In the first of our new shows comparing the perspectives of fiction and nonfiction, Orna Ross, Adam Croft, and Boni Wagner-Stafford discuss book branding: when you should brand the author versus when the branding should focus on the book, or the book series. What are the factors to take into account?
And what about pen names? Should you have one? Or maybe even more than one? What are the implications? Tune in for this session on branding best practice.
Here are some highlights:
Adam Croft, on Branding Fiction vs. Nonfiction
I think, if you’re marketing yourself as a fiction writer, you’re looking to immerse readers in a world that you’ve created. Whereas with a nonfiction you position yourself, or I do anyway, because I’m big-headed as a guru expert.
Boni Wagner-Stafford on What Branding Is
It’s everything you say, everything you do, it’s the colors you wear, it’s how you dress. It’s how you how you write. It’s your author platform. It’s the way you design your covers.
Orna Ross on Use of Pen Names
We’re seeing this thing that’s happening in the indie space where authors are actually using different names for different series because they don’t want to mess up the Amazon also-boughts.
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About the Hosts
Orna Ross is founding director of ALLi, which she founded in 2012 and launched that year at London Book Fair. After being traditionally published Orna took her rights back from Penguin and republished with titles and treatment she’d always envisaged. With a background in journalism, as a literary agent, and writing teacher, it is Orna’s work with ALLi that has seen her repeatedly named one of The Bookseller’s “Top 100 people in publishing.” Orna writes award-winning fiction and poetry, runs a Patreon page for poets and poetry lovers, and an active author website. She’s on a mission to help eradicate creative poverty, through digital publishing and enterprise. You’ll find her, most days, on Twitter and she posts poems and quotes for poets on Instagram: @ornaross.
With almost two million books sold to date, Adam Croft is one of the most successful independently published authors in the world and one of the biggest selling authors of the past few years, having sold books in over 120 different countries. In February 2017, Only The Truth became a worldwide bestseller, reaching storewide number one at both Amazon US and Amazon UK, making it the bestselling book in the world at that moment in time. The same day, Amazon’s overall Author Rankings placed Adam as the world’s most widely read author, with J.K. Rowling in second place. In March 2018, Adam was conferred as an Honorary Doctor of Arts, the highest academic qualification in the UK, by the University of Bedfordshire in recognition of his services to literature. Visit his website, The Indie Author Mindset, or find him on Twitter.
Boni Wagner-Stafford is a nonfiction author coach, writer, ghostwriter, and developmental editor. Since 2015, she has helped other authors publish memoir, anthology, how-to and journalistic nonfiction titles. She also miraculously managed to cross the line with a couple of her own titles, with the requisite gazillion half finished. She’s an award-winning former television reporter, talk show host, and news anchor who later led public-sector teams in media relations, issues management, and strategic communications planning, then muddying her hands as a creative entrepreneur. Visit her Ingenium Books website, find her on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
Read the Transcript
Orna Ross: Hello everybody and welcome to a brand new show here on the Ask ALLi podcast and Facebook Live broadcast. Really delighted to see so many of you here. We are having slightly shaky internet tonight. one of us is in Ireland, me, one of us in Mexico.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Me!
Orna Ross: Let me introduce you and for those of you who may not already know, on my right or possibly your left is Boni Wagner-Stafford who is ALLi’s communications manager has been for the last sometime and Boni has worked in broadcasting in a past life and beside her, in the middle or as I see it, but I’m not quite sure what you’re seeing is Mr. Adam Croft who probably needs no introduction and I’m Orna Ross, Director of ALLi. We are all authors and we all write fiction and nonfiction. And we are having this new take in this new kind of show because we were thinking and talking about the fact that if you write fiction, you tend to talk about books and mean novels.
