Jess here. Shannon Baker and I have published 25 books between us. Like most writers, we have a passion for telling stories and a blind spot when it comes to marketing.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in our lack of branding.

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See, we write funny mysteries, feminist thrillers, suspense, romance, magical realism, nonfiction, young adult, and fantasy. Common wisdom would say we’ve messed up, that readers will not follow us across so many genres, and that we should have stuck with one thing and done it well. And not just readers—agents and publishers have told us that, too.

Shannon, what have you been told about the importance of branding as an author?

 SHANNON: Like you, I’ve been told to drill down to what I do well and concentrate on that, instead of scattering myself around. I really tried to do that, but lately, have been bouncing around like a fart in a skillet. I’m not convinced that strict adherence to genre and tone is the only way to build a writing career, though.

 JESS: I agree. I think that perspective short-changes readers. Many successful authors don’t write only one style of book. Neil Gaiman, an author both you and I love, writes across genres. JK Rowling also writes mystery. Sure, those two have big names, but I think it’s more than that. I think readers follow good stories, not just genre.

But how does a midlist author who writes across genres establish a brand? I think the key is to first define what we mean when we refer to a brand. It isn’t a slogan or an image, though it is often attached to both. A brand’s primary goal isn’t to sell a single product, though that’s one way to measure its success.

A brand is an invitation to a relationship, and it is a commitment to that relationship. As writers, our brand is the quality of stories we tell, and if we keep it, our name. But there is one more component, a key ingredient that I discovered in talking to publicity expert Dana Kaye.

We were at a writing conference in Indiana, and I was bemoaning the fact that I have no brand because of all the different types of books I write. Dana said, “What are they all about?”

I gave her a blank stare and then started to recite plots.

“No,” she interrupted. “What are they about?”

“Secrets,” I said, without hesitation, finally getting it. “Every book I write is about the poison and power of secrets.

“There it is,” she told me. “That’s your brand.”

Shannon, what are your books about?

SHANNON: I read Dana’s book, Your Book, Your Brand, about a year ago and I’ve been mulling this over ever since. The question baffled me. It seems I write a lot about mothers and daughters, but in mysteries and romance, through a couple of series. I don’t know about you, but saying I write about family relationships or even mothers/daughters, doesn’t really define my books and, honestly, I wouldn’t want it to. Almost all of my books are really grounded in the scene, and by that, I mean the natural outdoors world. But maybe I don’t want that to be the case for everything and I really don’t want to have to rebrand myself.

But Jess suggested this topic, sort of forcing my hand. Fretting the issue, I went to happy hour with a non-writer friend. (Yes, I do have them.) She seemed puzzled I was having such a hard time coming up the unifying force in my writing. She spouted off, “You write about strong women,” without having to pause to think or sip her cocktail.

So yes, there it is. I write about strong women. But it needs more. Strong women taking charge of their lives? Strong women making sense of the world? I’m working it out.

JESS: That all makes sense! As writers, we need to claim the recurring theme in our writing. That theme is our brand. Once we know it, we can use it to inform our marketing. This includes making our theme the first or second sentence of our bio (see my bio below for an example), incorporating it into our Facebook and Twitter profiles, opening with it in interviews, and updating our websites with imagery that reflects this theme, where possible. Shannon, what other ways you can think of for a midlist author to create a brand out of her writing (and life) theme?

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 SHANNON: I remember a lecture on this subject in college. I was a business major, of all things. The example that stuck with me is the buggy industry. The prof suggested the buggy company that survived the change from horses to engines was the company that had branded itself as being in the transportation business, not the buggy business. So I would caution not making your brand too restrictive. (See how I avoided Jess’s question about creative marketing techniques?)

But, to address the question, I think once we articulate our brand to ourselves, our future writing will be more focused. The more we know about how our subconscious works, the more we can help it along consciously. I know I want to write about strong women. Strong women doing, making, exploring, surviving, thriving against all odds?

JESS: Cheers to that! Dear readers, what is your brand?

(This article originally appeared in the Write Now! site.)

Our writing and publishing retreat in California this August will delve deeper into the art of finding your path to publication.

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