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November 20, 2018
By Mark Coker
How writers can build stronger brands and sell more books.

Readers seek out books by their favorite authors. How does an author achieve the level of awareness, trust, and admiration needed to become a favorite author? It all starts with branding.

Think of an author brand as a bundle of perceptions and expectations that form in readers’ minds over time. A brand is a promise; it’s what readers expect from an author.

Strong brand affinity is the reason readers select an author’s self-published books over other books. Brand is how authors build durable careers.

Authors with strong brands enjoy numerous marketing advantages over those whose brands are weaker. For example, authors with strong brands are more likely to earn coveted book reviews and retailer merchandising. The results of such wins then feed into a self-reinforcing cycle that generates more readership, greater visibility, and more sales.

Authors with strong brands can also command higher prices for their books. In fact, the prices authors select for their books convey a promise about their brands.

Smart brand building is how unknown authors become known authors. Here are seven tips to help authors cultivate stronger brands:

1. Visualize the destination. Although it’s possible to build a strong brand by accident, most bestselling indie authors get there with deliberate planning and execution. Each author’s brand is found at the intersection of the author’s true capabilities and his or her desired brand perception. Authors must visualize what they want their brands to represent to readers, visualize the experiences that their books will deliver to readers, visualize the legacies they want to leave with their writing, and be accurate in their marketing claims.

2. Present a unified front. If self-published authors want readers to know and respect their brands, then they must take steps to ensure that their books make good first impressions. This means professional cover designs and common design themes across their lists to make books more recognizable to fans.

Although experienced indie authors claim they already know the importance of this, the truth is that most authors fall short of their potential. Great cover design is so affordable that there’s simply no excuse for skimping. If an author writes a series, the covers should share a unified design theme, all the way down to the colors, typestyles, layout, and emotional feel. Whether an author writes series or standalones, there should be common design elements that run through every cover for every book—and the same goes for author websites, social media profiles, and all marketing communications. Such unified elements foster familiarity and make it easier for fans to recognize an author’s work.

3. Provide a consistent experience. What’s the emotional or intellectual experience that readers can expect from an author’s books, and does that experience align with the author’s brand identity? Consistency fosters familiarity, trust, and confidence. Think of Starbucks coffee. A customer can expect that a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte purchased in Dallas will taste the same as a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte purchased in Denver or Detroit.

"Smart brand building is how unknown authors become known authors."
The customer knows what to expect both from Starbucks the coffee chain and from each individually branded Starbucks custom coffee. The customer’s confidence in the brand is reinforced with every purchase.

4. Always delight. It’s difficult to earn reader trust but easy to squander it. As I’ve written in previous columns, good books aren’t good enough anymore. With a glut of high-quality, low-cost books out there, only super-fabulous books drive positive brand development for their authors. If an author’s books don’t take readers to an emotionally satisfying extreme, every time, then the books aren’t good enough.

5. Continuously improve. It can be difficult for authors to recognize their own shortcomings. Authors should keep open minds, seek out critical feedback, and always aim to continuously improve their implementation of best practices.

6. Practice ethical marketing. Ethics and honesty are essential to successful author branding. Without ethics and honesty, it’s impossible to build reader trust. We’ve all heard stories of authors who cut ethical corners, like paying shills to give them artificially glowing reviews. We’ve all seen or read authors who promised one thing with their covers, book titles, or book descriptions but delivered another. Such actions sully an author’s brand. We remember these authors for the wrong reasons.

7. Don’t pee in the pool. Be a nice person. No one likes mean, inconsiderate people. Publishing is a people business. Authors’ brand perceptions are shaped by every interaction—online and offline—that they have with readers and fellow publishing industry professionals. Be the author who contributes sunshine, helpfulness, and gratitude to the party. Be the author others want to elevate. 

Mark Coker is founder of Smashwords and author of the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide.