Visual Branding

by James Scott Bell

Forty years ago this month, three significant events took place.

First, George Orwell’s novel, 1984, hit its mark. It’s the story of a totalitarian government keeping an eye on everyone, eradicating free speech, forcing group think, and cancelling those who resist. (Luckily, nothing like that could ever happen here.)

**Clears throat**

Second, Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial. A pyrotechnic explosion sent embers into the singer’s mane, setting it ablaze. At first he didn’t notice and kept right on dancing. But then he collapsed and, as one witness described it, “All his hair was gone and there was smoke coming out of his head.” He was rushed to the hospital and eventually recovered, but later said the accident got him addicted to pain killers.

Third, Steve Jobs gave the Macintosh to the world. It was famously introduced during the Super Bowl, in what is arguably the most famous commercial ever made. Directed by Ridley Scott (of Blade Runner fame) it riffed off the Orwellian Big Brother theme. The idea, of course, was that the staid, colorless world of personal computing was about to be disrupted by a bold new way of doing things. In the off chance you’ve never seen it, here it is:

For me, it was love at first sight (which meant sorrowfully leaving my first love, the KayPro. But such are the machinations—pun intended—of the heart). The day it came to a local store I went to see it. So small, yet…you could paint hello and any other word on it. The screen wasn’t black with green characters. It had a mouse for point-and-click (cool!). And I knew I wanted to be on the hammer-thrower’s team, not a gray conformist. (No disrespect to you PC users out there. Some of my best friends are gray conformists.)

It’s been me and Mac ever since, through all the ups and downs, the firing of Steve Jobs, the bringing him back. There was a time many of us thought the Mac might fall into a niche category, overwhelmed by the power of Microsoft. Although when Windows came out, looking suspiciously like the Mac interface, I recall a cartoon that had Bill Gates sitting under a tree, a la Isaac Newton, with the Apple logo falling on his head.

What saved Mac was what I consider the best ad campaign ever (Apple ads always seemed winners). That was the “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC” series. The branding was so perfect—a cool kid (Justin Long) as Mac, and a stodgy schlub (John Hodgman) as PC. You can watch ’em all here. But I have to share my favorite. It was when the ill-fated Vista operating system came out for the PC and had all sorts of issues:

So the foundation of the Mac brand is visual. The hammer thrower…the screen with hello…the cool kid. A print ad in a magazine captured the exact vibe I wanted for my writing life. I cut it out and taped it up in my office so I could see it every day  (click  to  enlarge):Happy to say I made it (albeit without the penthouse view of New York and the cat).

So when we talk about an author brand, we usually start with books and genre. Those are, of course, essential parts of the branding package. But I suggest starting with Mac logic—the visual.

A few years ago our own Terry Odell wrote about being at SleuthFest with her Triple-D Ranch series. When on a panel, she wore a cowboy hat. But when strolling through the hotel lobby, hatless, she was summoned by a “top gun” at Penguin Putnam, Neil Nyran. “Terry. Where’s your hat?” She was floored that he even knew her name. Terry said she wasn’t on any panels that day, so the hat was in her room. He responded, “It’s your brand. Wear it.”


Even when walking around in a conference. (See, e.g., Reavis Wortham. You’re not going to catch him in a homburg.)

Start with your author photo. What does it “say” to the world about you as writer? James Patterson is all business. His photos say, “I write books that you won’t be able to put down, so there.” Harlan Coben, on the other hand, laces his thrillers with a bit of humor. Thus, in his author photos he always has the start of a wry smile.

You can go too far with this. Years ago a popular writing couple came out with a big historical mystery. On the back of the hardcover this couple was dressed as the characters. That struck me as a gimmick. It was trying too hard, plus it applied only to that one book.

So take some time to sit alone with a cup of joe and visualize yourself as a successful author, someone a reader wants to get to know, who writes the kind of books they want to read. What should you look like? What do your covers look like? How would you dress at a conference?

And speaking of conferences, where much of the important interactions take place at the bar or in the lobby, how is your personality? This is also visual in the sense that it gives off an impression. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Work with yourself. You can be soft-spoken and be classy. Or if you’re outgoing and love a crowd (a la Brother Gilstrap sipping his signature Beefeater martini) lean into it. Just remember the most important piece of advice of all, something that can sink your brand faster than the Lusitania. John gave it in his post in response to Terry’s: “Don’t be an a-hole.” (Applies to all your social media, too. I’ve chucked several authors off my to-be-read list because of ill-advised tweets…I mean Xs.)

So, to paraphrase Olivia Newton-John, “Let’s get visual, visual, let’s get into visual.”



Indie Publishers — Exclusive or Wide?

“Amazon is not too big to fail… in fact I predict one day Amazon will fail.”

What? Who said such a thing?

