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Building an Author Brand by Ali Cross

Don't let the “b” word scare you ~ building your own bodacious brand is totally doable!

I've broken the endeavor into four bite-sized pieces with a few exercises thrown in to help you put the lessons to work.  Take the time now to read through and to brainstorm ~ then join me at 5:00. We can talk about your questions and maybe even get to work on some of your specific brand-building questions. Time's a wastin', so let's get going!

You've heard it at every writer's conference. Read about it on agents' blogs. Had nightmares about it.

We are often told that no matter where we are in our writing journey, we should have a blog. Build a platform, establish our online presence so as to (presumably) help sales when our book is published. We nod our heads and take notes . . . only to go home and think, “What the heck is a brand?” 
Webster’s says a brand’s purpose is to “Impress indelibly. To label or mark as if with a brand. A kind or variety of something distinguished by some distinctive characteristic.”I like that last part and that’s what I like to focus on when helping authors develop their brand.
Let's begin by learning to recognize a brand, and one way to do that is through look and feel.
Check out Beth Revis’ header . . . you can tell a lot about her right away. What she writes and who she is: she probably writes young adult, sci fi, probably for girls (color), but maybe for boys too, and you also catch a bit of whimsy and nerdiness.

Elana Johnson’s header tells us about her, too—she probably writes dystopian (barbed wire, unique text), stuff about girls and/or freedom (butterflies), and she’s really into publishing and helping people get a leg up (tagline).

And Brandon Mull–you can pretty much guess that he probably writes fantasy adventures and it’s probably for boys—just from its look and feel.

And/or you can have a logo.
Nathan Bransford’s logo tells you he’s a writer—but for him, it’s not so much what it says as it itself establishes his “look and feel”. For instance, even when he updates his profile picture, he’s always wearing an orange shirt. That’s not an accident—that’s marketing! Wherever you go online, if you see that pic of Nathan, you know exactly who he is.

Rick Riordan’s logo says stuff about him and his writing—he’s into ancient things, probably Roman or Greek.

My logo says I’m a ninja who doesn’t take herself too seriously, and I’m a kind of whimsical.

The last thing that we get from a brand is reliability and consistency.
We know exactly what we’re going to get from Stephen King or JK Rowling.
There's a lot of confusion as to what a brand means. I think it means being true, honest, and legit.
When you build your blog, your online presence, and even your books, it's very easy to think “I want to be a blogger like Awesome Blogger,” and then model yourself in their image.
Which is great—except, it won't last.
Your readers won't stick around and you won't be able to maintain itbecause . . . it's not YOU.


Get a pad of paper and a pencil. This is your opportunity to figure out who you are and how to present yourself online. 

You'll need to ask yourself a few questions . . .

