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The Fine Art of Branding

11 June, 2011


What does branding have to do with writing fiction?

In the old West, branding was how cattle was marked to show who owned what. In the advertising field, the term refers to how consumers recognise and desire a product or service. With literature, branding refers to readers’ assumptions when they pick up your next work.

Writer Randy Ingermanson, as part of a long interview on the Storyfix blog, comments on branding. He sees it as an ‘implicit contract’ with your readers. Readers look for consistency from writers they enjoy. After reading something you have written, they presume your other writings will in some way be similar. If you write something quite different, they may feel cheated. Your new work may be interesting, even great, but it is not what they are expecting.

Ingermanson’s example: You enjoy a fabulous Chinese meal at a restaurant, so you return only to find—shock, horror—that all Chinese items have been taken off the menu, replaced by Italian and Mexican dishes. There may be good reasons for the change, and the new dishes may be just as delectable. But despite that, you are sorely disappointed because you want what you liked before—and getting this is now impossible.

Nonfiction branding

An author’s brand or reader-contract is generally easily identified in nonfiction. Authors may be branded as writing about one subject—cooking, weight loss, religion, sports, self-help. People who like nature writer find David Attenborough’s books. Bill Bryson’s wins followers for his material that combines personal experience, research and humour.

Fiction branding

With fiction, the nature of the writer-reader contract differs, depending on if the story falls into the category of genre or literary fiction.

In genre fiction, branding often means that readers expect an author to write in the same genre, often using the same character and perhaps even the same location, book after book. When readers see a new book by Donna Leon, they expect it will involve a crime, set in Venice, which Inspector Brunetti must solve. Readers who pick up a book by Nora Roberts assume that, like her previous books, this one will be a romance.

Literary fiction involves a looser writer-reader contract. A writer’s subject matter may change radically from book to book, but readers often assume that the author will maintain a similar writing style or world view. Geraldine Brooks writes on a wide range of topics, but readers are used to her fiction being based on detailed historical fact. Readers who pick up a novel or short story by Ernest Hemingway expect the tale to be told in his well-known plain or minimalist style.

Is branding a straitjacket?

Some writers believe branding is just another term for type casting, putting them in a literary straitjacket in terms of their writing choices. Writers can move away from their established brand to explore new topics or styles. But if they do, they risk losing some of their loyal readership. Readers who love an author’s hilarious accounts about life abroad may balk at reading a book in which she airs her political views. If you want to diverge, Ingermanson suggests using a new pen name. Doing so means that you can keep your current brand intact while creating a new brand for a different group of readers attracted to your new material. 

Writer’s platform

A related advertising term that has made its way into the writing/literary field  is platform. The term generally refers to the extent that you and your writing are known.  By publicising yourself and your writing—building your platform—you may increase your chance of interesting an agent or publisher.

Both terms—platform and branding—identify your potential readership, but one refers to amount and the other to focus. Platform considers quantity, the number of readers and potential readers who are aware of you and want to read what you write.  Brand is more about expectation, what people assume about your writing, based on their past reading experience.

Like branding, the term platform sits better with non-fiction.  A professional gardener who has a TV show, column or radio program may find it relatively easy to gain a book contract because he already has a following. For fiction writers, establishing and sustaining a similar level of public recognition is harder. To publicise themselves and their work, they chase diverse opportunities to put themselves in front of  people. Fiction writers participate in writing festivals, give interviews, write spin-off articles, present writing workshops, appear on panels, author a blog or provide guest posts, tweet, etc.

Writing as a business

Some writers view sacrificing precious writing time to engage with branding and platform building as going too far over to the ‘dark side’. But increasingly, new writers can increase their chance of getting published (at least using the traditional pathway) if they can show a publisher or agent that they have developed a public presence and a solid, potential readership.

And literary fiction writers engaging with the business is not new. When Australian universities moved to performance indicators as a way to gauge academics’ output, it tended to be the arts academics who claimed their work could not be evaluated in this way. But once they realised that ignoring the requirement would result in reduced funding and status, they worked out ways to ‘measure’ their professional activities, undertaking to communicate what they did in new ways.

