Brands are those vague but persuasive associations we conjure up whenever we think of any well-known product. Mac computers. TIDE laundry detergent. Nike running shoes.
Brands are also the far more complex associations that come to mind whenever we think of well-known authors. Often, they’re a flash of images mixed with a dominant feeling, or a scene from a particular book montaged with memory fragments.
Here’s a small demonstration: Does the name Stephen King conjure something different for you than the name J.K. Rowling? What about Dan Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jodi Picoult? Or Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Seth Godin? What association appears for a second or so when you first see each name?
People Brands Aren’t Product Brands
Whatever that instant of recognition is composed of, it’s there because that author’s brand put it there. Each association is complex and meaningful — unlike the association you’d experience for a brand of laundry detergent.
In fact, it’s that much-ado-about-nothingness which characterizes many product brands that makes it easy to imagine authors rejecting the B word as too schlocky, too commercial, too huckster-esque. So let’s substitute the word “story” instead – the “author-identifier” story, if you will.
Brand: Author-Identifier Story
The author-identifier story (aka brand) refers to the complex messages authors put out into the world about themselves and their books — which we then absorb and retain in a highly individual way. Suppose that you, like author Michael Cunningham, were interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” You talked about your struggles with writing, as well as your then-recent book, The Hours (later made into a movie starring Meryl Streep). You were articulate, charming, fascinating — someone any listener would want to know more about, because what you had to say was vivid and substantive.
So, you think, is that Cunningham’s brand? Not exactly. What any given listener will remember of that “Fresh Air” interview is very little. Instead, there will be a vague feeling, a positive association, a sense of being charmed and entertained. The specifics of what was said will fade over time to almost nothing. And what is left will contribute to Cunningham’s brand, but it won’t be his brand.
That intangible entity exists like an earth-orbiting satellite, constantly receiving and broadcasting new data – a new book, a new interview, a new movie. Over time, its signal stabilizes into something more defined, but it’s still subject to change. Just not as much as it is in the beginning.
How Do You Get One?
You may be thinking, All very interesting, but what about me, how can I do this, too? To send out your own earth-orbiting satellite — where it will pick up and broadcast your author brand — you need to consciously make use of the intersection between your personal life story and the story your books tell. And then, you need to use that intersection to dialogue with interested readers.
An Author Who Dialogues with Her Readers
Take a look at author Jodi Picoult’s website: http://www.jodipicoult.com. Here’s a novelist who eagerly dialogues with her readers: her satellite both broadcasts and responds.
Broadcast: She shares family videos and author-interview videos; podcasts about her books and what it takes to be a writer; and posts revealing where the subjects of her novels and her personal life are connected.
Response: She has an active message board, allowing readers to ask questions and get answers (which makes them feel as if this author is really listening to them). There’s also a static Q&A page with info on subjects she’s often asked to comment on. Finally, there’s a confiding note in the border of her site explaining that it wasn’t her choice to wait six months to release the eBook version of her latest novel. Her publisher made the decision, and she’s angry about it, too. In other words, she’s on their side.
You can’t spend any time on Picoult’s site without knowing who she is, how she lives, what she cares about, what she’s accomplished, and where she’s going as an author. You also can’t help but feel welcomed. There’s no schlocky sales pitch, but the welcome mat is out. In short, Picoult’s site builds her brand — her author-identifier story — consciously and abundantly, though it doesn’t constitute her brand.
That complex flash of association only resides, dear reader, within the softly lit privacy of your mind. Much the way reading a novel does.