A reliable way to upset a roomful of writers is to promote the idea of “brand building.” Unless you are already comfortable with the idea of running your writing career like a business, it goes against literary sensibilities to embrace the idea that you, or your writing, might be boiled down to something so vulgar. It can also feel suffocating—who wants to feel beholden to their “brand”?
What is a Writer Brand?
I use the word “brand” to indicate strategic awareness about what type of work one is producing, how and where that work is being seen, and who is seeing it. Brand is about how you and your work are perceived. In a word, brand is expectation. What do readers expect from you? Like it or not, they will form expectations. You can wait and let it happen by accident, but it’s better to consider how you can shape expectations yourself—or decide when and how to work against them.
How to Create a Writer Brand
If you haven’t given this the slightest thought, a good starting exercise is to inventory everything you’ve written or published. What topics or themes emerge in those pieces? Where have they appeared, or who has read them? What patterns can you identify? Almost every writer is preoccupied with something, and it shows up in their work. Awareness of these preoccupations is the start of identifying your brand. Hopefully the type of writing you’re doing now—whether it’s published or not—bears some relation to the work you want to be known for. (If you find there’s a disconnect, ask yourself why. Do you lack confidence to tackle the work that feels most important to you? Are you distracting yourself with easier writing work?)
How to Strengthen Your Brand
One of the keys to building a strong brand as a writer is producing more work, and getting it out there, continually and frequently. The explanation is simple: You get better the more you practice and receive feedback, plus it helps you avoid the common psychological traps of creative work—such as waiting for the muse or for your skills to match your ambition. (Such a time never arrives!) When Ira Glass describes that problematic gap between your good taste and the quality of your early work, he also offers a solution: “The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work.”
Once you’ve identified patterns in your work, you have the start of a brand-related statement that you can put in your bio (discussed later in this chapter). But you want to go beyond simply listing ideas or themes; you want to tell a story about why. There is tremendous creative power and marketing power in forming a narrative around yourself and your work. Regardless of whether you’re a poet or a businessperson, everyone recognizes the allure of story. To help spark the story you want to tell, consider these three questions:
- Who are you?
- How did you get here?
- What do you care about and why?5
Deceptively simple questions! Some people spend the greater part of their lives answering and reanswering them, so don’t expect to solve this puzzle in one night. The truth is, your story (or brand) will evolve over time—it’s never meant to be a static thing. It’s something that grows, it’s organic, and it’s often unpredictable.
Create a Brand Statement
Another interesting exercise is to come up with a brand statement that gets at the essence of what you do without using external signifiers.
For example, creative writing students from selective programs may be tempted to say, “A graduate of [prestigious MFA program] . . .” and lean on that credit to telegraph who or what they are. This is also a common tactic if you’ve worked for well-known publications or won awards. Set those qualifications aside for the moment, and dig deeper: How does your creative work transcend markers of prestige or transient characteristics, such as your current job title? It’s not that you should leave out signifiers (which may be an important part of your identity); rather, this exercise pushes you to think beyond resume accomplishments.
Once you have a partial handle on who you are and what you’re about, you can benefit more from connecting with others and talking about others who have a similar why. This helps you build up a network not only of good will but of genuine relationships that will support your writing career. And relationships are key.
About the Author
Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She’s the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential publishing industry newsletter for authors, and the former publisher of Writer’s Digest. In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses and the University of Virginia, she maintains an award-winning blog for writers at JaneFriedman.com.
Jane has delivered keynotes on the future of authorship at the San Francisco Writers Conference, The Muse & The Marketplace, and HippoCamp, among many other conferences. She speaks regularly at industry events such as BookExpo America and Digital Book World, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund.