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Starbucks. Nike. Microsoft.
On the surface, they are words that mean little or nothing. But when you see the name on billboards or TV or on a product, you know exactly what they represent. Starbucks calls to mind not just a cup of coffee, but a certain level of SUV-driving Yuppie affluence. Nike suggests sports as well as an attitude of “Just Do It.” Microsoft — I’m not even going to go there, because of its Roman Empire-like prevalence. If you don’t know what they stand for, odds are good you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade. They’re brands, with distinct identities and market positions.
As a writer, you are a brand. This concept is just as important for the unpublished or newly published writer as it is for the career veteran. Why? Because you’re going to be one name in a sea of competitors, whether it’s on the editors desk or on a bookstore shelf. You need to have a definite sense of what makes you special in order to stand out.
This is different from specialization, although honestly, that wouldn’t hurt. Branding is more about what makes you different, what makes you uniquely “you.” Nike makes sneakers; that’s what they’re famous for. But they also make clothing, exercise gear, and sports equipment. The through-line for all Nike products, and the bottom line of their brand, is the attitude of activity. If you wear Nike, you are saying you’re part of the “Just Do It” team and all that encompasses — even if, in actuality, all you’re “just doing” is sitting on the couch.
So even if you write historical, paranormal, and short contemporaries, you will have one common element, one through-line that says “this is a [your name] project.” Maybe there’s always an element of edge-of-your-seat suspense. Maybe you always write kick-ass alpha females, no matter what the genre. Maybe you just have a very distinctive voice, like the Garrison-Keillor-meets-Edgar-Allen-Poe narrative of Stephen King. It takes conscious study to figure out your brand, and once you’ve found it, you have to actively work to emphasize it.
Think about your favorite author. In my case, that would be Jennifer Crusie. She writes funny, sassy, irreverent reads with heroines who say things I usually only think about (and even then, usually too late.) This is reflected in all of her marketing. If you haven’t been to her website, you should. It’s a perfect case of showing the “Jennifer Crusie brand.” It’s like reading one of her books, only it’s about her and what she’s working on.
Ideally you’ll do the same — carrying your voice through your query letters and your synopses, projecting your “brand” at conferences and workshops. You’ll stand out. You’ll get noticed. And you’ll be a success.