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What qualifies an author as a “big-name” author? How do you get that kind of author credibility?
Is it the number of copies they’ve sold? Their degree of name recognition?
How do you know if someone is a big-name author?
It is easy to tell. Simply look at the font size of their name on the book cover. If the author’s name is bigger than the title of the book, it’s safe to say that author is a big-name author.
Check out the book covers of books by Brandon Sanderson or Steven King, and you’ll see what I mean.
But be careful! Boosting the font size of your name won’t make you a big-name author any more than buying an expensive necktie will make you a billionaire. Billionaires wear expensive ties, but correlation is not causation.
So how do you become a big-name author?
Whether you’re publishing traditionally or independently, how does your name become more important to book sales than your book’s title?
The term “big name” is relatively new. In the past this phenomenon has been called “gravitas,” “authority,” or, if you go way back, “ethos.”
What is ethos?
Ethos is a Greek word Aristotle used to describe one element of persuasive communication. He taught that effective communication requires three elements.
- Logos (Your message)
- Pathos (Your emotional resonance)
- Ethos (Your credibility)
Each element is important, connected, but this article will focus on ethos and how to build your credibility. Credibility isn’t merely a matter of being well-known, it also means you’re well-liked and respected. In modern terms, ethos is also your brand.
Marketing psychology and branding overlap in the arena of credibility.
In many ways, ethos is about perception. There is a big difference between being seen as credible and actually being credible.
In the eyes of a stranger, there is no difference between reality and perception. But if you want to build ethos ethically, you must start with reality, which means you must be truly credible.
Internal credibility arises from who you are and how you present yourself.
So here are some tips to help you develop your internal credibility.
The old Latin phrase “Vestis Virum Reddit” means “The clothes make the man.”
If you want people to take you seriously, you must dress like the stereotype of someone they would trust. People are more likely to take the advice of a doctor in a lab coat than a doctor in street clothes. The advice and the doctor are the same, but the clothes are different and indicated a degree of credibility.
- Dress appropriately for the brand you want to convey, especially when you are around readers.
- Invest in high-quality brand consistent headshots.
- Invest in a professional microphone and camera for Zoom calls and online speaking. Nothing says amateur like using a gaming headset or the built-in camera and mic on your laptop.
You don’t necessarily need to wear a suit and tie for your headshot. Credibility doesn’t mean dressing for an absolute standard. It’s about dressing in a way that supports your brand. If you’ve written a Victorian romance, you’ll dress differently than if you’d written a workout book.
The effective use of jargon can build your credibility. People don’t need to understand every vocabulary word you use, they just need to understand what you mean.
For example, when I ran a web development agency, I learned to use specific jargon on our invoices. Every time we submitted an invoice to a big corporation, someone on their staff had the job of pushing back on line items of the bill.
I realized these bookkeepers were not technical people. If a line item sounded technical, they would rarely push pack.
If a time log said something like “Wrote a perl script parsing HTTPS calls from HTTP calls on the database: 3 hours,” we wouldn’t get a whisper of push back. If we called the line, “bug fixes,” we would often get pushback.
Jargon can be a trap though. If you use it too much, people will not understand you. The key is to use big words to establish your credibility and rely on small words to call for action.
Be particularly careful if you write nonfiction. If you sound academic, you will turn off many readers.
For fiction, using jargon appropriately requires research. If a character in your story fires a gun, you need to have fired that gun yourself so you get the terminology correct. If your characters are going to a place, try to visit that place yourself. Getting the details right will help build your author credibility.
Provide Specific Examples
For nonfiction, providing real-life examples to support your claims is a powerful way to build internal credibility.
“For example” is one of the most powerful statements you can make.
If you are trying to teach something but you can’t cite an example where it worked, you may not be ready to write a book about that subject.
Examples are also a great way to provide a context that makes your topic easier to understand. It’s a chance to add narratives to your nonfiction.
Sadly, you can undermine your credibility with one lapse in character. Subway Jared was the king of weight loss until he wasn’t. He didn’t lose his credibility because he gained weight. He lost his credibility because he did terrible things and wound up in jail.
Subway Jared is an extreme example, and you don’t need to break the law to have a breach of character.
It’s important to remember that right now, in America, we have several moral systems. You can’t follow them all. Some readers don’t care if you have sex outside of marriage while others don’t care about your carbon footprint.
