Exercises in Branding for Authors

You can’t see this right now, but I have a bunch of hidden pages that I’ve been building out on this website. They’re private so far, since I’ve been developing copy and design for everything and I’m not quite resolved on any of it. I have, however, arrived at a point where it’s time to start making some choices.

Trying to self-define yourself with a personal brand is a pain in the ass. Whether you’re a designer or a writer, it doesn’t matter. The process is the same and it sucks.

I’ve done this exercise a couple of times over as a student, and then as a freelance designer. In college, my three years of post-secondary education in design cumulated in a portfolio class that made every student assess their work, boiling down hundreds of projects into a select twenty for documentation and display, and building out a brand for themselves to ensure that they left a memorable impression when applying for a job.

Most people cry at least once in the class.

I cried twice: Once while frustrated that I wasn’t a minimalist like everyone else, and trying to keep things simple wasn’t working for me when the body of my portfolio work was dark, grimy, and complicated. And once when I realized that my personal brand didn’t need to be clean and slick, but just as complicated and dark as the rest of my content. Making this decision was a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, clients recognized me for doing a certain type of thing and they hired me to do that sort of thing for them. On the other hand, new folks were a little reluctant to work with me because my portfolio was so specific. They were a little concerned that I couldn’t “do” the clean stuff, which meant I had to work a little harder to persuade them otherwise.

Elixireleven Portfolio

Elixireleven Portfolio, ca. 2006

Think of it like this: if you write gothic horror exclusively because you love it, does that mean you can’t write romance?

You need to make the decision for yourself how you want to be recognized: for a specific type of writing, or every type of writing, maybe even a specific book, and that’s basically the point I’ve arrived at now. And my answer is that I’m not sure, so I’ve decided to take a critical assessment of who I am now, what my influences are, and project myself into the future. I literally laid out a bunch of things that define myself now on the floor, stood on a chair, and snapped a shot.

“This is me,” says the photograph at the beginning of this post. A mac nerd, a fangirl, a diarist, an occult enthusiast, a collector, a curator, a historian and folklorist, a little bit weird. Still a little bit dark. Still entrenched in the fantastic. Also, bunnies! (The little stuffed pot o’ fluff is named Blushy. Jon bought him for me last year, after a brief struggle at the bookstore: “I’m a grown woman. I don’t buy stuffed animals for myself!” Blushy came home with me that night in Jon’s shopping bag. He’s a keeper. The boy, I mean. The bunny too, but, you knew that.)

There’s a couple of questions you can ask yourself when beginning the process, similar to a designer taking a creative brief before starting a project:

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What’s your objective when establishing a personal brand?

Are you going to market a specific type of book for a specific audience, or are you marketing yourself as a creative professional who excels in a bunch of areas? You can always make the argument that you want to stand apart from your work, letting your books speak for themselves. I feel tied to my subject matter. I write about things that fascinate me, and I have a difficult time drawing a line between me and the dark stuff. In my mind, I’m all ouija boards and human skulls. Maybe a bit of mummy wrapping, or a little jar of dirt from Vlad Tepes’ castle. My brain is a wunderkammer and so is my apartment, even if I get caught dancing to Katy Perry.

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Who’s your audience?

Do you write for adults, teens, middle grade students? Who do you want to read your work, and who do you think might be interested in learning more about you? Keep in mind, branding touches on a variety of areas: it should influence your tone, your language, your visual presentation. I still remember Anne Rice showing up to one of her promotional events in a coffin. Pretty effective given that this was around the time of The Vampire Chronicles. What a way to reinforce what she was interested in promoting at the time. I should mention that your brand isn’t static. It should evolve as you do.

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What takeaway do you want your audience to have?

Apart from the fact that you’re hawking your books, I mean. What sort of service do you provide, and why? Do you blog? Do you offer advice? Do you share your research? Do you talk about your process or about a specific genre? Do you encourage other people to be brave, bold, badass? What’s your offer? John Green is amazing at this. Yes, he writes excellent novels for young adults — but he also talks to teenager about teenage challenges. He’s high profile, and he’s willing to share stories from his younger years too. In my opinion, that’s really brave, and people respond to that sincerity.

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What’s your single most important message?

Your brand is your promise to your readers. It offers a certain standard of what they can expect from you. There’s no question about J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Rick Riordan — you know what you’re going to get. These guys have reach.

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How are you measuring success?

I think striving for recognition is a good benchmark when your work is sitting all alone on a shelf somewhere without you to defend it. Most authors strive for invisibility when it comes to their books. We don’t want to hear you talking, we want to hear your characters; but at the same time, I know I’m reading Libba Bray when its a Libba Bray book. There’s something about the flavour of her words that’s constant, even if the works are set a hundred years apart historically. The author’s presence is conveyed through their voice, their tone, their subject matter. Usually metrics work to determine success, but with brand success, it goes a little deeper: I think we need to prep ourselves to translate our written methodologies from fiction into a bigger narrative when we talk about ourselves as creative professionals.


Doing any sort of brand exercise that addresses your story as a writer is an excellent way to offer a little something more to your work. When you’re afforded the opportunity to talk about your journey as a writer, you’re either the hero or the villain. Don’t you think your readership should identify you based on the hat you choose? Make yourself memorable (remember yourself) and your readers will remember you too.

The Swag Up Top:

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] 15″ MacBook Pro

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes (by Neil Gaiman)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] Prada Glasses

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] Blushy (Ittybit by Bunnies by the Bay)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] 0 Gauge Bone Spiral Earings (Onetribe)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] From the Deep Teacup and Saucer (Anthropologie)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] Dusk in Wonderland Pocketwatch (birdsnbees on Etsy)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] Apple

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] New Orleans Coffin souvenir

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] Zombie Tarot Cards (Quirkbooks)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] iPad

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] Tahitian Coconut Fig Candle (Indigo)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab Perfumes (Antique Lace, The Ghost, and Snake Oil)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] One Line a Day Journal (Amazon)

[icon color=”Accent-Color” size=”tiny” image=”icon-chevron-right”] Handbound Leather Journal (Badger & Chirp)


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  • […] I’ve had going. A few days ago I wrote about taking the first steps towards establishing my author branding. The idea solidified a couple of days back, and so began three nights of furious […]

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