What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, "hooray for our side"

Monday, June 20, 2016

Old McDonald had a brand, e-i-e-i-o

Because it's starting to surface in the consciousness of writers again, I thought this time I'll actually write that post on Brand.

Wait, wait, come back. See, I actually know a little of what I'm talking about here, unlike most of the people spouting off about Brand. And I'm going to try and explain this as simply as I can and try and blow away the clouds that surround brand and show you what it is and a little of how it works. And since the focus of this blog is mostly toward writers (yes, I know, politics as well, but that's because as Han Solo said in the Return of the Jedi, "Hey, it's me.") But there's something you need to know first.

Everybody has a brand.

I'm not joshing you. The only way to not have a brand is to not engage with anyone else. Ever. In any fashion. And that, for a writer, means you're dead. You can escape having a brand. When I hear authors scream "I am not a brand!" what they're really saying is, "I am not a commodity," which is a fair enough sentiment (it's wrong, but I understand). Why does everyone have Brand?

A brand is the emotional response others have toward you or in reaction to something (physical object, a process, or even another emotion).

This is not all commercial (although brand is mostly thought of in the commercial sense). Do your friends like it when you show up? That's your brand. When a reader encounters your name (or genre, or book cover type) do they have a positive or negative reaction (like "ooo, another Stephen King novel" or "ugh, not another Stephen King novel").

A little discussion on why people get confused on brand.

First up, everybody who says "Brand" is lying because they say "Brand" when they mean a whole host of other things. There is Brand (which is not a thing that can be held or pointed to), brand name, brand item, brand identity, brand switching, brand migration, brain maintenance/management, a whole panoply of brand concepts all of which are often referred to by the shorthand of "Brand" (all of which I could write a few thousand words on each). I don't blame you for being confused because the people who work with brands, who should understand then, often confuse it all up in their own head mostly because they're lying when they say they understand brand, very few people do. And here's the little design world secret, even those design gods who walk among us get it wrong. There's a whole subspecies who understand it (much better than I do) and they demand top dollar (and by top dollar I'm talking a few thousand a day) to consult with other designers/marketers. It's like the world of reinsurers (or underwriting), there's this whole other sphere of the business world most people don't even know exists.

When most lay people say brand they really mean "brand name" or "brand item." And this is what writers often declare they are NOT. And those people are fools or believe they are "artists" which they wrongly believe is the antithesis of "commercial." Art is commerce. Okay, granted, I'm a Graphic Designer by training, trade, vocation and advocation. In the art world that means I'm a whore. But everyone of those little assholes who call us that would sell their grandmothers as chattel to get a good gallery to show their work. Why? They'll say it's for the exposure or fame, but it's about the money (why else get exposure or fame, which are both commercialized concepts).

You are a brand (name).

So yes, little scribbler, you are not the commodity, you are not the brand. Except you are. Or at least your name is a brand name (and you should be damn glad it works that way). Take a look at all those writing heroes you love. Look at their books. Are their names set larger and more noticeable than the title of the book? Why? Because they are brands and the publishers know their name is what will convert that inked pulp into cash. Your name has become the brand name. And it'll either sell books, or it won't. It's in the crux of that conjunction where pseudonyms are born.

Is a pseudonym anything other than a brand name? And, to the reader at least, the person who is putting their money up in exchange for your entertainment, is there any difference between the author's actual name or a pseudonym (note, this is not a discussion on when people's pseudonyms are outed like JK Rowling's "Robert Galbraith" book, but more of Joe King writing as Joe Hill)? The answer to that is ten-thousand pages of commercial psychology and marketing studies that say, no, there is no difference.

A side note here on the effects of brand. When Robert Galbraith was outed as JK Rowling, the sales spiked. Why? Because of Rowling's brand. People who love her Harry Potter books wanted to read more by her even if it wasn't Harry Potter (and there is the confusion between brand name and branded item). The brand is tied to JK Rowling, it was built on the success of Harry Potter, which is one of her "brands" (actually a branded item). HP is it's own brand, which has been slapped on everything, although JK Rowling was very particular in the beginning because she knew (my guess would be overtly if not intuitively) how quickly a brand can sour because of poor brand management. On the other hand, how many more books and stories could Joe Hill have sold if he put his real name on it? The answer is easy to find because it's an open secret. That sales bump is the result of brand transfer from his dad's brand to him which, IIRC, he explicitly did not want to build his career on (and he didn't), but his agents and publishers were certainly glad when that secret dropped.

