Branding for Nonconformists
Author Branding Isn’t Smarmy!
(Unless you were a relentless self-promoter even in kindergarten)
After publishing the first article in this series, I toggled back to last-minute edits on A Bright Clean Mind, my new creativity book that includes juicy interviews with sixteen vegan artists — painters and illustrators, musicians, writers, the indie dyer behind VeganYarn.com, and the maker of the first-ever vegan feminist horror film. One of the authors I interviewed is Maya Gottfried, who has published several children’s picture books as well as Vegan Love: Dating and Partnering for the Cruelty-Free Gal, with Fashion, Makeup & Wedding Tips. When I reread our conversation (which took place exactly a year ago), I felt a pang: am I contradicting myself? Here’s our exchange:
There’s so much stress these days on your platform and being a brand, and while I understand that times have changed, my personal preference is to be a writer rather than a brand.
YES! Thank you for saying that!
Publishers may need me to be a bit of a brand, and I’m happy to do that work to try to sell my book as much as they need me to — but in my heart of hearts I really want to be David Sedaris, who is so not a brand. He is a writer.
I’ve been doing a fair amount of research for this series (as you can imagine), and I particularly appreciate what Dongwon from the Writing Excuses podcast has to say about author branding:
“If you’re asking people to go to the bookstore or the internet and pay money for your words, you are already a brand. There’s no way to escape it, and whether you find that to be a dark apocalypse or a blissful mercantile utopia is irrelevant, because you have to live in it.”
Maya has a lot of experience in journalism and publicity, and while she writes for both children and adults, the better part of her writing is focused on making ethical veganism as accessible as possible for readers who might otherwise feel overwhelmed or intimidated by these unfamiliar ideas. She is @mayabidaya on all the things. She has a serene presence that is expressed in her website and other visuals. If I got an idea for a children’s book in which animals tell their own stories, then I would think: That’s very Maya. She actually does have a cohesive brand — and yet I agree with her as much as I did last summer.
If this were only a matter of more effectively promoting my novels, then no, I would probably not be thinking and writing about author branding right now. I would be writing my next novel and hoping (as we always hope) that it might become my “breakout book.” I’m thinking about branding because I want more eyeballs on my most useful work.
That said, I’d like to move away from this false binary of “real” or “pure” writers versus writers who are primarily interested in promoting themselves. (We can sniff out the latter all the way from the far end of the exhibition floor, anyhow.) There’s nothing smarmy about “branding yourself” so long as your actual work loses no substance in the undertaking, and as long as the persona you cultivate offers measurable value for your readers — though that can be as simple as an image you post to Instagram that brings a smile to their lips.
This week I’ve been making and participating in experiments on social media and taking notes on all of that, but for now let’s look at some of the author- and personal-branding advice I’ve collated, which will direct the topics of future posts.
We’ve covered this above, but it warrants repeating — and we will explore specific ways of adding value. As Kimberley Grabas says in her video series on author branding: “Not only do you need to know why you do what you do, be very clear on why this should matter to anyone else. This careful self analysis can (and should) happen even before you have a book released.”
Visual branding is something I’ve been putting off for years by telling myself I don’t (yet) have the funds for a site design that’s exactly what I want. So I’ll be looking for ways to create a more consistent visual style without spending money on web design.
We need to be authentic and consistent in our demeanor, the language we use, the “vibe” we give off, everything about our presence — whether we’re showing up at an in-person reading or a book club via Skype. Have you ever met someone in real life after following them for ages online, and they were not at all the person you were expecting? Jarringly so? That’s what we want to avoid.
Personal style fits into this, too, of course, as reluctant as we are to admit the extent to which we judge each other on appearances. (I’m thinking of the sort of smug white dude who shows up to book events in a rumpled old t-shirt, as if looking like you couldn’t care less is remotely appealing to your readers—but notice how those guys tend to get away with it, whereas no female author ever could.) Our clothing and other decisions we make about how to present ourselves can give our readers a clear idea of who we are and what we value. As someone who knits and sews her own clothes, I’m looking forward to writing a post on this topic (with case studies! Fun fun!)
I haven’t read any of Gary Vaynerchuk’s books and I’m automatically skeptical of anyone who positions themselves as a marketing or social-media guru, but I’ll happily cherry-pick anything that resonates. When I posted the first article link to Instagram and asked for input, Jessica had this to offer:
“[T]o me author branding means allowing your audience to get to know you better. Sharing with your readers not only your craft but the things that make you you.”
This comment got me thinking about how creative people convey their personalities on social media; selfies have always seemed inherently self indulgent to me, but maybe I’ve been looking at them the wrong way. I enjoy looking at selfies that actually communicate something substantive about the subject and what they value, be it a home-sewing practice, a travel destination they’ve been really excited about, or following through on something that scares them. (Interesting that I rarely post any selfies myself, eh?)
Tim Ferriss is another one of those braggy authorpreneurs getting my side-eye, but I’ll admit I was excited when he said this because it perfectly applies to my situation: who else is out there writing about a psychospiritual connection between ethical veganism and creativity? (No one? Correct me if I missed someone, because we need to be friends!) How many other authors are writing candidly from personal experience about “ego management” in the arts? (Very few.) Now that I’ve created a category (possibly two), how am I going to convince you these are topics worth exploring with me?
I think this advice can apply to fiction writers too—it’s all of a piece with telling a story that feels unprecedented, yet with certain hallmarks devoted readers can happily anticipate. (Check out this fun Twitter thread for examples.)
(Okay, so maybe Gary Vee does have the goods.) Not only is community building and engagement a critical piece in the value-creation process, many of us (myself included) can become more supportive members of communities other artists are trying to build. (Oh, boy — reciprocity. I have so many thoughts and I am going to share them all!) To this end, I’ll be discussing social media strategies for community building as opposed to more effective self promotion. A “rising tide” ethos is (and always has been) the only way to create authentic connections.
As anxious as I am to dive into social media and community building, I suppose we’d better begin at the beginning: self evaluation. What is the brand I have been unintentionally building over the past twelve years? In which respects is it already working, and which aspects require fine tuning or course correction? What are my guiding principles and how do I articulate them?
Thanks for sticking with me so far, and if you see ways you may be able to implement any of this advice for yourself, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation (forthcoming in October 2019). If you liked this post, you can subscribe for updates (and to thank you, you’ll get a link to two free sample chapters from Life Without Envy).