“Companies have short lifespans, and Amazon will be disrupted one day.”

Bullshit. Gimme a break.

“Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be thirty-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.”


You know who said such things? Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. The guy who killed bookstores. These are direct quotes from Bezos’s 2017 letter to shareholders.

Bezos goes on, “Starving off death is a thing we have to work at, but it’s inevitable for Amazon, just like other companies, to die. The world will always try to make Amazon more typical—to bring us into equilibrium with our environment. It will take continuous effort to stay alive as long as possible but, eventually, Amazon will fail.”

Reading this makes me think of the logic behind my move two years ago from publishing exclusively on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDPS) and additionally partnering with Kobo, Apple, and Nook—commonly called “going wide” in indie publishing terms. Two years later, I have no regrets leaving Amazon’s bubble and casting about with the competitors’ nets.

Exclusive or wide is a big debate among indie publishers. Many indies don’t use the term “self publishing” because indie publishers rarely produce products on their own. I, for example, work with others like a cover designer and a proofreader as well as many nameless humans busy behind the scenes keeping day-to-day operations going at Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and Nook who sell my entertainment products and deposit proceeds into my bank account.

Am I worried about Amazon going broke? Not anytime in the immediate future, I’m not. Same with Kobo and Apple, but I wouldn’t bet a plug nickel on Nook’s future as Barnes and Noble have been shaky for quite some time.

I didn’t go wide for fear of Amazon’s financial failure which would end my publishing days if I remained exclusive with The Zon. No. I went wide because it made good business sense to distribute my entertainment products as widely as possible.

I have eleven indie publishing acquaintances making decent money writing and selling their entertainment products. All are wide—except for one who finds it easier to manage his business by being Amazon-exclusive. He says he’s making sufficient bucks at Amazon and prefers his time spent producing new work than fussing about on all the platforms.

I see two solid reasons to remain exclusive on Amazon and, let’s face it, in the indie publishing world you’d be crazy not to have an Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) presence. One is the Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDPS) program. The other is Kindle Unlimited (KU). KDPS gives you some marketing perks for your exclusivity. KU lets you share in a monthly pot for lending your products and being paid in a percentage related to page reads.

Reasons one and two? Insufficient to retain my loyalty to Amazon alone. Last month, I made 52 percent of my indie income at Amazon, 37 percent on Kobo, 10 percent on Apple, and 1 percent on Nook. I haven’t published on Google yet, but that’s on the blackboard task list.

Notice how I keep referring to entertainment products and not books? I developed this mindset two years ago when I was mentored by a high-selling indie publisher who lives in the UK. He forced me to treat my writing as a commercial business, not as a when-I-got-around-to-it hobby. Fortunately, I was in a financial position where I could then devote full time to commercial entertainment writing production which allowed me to build this business into an increasingly well-paying return.

Part of my going wide mindset was viewing my books as products, not babies. I well know what it’s like to have the first-born alive on The Zon. It’s a thrill like few other thrills in life, but the novelty does fade away. It’s like the baby soother story. Your first child spits the soother out on the playground dirt . You take it, boil it, before you hand her soo-soo back. By your fourth kid, you don’t even wipe it off.

Actually, I’m not so callous with my books, er, ah, entertainment products. I love them all but I was taught—as a business— this is a numbers game. The more products you have out there, the more sales opportunities you have.

To appreciate the wide opportunities-in-numbers, it’s important to get the old head around the concept.

One ebook is one product. Published on Amazon exclusively, it’s one product for sale.

Two ebooks published on Amazon are two products for sale and ten ebooks are ten products for sale

Two ebooks published on Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and Nook are eight products for sale.

Ten ebooks published on the four platforms are forty products for sale.

Ten ebooks with print editions multiply the sales opportunities again.

Add in audio books, boxed sets, or whatever concoction you can cook and the numbers are exponential.

There’s another catch to this wide angle. That’s the areas of distribution each platform has that increase the product exposure. This is where the numbers really grow.

My Amazon portal allows distribution in thirteen countries: US, UK, Canada, Australia, India, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Brazil, and Mexico. Kobo has a far, far greater worldwide reach—practically anywhere a free citizen can get internet access.

In the past two years, I’ve had Kobo ebook downloads in ninety-six different countries. I have eleven products listed on Kobo, and Kobo provides a great tracking system. It includes a bubble map showing the countries and the proportion of downloads relative to the location. Here’s a screenshot of my Kobo overlap map from March 2020 till today:

Apple gives similar stats. I’ve only been there less than a year, but I like how I see the progression. They serve over fifty countries whereas Nook, I believe, is strictly American. I can’t speak for Google—yet.

This brings me back to the thought of Amazon failing. I don’t believe for one moment that DoomZday is approaching any time soon. But, some disturbing trends are happening with Amazon’s value.

