers.
For instance, Tricia Goyer, who I interviewed on the podcast last week, writes in various genres. But she can sell all her books at homeschool conventions because she’s created her own micro-genre. She writes all kinds of books for homeschoolers.
When a reader walks into a bookstore, they must decide which shelf to visit first. To choose a genre is to choose where you’ll be shelved and who your reader will be.
My wife and I love to visit bookstores. We enter the store together, but I head straight to the comic book section while she heads straight for the children’s section. The books in these sections are alike in that they use images and text to tell a story. However, their readers are very different.
The comic book aisle tends to be full of old nerds like me, while the children’s section is filled with kids and moms. When you pick a shelf, you are also picking a price point. Books shelved in the comic section average around $30.00 per book. Books on the children’s shelves sell for around $9.00 each.
If some of your books are on the children’s shelf and some are on the comic shelf, you are reaching entirely different audiences who have different expectations. If you tune your brand for one, you will turn off the other. The violence that makes a comic book exciting would make the mother of a toddler very angry.
How to avoid blunder #7: Learn about the genre’s readers.
Discover who reads the genre you want to write and how much money they normally spend on a book. Then choose your shelf accordingly.
Blunder #8: Changing Genres
Picking a shelf means picking a dance partner. Don’t make your target reader sad by dancing with everyone else in the room. Or, as they used to say, “dance with the one who brung ya.”
Each time you change genres, you set your brand back five years. It is like giving up on a video game and starting over at the beginning with a new save file. If you change directions in your writing every five years, you won’t get anywhere with your brand.
Now when I say don’t change genres, I’m referring to what you publish. Authors going through the Novel Marketing Five Year Plan course are encouraged to explore all kinds of writing. They experiment with short stories that they don’t usually publish.
Before your first book is published, you can change directions at any time. But once that first book is published, readers will expect your second book to be like it. Each book you publish limits your options with the next book you publish. The more books you publish in one genre, the more you become identified with that genre.
That’s one reason the 9th Commandment of Book Marketing is, “Thou shalt not publish thy first book first.” There is a reason we don’t let six-year-olds get married. When you start writing, you don’t know enough about your craft, your reader, or the market. It’s hard to choose a genre with so little information. Some authors never recover from the first book they published. It is very hard to deviate from the reader expectations you set with your first book.
How to avoid blunder #8: Establish a new pen name and brand.
Now, you’re not actually limited in what you write. You can write under a pen name for a different kind of book, but that also means building a new brand. The pen name acts as connective tissue connecting that new kind of book with the other new kinds of books you plan to write.
If you write thrillers under your real name, your real name connects your thrillers to each other. If you write romance under a pen name, the pen name connects the romances and keeps the brand separate from the thrillers.
Some authors can write in multiple genres under several pen names. But building a brand for each pen name is a lot of work. I only recommend that strategy after you have successfully built one strong brand. After you know how to do it, you will be able to do it again.
In most cases, changing genres just sets you back.
Blunder #9: Focusing the Brand on the Author
Since you are your brand, shouldn’t you be the focus of your brand? Some authors think so, but they’re wrong. Successful author brands focus on the reader! Otherwise, your brand is just a snake eating itself.
I once asked an author how she chose the colors for her book cover. She said they were the colors used on the printed program at her father’s funeral, and they meant a lot to her. But her readers didn’t attend that funeral, and those colors meant nothing to them.
It doesn’t matter if you like your book cover or website. Focus on creating a website and cover that your readers like.
Readers don’t care about you. They care about themselves.
How to avoid blunder #9: Care for your readers.
Now, don’t waste time and energy saying, “Those readers are so selfish. They should care about me!” Instead, you take the first step toward selflessness. Care for your readers. Your readers will pay attention when they find out you care about the same things they do. When you consistently care about your readers, you will find that they start to care about you in return.
These first nine blunders will prevent you from becoming famous. When the news about you and your writing spreads, it spreads quickly. But it only spreads if you avoid the first nine blunders.
One branding blunder remains. If you have successfully side-stepped all the previous blunders, built a strong brand, and become famous, there is one blunder that will cause it all to vanish.
Branding Blunder #10: Scandal
When readers say you are “one of us,” they expect you to follow the same rules they follow. When you chose a shelf, a genre, and a target reader, you are also choosing a moral code.
You can’t write “for everyone” because we don’t all follow the same moral system. If you present yourself as a Christian who writes for Christian readers, those readers expect you to follow the Christian sexual ethic. A photo of you on a yacht with your mistress will alienate those readers.
If you write for vegans and post a photo of your lion hunt in Africa, that scandal will horrify your readers. On the other hand, if you write for big game hunters, that same photo is the price of admission.
Once you know who you write for, you will understand whose opinion matters. The only people who can cancel you are your own readers. If Amish readers don’t like your violent space marine stories, who cares? They don’t currently read your books anyway, so it doesn’t matter if they swear they’ll never read your books.
In fact, the more they talk about how much they dislike your space marine books, the more attention you’ll gain, and that could actually boost sales.
J.K. Rowling’s book sales increase every time she gets canceled. Her tweets don’t alienate her core readership, but all the attention reminds her readers that’s it’s been a long time since they read a Harry Potter book.
How to avoid blunder #10: Live with integrity.
Live your life in secret as if your readers were watching because they are. You can’t hide. Everyone has a camera in their pocket, and a photo can spread around the world before you get back from your yacht or your hunting trip.
Avoiding a scandal is more than simply avoiding the sins of your community. It also means following the expected behavior.
If you write for a Christian audience, join a church and attend on Sundays. If you write for Apple fans, buy an iPhone. If you write sci-fi books, read other sci-fi books. If you write football romance, read romance books and watch football.
If you think you’ve committed one or more branding blunders, don’t worry. I have worked with many successful authors who’ve blundered on their way to building a brand. Branding is a process, and it takes time to build a strong brand. Be willing to put in the work and prioritize your reader, and you too can build a powerful brand.
By avoiding these blunders from the start, you’ll build a strong brand faster than you ever thought possible.
Speaking about spreading the word, I want to tell you about my new course.
If you want help building your platform, this course provides instruction for every step.
Obscure No More is currently in beta release. A limited number of beta students will go through the course as I make it. Three of the modules are live, including the module on branding.
My courses on podcasting, Search Engine Optimization, blogging, and PR are included with Obscure No More, and I plan to add other courses over the next few years.
The full course will be released in the fall of 2021. To date, there are six beta spots left.
Once the beta spots sell out, the price will increase dramatically. Some of my advisors have encouraged me to make the course a subscription plan for $49 every month. We’re also considering a $1500 one-time payment. We may offer both options.
But right now, you can get the course for a one-time payment of $495 or 12 payments of $49. It comes with free lifetime updates. Use the coupon code “beta” at checkout or click here to activate the coupon code automatically.
This podcast is free to you, but it’s not free to produce. A team of people works hard to bring you each episode. I host and record, William Umstattd edits the audio, and Shauna Letellier crafts the blog post version.
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