Prepare to be lassoed: A meditation on branding

Kate begins to learn about marketing

It’s a dangerous thing, when my fellow writers are talking about Santa and cookies and pajama shopping, to go and get all serious instead of writing about chocolate bark, but this is what is on my mind today. So if it’s not to your taste, come back tomorrow, because this blog is different every day.

When I was little, going into the Vose Library in Union, Maine to get my weekly stack of 10-12 books, I was caught by the magic of what writers could do, and secretly dreamed of doing it myself one day. In junior high and high school, I wrote epic poems and one-act plays and long, romantic short stories. Then I shelved all that for years until the dream resurfaced, like some Loch Ness monster, glommed onto me, and pulled me under.

In all those years of dreaming, and reading and being enchanted, and in my twenty-eight years in the writer’s chair, I gave a lot of thought to story-telling. To character development. To crafting plots that caught readers’ interest and held their attention, and kept them guessing as they turned the pages to get to the end. I didn’t mind when people called me up on the day after Christmas and said, “I hate you,” because I’d kept them up until late at night, reading my latest book. And I never gave even a passing thought to “branding.”

But times have changed. We live in a celebrity era when Kim Kardashian can make a sex tape and end up with a TV show and a multi-million dollar wedding. We live in an era when attention spans are getting shorter and there are ever more images and ideas battling for attention. We live in the era of branding not just for toothpaste and i-products, but for books and authors. And so, with a book due out in February, and probably jumping onto the band (or brand) wagon too late, I’ve started reading up on branding so that I, too, can become a hot media celebrity, an acclaimed author, speaker and pundit, and generally catch up with other kids who’ve already figured this out.

Possibly you, too, dear reader, aren’t familiar with branding, which does, in fact, derive from the practice of cattle branding, so I will explain. Wikipedia has this to say: The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” According to an article I found on the internet, written by a publicist named Theresa Meyers from Blue Moon Communications (No, I am NOT making this up eve though most of us would prefer that advertising communications come only once in a blue moon) “today, when we talk about an author brand we are talking about building an image, perception or identity that used to create “emotional Velcro”…a perception of high quality…and that little “something special that no one else can offer.”

I read on, looking for the details that would help me to identify my own particular brand. I learned that I needed to “figure out what my message points are and what makes my brand unique.” It’s at this point that I began to despair, because the advice was that once I figured out what my own particular brand was, I should stick to it. I should build brand awareness through reviews, interviews, ads, conference speaking opportunities, book signings and the like.

I do most of those things. But what is my brand? I write two different mystery series–one featuring, to use the lingo of the business, Thea Kozak, a strong, amateur, female P.I., the other my Joe Burgess police procedurals featuring a trio of male cops. Two very different aspects of the mystery genre. I write true crime in which I look over the investigators’ shoulders as they deal with the mysteries, human complexities, and frustrations of solving ugly crimes. I write short stories about people who find themselves involved in crimes against their wills or because they see no other way out. So how do I find a consistent brand that encompasses all these different types of writing?

Meyers writes that author quotes in this industry are what we call Brand Equity. So I pulled out some of my books, and read the quotes (Brand Equity) on the covers.

The wonderful and generous Laura Lippman says: “Kate Flora is the rare, graceful writer who pays close attention to how long it takes the body and the heart to heal.”

Michael Connelly says: “Kate Flora does what all great writers do: she takes you inside unfamiliar territory and makes you feel right at home….”

S.J. Rozan says: “If you like your heroines smart, brave, tough, and exuberantly aware of the possibilities of the human heart, look no further than Thea Kozak.”

About Playing God, Archer Mayor writes” “A wonderful story by a truly skilled writer. Playing God is on one level an intricate, brain twisting, who-dun-it, while also being a tale of fully realized, complex, three-dimensional human beings in various degrees of crisis. This is my kind of book.”

Tess Gerritsen writes, about my suspense novel written as Katharine Clark: “Beautifully written and heartwrenching. Searingly memorable.”

So perhaps this is the unifying theme: Emotional Velcro. What all of these different stories have in common is that thing which drove me to start writing mysteries to begin with. My deep curiosity about human nature. About what is it that allows some people to deviate from the social compact we’ve all signed on to, and commit horrific acts. Mostly, my books are about emotional impact. They’re about the precursors to crime–the backgrounds of people that lead them to become perpetrators and victims. And they’ve about the emotional impacts of crime on those who are left behind–the ripples in the pond into which the stone of crime has been hurled. And they’re about the effects of delving into complex, dangerous, and ugly human behaviors, and the damage those behaviors have done to others, on those who must investigate the crimes, both imagined, and real.

Is it a “brand” that I wonder, and imagine, and write so that my readers can wonder, and reimagine, the reasons for crimes, and their effects on the survivors, and the way my characters hope for an ultimately moral world? Is it branding when I can get down down on paper those late night talks in patrol cars, about the job, and religion, and the scariest thing that’s ever happened? Can I somehow brand a curiosity that makes me ask the hard questions, that leads to real-life moments in interviews where I learn something from a witness that he’s never told the police? Is it branding when I translate that to paper, through my characters, and then transmit the power of that honesty and revelation to my readers?

Because that’s what I do. How I can market it, I don’t know.

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5 Responses to Prepare to be lassoed: A meditation on branding

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Kate, you write wonderful books. And you’ve raised excellent points. The marketing necesssity of shoving all one’s lights under one all-encompassing barrel is difficult. In many cases impossible. (Which is why some authors write under several names .. but when I think of the challenges of re-inventing oneself and marketing several different personalities … the mind boggles!) Coke should always taste like Coke. Companies know what happens when the company messes with the formula. You have to (sigh) get new customers. Or — readers. Luckily, many readers are more flexible. In the meantime — write on! You brand is … crime with a heart.

    Like

  2. Gram says:

    HI,
    I’m old enough that I go by the author’s name. That’s the only “branding” I need! Thanks for writing so I can keep reading. Dee

    Like

  3. Sarah Graves says:

    Oh, man. This is such a hard one, isn’t it? The Coke analogy is a good one, to me. What’s your own unique Coke-ness? Tricky to know. And doing it for yourself is so much more difficult, or anyway it is for me, than doing it for someone else.

    Like

  4. lil Gluckstern says:

    This is one way. I just learned things about your books that will have me seeking them out. One way of selling our books is to offer the middle one of a series on the Kindle-if you are on kindle. It’s a way to sell more of your earlier books. Some authors are describing their other books at the end of the story, just like in mass market paperbacks. I don’t know if this helps but I what makes me tick, as a reader.

    Like

  5. MCWriTers says:

    Cool lookin’ dude in that picture…And I’d kill to have that ’48 Dodge truck again

    Like

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