Who do you write your books for?
  • Jot down your thoughts and be as specific as you can: Do you write for housewives who need a little excitement in their lives? Do you write for teenage boys who want to feel powerful and in control of their lives? Do you write for children who are struggling with social issues? Do you write for middle aged men who want to relive the glory of their youth?
What message or theme do you hope your readers will take away from your books?
  • Again, be as specific as you can: Do your stories convey a message of hope? Do you want readers to forget about their regular life—to escape in your story for a bit of time?
Why is that message important to you?
  • Have you experienced something that makes this message important to you? What was your experience? How did it make you feel? Why does it stand out in your mind?
What do you have to say on the subject?
  • Think about everything you know and believe about your message. Jot down everything that comes to your mind.
This concept is best discussed as an example. Imagine you’re a romance writer who writes about love conquering all. About how love can help you overcome anything.
You likely have a strong core belief that love is important and can prevail no matter the odds.
You probably have a personal story behind your message—a moment in time, or a series of experiences, that helped you learn the value of love.
And from those experiences you have learned important truths.
But what does it all mean for you as a blogger, Twitterer, or career writer? Let’s break it down.
Perhaps once a week, you'll post about the things you've learned. Just one little life lesson a week.
This week you might talk about how you and your significant other had the chance to go on a date, and how you noticed that when you told your partner the things that you appreciated about them, they brightened, grew happier, were able to let go of their work week and enjoy being out on a date with you.
In your post, you'll talk about the importance of showing gratitude to the ones you love.
Exercise: Brainstorm as many blog post ideas as you can can using the above example as a guide.
People who read your blog will come to trust you as an expert on love.
When your book—a love story, of course—comes out, your readers will already be able to recall and recognize the brand you have built, and they will trust that your book will deliver the message of love they have come to expect from you.
You will extend your brand of love into Twitter. You’ll tweet about love stories you’ve read and enjoyed. You’ll share bits of wisdom. You’ll celebrate love.
Not every single time, but often–about 25% of the time you’ll tweet about love in one form or another.
Exercise: Take a moment to jot down as many thoughts as you can on your topic. Think of articles or books you’ve read that you could share with your followers.
Your Twitter followers will come to look forward to your thoughts on love. When you blog about love—and tweet about your post—people will have an interest in reading what you wrote since they’ve enjoyed your tweets. Your Twitter followers will come to your blog.
And when your blog readers follow you to Twitter, you’ll provide more of the uplifting, inspiring thoughts on love they’ve come to expect from your blog.
And when your book comes out? They’ll expect it to be about love. And guess what? You won’t let them down!
Of all things you can bring to your marketing efforts, honesty and authenticityare paramount.
No matter how big your blog tour, how many signings you do or how many followers you have—you will not grab and keep readers unless they believe you.
And the time to start being trustworthy and believable isn't just when your book is out—it’s right now. 

This is where we put everything we've learned together.

Take a moment to think about what your message is. Close your eyes and experienceyour message. What does it feel like? Is it confident? Strong? Or soft and loving? Open and inviting? Full of hope?
What color represents those feelings to you? Red? Pink? Black with tiger stripes?
Jot down any impressions you have.
These ideas will be the basis for you building your brand.
Now let’s talk about logo.
What image represents you? Again, close your eyes, and think about it. Let your mind wander over the possibilities. Have you always been an admirer of oak trees? Roses? Ninjas?
It’s easier for me to demonstrate this by relating it to me, since I know myself best. I knew my message was hope. Courage. Determination. I knew I loved the martial arts and that they influenced my life in many ways. I also knew that I loved girly things and whimsy.
I’ve wanted to be a black belt more than anything else. I’ve taken martial arts for years, but always struggled because of my fibromyalgia. I’d do great for a while, then have to take a long time off because of a “flare” (lots and lots of pain). I was crying about it to my husband one day a few years ago and in an effort to console me he talked to me about what it means to be a black belt. Why did I want it so bad? What did it represent to me?
I said I thought it r
epresented determination. Fortitude. Sticking with something hard to come out on top. Courage. A black belt, to me, would mean I had overcome my weaknesses and made myself BETTER.
Of course he (being an awesome hubby) said to him, I already had done all those things, I already had achieved a black belt. In my life. In my writing.
So maybe I’d never have a real live martial arts black belt. But I could be a black belt in my life.
When I saw my ninja girl on the T-shirts at the Spy Museum in Washington, DC, I knew she was me. She looked like me, she was cute and whimsical like me (ha!). She was a ninja. LIKE ME. 😀
I did some research and found that she was a stock image I could purchase rights to, which I did. And now she’s mine :D. I’ve since done some things to her to change her from the original image, which means she really IS mine.
Okay, so think about your message again. Think about your colors. Your image. How can you combine all three so they work together?
You should already know and feel relatively confident about your message.
Now you need to see if you can represent your message or what you stand for with a color and/or a logo. Not everyone is going to need a logo, but a look and feel should be discovered and used faithfully. You might need to do some research to come up with a look and feel and a logo.
After I came up with my image, my ninja, next came my message—hope that one can change themselves into something better.
Next came my look and feel—the whimsical tree which represents hope and growth. 

Put it all togetherand you have my brand.
I represent my brand on my blog:



My business cards, even my email signature:

When people see these images, they know it belongs to me. It has recognition and, if I’ve done my job right, it tells something about me. And that something is true across all my interactions—whether online or in person.
Some people’s brand will be specific to them as a writer, like, say, Brandon Mull. He reveals very little about WHO HE IS through his brand. But his stories always deliver what you’d expect from his brand. For me, however, my brand IS ME. I extend my brand into my stories, as opposed to my stories extending into my brand. Does that make sense?
Take Kiersten White for example. SHE is cute, funny and cheeky. Her blog is cute, funny and cheeky. Her books are cute, funny and cheeky. Her books are an extension of herself, her brand.
Remember being true to who you are as a writer, and as a person, is the essence of your brand.
Don’t be afraid to mix things up sometimes (like how my tree changes with the seasons and my girl sometimes wears a Santa hat or whatever), just don’t lose sight of the integrity of your brand. It has to remain reliable, true and authentic.
Absolutely avoid creating a gimmicky brand for yourself. You won’t be able to maintain it throughout your career.
And you're done! If you need or want, we can brainstorm together here in the comment trail or by email and I can help you put it all together. 
You’re almost there! It’s going to be awesome! When you're finished, let me know so I can come visit you online!
Remember to come chat with Ali at 5:00 with all your branding questions!

Ali Cross is the sensei of the Writer's Dojo where she holds a black belt in awesome. The Dojo offers support and encouragement NiNoWriMo-style for writers in all stages of the publishing journey and throughout the whole year.

She's the author the young adult paranormal romance series Desolation, and the middle grade science fiction Jump Boys.
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This Post Has 49 Comments
  1. I was already thinking along these lines when I came across your post. My debut book is a memoir about my late mother, Pearl. I own a caricature of her that was done in the 1970s when she was in her prime. It’s on the cover of my book, but I have also commandeered her onto a $20 bill (a la Harriet Tubman), coming soon a birthday wish and I am working on some other images that include her cartooned face. Check out facebook.com/pearlsparty to see what I’m doing, or follow me at twitter.com/PearlsPartyRSVP

  2. Branding is when that idea or image is marketed so that it is recognizable by more and more people, and identified with a certain service or product when there are many other companies offering the same service or product. brand building agency is the one who understands your brand help to boost up !

  3. Thanks for the advice, I definitely got some terrific ideas from your blog!! Look for my book Aug 2013- “Why Every Black Woman Should Marry A Jewish
    Man- A Book for All Women Looking for the Perfect “Alpha” Male”- blog page:
    Brownsugarmarriesjewishman.wordpress.com or Tweet @NazHinesStarr

  4. Thank you for this great article. It has been very insightful for me but I still am slightly confused. I have one novel published already it is apart of a trilogy which is about lesbians. Its raw, urban, erotic, comedy. Can all of that be my brand or is it expected from reading my first book that my brand is lesbian and erotica? Unknowingly since my teenage years I promoted myself as the Prince of Erotica. I have other novels not completed that are hetero and deeper than my first book.

  5. Hi Ali –

    Thanks for an awesome post. I’ve been working through the exercises, and they’ve definitely given me some great food for thought as I move towards retooling my website this spring. I stopped by your blog and didn’t see anything about design consults–do you offer those generally (just in case I don’t win the giveaway)? What are your rates? 🙂

    Thanks much,

    1. Hi Intisar! I do offer design consults but have been too, um, non-capitalistic to post them on my site before now. However, I learned a lot at IndieReCon and one of those things is–to OWN MY STUFF, lol. So now there’s a price list there and a way to contact me for info.

      BUT, for now . . . I do a one-on-one consult with you (via chat or skype) where we brainstorm through the exercises until you have a handle on your “brand” and how to represent it, etc. Then I set you loose to put it into effect. Or, for $100, I do more hands-on work with you where once we’ve struck gold, I help you actually implement it, including banner design, site design and the like. I only work with Blogger at the moment, though.

      I hope that’s helpful! I’m glad you found some good stuff in the post!