Your name, as the author, if your brand name, not the book title (which could be it's own brand name, but 90% of the time isn't, here I'm thinking about Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/Sweet Valley High kinds of series). The book is not your brand, it is a branded item. Your brand exists in the mind and emotions of the reader. If that reader really likes your writing and stories, congratulations, you've got yourself a little brand. Do you yourself like to read certain authors because you know how their stories are going to affect you? Will you give authors you like more leniency when it comes to suspension of disbelief because you know they're going to bring it all around and satisfy you at the end? (To new authors, there's the rub, and it's why you need to be better than those authors)

To those authors who love to pound their books on the tables at conventions and shout, "this is my brand", you're entirely wrong. The book is not your brand, but a branded item (and your brand is quickly on it's way to "asshole"). To those authors who shout, "I am a brand" you're entirely wrong. You are the manufacturer of the branded item. To those authors who shout "I am not a brand" you're entirely correct. And you're doomed to failure. You are the brand identity, the brand builder, the person who does the branding, and your name (or pseudonym) is the brand name. How people perceive you affects your success because it affects your brand, the emotion the reader holds in their head.

So, as an author (or anyone selling anything) you should be grateful and proud if you have a strong, good brand. Many people would kill (and I'm not being fanciful here) for a good brand. Millions of dollars are spent every single day (probably every hour) to build good brands; to either instill positive thoughts about a brand that you might not have experience with or to reverse negative thoughts about a brand, or to reinforce a brand message. Having a good brand is literally gold. But you should also beware of developing a negative brand.

When established authors encourage new authors to go to conventions and make friends, be positive, be nice, this is what they're encouraging. Nobody wants to work with dicks. The only exception (because talk to almost any editor and you'll get stories) is if your books sell well before they discover you're a dick. And then it's the brand in the readers' heads the publishers will be buying. But if you start out with a good brand, where people like to work with you, where they know you'll be professional, half your work is done.

And that is the power of Brand. It does the work for you. Is selling a book hard work? Just ask any of your author friends who have published. And you want to develop a readership. You want to leave a positive impression in those readers (reviewers, other authors, other editors and publishers) heads. You want that very much. Because that means for your second book, half of your work is already done. The readers who loved your first book will buy the second, they'll talk about you, they'll generate hype entirely on their own. That doesn't mean you shouldn't work as hard as you did the first time. Quite the opposite, but that's a different discussion on brand building and market penetration.

This is why you want to embrace your brand. Nurture it. Feed it. Make it the best brand you can because that brand will bring about sales of your book (branded item) because your name (brand name) is on it. Success building on success. It may not get any easier if you're expanding the base, but you don't have to work so hard to keep what you've already gained.

This didn't go exactly where I wanted it, but I think that's a good primer.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with a case study of an author who "gets it." James Patterson. And he should, he used to work in advertising/marketing. He's an industry. Most of his books are now ghost written (with varying degrees of his input). And while that may seem a little sketchy to "artist" who may decry his blatant commercialism, he can't hear you in his Palm Beach mansion where he Scrooge McDucks into piles of money. Okay, I don't think he does that because, man, the paper cuts alone… But he makes what I believe the bankers call a "shit-ton of money". And he pays his ghost writers well (at least that's what I hear). He is, by all accounts, a good guy. And people buy his books. All of them. Because of his brand, and it's a good brand (when it comes to the book buying populace). And he understands that and nurtures his brand.

Frankly if you offered me the chance to either labor away in a garret apartment overlooking the Seine to get the next thing agented and published or working my ass off on a luxurious estate (and have no doubt, he's still working his ass off) to sell a few million books I know which one I would choose.

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