Branding Redux

By John Gilstrap

Last Wednesday, Terry O’Dell wrote a wonderful piece on the importance of branding to an author’s work. This week’s post from me started out as a response to her post, but as it grew longer, I decided to make it my topic for this week.

A lot of writers, I believe, misunderstand one key element to this branding business. They spend tons of time and money on trying to make their books and their characters well known–which is fine, if you’ve got the scratch to spend–but they forget that books have a short shelf life in the brick and mortar world. Even popular series get canceled by publishers. After the dust settles on all of that, there will stand the author, still talented and still anxious to write.

But will anyone know? That will depend in large measure on whether or not the author himself has left an impression on people.

I attended a conference a few years ago where a major publishing bigwig addressed the fairly recent trend among franchise-name authors sub out their storytelling to others, often giving cover credit to the visible ghost writer. He revealed in that talk that he couldn’t think of a single case where the success of a book written by one of those cowriters inured to the benefit of the cowriter himself when he reverted back to writing under his own name. The cowriters I know make pretty good money from those deals, but “writing as” does little to make them more visible to the readerverse.

So, what’s a body to do to make an impact in among all the published books as well as all the other entertainment options that dilute the pool of available readers?

Truthful answer: No one knows.

But I have some thoughts:

Consistency. I’m a thriller writer. Hard stop. I’ve spent a quarter of a century developing a reputation (such as it is) of telling fast-moving, action-filled stories that I hope also show a lot of heart. Too many authors, I think, dabble in too many genres. If I were inclined to write a romance, I would have to write it under a pseudonym, if only to not confuse the repeat customers who would feel that they’d bought a book under false pretenses.

Pick your lane and stay in it. This is a follow-on to consistency, but to me, it’s different. My chosen lane within the thriller highway is military(ish) action with lots of cool toys for my characters to play with. The brilliant Brad Thor writes books similar to mine, but he dips more into the realm of technothrillers and hardcore military action. Because he was an active duty SpecOps guy, he can pull off stuff that I can’t simply because I don’t have access to the source material that fuels his fiction. I recognize that and I stay away from it.

If you write crime fiction and you’ve got a quirky sleuth whose voice is unique to your imagination, resist the urge to wander into realm of Thomas Harris or Michael Connelly.

Be visible. The world will soon be back to normal with regard to public mingling. When that happens, get your butt to conferences. Even more than that, choose the same conferences year after year. Whether you’re looking for comradery, professional guidance or an increased fan base, you’ll be forgotten if you’re a one-off presence. But if you’re always at Conference X, and if you’re outgoing, you’ll meet people and people will come to recognize you.

In her post, Terry mentioned her trademark cowgirl hat. That resonates with something a publicist told me years ago when I asked her what I should wear when I’m in public and in author mode. She told me that it didn’t matter what I wore, but everybody should be able to tell which person in the room is the writer.

Don’t be an a-hole. This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised at how elusive this is to some. Clearly, you’re going to be kind to fans, but it’s equally necessary to be kind and giving to fellow writers and industry professionals. The writing community is a very small town, where people talk and rumors spread with blistering speed and accuracy. You want to be easy to work with and easy to talk to. NEVER speak unkindly about other authors or their agents or editors. As the great philosopher Thumper the Rabbit preached, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Okay, TKZers, what am I missing?

Oh, and it’s Launch Week:

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

27 thoughts on “Branding Redux

  1. Great advice for a Wednesday morning, John, particularly about staying in your lane and not being a jerk. Good luck with Crimson Phoenix!

  2. Thanks for the shout out, John. As always, your advice is golden. Don’t be an a-hole. Seems obvious, but how many people don’t understand or follow that one. I’m glad you move outward with the concept of branding after my narrower focus on the cover aspect.
    Good luck with your new release. It’s waiting on my Nook.

  3. Great post, John. And thanks for the advice. As someone who has thought about “dabbling” in more than one genre, I must now pause and reconsider.

    Good luck with Crimson Phoenix!

