The highway to publication overflows with cars: luxury behemoths; sensible hybrids; nondescript, windowless vans with strange dents that protrude from the inside. Each bears the logo of the mechanic who brought it to life. You’ve built a car, too, with good mileage and a cherry spoiler. [Author’s note: The cars are a metaphor for your books.]
But when you get your baby on the highway, you can’t ignore that a metallic paint job and tilt steering is all that differentiates your vehicle from every other car in its class, no matter what shiny-metal totem adorns its hood. How does your creation stand out? You don’t need a better insignia. You don’t even need the car metaphor. You need to remake yourself. You must become the deer sprinting headlong across the road. When your book crumples someone’s hood and cracks their windshield, rest assured you’ve got their attention. And that’s pretty much the Tab-A and Slot-B of branding.[pullquote]You need to remake yourself. You must become the deer sprinting headlong across the road. When your book crumples someone’s hood and cracks their windshield, rest assured you’ve got their attention[/pullquote]
As a twenty-first-century author, the fulcrum of your success is your personal brand. Think Hemingway’s manliness. Neil Gaiman’s leather jacket. Harlan Ellison’s sociopathy. A lot of folks are confused about what exactly branding is. Folks like me, for example. After extensive research in the furthest corners of the internet–at great risk to my personal safety and sanity, you’re welcome–I’ve determined that branding means pretty much whatever you say it means (and since I’m the big shot with the column, when I say “you” I mean “me”). So here’s how to get started building your personal author brand:
First, you’ll need your author photo. Well, before you do that, you’ll need someone to take the picture, so zerost, find a photographer. Folks in the photo biz have a saying: The best camera is the one you have with you. This advice also applies to photographers themselves, probably, meaning anybody holding a Nikon or “smart phone” will do. Once they’ve snapped a photo of you, step three is to touch it up in Photoshop. Add some lens flare to make it look like you’re a cool person in a J.J. Abrams movie. If you write chick lit, perhaps remove the photo background and put yourself in a Macy’s or wherever.[pullquote]Add some lens flare to make it look like you’re a cool person in a J.J. Abrams movie.[/pullquote]
If you write fantasy, sub in photos of castles and dragons and Merlins. If you write literary fiction, you should do the castle and dragon thing, too, to entice people who don’t normally read dense prose about divorce and real estate. You can get Photoshop for $700 on Adobe.com, or pay Craig at work twenty bucks to leave the supply cabinet unlocked after hours.
When your book launches, you want it to hit the market with the force of a meteor. Consider your website the smoking crater your book leaves behind. In this day and age, if you don’t have a web presence, people will assume you’re either hiding something, or you’re an older luddite who’s wiping her feet on death’s doormat. Back in the early days of the Internet, way back in 2004 or so, you had to know HTML to create a website. I hear it was even harder fifty years ago, when computer whizzes had to program websites on those little punch cards. Today, you barely have to be able to read to build an author website. You can build a great site using a free resource called Geocities. (If you haven’t heard of Geocities, run an Internet search for them on Infoseek.)
Here’s my Geocities website. Note the “hotlinks” to other cool pages. Note the midi jukebox playing computer renditions of the greatest hits of today, kinda. Note all the animated GIFs that will make visitors scream, “Wow, this guy must work for Toy Story, what with all these cartoon pictures on his website!”
Let’s talk about your work. You’ve got a mystery novel in the can, an urban fantasy in progress, and a literary epic percolating in your head. This is sufficient for a schizophrenia diagnosis in some states. Variety is overrated. You need to pick the one thing–ONE THING!–that you’re going to be famous for, and focus your time, attention, and creativity upon it till it bursts into flames like an ant under a magnifying glass. If that sounds limiting, realize that you can stuff your entire writing career into the narrowest of niche markets. Sacrificing your creative output is worth winning over the oddballs who live at the corner of Weirdly Specific Avenue and Alarming Devotion Boulevard. You must choose your debut carefully: If your first novel is YA urban fantasy about a girl pretending to be a boy so she can join a Little League team and save her bioluminescent zombie boyfriend/shortstop, then that’s officially Your Thing. Your fries will be ketchupped by gender identity and supernatural glitter for the rest of your career. Consider shelving your WIP for a couple months to decide precisely how you’d like to be pigeonholed.
You should now have a good idea how to set yourself apart by crafting your unique author brand. Once you’ve decided on your brand, you may discover it doesn’t represent the kind of thing you write. Revision is the heart of writing, so you can always retool your regency romance to conform to the lens-flared, dragon-slaying, animated-GIF wielding author you didn’t know you wanted to be until five minutes ago.