hen it comes to getting your book published, it pays to know your way around promotion. The savvy writer posts regularly on her blog, keeps her website current, and gets in plenty of social networking. And if she’s really savvy, she incorporates branding into every aspect of promotion.
Shelli Johannes-Wells is a children’s writer who recently signed with literary agent Alyssa Eisner Henkins at Trident Media. She’s currently shopping her novels; and even though she is not yet published, she promotes herself at every opportunity. That’s because Shelli’s “day job” has been in the business of marketing, working with companies like Spanx and Goody Hair. She’s all about creative branding, whether it’s body shapers, hair bands, or book authors.
WOW: Shelli, I’m so excited to have you and your mountains of marketing experience here! But I have to ask: which came first? The marketing or the writing?
Shelli: Do you count the essay I wrote in second grade for a contest? During our state health week, I entered an essay called “Be a Smart Cookie,” and it placed in the state competition. Other than that, I’ve always dabbled in writing, but my career somehow took a turn towards marketing and communications. Which I guess is still a form of writing; it’s just business writing. I’ve been doing marketing since I received my MBA at Auburn University. I started working in corporate America and in 2000, started my own marketing and copywriting business that I still have today.
WOW: Oh, I love bilan, your business website! What I really enjoy is how you’ve linked all the sides of Shelli— keeping it professional yet giving us a personal look, too. Like your list of “35 Things About Me You’d Never Know.” One of my favorites on the list is #16: “I am happy when I help people accomplish things.” So, let’s help our readers figure out the business of branding. What is branding anyway?
Shelli: To me, branding is the handful of things that sets you apart from the crowd. It is your own personal statement. We all have our own personal brand, and we stick to it everyday. Think about it.
Me, for example, I’m a jeans girl. Always will be. I will never be the cute, little sundress girl. (Sorry, Mom!) So what does that say about me? I’m casual, not too feminine. (I’m a tomboy at heart!) But what else? What’s a deeper take on that? I think I’m dependable, classic, and yet, not too serious. Just in one item, you can tell a lot about someone. That’s why it takes us girls so long to shop! Am I right, girls? It’s because we are trying to figure out the age-old question, “Who am I?” How many times have you stood in the mirror and said, “This is cute, but it’s just not me.”
In a nutshell, that is because everyone has her (or his) own brand that you want to give off to the world.
WOW: So, branding is what makes us each unique. But what’s the relationship between branding and writing?
Shelli: Branding, as a writer, is multi-layered.
To keep it simple, you have your author brand and your book brand. An author brand is who you are as a writer.
Again, I’ll be the example. On a high level, I write children’s books. For now (because your brand can shift), that is my thing. I am not adult fiction, and I am not adult romance. It goes deeper than that, but you get the point.
Book brands are the ways your book/your stories are portrayed and sold. It’s the personality of the book. Ex: Harry Potter—book brand.
“Book and author brands should not be treated as the same thing.”
WOW: Which kind of branding do you think is more common? Or what’s more important for a writer to consider?
Shelli: A book brand and author brand get mixed up regularly. Authors and publishers make the mistake of only focusing on a book brand. But the author brand is equally important. You want to follow an author, not just a book.
I believe both are important and should definitely be integrated in some way. But book and author brands should not be treated as the same thing. You can tackle each one differently, yet be sure they coincide with each other. You don’t want to confuse a reader.
WOW: I know what you mean. I’ve gone looking for books, sometimes by the title, sometimes by the author, depending on which I know best. Could you give us an example of a writer known primarily for her book brand?
Shelli: Sure, the biggest example is J.K. Rowling. I love this author and even more, I think, since I watched her documentary! Her whole website is about the character, Harry Potter. If she ever wrote, let’s say, a knitting mystery, what would that do to the author brand she has made for herself around her book? I think she would need a pen name.
Her website, which is her name, jkrowling.com, surprises me because it’s all Harry Potter. If I were her (not that she needs my advice!), I would have started a HarryPotter.com and kept my author brand different. Harry Potter is a book/series brand with merchandise, movie tie-ins, etc.
WOW: I can see where a writer with a book could go with book branding or author branding. But what if you don’t have a book yet? It seems like you’d have to go with author branding…
Shelli: In my opinion, yes! You don’t want to brand a book that is not published. It is a waste of time because you never know what the publisher and marketing department will do with it, do you?
Start building an author brand and a network.
WOW: Okay, so I’m a writer with a yet-to-be-published book, and I want to brand myself as an author. What’s a great example? Who does a really good job with author branding?