Similarly, the increased use of business terms being applied to fiction writing serves to remind us of two things: Our work is, among other things, connected to business, and as writers, we need to engage thoughtfully with this aspect.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 June, 2011 8:56 am

    Regarding children’s book authors and social media, some seem to be concerned that if they reveal too much of their personal lives (on Facebook, for example), then they might alienate parents who buy books or make themselves unmarketable somehow.

    “Asking questions at the end of each post” — my old standby. (laughing)


  2. 13 June, 2011 9:23 am

    A writer’s platform seems like a chicken and egg problem : you have to promote yourself and be read to get a contract for publication but you need to be published so people will think you are worth reading ( or even look for your blog). Should we post our work on blogs before we go hunting for a publisher? How big is the risk someone will steal your story or idea? Is it publish and be damned or publish and be published?


    • 13 June, 2011 3:36 pm

      You’re right that it’s difficult. But plenty of struggling writers out there are looking for advice, and sometimes a new/unpublished writer has a more open and sympathetic view of the problems that crop up, e.g., writer’s block, procrastination, rejection, etc. I started my blog as a generalist, including writing and literature issues. Now I’m pretty focused on fiction writing. I could specialise even more, blogging about short stories, but I am resisting doing so because I like leaving my blog open to other possibilities. I am very reluctant to post anything on a blog. Technically, it is ‘published’ and thus is then not accepted for many writing competitions. (Although this fine definition of ‘published’ is rapidly changing.) Maybe I’m a traditionalist, but I think it’s still better to try formal edited publications, whether hard copy or electronic. Doing so builds one’s ‘professional cred’ platform, while publishing on one’s blog can build an informal platform of readers. Both can lead to something bigger–it depends on where you want to invest your energy. Interesting question–thanks Glen.


  3. 11 June, 2011 10:59 am

    This is an excellent explanation of the distinction between brand and platform. I like “platform” as a metaphor, because the higher it’s raised or built, the easier it is for people to see, or get to know the work of, the person on the platform.

    It’s good to keep in mind that it takes years to establish a platform. I’ve heard from many writers who don’t think they need to put in the effort until after their books are scheduled for publication.


    • 13 June, 2011 3:09 pm

      Metaphors offer new and enriched way to get one’s head around a concept., but I hadn’t thought about imagining a real platform. Doing so raises interesting questions about one’s platform, e.g., how high have you built it vs want to build it, what material is it constructed of, how sturdy is it, etc. I have also been watching with interest Jane Friedman’s platform building and the openings it has created for her. She seems a good example of the benefits that accrue from being known.


      • 14 June, 2011 1:51 pm

        Jane has more than made up for her late start at blogging. She’s thoughtful and informed, and her online platform makes that apparent. It’s good to be discoverable, but it’s also important to ensure that what people discover is commendable. On the internet, we are our own handlers.

        That Gravatar is a little scary, Marsha. (laughing)


        • 14 June, 2011 2:07 pm

          I love your quote, ‘On the internet, we are our own handlers’. It suggests lots of issues about how writers exist and control their activities and their persona online. It would be worth a post, teasing out these issues.
          I’d forgotten the gravatar. It’s a little quoll–they look very cute, like tiny spotted fox, until you see their sharp little teeth. I was camping out, on a multi-day walk in the Walls of Jerusalem, Tasmania, when an army of the little critters invaded one evening, looking for handouts. That’s when you know that you’re in country but not in wilderness.


          • 17 June, 2011 12:27 pm

            Brand and online persona might be intertwined. I’d like to see what you come up with on the subject. At writers’ conferences, someone always asks about children’s book authors’ use of social media and the potential for too much transparency. Of course, it’s always better to have nothing to conceal.


            • 17 June, 2011 3:44 pm

              I agree that a writer’s online persona is an aspect of branding. A dozen crime writers may keep up a blog and website and tweet frequently, but a couple draw the big online audience. I suspect a great topic is how to be more personable on the internet. Surely we can do better than simply asking questions at the end of each post! Not sure what you mean about too much transparency as it relates to children’s books. Do you mean too much information that children don’t need to know for some reason?


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