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Author Branding Spotlight: Are you thinking like a fan?

Welcome to our second Author Branding Spotlight. These posts highlight authors who are doing something right. These are authors we’ve discovered and enjoy, not always the obvious ones on Google’s or Amazon’s list of “most successful”. In fact, today’s author hasn’t even published his first book — yet. Did you know you could begin your branding and developing your “author platform” before you’d even published anything? Yes — and you should! Of course, this is just one way to do things. We hope you are inspired to come up with your own approach as we spotlight your fellow travelers on the writing road. And without further ado…

Author Branding Spotlight: Zachary Totah

In our previous posts, we’ve talked about how being yourself can be a powerful part of your brand as an author. Remember, people want relationships with other people. That’s what social media is all about. And when it comes to reading fiction, they want a positive emotional experience. See the connection? When they enjoy you and interacting with you online, it is their first hint that they might enjoy your writing.

Sure. Sounds nice in theory, but what does that look like?

Let your fandom flag fly

gondor-flag01I met Zachary Totah at a conference for writers of speculative fiction. Nice guy. But it wasn’t until I started reading his blog posts that I felt connected with him. It all started with hobbits. It was September 21 and the specfic world was looking forward to celebrating “Hobbit Day” on September 22 (the mutual birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, of The Lord of the Rings fame). I’d seen a couple of cute memes about it and was quietly enthused about the day.

But I had no plans to really do anything about it. Until Zachary posted a list of ways that one could celebrate Hobbit Day. Here’s a sampling:

  • Eat the seven daily hobbit meals
  • Walk around barefoot all day
  • Listen to the soundtracks or watch one of the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movies
  • Set aside some time for reading your favorite book passages
  • Play Middle-earth trivia with some friends

How fun is that? The suggestions were easy, appropriate to the holiday, and totally fun. And just like that, Zac was on my list of people to watch for great ideas. Turns out he has plenty where that came from.

A taste of Totah-ly awesome fun

There’s the post, If the Spec-Fic Genres Got Together for Dinner, in which Space Opera asks Dystopia, “We know you’re still a teenager and have a right to suffer from dramatic emotional tidal waves, but could you wait until after dinner?”

When challenged regarding his shirtless appearance, Super Hero tells Steampunk, “I have to make the public ‘oohh’ and ‘aahhh’ over the biceps and abs. My bosses say it increases revenue. I like to think of it as visual proof of my capability to save people.”

Fantasy disagrees. “The most unlikely person can be a hero. Muscle isn’t what triumphs in the end. It’s the will to go on in the face of defeat, the strength to fight when you have nothing left.”

Around and around it goes, which is to be expected when family gathers round the table. Just like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Zachary Totah

Zachary Totah

But what if the apocalypse finally hits? Are you ready? Zac gives us A Geek’s Checklist for Surviving the Apocalypse. Here’s a partial glimpse (you gotta see the rest for more laughs, though):

  • Medicine and first aid supplies, including Lucy’s healing cordial.
  • Captain America’s shield. Good for protection in case your Iron Man suit fails.
  • Human Torch, member of the Fantastic Four, because starting fires is key to staying warm, cooking food, boiling unclean water, scaring off man-eating beasts.
  • If above option isn’t possible, a dragon will suffice but is decidedly more of a logistical headache.
  • Extra clothes and sturdy footwear. In case your Iron Man suit fails.

Okay, okay. The apocalypse is a bit of a stretch. We all know that’s not gonna happen. Not until 2017, at least. But here’s the inevitable: you get stuck outside your fandom and need to survive in unfamiliar territory. Like a Narnia nerd trapped in a room full of Trekkies, you need to be prepared. You need How to Speak Geek — Sci-fi Version (and if you’re a scifi geek trapped with Middle Earthers, you need the Fantasy Version). Do you begin to see this guy’s genius?

Yeah, but…

Yeah, but what? His website looks a bit home-grown? There aren’t enough pictures for your taste? He hasn’t even published anything yet?

Irrelevant.

What Zachary has going for him transcends all that. Websites can be redesigned. Books are eventually edited and published. Writing improves with practice.

But here’s something that is working right now and that I hope he never loses: Zachary gets it. What’s more, he has it. He has the joy of the true fan. And other true fans will recognize it, and flock to him. Gandalf saw in Bilbo Baggins what wasn’t obvious on the surface, and I hope you can catch a glimpse of what I see in Zachary Totah: the seeds of author branding greatness.

Conclusion

How can you influence and attract readers? Ponder what Zac has done and what I liked about it. Now think about what you could do and how it might thrill your potential fans.

  • Be a fellow fan with great ideas. Ideas that bring joy and enthusiasm to life. Don’t do it like Zachary does it. Do it your way. With your passions and fandoms.
  • Go where the readers are and be someone fun to talk to. Wherever you see a natural opportunity to add value to a conversation by linking to your great ideas, do so.
  • Keep at it until you find what works. Then keep doing that as long as it works. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Then you, too, can be Totah-ly Awesome ™.