    1. You already have a great foundation Natalie–I think you guys are KNOWN, so even while you might not have created the look and feel of your brand on purpose, it has come to life on its own. You are consistent in your “brand” therefore–you have one!

  6. Awesome post. Branding has always flummoxed me a little. I write middle-grade fantasy – and the theme there is definitely finding out who you are and being true to it, even in the face of social pressure (middle school). I also write crime fiction and there is a little bit of cross over, I suppose. There is the justice aspect, but my main character is just a cop trying to do a job (not play political games) – so I think there’s a little bit of “staying true” to yourself in that as well.

    I did decide to use a pen name for the crime fiction, mostly because I didn’t want the target audience for the middle-grade stuff (8-12) to buy a piece of crime fiction expecting fantasy – which makes sense in a branding conversation. So both M.E.Sutton (middle grade) and Liz Milliron (crime fiction) are bold and independent, focused on being true to yourself, but Liz is a little “grittier” if that makes sense.

    All of this makes me think I really need a new design for my website (marysuttonauthor.com).

    1. That makes total sense to me, too! And good for you for being able to identify the thread that connects both your bodies of work. While your name and presentation will be different for each, it’ll help you a lot in the long run if your brand is united. You might share the same post/info on your ME site, as you do on your Liz site–you’re just going to “beef it up” for the adult audience.

      I am in the same boat–I have a pen name for my MG stuff because it is clean; while my Ali Cross novels are much darker and edgier. I didn’t want any innocent middle grader accidentally picking up Become! Yikes!

      It is trickier for us, and generally the advice is NOT to do pennames if you can at all avoid it–but if you have a good reason, I do think it might be necessary. It’s just twice the amount of work. 😛

    2. My thoughts exactly – especially after a reviewer said she’d “be on the lookout” for more of my work. Yeah, don’t need a 10-year old picking up a story about a dead body that uses the “F” word.

      What do you think of Dean Wesley Smith’s advice that you don’t necessarily have to create a website/Facebook page/Twitter account for every pen name (for example, Kristine Kathryn Rusch has one web site with pages for each of her pen names)?

    3. I agree with his advice! I think, in fact, it can oftentimes be a mistake. I think it’s really near impossible to “promote” more than one YOU. It’s exhausting! While I’ve not had first-hand experience to see how this plays out,this is my take on that (and how I am currently going about it):

      Your main site/twitter feed/FB/whatever is YOU. YOUR brand. Here, you represent ALL your personas. For instance, on my site I have a “my books” section, where I list my Ali Cross books along my Alex Banks books. Everyone who cares to follow me as a writer, knows I am BOTH these authors.

      Each of my book series, however, have their own websites (I just use blogs to host them. Free+Easy=YES). This is for those people who are looking for the BOOKS and don’t necessarily care or know who the author is, lol. My website feeds to these book-sites, but the book-sites don’t necessarily feed to my website. They are primarily informational (product) only, since this is why people have come there. They’ve come to find out, “when’s the next book coming out?” or “what else can I learn about this world/series/story?”. Rarely do they care about ME, and if they do, one quick google and ta da there I am. When they google my pen name, chances are (if I’ve done my site-building properly-see the post on SEO metagging in this conference), their search for my pen name will direct them to ME. And so the cycle continues. 🙂

      I do admit to having a Facebook account in my pen name. I use it primarily like I use the book-site–for information on releases only. I don’t really interact with it much.

      Whew. That’s my *current* take. Experiment, underway!

  7. So if I’m branding myself, I write clean novels. I write YA and women’s fiction. My tagline on my blog and website is: Fiction Inspired by Life. All of my books have themes, but they’re all different themes: living a virtuous life gives you strength, every life is a gift, family relationships don’t end after death, there’s a plan for each of us. See, 4 different themes. The only thing that holds them all together is that they are inspired by life and each books is clean. Help?

    1. Hi Rebecca! My guess is that you’re looking perhaps too literally at the themes. Look past your books and think about yourself. What is YOUR theme? What makes YOU tick? Why are you drawn to the sorts of stories you like to write? Maybe if you look at that, you’ll find there IS something that unites your stories, after all.

