If you exist, and if anyone knows you, you have a brand. You may not be able to articulate it, it may not be well developed, and it may not be what you would have chosen for yourself, but the fact remains: you have a brand.
Successful authors, like successful businesses, learn to manage their brand. They promote it in everything they do. And over time, their brand pays back huge dividends by promoting them.
Authors define success in many different ways. For some, success is temporal; they dream of making the New York Times Bestseller List or being named as one of Oprah’s Picks. Others seek immortality; they want to publish seminal works and be quoted by future generations. Some want to make the world a better place through their philosophical or spiritual contributions. Many seek financial success (as measured by wealth or just achieving a comfortable lifestyle). According to legend, some authors have been known to write as an act of self-actualization – because “becoming” is enough. But who believes in legends?
Regardless of how you define success, the key performance indicator seems to be the same: “followers.”
Bestselling authors need followers, now. Historical success requires generations of followers. Financial success requires millions of buyers. Social, philosophical or spiritual impact requires converts. Self-actualization requires only one follower, but the existence of that follower defines the very process.
The good news for all authors is that brand and success are mutually accelerating. That is to say, “successful authors build brand, and brand builds successful authors.” It’s not just a case of correlation. It’s cause-and-effect. Evidence exists in all genres and throughout history.
Consider the popular author Stephen King. King is the “Master of Horror.” On an individual basis, any one of his books may be called fantasy, science fiction, suspense, or drama… but the common theme of King’s work is horror. Horror is the King brand. King doesn’t write to change the world, he writes to sell books. And books he sells. More than 350 million copies, and counting. Though King achieved success early in his career (publishing Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining all before the age of 30), he was vexed by the question of whether his books were selling due to his talent or his name. He convinced his publisher to begin releasing books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. King’s fifth Bachman experiment, Thinner, sold a modest 28,000 copies. That is, until an observant Washington DC bookstore clerk, recognizing similarities between the authors’ styles, discovered that King was Bachman, and when the news got out, sales of Thinner jumped ten-fold. The Bachman novels and the King novels were, for all intents and purposes, identical work. But the jump in sales after application of the King “brand” is clear testimony to the tremendous power of branding.
Travel with me to 1590. Sonnet-writing was all the rage in Elizabethan England. And William Shakespeare, intent on making his literary mark, was not about to be passed over by the “sonnet sequence” movement. In total, Shakespeare published 154 sonnets, so well crafted that, today, sonnets written in the Elizabethan style are commonly referred to as “Shakespearean sonnets.” I’m not sure how comfortable the Bard of Avon would be, being known as “the Kleenex® of lyric poetry.” Shakespearean sonnets adhere rigidly to the Elizabethan style: 14 lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming [A, B, A, B] [C, D, C, D] [E, F, E, F] [G, G]. Like any rigid construction, the sonnet structure can make it difficult for a writer to communicate great thoughts elegantly. But this was William Shakespeare.
Leap forward to the 1920s. E. E. Cummings (aka e. e. cummings) pens a similar number of poems arguably of equal historical significance. But these are not sonnets. In fact, they seem to adhere rigidly to no convention at all. Cummings’ work is “free verse” – poetry written with no pre-set rhyme or meter. The author plays with cadence for auditory and visual effect, breaking lines unexpectedly and even interrupting and omitting words. In “a total stranger one black day”, for example, the poet refers to himself as “my(as it happened) self”. And he rearranges grammatical structures, as in “now that fiend and I are such immortal friends the other’s each”. In the poem “in Just”, Cummings creates words, like “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.” And her refers to pairs of children who travel as one, as “eddyandbill” and “bettyandisbel.” Cummings deliberately misspells and alters capitalizations. He breaks every rule of syntax and punctuation. Yet by violating the rules of form, he creates a form of his own. This is the Cummings brand.
Writer/director/producer Alfred Hitchcock, the “Master of Suspense,” had an enormous impact on filmmaking. And his work carried the unique Hitchcock brand. Hitchcock’s ground-breaking cinematographic techniques etched the Hitchcock signature into every film. He showed filmmakers how to heighten emotion with tight camera angles, how to create surprise with unexpected close-ups, how to put the movie-goer into the mind of the character with Point-of-View camera angles, and how to build suspense by showing the audience what the characters could not see and by twisting plot resolutions to keep the viewer on the edge of his seat. Close your eyes and visualize a shower curtain, a soapy body, a knife, the eyes of the victim, and blood in the drain. Hitchcock was a master at building brand. With his television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” he added such signature elements as his line-drawn profile (which he himself drew), his theme music, his ponderous movement and his breathy London accent.
Today’s business writers are no stranger to branding, either. Ken Blanchard’s “One-Minute Manager” series (The One-Minute Manager, The One-Minute Entrepreneur, The One-Minute Manager Balances Work and Life, The One-Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, and The One-Minute Manager Builds High Performance Teams) is a brilliant example of “milking the brand.” His brief format and his conversational writing style not only invite readers, they become brand signatures that encourage readers to return, if only to experience the pure enjoyment of his un-threatening story-telling style. And marketing guru Seth Godin – whose book Purple Cow taught us that promotion alone can’t save a tired, undistinguishable product in a field of also-rans, but that success comes from reinvention and truly unique ideas – has created a brand of his own, by spawning seminal concepts such as “permission marketing,” and the “ideavirus.”
The lessons for authors, in all of this, are that brand is important, and that brand and success are mutually accelerating. Shakespeare became immortal because he mastered a brand, and now his brand brings him new generations of followers. Poet E. E. Cummings created brand by changing the rules, and achieved financial independence through his brand. Alfred Hitchcock employed breakthrough cinematographic techniques to build a new genre of film, and his brand brought fame and fortune. Ken Blanchard exploited his brand through brand extension. Seth Godin’s novel ideas have readers standing in lines to hear what seminal words he will utter next. And Stephen King’s name alone sells books, even when his books alone barely sell.