Which do you develop first? Your book, business, or brand?
This question comes up at least once a week among clients, organizational leaders, or prospects: Can I write the book without building a brand? Do I have to build a business around a book? How do I do both? Which one first?
You can do whatever you want. So much depends upon the goals you cart around. Today I don’t want to answer these questions. I want to raise them and start the conversation.
What Branding Is
When I began helping authors develop their books and sell their book proposals, we had one aim – make the best possible book and / or proposal as possible. The target seemed clear. But even then, some 16 years ago, writing a publishable book was not divorced from matters of the author’s platform and marketing. We were talking about platforms back then, just not as ubiquitously.
Renowned authors have always had a brand and have, to certain extents, branded. Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison – even back to Mark Twain – these authors had a public presence.
With every photograph, every attire, every interview, every publication, they actively influenced their audience’s perceptions of them and their art. That’s branding – actively influencing the perceptions and associations that people consciously or unconsciously already carry.
A question to you: Do you want to leave your brand open to chance, or do you want to enjoy an artful process of shaping your brand in a way that has integrity and that also build your audience and your revenue beyond book sales?
The Publishing Industry and Business-As-Unusual
What’s different now of relevance to us has less to do with the publishing industry and more to do with what factors have changed the publishing industry. The 2007-08 recession + the rise of digital technology have strained the traditional publishing industry – which has made a remarkable rebound. But these factors also have given rise to an unprecedented entrepreneurial spirit in the United States and beyond.
Consider that most American businesses have no paid employees.
This means a couple of things. One is “author-entrepreneur” has become a more ubiquitous term, even among the “literati.” It’s a kind of business artist whose focused way of creating captivating art is books. It means that author-entrepreneurs have different skill sets to learn – the craft of shaping a captivating book plus the craft of shaping a business or entrepreneurial endeavor. Neither skill set is easy, and both are fraught with naive fantasies of what either takes.
Take Harper Collins’ new imprint North Star Way. Their mission: “to publish books that will help readers find the path to a better life, and to be a guide for our authors, not only through the publication of their books but also in the many other activities that can help their message find the widest possible audience.”
North Star Way partners with authors who also are entrepreneurs in ways to expand outlets for their message. This is what we call “expanding your presence” and finding ways to “distribute your elixir.”
And books remain the most compact, impactful, and mobile dispenser of your signature message, idea, or set of thought leader frameworks.
Think of a business in the simplest terms: the purchase and sale of goods in order to make a profit.
If you have no need to make money in relation to your books, then these sets of questions don’t interest you (unless you’re simply curious).
Typically when people think about money and books, they talk about “how to make money from your books” – via book advances and book royalties, direct book sales, merchandising, speaking and teaching opportunities, or complementary services and events. That’s a skewed way of thinking, but it’s the way I hear many people advising authors talk. It sounds good, but in most cases the advice is short-sighted.
Why? The standard money-book conversation omits a key factor – your readers. More broadly, your audiences. More broadly, people who want if not ache for what you create. You forget them at your own expense. If you regard yourself as an Artiste who does not need to think about her audience, then you probably don’t need to read this.
Another question to you: Do you want to assume a publisher is going to sell your book for you and, thus, have you “set” financially (i.e., be the .05% of authors)? Or do you want to take advantage of our times to do business-as-unusual and with integrity and impact?
Which comes first?
If your goal is to create a book, and you don’t care about revenue or even getting your book into the hands of many people, then just focus on the book, and forget your audience, forget business, and forget a brand story that has integrity. But then you might refrain from complaining that few people – not even your best friends or the person in your yoga class who said she couldn’t wait to read your book – don’t buy your book.
If you think that writing pure art is above making money, consider this. Jonathan Franzen and Toni Morrison are getting paid quite well by Chipotle (a company truly doing business as unusual) to have their writings printed on their cups to give people something interesting to read while they eat.
Food for thought, right?
If you already have a business, and you wouldn’t mind your book contributing to the mutual exchange of benefit that is free enterprise, then start thinking more about how your business is telling a story that captivates and draws in the people who also would ache for your book.
If you’re a writer who wants to make a living in creative endeavors, then try this reframe: Creating a brand story with integrity is a creative endeavor.
Or it can be. It can be one that stretches you out of your comfort zone and requires you to show up for and build up a community of people for whom you genuinely care about – even if you never meet them in person. They’re your potential readers, but maybe not. You engage them anyway not because you want to be adored but because you genuinely care about and love doing so.
Authors sometimes come to us because their publishers, big and small, have said, “Please go build a platform for the book we’re going to publish!” These authors often come to us with sweet resistances. They come with all the well-worn territory of irking from self-promotion and preferring to stay hidden and quiet. I get that. But I also get how opening up to a community of people waiting to find you completely cracks you open to possibility all over again.
That’s part of living the quest.
There are other conventional 20th-century literary routes to go. You can live from grant to grant or residency to residency or teaching position to teaching position or side gig to side gig. That’s cool. I know plenty of content authors who make remarkable art and who make a remarkable difference by virtue of what they create.
But if those routes are not viable, you have vastly more viable and – yes – legitimate opportunities now to shape your own business artistry that includes books as part of the make up. Why not assume agency of your publishing life?