  8. Hi Ali! ….so i’ve been thinking since the chat, and then i came back to read this….Once upon a time, you lived in an enchanted world, too… it brings together my lifelong love of stories, and my greatest desire which is to reconnect my readers with the enchantment in their own lives.

    1. thanks:) this conference has been so incredible, it is hard to put into words how much i am learning. even things like being in the chat with you and listening to everyone share their thoughts and your helping us to get to the core! wow. really awesome powerful stuff. namaste.

  9. Okay, I answered all the questions and it was easy, but I still have no idea of how to use the info for branding myself. I would also like to come up with a logo I can put on all my books, but since I have two paranormal romances and one western out so far, I haven’t been able to come up with an idea that would work for both.

    1. Hi Lady 🙂

      Once you’ve figured out the theme on which your brand is built, your theme will direct your social interactions and THAT is branding. It doesn’t have to be able to be summed up in one sentence, but it does need to be communicated through the way you portray yourself. You’re a romance writer? Be an expert on love. You write down-to-earth cowboys? Be a fan of the wild west, old-timey stories, items, lifestyle, stories … As you share your love of xyz that is the foundation of your brand, you’re “branding” yourself in every single post, every single interaction until You is synonymous with Your Brand.

      I hope that helps clarify it for you a little bit. If things came easily to you and you still feel like you have no idea . . . it probably means you have to go a bit deeper. 😛

  10. Huge HUGS!!!!! I love the way you’ve laid this out Ali. This has been on my mind a lot lately as I move towards pubbing my work. Because of my job (teacher) and preferred genre (romance), I go with a pen name & stock photo – the photo’s okay, but I want a bit more… something. I’m off to do some brainstorming and see what I can do to polish up what I’ve started building. Thanks for the spot on advice! (Wish I’d been home for the chat but I’m going to scroll up and read it!)

  11. I’m so happy that I joined your live chat and then got to read through your blog post. I’ve heard many people talk about “branding” yourself. But I never really understood what they were talking about. I mean don’t get me wrong. I understand that “google” and “kleenex” are “branding,” but I couldn’t wrap my head around how a writer can become like “google.”

    The various discussions have cleared up this concept and you’ve made the process feel a lot more doable that it was before. The examples you have on your blog post were helpful too because it gave various interpretations of branding and how it can be applied to writers.

    Thank you so much and I now see that I’ve got some brainstorming to do to create my own brand.

    Question: What are your thoughts about using “WriterAlina” as part of my “brand?” I like my name – Alina, but realize that if I want to write various fiction such as MG and adult SF, I’ll probably end up using a pen name for the different genres. My hope is that this could tie my various work together and perhaps even give me a unique website name since I don’t feel comfortable using my real name on-line. Is this just crazy talk? Is it simply inevitable that if I publish I’ll have to put my real name out there anyway?

    Thanks for your time Ali! 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the conference Alina! (Is this Kat? Because I always just want to call you KAT!!) And YOUR contribution has been one of the reasons it’s been so great.

      It seems like you’ve got a few questions in there, so I’m gonna try to pull out the threads, but correct me if I get it wrong. 😛

      1) When you say “WriterAlina” do you LITERALLY mean WriterAlina? Or do you mean, your author presence will be Alina as opposed to Kat?

      2) Pen names vs. Real names and how they affect your brand . . .

      I think there are many people who have successfully employed a pen name. They don’t usually last forever, but some have proven they can last a very long time! The problem with having a pen name is that you will need to employ just as much effort into building ONE name brand as the OTHER. So you’ve just made your job doubly harder. Sound rough? IT IS!! It’s hard to build name recognition, doing it twice is … well, harder! So a note: Be absolutely positive that you NEED a pen name for your different genres. If it’s just because they’re different genres, I (and almost everyone else – see Hugh Howey’s post from yesterday) say you don’t need a pen name. However, if you are creating a pen name to protect the innocent, then that’s a different story (as I did for my MG vs. YA/NA stuff). (p.s. your real name might come out eventually, but there are plenty – read MANY – authors who successfully use and maintain an alter ego)

      3) For your own sanity, and for consistency across all your genres/platforms, I’d recommend finding a common theme between BOTH your brands and working that into the name/representation/whatever. So people might “recognize” your other work as yours even if they don’t immediately realize they’re doing it.