And if you write nonfiction, you tend to talk about books and mean nonfiction of whichever type you write: memoir or how to or whatever. But self publishing advice actually needs to be tailored in a slightly different way across lots of different issues for fiction and nonfiction, so we thought it would be really interesting show each week if we were to come together, take a theme and then apply a fiction lens on the one hand and the nonfiction lens on the other. So I’m going to ask Boni and Adam now to introduce themselves, talk a little bit about the books that they’re writing, and then we’ll get to our theme of today. So, ladies first.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Okay, ladies first. Hi. So I, as Orna mentioned, have a background in journalism and broadcasting and I’ve written a couple of nonfiction books, one of them co-authored. And I’ve been in an anthology about cats. My cat is outside so it’s not to make too much noise today and another one recently about how to develop book marketing strategies for your nonfiction books. I work with authors in the nonfiction genre. You know, whether it’s memoir or how to fiction, or sometimes journalistic nonfiction, and I have a fiction in progress and I have to say, I just find fiction way harder than nonfiction. I don’t, I, hats down, bow down to you guys who knock fiction out of the park. I’m having a very hard time with it.
Orna Ross: Okay, well, we will see does that change over the coming weeks and months.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Right.
Orna Ross: Adam? Yeah, I’ll let you introduce yourself now to everyone. Don’t be modest.
Adam Croft: Well, I’ve kind of gone the other way. I started as a fiction writer for many, many years and bowed to the pressure of people wanting some nonfiction things from me, some kind of guidance due to, I guess, the kind of 10 years that I’ve been indie publishing. So I started, I think, it’s probably only about a year ago, my first nonfiction book come out and I’ve got three now. I would agree with Boni actually, that I find writing nonfiction much easier. It requires far less of a thought process because I’m talking like I’m talking now just through my fingers where, you know, I don’t have to worry about inventing characters and making things sound dramatic and what have you. It’s just me passing on knowledge as I do through these sorts of things. Anyway, soI tend to find nonfiction a hell of a lot easier and actually quite addictive for that reason because I can knock a book out, a nonfiction one, fairly quickly compared to fiction where I don’t tend to write myself into those holes.
Orna Ross: Yeah and I, too, write both. Though I completely think of myself as a novelist and a poet, I do actually probably write more nonfiction, which is kind of weird. But also it is. I also find nonfiction less challenging and at one level in the sense that it is. I think you get to know what you want to write about and the effect that you want the book to have for the reader more easily. Sometimes novels you don’t know what on earth you’re doing until you’re almost finished or even maybe completely finished the first draft.
And my novels take a long time and because they’re quite heavy, historically researched and all of that kind of thing and writing and rewriting and the same with poetry, rewriting which is for a different show, I know. So we will hope to kind of bring a different take on the different topics that we’re going to be talking about from those two perspectives, we would like you to talk to about how you experience it, because it’s always different for all Indies and we would like also for you to send in your questions and things. If you just put them into the comment box there on Facebook.
We are using a Be Live platform so we can bring all three of us to you together, which Facebook doesn’t allow and there is a slight delay on the commentary if you put your comment in the box, we will deal with it before the end of the show. So our theme today is we’re talking about branding, and we’re talking specifically about a question “Do you brand your books and perhaps have different pen names for your different types of books that you write, particularly if you write fiction and nonfiction, but perhaps also if you write a fiction series, or different standalones? Or do you brand the author where the author name is the thing that carries the readers along? And the different reasons as to why you might do one or the other looked at through the lens of fiction and nonfiction.
So when we were doing our kind of pre-show prep, Adam said something interesting, which was when he started and didn’t really think very much about branding, and certainly, if he was starting now would be thinking an awful lot more about it. So I’m going to begin there with that topic. Can you kind of tell people what you meant by that Adam, and also a little bit about your branding strategy around fiction and nonfiction?
Adam Croft: I think what I meant by it is that as with most things, I got it wrong for a long, long time and accidentally stumbled across the right way of doing things and now I’ll try to make myself sound impressive by trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about. I think that was the point I was trying to get across. I think for me, there are two very different ways of branding as a fiction writer and a nonfiction writer. I think, as a fiction writer I brand myself as, I mean, personally as an author, perhaps as an entertainer, storyteller, you know, the new must read author, these kinds of things, you get to be a bit more “you” I think, if you’re marketing yourself as a fiction writer, but I think mostly the branding focuses on the characters, the worlds, the series, so perhaps it isn’t so much personal branding involved. You’re looking to immerse readers in a world that you’ve created. Whereas with a nonfiction you position yourself, or I do anyway, because I’m big-headed as a guru expert, you know, someone with the knowledge that can solve a reader’s problem or provide some kind of solution, change their life in some way.
