Fostering Beginner’s Luck: Branding Debut and Midlist Authors

As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, one of biggest problems ahead for the publishing industry is the closing of opportunities for debut and midlist authors. There is an unfortunate reduction in paths to publication through a traditional publishing house for both debut authors and for those who are steady but not spectacular on the midlist. There are a variety of factors contributing to this reduction including digital disruption, margin-squeezing and cultural homogenisation, but I won’t go into them in this blog. There are also some fantastic and brave people out there actively working to boost the opportunities for debut and midlist authors. This blog isn’t about them either. Today I want to cover how that shrinking window of opportunity can be combatted at a small press, by both the publisher and the authors.

In my opinion, I think a small press is probably best suited to work with debut and some midlist authors. It might not be the dream scenario for many authors, but it’s the most workable. Small presses, by neccessity, have to help grow new talent or nurture midlist talent as it’s the bread-and-butter of the small press industry. Small presses have both the ability and the motive to get out there and find new voices and take risks on them. Further, many small presses are less constrained by structures which can limit the bigger houses and hence can be more nimble and diverse in their publishing efforts.

One of the most important things a small press can contribute to helping debut and midlist authors to succeed is help with development of the author brand (as well as their writing craft). An author’s brand is an essential tool in the digital world, potentially more so than before Amazon and ebooks. An online presence is a necessity for community engagement. While this may not lead to direct sales, if an author’s brand is properly managed it will lead to a broadening of the base to which authors can hawk their books. It means reaching more new readers more often.

In 2013, bestselling author Neil Gaiman teamed up with a smartphone company to unleash a campaign where he could collaborate with his fans on a series of short stories. The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive and highly engaging. Fans submitted story ideas corresponding to themes that Gaiman then turned into short stories. Fans then submitted artworks inspired by the stories. This was a modern, technology-enabled creative conversation between an author and his audience. It worked brilliantly.

Here, Gaiman used his author brand to create momentum for a campaign that wasn’t aimed directly at selling books. Instead, he engaged his readers in a venture that allowed them inside his creative process. The cynical benefits were that Gaiman’s brand and the smartphone company’s brand both got a boost from this campaign. The more idealistic benefit is that Gaiman expanded on an excellent connection with his readers and further developed their passion for him as an author.

The take away for debut and midlist authors is not they can do exactly what Gaiman has done, but that they could replicate it, in part, to create bigger brand awareness and engagement for themselves and their audience. This isn’t a strategy for hard sales of books but more about increasing online presence. The purpose of this is to indirectly or eventually increase sales, but that’s not the direct outcome or immediately tangible reward for the exercise. For authors this is a no-brainer as building a strong brand helps your marketability with publishers and makes them more willing to take a risk on publishing your book.

Another brilliant example of author branding, that is in the physical space rather than digital is Odyssey author Rachel Drummond. This year, Drummond appeared at Supanova with a stall marketing her book The South Forsaken. With distinctive yellow signage and an open and engaging personality for readers, she was a huge success.

These two examples show approaches to branding that should be informative for how authors can push forward both online and at events:

  1. Be Distinctive/Interesting.
  2. Be Open and Engaging.

These seem to be rather generic ideas, but they are fundamentally important for authors when designing and implementing an online presence for their readers to engage with. I haven’t put forth an argument as to whether authors need to do this, because they absolutely do. It’s really non-negotiable unless you’re a bestseller. To get ahead as an author today you need to get out there and engage in whatever way possible.

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