      Whew! Is that about as clear as mud now? 😛

    2. Thank you so much Ali for answering my questions! 🙂 I realize now that perhaps I wasn’t very clear.

      No, I’m not Kat – but perhaps I have similar concerns as she does.

      I want my author presence to be “Alina” but since I can’t really have that as a domain name or some such thing I’m toying with using WriterAlina as my FB page, website, whatever because I don’t really want to use my real name so publicly. Is this an all right direction to be thinking?

      I see what you mean about doubling the work for branding – that certainly is food for thought. And I agree with your third comment completely, which I’m going to spend time to brainstorm about.

    3. Oops, sorry Alina! *Now* I get it. 😛

      I would suggest Author Alina as opposed to Writer because when fans go looking for you, they’ll look for Author Alina not WRITER. I’d also highly recommend you use a last name–unless you’re Madonna, having a one-name persona rarely works. But to use the “title” is just fine. Most authors I know have FB pages that use “Author” in the title, for instance “Author Ali Cross”, “Author Cheree Alsop”, etc.

      Did I get it right this time? LOL

    1. Thank you, Ali! 🙂 You’ve inspired me so much! Truly you have. I’m so glad we’ve connected during this conference, and I hope we can stay in touch! <3

      PS: I adore your ninja! She looks just like you!
      PSS: Since I write about aliens, I suppose my logo should be me as an alien! LOL!

  12. This is spectacular! I am transitioning from non-fiction (physician) to romance and was at a loss trying to create a unifying theme. THANK YOU for the simple outline that seems so apparent, but was so elusive. I am inspired and ready to fully develop. Any tips for finding graphic designers (I have used 99 designs, but then it is not possible to add your cute seasonal changes.)

    Thank you so much for your time and awesome advice. Jennifer

    1. Hurray! I love it when that light bulb goes off – yay for you Jennifer!

      Depending on the kind of graphics work you would like to do, you can do a lot of it yourself with the purchase of a stock image and photoshop elements or even gimp (free online).

      However, I have worked with two awesome designers Dale Pease (http://www.walkingstickbooks.com/) and Steven Novak (http://novakillustration.com/bookcovers.html) and our own Kat Dilman who’s contact info you can find in yesterday’s excellent post on Cover Design. And if you want something created that comes in different varieties (like my seasonal changes), you can always ask your designer for that up front–then you’ll always have it when you’re ready to switch it out!

  13. This is excellent advice. I’ve spent countless hours trying to figure out my brand and more on how to incorporate into a look for my site. I’ve always focused on my genre (mysteries/suspense) and my tone (conversational to serious). I write for all ages, but hope to focus on YA (and possibly NA), so my tag line is: I Write Dead Bodies–and I add: for ages 13 to six-feet-under. It works, it’s catchy, it’s me.

    I know subjects and things I’m passionate about. But I never thought about figuring out my theme. That puts everything in a different perspective. Now, maybe I can come up with a look that fits too. Thank you! 🙂

  14. Ohmigosh, I need sooooo much help with this part! I am currently brandless. But what do you do if you write in different genres for different audiences? I have a tendency towards fantasy, sci-fi, horror and just plain quirky but I haven’t the first idea of how to brand myself…

    1. Lisa, that’s why my brand is ME and not my books–because I write across genres. But you’ll probably find (as I did), that even though the stories you’re telling are different, there’s a core theme that runs through ALL of them. It’s natural for this to happen because no matter what we’re writing we’re still US and we have this built in value-system.

      So the trick is to find out your THEME, identify it in yourself and your stories and THAT is where you’ll strike gold!

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