More about Zachary Totah

Check out his books, The Skyriders Series, and his favorite music (Zac, you should totally make a YouTube or SoundCloud playlist with this stuff!). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

P.S. Some of us are just not like Zachary. At all.

“Be a fellow fan? Who has time for that?” This may not come naturally to you. It’s possible that life and work and a busy schedule has sucked all the fan-like joy out of you. Maybe in your eyes, Zac’s posts are a total waste of time. Maybe it’s just not your style. If that’s the case, you still have options:

  • Resign yourself to your fate and work around the fact that you aren’t a fan of anything and cannot relate to those who are. Find something you can do that works to please and attract readers, even if it is in some other role than as a fan.
  • Decide that you’re going to nurture this dormant, crippled part of you until it blossoms into something attractive to others.
  • Make friends with people like Zachary and market collaboratively with them.

Whatever you do: “Never give up! Never surrender!”
— Commander Peter Quincy Taggert of the NSEA Protector
never-give-up-never-surrender

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Author Branding Lesson 3: Taming the Dragon Part II

As we begin taming the marketing dragon, we’ve been looking at who we are: what stories we enjoy, what stories we write, which authors we admire, what people say about how our writing affects them. Although it doesn’t always come directly into play in marketing an author and their books, there’s another piece that is more important today than ever: your personality.

Yes, I’m talking about who you are, as a person. As a Facebook friend. As someone to bump into at a conference and strike up a conversation with. As someone to follow into battle against monstrous dragons far wilder than the ones we’ve already tamed together.

Ha ha — yes, I’m talking about Hiccup again, and this time using an example from How to Train Your Dragon 2. All of his life, Hiccup felt out of place and disconnected from the others in his village, and especially from the one he most wanted to know and love him: his father. This undermined his confidence and produced doubts that plagued him throughout his young life. And then he made a startling and wondrous discovery.

Hiccup's Mom and Toothless

His mother was alive! (Oops, sorry. Spoiler, huh?) And she understood and loved dragons even more than he did! As they got to know each other, Hiccup began to see why he was who he was, where his temperament and tendencies came from. It gave him confidence and strength.

You are not alone

No matter what kind of personality you have, the Internet and social media has made it easier than ever to find “your people”. Are you the eternal optimist, a lover of romance and happy endings, always looking on the bright side of life? Perhaps you feel most comfortable in the dark, a lover of the night and creepy crawly things that hide in the shadows, always certain that the cake is a lie? Do you enjoy cat videos? (Come on, we all know there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who smile at cat videos and those who admit it.) Are you a master of sarcastic snark? A proclaimer of doom and gloom? A fount of kindness and love for all?

You don’t have to hide who you are in order to be successful. You don’t have to be like that other guy or gal. Many, many different kinds of people have found ways to connect with fans and sell their work. From the cutest fluffy bunny personality to the snarkiest in-your-face critic, there are successful creatives whose personality infuses their work — and their brand. Their authentic self (sometimes amped for effect) is part of what attracts their audience.

Find your unique combination and unlock your brand

Many times, it’s not just one thing that makes a personality brand pop and sizzle. It’s two or three contrasting and/or unique things.

Fearsome enemy -- or loving mom?

Hiccup’s mother, Valka, was not just a Viking mom. Not just a bleeding-heart dracophile. She was also a fearsome hunter and formidable foe. And, to the relief of all those rooting for a reconciliation with Stoick, she was a woman whose heart could still be wooed with the songs of her youth and the love of a man willing to forgive her failings.

The contrast of her three major roles (wife, mother, dragonrider) made her unique and fascinating, and drove the plot of the second movie. Not everyone appreciated the choices she made in her life, but that’s another good lesson for you: You’re not going to please everyone. No matter how hard you try. So don’t try — you’ll only lose the ones who resonate with you the best. As you pursue who you are and what you want to stand for, you may need to leave some people behind. Even when this is done in love, it can be painful. Be strong.

Action Item

Time to add to your lists! What are the three most common things people say about you? The three most common words they use to describe you?

What are three topics that you are passionate about? It doesn’t have to be world peace. It could be coffee, and getting the perfect grind on a perfect roast. Pick three things that you never tire of. Ideally, find something that is different, unique, or interesting. A passion for medieval castles. Fixing old cars. A love of lost languages. A fascination with pretty things, like roadkill and praying mantises. Oh, wait, that’s me. Go find your own!

And don’t forget to leave a comment and share your three words and three topics!

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Author Branding Lesson 1: Know Thyself

Do you know who you are?

Last week we took Luke Skywalker as an example of the power of discovering who you are. But how did he start out? At the beginning of the original Star Wars saga, he is a young man on the cusp of manhood. An orphan raised by his aunt and uncle as a farmer on a barren wasteland of a planet. He dreams of being more, of leaving the dunes of the backwater and making a difference in the galaxy by joining the Rebel Alliance. It’s a big dream. It’s a noble dream.

But he’s clueless, isn’t he?