    • The most successful way to do this is to write books with almost the same reader base. Jim Butcher has had a very successful career with his “Dresden Files” urban fantasy novels, and his two straight fantasy series have done almost as well. Urban fantasies have a mystery through plot. His first Harry Dresden book, STORM FRONT, was a noir detective novel with wizards and magic murders. “Dresden Files” has been going on so long that he’s been able to dabble in different types of mystery through plots including a heist novel “because every writer wants to write at least one heist novel.”

  4. Thanks for this advice, John, and congratulations on your new release!

    I particularly liked your comment “Pick your lane and stay in it.” A while back I had a conversation with my writing mentor and told her I wanted to “carve a lane for myself in the cozy mystery genre.” Then I outlined the specifics that would define my books (e.g., puzzle-oriented, not silly, not paranormal, no profanity). It doesn’t make the writing any easier, but it helps me focus.

    Question about name recognition: I was telling my husband just yesterday that I was in a Booksweeps promotion to gain more Bookbub followers. I told him the benefit may be more in name recognition than in book sales. Is this one more way to “Be Visible” ?

    • Hi, Kay.

      The most truthful answer is, I don’t know. My opinion on this means no more than anyone else’s, but speaking for myself, I don’t think that passive advertising works toward building a brand. I think there needs to be context, a reason to associate the name with something memorable. Being one title or one name among many doesn’t give that context. I believe that more people will remember you for a speech you make or an interview you give or even a blog you write.

      Now, let me temper that with a little full disclosure: ALL advertising is invisible to me. I gloss past it. And even when it’s a campaign I enjoy–there’s one about a consultant who helps people from becoming their parents that makes me laugh out loud–I remember the entertainment, but not the company.

  5. One of my science fiction writing buddies of many years wrote a tie-in novel to a popular cult TV show, V. At that time, many writers sneered at franchise writing because it “wasn’t original.” Each time he was roasted, he’d casually say, “Two months of writing paid off my house.” Many years later, fans would still mention the book and say it introduced them to his writing, and they still bought his books. It’s hard to imagine writers who have their names in a much smaller font under “Presented by James Patterson” don’t have the same kind of benefit. If the book is well-written with that certain storytelling charisma that brings back readers, the benefit is well beyond paying off the house.

  6. Great post, John!

    The only thing that comes to mind with regard to “picking your lane and staying in it” (that I didn’t see addressed here-sorry if I missed it) is that everything, including my blog posts, social media posts, monthly emails to subscribers, etc. should relate back to my “brand”. I learned that concept, in this 2021 Year of Learning the marketing game, from my marketing guru. I’m trying to find ways, even in the most random of posts and tweets, to make them clearly Deb Gorman’s posts.

    Happy Wednesday to y’all!

  7. Funny, but your advice about not being an a-hole immediately brought to mind the one writer for whom being an a-hole was PART of his brand. It was natural for Harlan Ellison, but I also think he enjoyed putting it on display. But he was unique. This move is not recommended for others.

    Staying in a lane is generally good advice, though I think indie writers enjoy more freedom to try another direction if they feel like it. Branding is more crucial in traditional publishing, in part because of bookstores (remember those?) If Gilstrap writes a romance, where do they shelve it? Plus, all the publishing energy that goes into a trad book makes going off brand a true risk in both time and money. Which is why only the biggies—Grisham, King, Patterson, et al.—are “allowed” that freedom on occasion.

    • I no longer read everything King writes (it’s a time thing, not a preference thing), but in my experience, his brand is multi-focused. His characterizations and narrative voice are consistent throughout, and his books are always in the thriller vein. If not thriller, per se, then certainly tense (MISERY, anyone? THE GREEN MILE?)

      As writers turn out more books and develop a larger readership, they do gain the freedom to press the edges of their lane. That’s what this new series is doing for me. It’s still a thriller with cool characters (part of my lane) but time will tell if I scooted too close to the shoulder. People who read my work strictly for the Jonathan Grave/Boxers experience may well not be happy. We’ll see.

