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Author branding is a topic that makes me feel old. When my first novel came out back in 1997, I don’t recall anyone at Penguin advising authors of the need to brand. Certainly no one mentioned it to me. Brands were for highly commercial products, like Betty Crocker and Levis and Helly Hansen. Authors and books were thought of in different terms, more aesthetically perhaps.
These days, seemingly everything—and everyone—has a brand, or should have one, at least from the perspective of the movers and shakers of the marketplace.
In some ways, author brands were there all along. Even if no one tried to engineer them, they happened somewhat organically. A book had to fit into a category, and if you found success in one category, you were likely to stick with it. What others said about you and your work also nudged you into a brand.
My first novel involved the clashing of cultures in Southwestern Alaska, which placed it in the trending category of multicultural books for young adult readers. Because of the remote wilderness setting and the adventure elements, reviewers likened my work to books by well-known author Gary Paulsen.
Instinctively, I followed the adventure/wilderness/Paulsen-esque path—or brand, as it would be called today—into my next novel. I then wrote a third, never published, along the same lines, though featuring girls engaged by adventure and wilderness, an angle that I believed was missing for young readers.
The problem, though, was that these weren't the books I aspired to write. The novels were good enough, but what I truly wanted to write were books like the ones I loved to read: novels for grown-up readers, in which complicated relationships among characters provide much of the tension, with a rural or wilderness setting so strong that it becomes a character unto itself. These would be books only I could write, drawing from my own unique perspectives, sensibilities, and life experiences. In other words, I wanted my brand to reflect who I am as an author, as opposed to a brand boxing me into an author slot that felt not quite like me.
Easier said than done.
Enter Cindy Dyson, an author herself, of a fine novel, And She Was, and a great little volume called The Last Query. In her new role as web designer with Dyson UX Design, she offered to remake my author website, going far beyond a pretty and functional arrangement to asking all the right questions that would build a brand around me. As she put it, she began by looking for the big idea, the “uber mission” Deb Vanasse: my purpose and passion as an author.
To get there, she asked a series of questions that made me think hard about who I am and why I write. What do I want to be known for? What do I want my readers to do once they’ve finished reading one of my books? What drives me to write? What truths am I willing to sacrifice for? Following a series of such questions, she also asked about my personality, starting with adjectives that describe who I am physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. She asked fun questions, too—about things like the last time I was raging mad and the last time I was in awe about something.
The questions were hard, but the journey they prompted has been amazing. I understand much more now about my brand. Best of all, it’s not a brand imposed by an agent or publisher who’s afraid to let me out of the box they’ve drawn around me, for fear sales might plummet. Instead, I get to be my best self, extended out toward my readers.
For the final results—the beautiful, innovative, user-based website Cindy’s constructing—you’ll have to wait a bit. But in the meantime, I offer this advice: an insightful yet disinterested third party can go a long ways toward helping you discover your brand.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. A regular contributor to the IBPA Independent, the views expressed here are her own.