He doesn’t know that he is especially strong in the Force that empowers the Jedi to do miraculous feats. He doesn’t know that his father is the right-hand enforcer of the evil Emperor. He doesn’t know that the princess in distress is his twin sister. He doesn’t know that the random scoundrel he hires to escape Tatooine will become a loyal friend and save his life — and indeed, save the galaxy from the Death Star by protecting Luke long enough to destroy it. How would he feel if he knew that his wise, old mentor had critically maimed and left his father to die in the fires of a lava river on Mustafar?

Luke Skywalker confronting the truth

You are a writer. You are in love with story, and especially the one you are working on right now. You have poured — or are ready to pour — your life blood into this noble cause and hope to change the world. Or at least to transport your readers to a new world while they read, leaving them with new memories and perhaps a fresh perspective on their lives.

As you navigate your publishing journey, you’ll make discoveries along the way. That princess you kissed? Yeah, she’s your sister. That villain who chopped off your hand? Your father. As new facts come to light, learn to leverage them.

Maybe your post about your favorite Doctor Who coffee mug gets more shares than anything else. Use that. Maybe you surprise yourself with your eloquent passion as you comment on a meme about PTSD. It’s something you’ve experienced and worked through, and you realize you have a lot to share on that topic. No wonder your protagonists wrestle with it.

 

Self-analysis is critical to branding

If you’ve never been one to journal your thoughts and feelings, that’s okay. This isn’t that kind of analysis. This is business. This is (gasp!) marketing. We’re going to start with looking at our past, but it doesn’t stop there. The past is only one influence on our future. The choices we make now are far more powerful than anything that has come before. In the coming weeks we’ll face the mirror and make some honest, compassionate decisions about what we see.

Action Item

  1. Page one: Think back and jot down the major turning points in your creative life.
    • The moment you decided you wanted to write. The contest you won that spurred you on. Joining that critique group that improved your craft. Attending that conference where you met your agent. The encouraging comment from a mentor. Etc.
  2. Page two: List the stories you’ve finished (or if the list is too long, list the ones that seem significant or memorable to you).
  3. Third page. Make a list of the books, TV shows or movies that have stood the test of time for you. The ones that you’ll never forget, the ones that you still enjoy, the ones you recommend.

Over the next few weeks, come back to these pages and ponder them. What trends do you see? What themes seem to rise to the top? What attracts you, what inspires you, what do you emulate in your work? Do you like what you see, or would you adjust your course?

BONUS: Get a folder or binder and label it #SpecFicCollective. Put the pages in it. Keep it handy.

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Author Identity: The hero must discover who he is

Remember Luke Skywalker in the very first Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope? He was a clueless farm boy stumbling into one of the greatest power struggles in the galaxy.

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine

Now think about Luke as he appeared in The Return of the Jedi. He was confident, he had a plan, and you could see peace and determination shining through his every word and deed.

He knew who he was. He had embraced his identity as a Jedi with power of the Force and as the son of Darth Vader, right-hand of the evil Emperor. He had decided to save his friends and continue the fight against the Empire. When hardships hit, he did not waver. When things looked impossible, he did not give up. Ultimately, his unwavering faith saved his father and defeated the Emperor.

Luke and Vader after the Emperor is defeated

When you know who you are, you are unstoppable.

Take a look around the entertainment world. It is not the most talented, most unique or wealthiest that are the most popular.

Successful entertainers know who they are and what they are about. They have found effective ways to communicate their identity to the world. This is often called branding and authors need it, too. People are drawn to others who have a sense of purpose or a strong sense of identity. It speaks to our shared inner need for meaning in life. When we see someone who is committed to a passion or a cause, we admire it and often we yearn to be part of it.

But how do we get there?

Brand Identity is a process

Sometimes, you know from the very start what it is you want to be. When I was in my late teens, I wanted to become “the Stephen King of light and goodness”. His stories were amazing, but so dark. I wanted to be prolific and popular with stories that focused more on the light than the darkness. My goals have shifted somewhat over the years, but that’s a good example of choosing an identity up front. If you choose a memorable identity and gear every story and every aspect of your online presence towards that end, a strong brand can be established very quickly.

Other times, you begin knowing only that you want to write. Stories bubble out of you. Maybe they’re all similar, maybe they aren’t. You write what you feel like writing. Over time, an author’s style and voice and story tendencies come through. A brand can occur organically and over time.

Authors have built their careers both ways in the past, but in today’s saturated market you need a strong brand now. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. It can change over time. You may need to experiment a bit to make it memorable and engaging.

Your brand identity is the magnet that attracts others to you and your work. But it also has great benefits for you. It provides a compass for direction and a way to assess priorities and measure success. We’ll talk more about these benefits in future posts.

Action Item

Make a list of 6 well-known authors. Next to each name, write down what you think their brand identity is. “Suspense author” or “writer of creepy, complex plots with large casts of characters” or “the queen of forensic murder mysteries”.

Now go to their websites or scan through Amazon.com’s descriptions and endorsements of their books. What identity do you find reflected there? How are they described by others?

Share one or two of your findings in a comment below.

 

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