I mean, for example, my indie author mindset books position me in terms of, you know, having sold 2 million books, featured in BBC and newspapers and all of this stuff, which will ideally make my target audience, which is other indie authors, sit up and think “Well, wow, this guy must know what he’s talking about.” So it’s, I suppose your branding the knowledge you have and the position you have with nonfiction, and with fiction, you are selling the world and the characters and the dream that you’ve created.
Orna Ross: Okay, and we’ll come back in a little while to the way you’ve managed having these two very different types of books in your repertoire. And Boni, what about you and branding? You’ve been thinking about using a different name altogether. Talk to us about why and what that’s about and is it a branding thing?Is it a personal thing?
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Yeah, great question. And then I want to come back and talk about what we’re talking about with branding. But it is kind of how I got into this thinking about branding. I have kind of a storied background. I’ve been married a few times. I’ve had four different names when I was a journalist with in a very public profile working for CBC, etc. in Western Canada. I was Boni Fox. And now I’m Boni Wagner-Stafford. So long story, there’s a written a piece in the Globe and Mail that kind of goes into it, but so the books that I’ve published have been under Boni Wagner-Stafford and that’s a very long name that takes up a lot of real estate on the bottom of the book, and it’s kind of cumbersome and so I’ve been finding myself waking up in the middle of the night going, “Hmm, should I just go back to Boni Fox?” It’s very short. You know, concise, kind of has a little cachet. I have some kind of audience, if any of them are still alive, it was a long time ago, but from my broadcasting days. So for nonfiction in particular, I’ve been wondering whether that makes any sense. So I don’t know, I haven’t decided what to do about that. But it’s kind of fun to talk about.
Orna Ross: And back to the question around what we were talking about what we’re talking about branding.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Branding. Yeah. So branding, as soon as you start to say branding, it can have kind of a you know, woo woo connotation. “Oh, God, you’re not going to go down that road.” But really branding is, there’s a great quote from Jeff Bezos. He says “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” So it’s everything you say, everything you do, it’s the colors you wear, it’s how you dress. It’s how you how you write. It’s your author platform. It’s the way you design your covers. So it’s all of those things all encompassed. And I was going to say to Adam, that for nonfiction, yes, you want to be able to brand yourself as an expert.
Otherwise, why would people bother reading your book, but I think the main thing is to be you. And so the brand must be authentic or it’s never going to stick. And so it’s to find those elements within that brand, that are authentic and allow you to be, in the case of nonfiction, an expert or an authority. And in the case of fiction, I wanted to pick up on something else you said, Adam, which was you’re really branding your worlds. When I read fiction and I read a fair bit of fiction, I go for the author. And once I know what that author writes, I will read more of that author and we know that, that’s the whole business of you know, building your list and getting your name out there. But so I’m interested in what you think about that. Once I know an author, I will go after that author. And so it is the author brand, not necessarily the world’s.
Adam Croft: I think it’s an interesting sign and… Sorry.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Go ahead, sorry.
Adam Croft: Yeah. No, I think it’s interesting sign that different readers do approach things in different ways. There’s no, you know, all readers are looking for this, and this will impress all potential readers. I think it’s just a case of kind of highlighting those differences between the two. And of course, if you’re positioning yourself as an expert, as a non fiction author, those things will have to be true.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Right.
Adam Croft: You can’t, you know, make yourself as an expert if you’re not. And there’s also a large element of trust, which I think is where the personal story comes in. And letting people know how you got to that point, I think that then builds up that personal character and that trust, which will help in the nonfiction front.
Orna Ross: Yeah, in answer to that very interesting question of whether it’s the author or the world or the characters or you know, I think it depends very much on the genre. So I think, for example, literary fiction readers, once they like an author, they will read lots of standalone books that that author has written but in say fantasy or lots of crime, people want the characters that, you know, in, say detective novels, they want the main character again and again and again in something else it might be. In fantasy, it could be the world that they’re after.
