Branding Basics from ThrillerfFest

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Community

While at ThrillerFest I attended two panels about branding. How Do You Build a Thriller Brand? was headed up by Jaime Levine (Executive Editor, formerly with Grand Central Publishing) and included big names such as: agent Dan Conaway and authors Catherine Coulter, Joseph Finder, Lisa Gardner and John Sandford. (You can see them pictured in that order on the right, with Jaime at the podium.) This panel looked at how authors with very strong brands created those brands. While all the authors happened to be thriller writers, the information they shared is relevant to authors of all genres.

The other panel titled eBook Marketing and Author Platform: The Author as Entrepreneur focused on branding for authors planning to enter the eBook market. This panel looked at marketing and brand-building as it applies specifically to eBooks, but again much of the advice shared would also be relevant to all authors. The marketing and social media experts on the panel included: Dan Blank (We Grow Media), Rebecca Crowley (RTC Publicity) and Colleen Lindsay (Book Country).

As you can imagine, there was a LOT of information from both panels so in this post I’ve distilled it down for you to the three most important decisions you need to make for your brand right at the beginning of your career. As I mentioned on Tuesday’s post: it all comes down to building trust by connecting with your readers on a person-to-person level. Building that trust comes down to three simple choices you make early on in your career. After that, all you have to do is stay consistent.

Decision #1: Your Name

Pick a name to publish under and be consistent with it. Use this name as your email address, your website, and your social media handles.

For me, choosing a name was a huge challenge. Actually, it wasn’t so much choosing a name as it it was choosing a version of my name that was difficult. I’m Brazilian by heritage so I have (count ’em) five names, and this is without taking my husband’s last name which would have added one more to the crazy mix. I had to decide early on that Gabriela Pereira would be my official name for the purposes of business and writing because most official forms or computers records don’t know what to do with five names.

While you’re at it, grab the URL of your name if it’s available. Even if you don’t plan to build a website, the last thing you want is someone else by the same name to use it for their site and then when people search for your name they find that other person instead.

Decision #2: Visual Elements of Your Brand

You probably won’t be able to control some visual elements, like your book’s cover design if you’re traditionally published. For things like that, you can let the publishing experts handle the branding strategy, as John Sandford, from the thriller branding panel, said he did. If you’re going the self-publishing route, then the onus for creating a strong brand falls on you and you’ll want to make sure your book has a really appealing cover. This means that if you’re not a graphic designer, you are best served by getting someone who specializes in cover design to design your cover. All the experts on the eBook branding panel agreed that self-publishing writers should get their eBook covers professionally designed so that the covers look fantastic both at full size and as a 1-inch icon on the screen.

Other visual decisions, though, are all on you. One big decision that most writers often overlook is their author photo. Many writers think a professional author photo is only necessary when you have a book being published and you need that snazzy picture to go with your author bio on the back flap. Wrong. The minute you start engaging with your readers (be it through social media, your website, or even in person) you need to consider the visual elements of your brand.

This means using a recent photo for social media that shows you in a recognizable way. Don’t use a group shot cropped to show just your face. Worse yet, don’t use some funky cropped picture of just your eye or your hand (unless that’s the specific brand you want to establish). I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve made at conferences because I’d interacted with these writers on twitter and recognized them in person from their faces in my twitter feed.

Tip: Do a real photo shoot. A photo shoot doesn’t have to be expensive, just go to a pretty locale with a friend and have him or her take a bunch of pictures of you. Avoid busy backgrounds or glaring light, like middle-of-the-day sunlight. Natural light will be more flattering than flash from a point-and-shoot camera. Wear something that’s not too busy so avoid hawaiian shirts or animal prints. Also, consider whether your brand has a signature detail. For instance, I know one author who makes sure every time she’s photographed or interviewed, she appears wearing glasses. It’s part of her brand. Think about these details and then keep them consistent.

Decision #3: Your Voice

Whether you choose to tweet, Facebook, blog or none of the above, you need to keep your voice consistent. It can take time to nail down your voice on social media, but don’t worry: when you’re in those early stages of experimentation you won’t have as many followers so you’ll have the flexibility to try new things. Voice is one of those things that is hard to define or explain, but you’ll know it when you see it.

At the same time, remember that the Internet is a big place and once you put your words out there, it’s really hard to take them back. While you want to be your authentic self, you also need to be careful about the personal opinions or information we share online. The Internet has a long memory span and while tweets and Facebook updates might seem ephemeral, once they’re out there it’s virtually impossible to make them disappear. The best rule of thumb I heard at ThrillerFest was from Colleen Lindsay on the eBook panel, who said:

Be personable but not personal.

These decisions will differ for each writer. I deliberately choose not to share personal opinions about politics or religion on social media, not because I don’t have opinions on these topics but simply because they are not relevant to my author brand. Also, to preserve the privacy of my family members, while I will share things on social media about myself, I try to avoid sharing details about my family (hence why I refer to my husband as “lawyer-hubby” and my son has been dubbed “the little guy.”) Many writers with an online presence choose to keep family members anonymous. For me, it’s simply a matter of privacy. If the information isn’t mine to share, I don’t share it.

The permanence of the Internet can be scary but if we over-think every little thing we share, we won’t post anything at all.  I have a simple litmus test I use every time I do anything relating to my work, be it online or off. Before sending every update, pause and ask yourself:

Will this update/post/tweet/email strengthen that trust between me and my readers?

If the answer is a resounding “yes” then go ahead and hit send.
If the answer is even the slightest bit ambivalent, stop and think about it a little longer.

So that’s it. Three basic branding decisions you need to make early in your writing career. After that, all you have to do is choose which conversations you want to join (both online and off) and start connecting with your readers.

And don’t forget to have a sense of humor about it all. In the words of Catherine Coulter:

The first step in branding is to know how to tip over the cow.

(Think about that for a second.)

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