Shelli: Meg Cabot is a great example. When you think of her, you think of the “Queen of ‘Tween and Teen Chick Lit.” By the way, I mean that in a good way! Her website is not all princess diaries or airhead teen stuff. She writes adult fiction, too. And those books are good reads. I think her brand is shifting a bit into adult chicklit. But if she ever wanted to move even more into the adult fiction genre, she may need to also write under a pen name to create a new author brand. A lot of authors do that: create pen names for their other genres.
“Shadow branding is the brand you are giving off without even knowing it.”
WOW: I can see where pen names could be beneficial. But let me ask about shadow branding. I remember that you spoke (at an SCWBI conference) on that topic because it was a little confusing. As Glinda the Good Witch might say, “Is shadow branding a good thing or a bad thing?”
Shelli: Ok, bear with me. This does go a bit deeper. Shadow branding is the brand you are giving off without even knowing it. It is the unintended vibe you project. Usually, it is associated with a negative trait.
Here’s a general example. Take a marriage therapist who is divorced, for instance. No matter how many credentials she may have, there is an unspoken shadow brand that she doesn’t know what she is talking about because she is divorced. She could be the smartest woman on the planet in marriage counseling, but she has to be aware of and address this shadow brand, or she may lose clients.
And here’s a writing example. Consider a writer who is working very hard to get published for her comedy stories. But her blog is basically her complaining about the entire writing process. Not many people want to read a comedy from a negative person. It could impact her getting sold.
Here’s an even more common writer example: if you say you really want to be published but you never query your book! Your shadow brand is that you 1) are scared of success, 2) do not think you are good enough, or 3) that you don’t deserve it for some reason. So, why should others believe in you?
I think it is important to be aware of your “shadow.” It can be in writing, in appearance, or in talking. Do you say: “I’m a writer, working at getting published”? Or maybe you say, “I write books and hope to be published soon, but I am not published yet. The publishing biz is hard, so it takes a while.” The second statement (though not that much different) gives off a different impression than the first one.
WOW: I think I’d rather be that first writer. I’m beginning to understand the concept, and I’m definitely going to work on projecting positivity! Which brings me to the next question. What if you’re new in your writing career, and you haven’t got much of a brand going on? What should you do?
Shelli: Start branding yourself! Now!
You can take branding classes. Jenn Stark (www.knowyourbrand.com) has a great one. Or you can go to her website and read terrific articles on branding.
Think about yourself as a writer. What kind of writer do you want to be? Who is your audience? What do you write? What qualities connect your writing? What is holding you back (shadow brand!)?
Christina Katz has a book called Get Known Before the Book Deal. It talks about how to start a platform and build one before you get published.
Start creating a platform. Maybe start with a website. You might even think in terms of what colors represent you.
And if you are not published yet, think about how you want to market yourself to agents and editors. How do you want to get your name out to your peers and within the industry? You can do that before you get published. I did.
“If you are not published yet, think about how you want to market yourself to agents and editors.”
WOW: And what about those writers in the middle of a career? Can you change your brand? Is it too late?
Shelli: If you haven’t hit the big time, you can easily re-brand.
J.K. Rowling? It will be hard for her to get away from the Harry Potter brand, but she still could do it. Especially if she created a pen name.
But for new writers, I would just start now. Don’t worry about what you already have out there; if you are already very well known in the industry, then you may want a PR or marketing professional to help you.
I guess what I’m saying, in a long-winded sort of way, is that it is never too late!
WOW: I’m really glad to hear that, Shelli, because I keep tweaking my website, trying to get my brand on. Could you take a look and give our readers and (gulp!) me a few practical ideas?
Shelli: First, let me say that marketing is a skill and can be learned. Not many people I know have a perfect website when they start. I’m in marketing, and you should see my first website (Oy!) It is about trying to find out what people look at and what impression you may be giving off unknowingly. Then you can change it to be sure you give the impression you want.
When I look at your website, I immediately get the impression that you are a nonfiction author. I think the ducks may say that. With the blue, I think of ducks in a pond, so maybe you write about water animals? If you’re not primarily a nonfiction writer, I would consider changing it.
I like your story on the front page, but you may want to move that to the About Me page. Front page should be intro or current information (upcoming signing, new articles, etc.).
You need a page about your writing. I see “clips” and think of writing clips. That gives me the impression that you are a newspaper writer or magazine writer. I would call it a portfolio or writing samples to allow more flexibility.
I don’t think an author should show her picture on the front page unless she is well known (like Meg Cabot). It automatically gives readers some impression of you before they read your writing. You want the reader to focus on the writing, not you as a person. Again, you can put your picture on the About Me page.