And so we’re seeing this thing that’s happening in the indie space where authors are actually using different names for different series because they don’t want to mess up the Amazon also-boughts. They want to appear and particularly those writers who are in KU or Amazon exclusive but not only them and they want, when they turn up in also boughts that they are the same type of book and because the algorithm gets very messed up if you write it like I do, for example across four different types of books, Adam you have a kind of cunning strategy around all that too.
Because you didn’t want your, say, indie author mindset book turning up in somebody, but you didn’t want the wrong authors turning up in your also boughts of your fictions that you didn’t want, you know, Joanna Penn or David Gaughran or whoever turning up in your history also boughts. So talk to us about that, how you manage that? Because I think it was pretty clever actually.
Adam Croft: Yeah, I think it’s, whether you have a different name or not depends on how connected the two things are. I write police procedurals, I write traditional murder mysteries and I write psychological thrillers. They’re all kind of under the crime banner. So I consider them to be close enough to all be written under Adam Croft. My nonfiction is also written under Adam Croft, but the author field on Amazon and on the other vendors is Adam L. Croft, which is near enough that everyone’s gonna know it’s me. Because, you know, hopefully my name is enough to sell some nonfiction books on indie writing, indie publishing, but it’s also different enough that Amazon treats it as a different author for the purposes of categorization. I mean, it knows it’s me, it’s all the same KDP dashboard, it’s not hiding anything.
The cover still says Adam Croft on it. But it’s just a case of, as you say, not polluting those also boughts, which will actually make life more difficult for me because then my psychological thrillers, my crime books, as you say, would have Joanna Penn, David Gaughran and Brian Meeks popping up in there, which would then perhaps confuse readers or have people clicking through who aren’t in my intended target audience which will then lower the percentage of people buying the books, which could then lower my visibility on Amazon. It takes into account a lot of this is possibly how the algorithm works. But for me, it’s not worth taking the risk. So yeah, it’s a small but subtle change, just having my middle initial in there.
Orna Ross: Yeah, and we’ve got lots of members now, it’s not something we were ever asked for before but say in the last two years, we’ve got lots of members who were saying “I want more, you know, room for more pen names in my ALLi profile. I write this under that name and I write that and the names are completely different in their writing and completely different genre. And for that reason they are and as you say, this is almost like a supposition that this is how the algorithm works. People think it is but we can’t be sure because Amazon never tells you anything about stuff like that, and so I think it’s an interesting sort of indication of how seriously people take that whole process on that wish that sales on Amazon that can deliver a *inaudible* be able to rustle up all by yourself. What about you, Boni, will you use a different name for your fiction when that novel is done, which it will be done?
Boni Wagner-Stafford: It will be done. Oh my god, it will be done. It’s only been going for seven years already. And I’ve got a couple more left for sure. Partly because it’s set in Russia. So I must get there, I have it in my head that I must get there before I finish it. The thing about my fiction piece is actually, it’s based on the true story of my grandfather and his escape from Russia immediately after the, or shortly after the Russian Revolution. And so my grandfather’s last name is Wagner. So I feel a strong desire to have the Wagner name involved in that one. So maybe it’s that my fiction ends up being Boni Wagner. Or Boni Wagner-Stafford and my nonfiction ends up being Boni Fox, which follows the journalistic piece. I don’t know, but I guess I should decide soon.
Orna Ross: Yeah, I think you just decided. what do you think, Adam? I reckon she just decided.
Adam Croft: Yeah, I mean, it makes a lot of sense that way round. Up until then, I’ve kind of been thinking as well that Boni Fox as a standalone name does sound a bit more fiction to me. Boni Wagner-Stafford has that kind of-
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Right.
Adam Croft: That double barreled impact of nonfiction and authority about it-
Boni Wagner-Stafford: That’s probably true.
Adam Croft: So I think on first appraisals that’s kind of where I would go with it. But yeah, you just throw a spanner in the works with the Russian link and Being connected with the journalism and that makes a hell of a lot of sense to me, so I can totally see why you’re in a bit of a quandary about it.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Yeah.
Orna Ross: It is a novel. It’s on the literary end of things. I think Boni Fox sounds more like a commercial fiction writer for my money, you know, and Boni Wagner sounds more like a literary and I think, and, you know, it’s just great talking about what you’re going to do just as an example, for those who are listening and just to bring up some of the issues around that you kind of have to think about. So in terms of what do you think is the most important if you were just to just give indie authors one, the biggest, bestest tip around branding what would that be?
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Me first?
Orna Ross: All right, then.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: I would say we spend a lot of time talking about identifying your reader. So identify your reader so that you know who you’re writing to identify your reader so you know who you’re marketing to. I would say that my biggest tip for this would be to turn it around. And this aligns with something we used to do in journalism as well was we would say, you know, if you’re covering let’s say, a fire, you’re covering a fire and you go and you’re looking at the fire and you’re saying, “Oh, my goodness, it’s you know, the building is on fire.” But the story happens when you turn around and you look at the people who are watching the fire. That’s where the story is. The story isn’t in the flames. So with branding your books, we want to identify who the reader is, but turn it around, how are the readers going to find you? How are they going to identify with you? And that’s the beginnings of building your author brands. That would be what I would say.
Orna Ross: Fantastic. Adam?
Adam Croft: I would say for fiction, I would say be authentic. I think readers want to connect with you personally, they want to see your personality shine through. And things like Facebook live videos if, especially if they’re shot, you know, with your front facing camera on your phone, you know, not edited, no special lighting effects, things like that. And I think if you’re personal and personable, I think that that helps quite a lot. I think for nonfiction, I would say my biggest tip is probably to be prepared to give. I think, don’t lock all of your secrets and knowledge behind the paywall, so to speak. And be prepared to blow your own trumpet. What makes you an expert? Why should people listen to you? Why should they trust you?
Orna Ross: Fantastic. I, my favorite definition, you know, of branding is that it’s your promise to the reader. And-
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Orna Ross: And I think that then when you, that allows me, and writers like me who, you know, write for very different audiences across these different genre to think about branding, in fact, for a long time, I resisted the whole word “branding.” And I really only use it because it’s the word that we all understand what we mean. But I think we, a lot of authors, are a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of branding, it can feel false, it can feel, you know, we mentioned the word authenticity earlier. And I think that’s so important. And what Adam is saying about just being yourself, putting yourself out there and it feels really uncomfortable, but actually, that’s where the connection happens in terms of the author branding. Then if you’ve got very different kinds of books, and if you’ve got, say, let’s talk about having a nonfiction line and fiction line, and the promise I’m making to the reader if I’m writing say, an author guide, is a completely different promise of making to the reader if I’m writing a poem, or I’m writing a historical fiction or family murder mystery, you know, they are completely different promises.
And again, if you write just standalone books because not everybody writes series, it’s the same thing. Each book may be making a different promise to the reader, but you then as an author, have to find what is the one thing that connects all of these that also, as Boni said, turn it around, then that also connects to these particular people that you’re trying to reach. And it can be quite complex. I mean, the best thing I could say about branding is probably something you’re either going to be able to do and you’re doing it already and I don’t need to say it or as you’re not able to do so and so it’s useful advice, but actually the best thing you can do is just write one thing and write it over and over and over and over?
Well, you know, few of us can do that, or else be very, very clear and, you know, make those big walls between between the different types of books that you do, because the way I do it, under one author name and I continue now because I kind of started so I finish but if I was back at the beginning, knowing what I know now, for my own sanity, even, I think it would have been more helpful to have been far more clear and to go so far as to have a different author name and persona thing because we’re all many cells, you know, we can actually express different aspects of our personality and different aspects of ourselves in our different lines. And if I was starting out I would do that, but obviously, it all takes quite a bit of time. So you’ve got to be thinking through and also I think we fall, as Adam was saying, we fall upon it as we do, which we learn by doing.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: The one thing we haven’t quite, I know we have just a few minutes left here. But the one thing we haven’t talked about is when there’s a different reason for using a pen name that isn’t necessarily associated to branding and I see a question from Caitlin. But one of the, I’m working with a couple of authors who are co-writing a memoir, it’s on a very sensitive topic and involves the stories of their family members. And so one of the women is choosing to use a pen name because the family member is asking her to. The other author is not using a pen name because her family member is fine with all those details coming out. So you know, there’s that reason as well for choosing a pen name because you’re trying to keep something private or respect the wishes of somebody whose story is intersecting with your own.
