Being a Better Writer: Building a Brand and Establishing Your Audience

Afternoon readers! I know it’s a bit late today. Sorry! I had an appointment that split my morning.

Now, I’ll admit I was tempted to do a bit on horror, since it is Halloween in two days (trick or treaters, huzzah!) but since this is the last topic on Topic List XI … I kind of wanted to clear it off. Besides, this is a topic I’ve avoided for years, and with good reasons that now aren’t quite as valid anymore.

That might have sounded a little confusing for some of you, so let me clarify. Since I published my first book and started writing Being a Better Writer, over five years ago now, I’ve had folks ask me about this topic. “How do you go about setting up a brand?” “How do you find an audience?” Etc etc. And you know what?

I couldn’t answer them! How could I? I had one book out! I didn’t have a brand at that point. I had a single published book that was making me snack money. There was no “audience” at that point which I could call my own. There were “people who liked my book,” “people who didn’t like my book,” and “people that had never read my book or heard of me.”

So yeah, I couldn’t give an answer. Not then. Now? Several years, and four additional books later? Plus at least a thousand or more fans? Well … yes.

With one caveat that I’m leading with: My experience is not the sum of all experiences. I’ve seen other authors answer this question and do so in very different ways from what I’m about to talk about. And I’ve seen authors who use methods largely similar to my own. So I’m going to talk about my experience with branding and building an audience, then move onto some other approaches that I’ve seen and heard other authors talk about.

So, my approach first, followed by others. Got it? Good! Let’s get to mine.

When it comes right down to it, my sense of “branding” and establishing an audience boils, I think, to one simple question. I ask myself “What do I want my books to be known for?”

This might seem like a simple question, or maybe even a pointless one, but it’s not. Think about authors you enjoy. For example, I enjoy Timothy Zahn books, and when I think “Zahn” in my head, there are several “bullet points” if you will that to me summarize his work. Bullet points like “revealed mystery,” “investigative” or “cool alien cultures.” Plus the classic “twist you could have seen coming but didn’t.”

To me, that is Zahn’s brand. And it’s a brand I enjoy. When I see a new Zahn book on the shelf, those bullet points rise to my mind, and since I like all of those bullet points, I’m already interested in the book.

In a roundabout way, I took a look at that same concept from the other side when I started writing books. Before I’d written anything that went up for sale (note the codifier), I sat down and spent some time thinking to myself and asking “What do I want my books to be known for?” Not individually, but as a whole.

In other words, I was looking at my strengths. What could I do well, and could I deliver those bits to readers again and again?

On a side note, you might see another reason why I declined answering this question earlier. But in the end, the result of this process was that I knew what my strengths were (not all of them, but some of them) and made sure that what I wrote played to those strengths.

And through delivering that again and again, I’ve built what I suspect my readers as well as myself could call “My brand.” If you go look at the reviews of my work on various websites, there are common phrases that show up in every review that are praised. What’s more, with the release of Shadow of an Empire, said reviews also made a shift, going from simply praising those attributes to making statements similar to “As we’ve come to expect with Florschutz …” and then talking about those elements.

In other words, there are things I do very, very well, and after five books, those who read my books expect that in my writing, and expect it to be done well. It’s “my brand” and now my audience expects it.

But I got there by making sure I delivered it in every book that I wrote. In every story that I wrote. Which floats back around to thinking “Okay, what do I do well?” as well as “What do I want my books to be known for?”

For me? That’s actually it. That’s how I built my “brand.” By playing to my strengths, and making sure that I always delivered them in each story I wrote. Now? Those strengths are “my thing.” Those of you who read this blog but haven’t cross-pollinated with reading my books? You could ask any of my readers about “my brand” and I suspect they could give you a nice set of bullet points about what I do well, just in the same way I could do the same for Zahn, Sanderson, Prachett, or any other author I happen to be a fan of.

Getting back to the topic at hand, establishing my audience also plays into this “brand” that I’ve built. Though, if I’m honest, I’m a bit less active about this side of the spectrum. The way I’ve always seen it is modeled after the old saying “If you build it, they will come.” And that’s how I’ve run it. I focused first on building the brand, setting up the books that people would want to read, and then drawing eyes to it via advertising that showcases (hopefully) the strengths (my “bullet points”) to draw in readers that will enjoy those strengths. With luck (okay, with a lot of hard work), those readers will enjoy my strengths enough to share them with everyone else, and then …

Well, at that point, in theory, the audience grows. It seems to be working. Like I said, I’ve still only got about a thousand or so paying fans. Howard Taylor (creator of the most excellent webcomic adventure Schlock Mercenary) once stated you needed about five times that number to make a clean living so … one fifth of the way there!

But that’s getting off topic. My point being that when it comes to branding and building an audience, my primary focus has been on building a brand first, then getting the audience second.

But you can go about things the other way. Or in the same order, but with different approaches. For example, there are plenty of authors backed by Trad Pub that release a first book blindly with a massive advertising push that ensures they have an audience, even if they have no identifiable (or reputable) brand. This works … though for how long tends to depend on exactly whether or not said brand lives up to the audience’s expectations.

All in all, I still don’t have all the answers, or even very many of them. Some authors have talked about building an online presence and then selling their novels. Scalzi, for example, has had his success attributed Twitter networking and near-daily blogging to getting him a publisher deal that boomed into a massive advertising push. Audience, then brand. Other authors have talked about going similar routes, building an audience through small snippets and teases, as well as advertising and public appearances, to support a brand once it releases.

Some go other routes. The Martian seems to be a “brand, then audience” approach. It’s creator put it up chapter by chapter on his website, readers slowly trickling in as he refined and wrote out the story. Once it was done, the audience flocked to it.

Every author is different. Some work to please an audience by writing what the audience asks for all the time, their brand being “What their fans choose.” Others build an audience by blogging daily, talking about hot-topic issues, and then slowly doing “branding” on the side.

No, if this sounds light, well … I’m still in the shallow end of the pool here. Plus, I really don’t want to go deeper because it looks to be the kind of thing that can easily “drown” all writing if one isn’t careful. I’d rather be writing. Then again, that probably slides toward why I go “brand” over everything else. I want to sell good books, and let the audience come to them as I get more and more of them out there.

And while I might not have a gigantic audience yet, I think it’ll continue to come in time. For me, that process of asking “What am I good at? What strengths am I bringing? What will my readers enjoy about my works?” is what gives my books an identifiable “brand” that my fans enjoy.

Will it work for you? Well … maybe. The thing is, every time I’ve ever seen or heard anyone else talk about this, they always point out that a brand, an audience, all of it, are important things, but … Everyone seems to get there in a slightly different way. I guess I’d have to say that what works for you may not be what works for anyone else.

Everyone agrees that branding and an audience are important. But past that? It’s kind of up to you to decide how to build one or the other, as well as what you will build at all.

Confused? Well … I’m sorry. There is a reason I waited so long before broaching this topic, and even then I only did so once had a “brand” and understood a bit more about both what I was doing and what I could say on the subject.

One last thing, however. A “word of warning,” as it were. Do take a look at existing audiences when thinking about what you’d like for your own. If that audience already has a brand or even brands? Be aware that you’re going to face an uphill battle fighting for audience attention that might make a it a bit harder. It won’t be impossible, provided you can deliver a solid product or have a lot of money to throw at advertising. Just harder.

And with that? I’m tapped out. Good luck. Now get writing!

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