I like your humor, but I would keep a business approach on questions like cost, agent, hiring, etc. I think it’s great to be funny on your About Me page; but with your samples and information pages, I would keep it light and professional.
WOW: I don’t think I want to be branded as the writer who specializes in duck articles (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Thanks, Shelli, I guess it’s back to the website drawing board for me. Meanwhile, I can’t let you leave until I’ve mentioned your blog, “Market My Words,” a goldmine of marketing tips! In fact, don’t you have a special feature on Mondays?
Shelli: My blog is to help writers market themselves better. Not many know how, and it is something I can contribute to this great community of writers, who have given me so much encouragement and information in publishing.
Monday is my “Marvelous Marketers” segment where I interview an agent, editor, author, or illustrator about their marketing techniques.
On Fridays, I do a marketing round-up of all the posts/articles I found during the week that I think will be helpful to writers. I also take questions if anyone needs advice.
WOW: Here’s a classic that Shelli chose to share with us. It’s a perfect tie-in with marketing and branding books!
Shelli: My Top Five Book Marketing Pet Peeves:
1) Website pages as long as Santa's naughty list - Don't make us page down through pages of your bio. The standard web rule is the user should not have to page down more than two times. I personally prefer once.
2) Business cards, bookmarks, and brochures from The Land of Cheapo. Come on! Nowadays, you can get inexpensive, solid, quality stuff from various websites. Do yourself and your image a favor. Invest in high quality pieces, or don't do them at all.
3) My only target audience is children between ages of 0-18. Everyone has more than one target audience. Age is not the only way to segment your audience. There are others such as topic or region. Take some time to think through all of your target audiences and all the ways you can possibly reach them. You should be able to come up with at least three audiences and three mediums for each.
4) Just gonna wing it. Everyone needs a plan. Just like you need a plot for your book before you write, you need a marketing plan before you can market.
5) I don't know computers, so I can’t do marketing. What? If you are selling books, you need to learn computers. This cannot be an excuse anymore. Unless you don't want to sell anything.
WOW: Thank goodness, I haven’t bought stuff from the Land of Cheapo! And I’ve sure learned my lesson about winging it. But I have to ask you, Shelli, how you manage to wing through it all so well? Two children, your business, and your juvenile and young adult writing?
Shelli: Whew! It is hard. Luckily, I am an overachiever! And extremely driven and persistent.
First, my husband rocks the house! He is very supportive and sometimes seems to believe in me more than I believe in myself (yikes shadow brand!). I could not do it without him offering to take the kids.
I also try to write when my kids are otherwise entertained—at their mommy’s day out or when they sleep. Again, my hubby helps by giving me time on the weekends. And it works for them because they get Daddy time without me looming over them.
I try to give myself a break. If laundry is not done one day, fine (Sorry, Honey!). If I need to write on a deadline and get a babysitter on an afternoon, I do it (if I have the money!). I explain to my kids that I have to write. They know it is my passion. I try to teach them to follow their passions, so I see myself setting an example (or at least that’s my excuse!).
For business, I have been in it so long that I can pretty much pick the jobs I want. If I’m on deadline for my agent, I won’t take a contract unless the dates/times are flexible. If I know I have a month lag time, I may take on a small project.
Overall, I am very lucky. Oh, yeah, and did I mention “overachiever”?
WOW: Lucky, maybe. But you know what you want, and you’re going after it! So, I should let you get back to it. Oh, wait! Number 22 on your list of “35 Things About Me.” “If my life was a movie, it would be a comedic musical.” What’s the name of your musical and who would star in it?
Shelli: Tough question. It would be titled Passionate Confessions of a Neurotic, Silly, Fun, Overachiever-Turned-Mom-Turned-Writer-Turned-Loon. And of course, I would star in it! There would be no one better (or crazy enough) to play me! Besides, I think I would want the spotlight. I’m sure it would benefit my books!
Find more things you should know about Shelli Johannes-Wells at her author website, www.srjohannes.com. Check out her business at www.bilaninc.com. And don’t forget to keep up with her writing/marketing tips at her blog, (www.faeriality.blogspot.com). You know, I have a feeling Shelli might be making changes on her website soon. Like branding herself as a published author!
Cathy C. Hall is a freelance and fiction writer who is working day and night to get her children’s books published. You can catch up with her at her blog, www.cathychall.blogspot.com, while she gets her brand on a little better at her author website!
Cathy’s previous articles on WOW!:
How To Find the Perfect Horror Fit for You
Making Time for Left and Right Brain Writing
The Cheap Writer's Guide to Conferences
Interview with Eve Heidi Bine-Stock, How To Write a Picture Book