    • Ellison is such a legend at science fiction conventions a friend had a custom tee shirt that said, “Harlan Ellison apologized to me,” and no one believed it. Ellison had shoved him into a corner and yelled at him for several long minutes then found out later he’d gone after the wrong person. To Ellison’s credit, he used his jerkitude and a lot of money in the early days of the Internet to fight platforms like AOL who were stealing his and others copyrighted material as free content. All of us writers are a bit safer online because of him.

  8. Great advice. I think staying in your lane can be hardest, because we all have so many ideas bubbling up in our writer brains 🙂 There’s also value to working in a different genre–it’s been slow going, but I’ve learned a lot from writing my library cozy, which, is definitely different from my super-powered urban fantasy novels. It will likely mean a pen name, though, for branding reasons.

    • The pen name is definitely the solution to keep from confusing your readers, but do you worry that to your new readers, this is essentially a first novel?

    • Dale, for indies I don’t think the pen name is necessary. Indeed, it’s a burden. Having a pen name means another social media profile, Amazon author page, etc. It’s a hassle to keep that up.

      There is no downside to keeping your own name. You’ll get new readers who like YOU as a writer, and will go for anything. The readers who prefer one style of your writing will just wait for another book in that genre.

      • Jim, I’m glad to hear that! Certainly my voice is obviously present in Death Due as much as it is in my other novels. I have had other indie authors suggest to clearly delineate between the two genres on my website in order to avoid any confusion.

        I really appreciate you replying–it takes some weight off m authorial shoulders to know that I don’t need a pen name. In fact, the more I think about what you said, the more I think I’ll definitely stick with my own name with these books. Thank you!

      • I couldn’t disagree more, Brother Bell. While Pepsi owns Mountain Dew, Doritos and Aquafina (and a bunch of other food companies), there’s a reason why they kept the individual brands. In fact, the very heart of branding is to associate a particular taste (story) with the individual company (author) brand.

        In Dale’s case, not using a pseudonym would weaken both brands of products. Nora Roberts and JD Robb are the same person, but no one would ever confuse which name wrote which book.

        • Brother G, let me respectfully disagree with your premise, viz., “not using a pseudonym would weaken both brands of products.” That doesn’t follow. Just because a reader doesn’t buy in one genre, that doesn’t mean it “weakens” the other. OTOH, a reader may like a romance by Writer, and therefore try out a thriller by Writer (which reader would not do if Writer used a different name). That essentially doubles the income from that reader.

          The chances of a fan of Writer’s thrillers being “confused” and then angry about a romance are slim to none, so long as Writer does cover variation and description right. Thus, you don’t lose anything.

          While using a pseudo is an option, as I indicated, the work of adding a new social media profile is just too much work.

          In brief, then, there is no downside to keeping one author name, and good potential upside. At least, in the indie world.

          So when is Love’s Tangled Beauty by Gil Johnstrap coming out?

  9. Interesting take on this from the Trad Pub side, John. (and Congrats on your new release!)

    As an Indie, I look at it slightly differently. Take the bullet point of “Pick your lane and stay in it”… For a newbie (as I was four years ago), I had decided that Historical Fiction was my lane. I had a reader’s love for it and a unique perspective on a 17th-century location, and literally dove in (I’m a swimmer ;-). Four novellas and an updated saga-length Omnibus later, the books continue to sell and be read (I don’t worry about things like bookstores or shelf life), but I wanted to try something else so I side-stepped to a somewhat-related lane of Historical Fantasy/AltHistory/SciFi/TimeTravel. I did it after a marketing analysis of niche competition, browse categories, keyword juice, and other variables that the Indie gurus talk about. Now with two novels out and a third in progress in this new lane, my per-book sales (and page reads) are way up, my per-book reviews have tripled, and I’m getting a lot more reader feedback. So I’m digging this new lane. Will I stay in it? Time will tell (get it? ;-).

  10. I’m thinking about Michael Connelly and “changing lanes.” He did a great book about a new character, Renée Ballard, but then the next three books with Ballard also included Bosch.

    I didn’t like that, much as I like Bosch. It seemed to subordinate Ballard to him, even if the novels weren’t written that way.

    But I’ve come to think it’s because readers want Harry Bosch. The same idea applies, I think, about including Bosch in the Lincoln Lawyer series.

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