But that brings its own challenges then to branding into marketing and because so if you’re using a pen name, do you do a Facebook Live? Do you, you know, are you concerned with showing your face? Is it okay to show your face? And I think in some cases it is fine because you’re not trying to put something across on people, you’re just using a pen name. It’s not that you’re trying to hide who you are. But in some cases, you may need to hide who you are. So I think it depends. What do you guys think?
Orna Ross: I just asked, could I put Caitlin’s question to you, actually, directly because it’s tied to what Boni was saying there but she’s and we don’t have a lot of time left. So it’d be great to get her an answer. What if you are using a pen name, is it okay to still do Facebook Live? And in those cases, and Caitlin worries, and I presume, by the way, you are pronouncing your name Kate and it might be Kathleen because that is actually the original Irish pronunciation I’m not sure. But anyway, I worry because I’m writing for a US audience but I am South African. And Adam has just kind of dropped out. What do you think technology has let us down there again, I think because he was all set to answer the question, but specifically and Boni, do you have an opinion on is it okay to do a Facebook Live if you use a pen name? Are you confusing your audience?
Boni Wagner-Stafford: I think it is, again, it depends on the circumstances. It depends on what the topic is. It depends on the reason for doing the pen name. But if you’re, you know, can be upfront and open about it. I don’t think that there is really any issue and I, you know, I guess it’s difficult to lump everybody in with the same brush and Adam is back now. Maybe he can jump in with us.
Orna Ross: Do you think it’s okay, Adam, I’m not sure if you heard to use a pen name. You know, if you’re using a pen name, okay to do Facebook Live? Are you confusing people?
Adam Croft: I think to answer Caitlin’s question. I think that’s fine. I think if you’re in a position where you can be open and honest that you are the same person, that’s fine. I will say, as Boni was saying there are situations where you perhaps won’t want to. And as for you know, being South African but writing US based fiction, all I would say is it didn’t do Lee Child any harm.
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Right.
Orna Ross: On that line. I like to enjoy a good line, and I liked that line very much. Yeah, so uh, yeah, I definitely with global indie, you know, we’re all writing, we all are writing in one place and have readers in other places that’s really, really common. And in fact, people love that. So I feel myself that readers, once you are clear, once you clearly explain what’s going on, readers will accept all sorts of things from authors, particularly authors of books they’ve already read and enjoyed. So if you’ve got a good reason for it, it can actually be part of what makes you interesting. And the more you can be yourself, you know, and have something going on, whatever it might be, rather than just, you know, business as usual, the more people tend to develop that kind of heart and soul connection which is what they are looking for when they turn to you and your books.
Our time absolutely flies, I have to say, 30 minutes when there are three of us. And so I feel like we’ve kind of, you know, got in there a little bit on this topic of branding. It’s probably something we’re going to return to because it is super important. We’ll probably take another aspect of branding in a future show and dive down into it. After this will be deciding what we’re going to bring you next month. We’re not quite sure yet but and just before you leave, and just we’re ending each podcast now, each broadcast, now with an invitation for you to take one aspect of something that we discussed tonight, something it might be around the pen name thing specifically or it might be some other aspect of branding, and just go away and do a bit of free writing around the topic and come up with something that moves your own relationship with your brand along a little bit, a little bit along the line.
So, my thanks to Boni, and to Adam, and we will be back. Our gig here is on the second Monday on Facebook live, every second Monday of the month. So if you’re interested in writing fiction and or nonfiction, that’s what we’ll be talking about on the second Monday of the month and the podcast if you want to hear with the transcript and so on will be on the blog on Wednesday next. So thank you very much for joining us, everyone, and until we see you again happy writing and publishing. Bye!
Boni Wagner-Stafford: Bye!
Adam Croft: Bye bye!
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