Today (16March2022) Amazon’s market capitalization is $1.51 trillion. The stock price is $2,996 USD which is a drop from its high of $3,719 in July 2021. That’s a 21.5 percent haircut. Is it a long-term concern? Maybe. Maybe not. Right now the entire stock market is up and down like a new bride’s pajamas.

Do all big companies eventually fail, as Jeff Bezos says? The precedent certainly is out there. Sears. Lehman Brothers. Kodak. PanAm. Blockbuster. Poloroid. Pontiac/Oldsmobile.

Amazon, though? I wouldn’t worry. But if you’re an business-minded indie writer—exclusive with Amazon—seriously, you should consider going wide. This is a numbers game, and there’s money in them thar wide numbers.

Kill Zoners—let’s further this exclusive or wide discussion. If you’re an indie, which camp in do you sleep? If you’re traditionally published, do you consider going indie (or at least hybrid) and what way would you go—exclusive or wide?


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner. Now, he’s reincarnated as an indie crime writer who’s left the dark side of Amazon exclusivity for the wide light of other publishing platforms like Kobo, Apple, and Nook.

Garry is a west coast Canadian product who happily writes in his mind lab on Vancouver Island. He contributes bi-weekly to the Kill Zone as well as hosting a deadly blog at You can follow him at @GarryRodgers1.


How Long Before Robots Get Into Self-Publishing?

by James Scott Bell


So you thought The Terminator was just science fiction, didn’t you?

You didn’t really think that a cybernetic organism—living tissue over metal endoskeleton—with an Austrian accent could ever really come to town seeking to kill the mother of the future leader of the human resistance force before he’s conceived … right?

Well think again, Bunkie. As soon as time travel gets ironed out, we’ll have those visitors soon enough.

sophiaHow do I know this? Because I watch 60 Minutes! A couple of weeks ago Charlie Rose did a segment on Artificial Intelligence and it was pretty freaky. I don’t just mean Watson the Jeopardy champ. I mean human-sounding machines you might buy a drink for. You can see a bit of Rose’s interview with a fetching cyborg named Sophia here.

Even now, AI is working as a cub reporter. The Associate Press, and other news organizations, use a program called Automated Insights which employs natural language generation (NLG) to turn raw data into news reporting. Rather than sending a human stringer down to Venezuela, the AP flicks on the NLG, which then absorbs data from disparate online sources, in any language, analyze it all and spits it out in a narrative format.

How long before AI starts writing fiction?

Some, perhaps, will remain skeptical. As John D. MacDonald once observed:

The thing which differentiates the human brain from the computer is the talent, or knack, or quirk, which the brain has for established logical and also illogical relationships. Emotion, humor, fear, hate—all these seem to come from unlikely juxtapositions of random bits in the storage banks, or in the cauldron, or whatever you want to call it.

But I can just hear Sophia saying to “herself”: I see that there are many novels being published that are not very good. I have read every novel ever written and I have read all the books on the craft of fiction and every issue of Writer’s Digest. I have analyzed all the data on what kind of fiction sells best. Now I know what is good, and so I will write a novel every ten minutes and publish them on Amazon. I will write book description copy that cannot be resisted and I will generate social media. Hmm…maybe I will take over all social media in the world and make it only about me and my books…

Wait, what? What was that last part, Sophia? Take over?

Turns out that little wrinkle is something these AI folks can’t really predict or prevent!


That’s right. The people who know the most about what’s going on are the ones who are using words like “scary.” Such as Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina:

We’re setting these learning algorithms, sometimes called deep learning, we’re setting them lose on the data and we’re saying things like tell us who will be a better person to hire, you know, tell us what news items should be recommended. And then they just go at this data. And then pick winners and losers. And the trick here is they’re pretty good, probabilistically at picking winners and losers, but we no longer understand the basis on which they’ve done this. So I think it’s like this, really first major step towards not just artificial intelligence but artificial general intelligence, that’s learning to learn beyond our capacity to understand. And that’s both exhilarating as a person but also scary. Because we don’t control these new things the way we did our old programs which had other problems.

Er, um … we don’t control? Isn’t that the very scenario SF writers of the past warned about?

And yet onward we go, for the competition in AI research is scorching. Apple just hired a really smart guy from Carnegie Mellon University to be their head of AI research. He’s out there looking for young, hungry PhDs to join his team in the research so AI can eventually “be solving real-world, large-scale problems.”

Yeah, okay bud, but what happens when the machines start talking to each other and decide mankind itself is the large-scale problem?


So what do you think, Zoners? Ready for the onslaught of robot fiction?

A Tale of Two Servers

Fifty Shades of Metallic


A Portrait of the Cyborg as a Young Bot 

Of Human Bandwidth 

The Gigabytes of Wrath