In the context of authorship, what is a brand, and why do you need one? Your brand is the name that stands for the public image encompassing both you, the author, and the body of work affiliated with that name. For most writers the brand name will be the same as that listed on their books as author, but it can also be an alias or company/imprint name. Establishing a known, consistent, and reliable brand is key to marketing success, regardless of what you’re selling, and it’s a big mistake to think marketing products like detergent and soda pop is all that different from marketing books and authors.
A brand becomes a placeholder in the consciousness of the customer, a bucket containing all the good or bad associations, opinions and factual observations the customer has come to connect with a given product line.
Consider Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Ben and Jerry’s name typically calls to mind premium ingredients, wild flavor combinations, and socially conscious executives. Ben and Jerry’s products are also known to be more expensive than supermarket ice creams, but this is an acceptable trade-off for fans of the brand.
Now take the example of author Terry Pratchett. Common ideas about his work, and by extension about Mr. Pratchett himself, are fantasy, dark humor, imagination, whimsy, and a touch of the philosophical. These associations are so strong that many people will buy Pratchett’s books they’ve not yet read without having any idea of the plot or characters, on the strength of the Pratchett reputation alone. Each book that delivers on the promise of that reputation further solidifies the brand and serves as cross-promotion for every other Pratchett book.
Conversely, readers who don’t care for dark humor and whimsy in their fantasy books know to avoid Pratchett’s work. It seems counterintuitive, but this helps the author as well. Readers whose tastes don’t align well with Pratchett’s brand will not enjoy his books, and if they buy one with unrealistic expectations they will go on to become dissatisfied customers. Dissatisfied customers tend to share their dissatisfaction with everyone they know, and bad word of mouth has a way of spreading.
Should Your Name Be Your Brand?
The answer to this question is, “It depends.” It depends on you, your work, your past history, your current life situation, and the life situation you hope to have in the future.
The “you” part of the equation comes down to your tolerance for fame, however small or large that fame may be. Remember that if you use your real name as your brand name, not only you, but your relatives, friends and even hometown may one day come to national media attention. For many writers this is entirely welcome, and in fact the ultimate goal. For others, it’s far preferable to have one persona for public consumption and another for private life.
If you’re writing a tell-all type of book or a fictionalized memoir in which your thinly veiled characters are based on real people who may be recognized by readers (regardless of their phony names and the way you altered their physical descriptions), using a pen name is your safest bet. If you’re writing such a book, however, using a pen name is not the sum total of protection you’ll need: Consult an attorney to be certain you aren’t making libelous—and therefore illegal—statements in your book. Outside these narrow circumstances, the “your work” part of the equation comes into play primarily when there’s something about it that could be controversial, as you’ll see in the following examples.
For instance, suppose a former child star from a squeaky-clean family sitcom now writes gory crime thrillers. If he wants to leave his former child-star persona intact, or if he worries people may not take him seriously as a writer because they’ve pigeonholed him as an actor, the author should consider publishing under a different name. However, if he wants to capitalize on his fame and create buzz from the shock value of turning his former image on its ear, publishing under his celebrity name will accomplish his goals.
Also consider any existing body of work. Having a series of finance books in print under your real name may nudge you in the direction of taking a pen name for publication of fiction. Conversely, if you’ve got a few volumes of arty poetry in print and now want to turn your efforts toward writing books about tax law, establishing a separate brand for your new line may be a good idea because people don’t generally look to poets for advice about tax law.
Look at your current circumstances as well. If you’re a school teacher whose students are minors, publishing a series of steamy, borderline erotica romances under your real name is a bad idea. Similarly, if you live in a very small community where everyone knows everyone else, you may not welcome the notoriety that comes with having published anything provocative or controversial. Consider the general character of your community, and whether your friends and neighbors might feel what you’ve written reflects negatively on them or the community in any way. If you have children, consider any possible impact your work may have on them.
Finally, think about your future. If you hope to someday occupy a spot in the public eye for anything other than your writing (for example, public office, acting, singing) or hold a position of authority over children (for example, Boy Scout leader, cheerleading coach, middle school teacher), consider how your published work will be viewed in the future.
If you’ve already published, it’s too late to make a branding decision on any work that’s already out there. The de facto brand for that work is the name (or names) under which you’ve published. However, you will want to be brand aware going forward, and you may elect to publish future works under a different brand after reading through this lesson and giving the subject further thought in light of the information here.
You Versus Your Brand Name
First, the usual caveat: I am not, nor have I ever been, a lawyer, and nothing in this book should be construed as professional legal advice. If you have any questions or concerns about publishing under a name other than your legal name, please consult an attorney.
However, one thing I can tell you is this: If you choose to publish under a brand name that is not the same as your legal name, which is also known as “taking a pen name,” you are still required to conduct all financial and legal business under your real, legal name. In other words, when Sting files his taxes, signs contracts, applies for a passport, receives his earnings from the record label or reports his earnings to the government, he does so under his legal name, “Gordon Sumner.” Likewise, the man known to readers as Mark Twain was known to the U.S. government as Samuel Clemens.
If you attempt to conduct financial or legal business of any sort under a pen name, you will run afoul of the authorities. The name listed as “author” on your books need not be the same as your legal name, but when you set up accounts with author or print services companies (such as Lightning Source, Lulu, CreateSpace), provide payee information for receipt of royalties from booksellers, and set up a business entity to form an imprint, you must do so under your legal name. You’ll notice that when you work with author and print service providers, they’ll have a set of data entry fields for you to use in entering your legal name and contact information, and a separate field for author name(s). They understand that many authors use pen names.
Choosing Your Author Brand: What’s In A Name
There are many things to consider in choosing your brand name, even if you’ve elected to go with your legal name or some variation of it.
When marketing types come up with new brand names, they try to convey some sense of the product line or some favorable associations through that name. For example, Mr. Clean evokes the image of an efficient and polite cleaning expert who’s very serious about his job. An author’s brand name doesn’t have to convey anything about the content of her books, but it shouldn’t clash with them, either. If your name naturally evokes certain feelings or ideas, think about how well those feelings or ideas mesh with the work you intend to publish. Bambi Waverly would be a good fit for romance, children’s books, or fantasy, and is probably fine for general fiction as well, but may not convey the necessary authority desirable in nonfiction reference nor the sobriety the author may be aiming for in literary fiction. In such a case, if the author doesn’t want to use a pen name she can go with a variation of her real name, such as B. Waverly.
About the Book
For more must-have know-how for self-publishing and promoting your work, check out The Indie Author Guide by April L. Hamilton.
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