When you pick a target reader, you are also choosing moral and ethical expectations of their community. If you don’t want your readers to cancel you, you must conform to their moral expectations. I talk more about this in my episode How to Survive Cancel Culture as a Writer.
There are certain moral absolutes all readers expect you to uphold. One of them is honesty. If you lie to your readers, you will never develop ethos.
If you don’t believe in your book, no one else will either. Enthusiasm and confidence are contagious. If you are convinced your book really will thrill readers, they are much more likely to believe you than if you are timid and cautious.
We have a whole episode on How to Become More Confident.
Confidence comes from practice. You’ll gain confidence with every short story and book you write. If you lack confidence in your book, you may not be ready to publish yet. Don’t forget the ninth commandment of book marketing: Thou Shalt Not Publish Thine First Book First.
Keep working on your craft until you can write something you can confidently promote.
External credibility comes from outside yourself, and is applied to you and your work by various means.
People like popular things. To gain credibility, show how popular you already are. You may highlight a bestseller list you’ve hit, the number of books you’ve sold, or the number of reviews your book has.
This element of credibility is called Social Proof. To learn more about gaining social proof, listen to our episode on How to Make Your Book More Popular (Marketing Psychology: Social Proof).
People take you much more seriously once you’ve won a Pulitzer or Nobel prize.
Winning awards can build your credibility, but not all awards are the same. Sadly, many writing contests with awards are scams. Even legitimate contests are pay-to-play. The biggest contests charge publishers a submission fee.
We have a whole episode on writing contests and awards. I also keep a list of credible writing contests on AuthorMedia.social’s Celebrations board. When you win one of those awards, you get to post about it in the group.
If you’re not sure whether an award is legitimate, ask your target reader if he has heard of the award. If he hasn’t, there’s no need to try for that award. Even if you win, it will be meaningless to your readers.
The classic way to borrow credibility is to get an endorsement. We’ve talked about How to Get Endorsements for Your Book in another episode.
Someone who already has credibility with your target reader would make a great endorser for your book. If your readers aren’t familiar with the endorser, he or she should at least have a title or position your reader respects. If a Navy SEAL endorses your workout book, the endorsement will lend credibility even if readers haven’t heard of that person.
“See for Yourself”
People trust themselves more than they trust friends, family or experts. They do not discount their own experiences and they trust their own voice most.
Inviting readers to “see for yourself,” is a powerful way to establish external credibility. It’s the reason reader magnets are so effective, and why I have at least a dozen posts about reader magnets at authormedia.com. If your writing is amazing, one taste of it makes readers want more. Grocery stores use the strategy by giving free samples. I don’t care if an expert likes the new cheese, I care if I like the new cheese.
“See for Yourself” is also why if often takes many years and subsequent books to become a big name author with credibility. As more readers sample your writing, they come to expect it to be good.
Ethos is more than just credibility. It also includes power. The more powerful you are, the more ethos and authority you have.
But what is power?
In business school, we learned about French and Raven’s Five Forms of Social Power. As a parent, I learned about the sixth form of power that my teachers didn’t tell me about.
To explain these five forms of power, I will use examples from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coercive Power (Worf)
Coercive power uses threats and punishments to compel someone to buy your book. Our Star Trek example of coercive power would be Lt. Worf, the scary looking Klingon. He throws people in the brig for bad behavior.
You may think this form of power is not used to sell books, but it is. If you measure in dollars, more books are sold using coercive power than any other kind of power.
If you don’t buy the textbook, you can’t do all the homework, and you get punished with bad grades. Bad grades affect your scholarships and make school more expensive.
Schools and universities are responsible for half of all book sale revenue, not because they sell more copies, but because they charge so much for the books they sell.
When you use power and threats to compel people to buy a book, you can charge whatever you want. While most books at the bookstore cost between $10.00 and $35.00, I remember spending $350 on a textbook when I was in college.
I find this form of power distasteful, so I won’t discuss how to use it.
Reward Power (Ferengi)
While coercive power makes threats, reward power makes promises. Our Star Trek example is Quark, the big-eared Ferengi. He pays bribes to motivate behavior.
Authors use reward power by offering a launch bonus like “Everyone who buys my book in the first two weeks after launch gets these bonus prizes.” In one famous instance, Gary Vee sold one million copies of his book by giving away NFTs to everyone who purchased 12 copies of his paper book within a certain window of time.
Reward power is also why reader magnets work so well.
Legitimate Power (William Riker)
Legitimate power is sometimes called “position power.” Legitimate power comes with the position of the boss, baron, or bishop. Legitimate power often contains elements of coercion and reward, but it also comes with a position in a hierarchy, making it greater than the sum of its parts.
In Star Trek, First Officer Riker, the guy with the beard, represents this form of power.
Certain titles or positions can give authors a great deal of credibility. Anyone can write a book about business management, but the CEO of Tesla will sell more books because of his title and position.
Publishers are quick to point out an author’s bestseller status because it is a title (bestselling author) and a position (top of a list).
Not all positions are meaningful to all readers. Readers are suspicious of PhD authors, who write nonfiction because they don’t want to read academic writing.
Carefully consider which of your position titles you will present on your book. Would your target reader be turned on or turned off by your PhD? Ask your readers to find out.
Expert Power (Dr. Beverly Crusher)
Expert power often sits outside of social hierarchies. A mechanic, electrician, or a doctor all have expert power. In Star Trek, our example would be Dr. Crusher. She is the only person on the ship who can relieve the captain of duty.
The word “expert” is overused right now. Journalists often cite unnamed “experts” when trying to bolster their opinions. But expertise is still real and important, especially in nonfiction. Readers don’t buy nonfiction from authors. They buy nonfiction from experts.
True expertise is not about degrees or certifications, although those can help. True expertise is about knowledge. If the machine is broken, we don’t care about your degree. We want to know if you can fix the stupid thing.
If your book is about helping people with something, you should be helping people in real life with that issue as you write your book so you can be sure your ideas work.
Pastors tend to outsell parishioners because they have the practice and expertise of helping people. People in the pews generally have less practice. If you are writing a religious book, you need to get out of the pews and start practicing what you plan to put in your book.
Another element of expertise is being well-read. Have you read all the competing books on your topic? Do you know who the most prominent voices are? What do you agree and disagree with?
Familiarity with similar methods and arguments for and against each one will give you expert power.
Referent Power (Captain Picard)
Referent power is the power of personality. This is the power of Gandhi and your grandmother. Gandhi had no position, no ability to reward or punish, and wasn’t much of an expert. Yet he had the power to challenge an empire.
Our Star Trek example is Captain Picard. Captain Picard operates out of referent power more than position power, and it makes him likeable. His crew does what he says because they love and trust him. He is the boss, but he rarely pulls rank or resorts to threats or promises. Spok leads in a similar way
So how do authors develop referent power? You bless and serve your readers as the first commandment of book marketing says: “Love thy reader as much as you love thy book.”
Loving your reader means you also follow the second book marketing commandment: “Thou shalt write for thy reader, not for thyself.”
I call your target reader your “Timothy.” The name is inspired by a book in the Bible that was written for a specific person and yet has broad appeal. Get to know your Timothy in real life so you can find out what kind of book he has been longing to read. Then write that book.
Authors with referent power write books for their readers rather than trying to find readers for their books. This is the secret of becoming a big-name author.
Put another way, readers will love you because you first loved them.
You can develop referent power by blessing readers through means beyond your book.
This could be through:
- Public Speaking
- A helpful Website
- Social Media
A Warning About Social Media
There are two old sayings to keep in mind:
- “Familiarity breeds contempt”
- “Out of sight, out of mind.”
You want to be near your readers but not too familiar. So be careful about posting pictures of your lunch on social media. Your best friend might care, but your readers do not.
Whatever you post online, make sure it’s interesting to your reader. You don’t need to use social media, but if you do, this is the only path to success.
Fiat Power (Q)
Fiat power is not one of French and Raven’s Five Forms of Social Powers, but it is a true power.
I discovered this power when I became a parent.
When a newborn needs a clean diaper, but doesn’t want a diaper change, none of the five social powers help. Threats and promises were as useless as my title and position as Dad. My babies didn’t care that I was an expert diaper changer.
So what did I do?
I picked up the baby and changed its diaper anyway. If the baby kicked too much, I would lift the ankles higher, so his hips were off the changing pad and the baby had no leverage to kick into the dirty diaper.
Fiat power is the physical power of handcuffs, grizzly bears, and concrete walls.
Fiat power can be useful in marketing. When you hand people free copies of your book, you’re exercising fiat power. But as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
Giving free copies to strangers must be done strategically so that it’s not a complete waste of money. I have an episode called How to Boost Book Sales With Advanced Reader Copies that will walk you through that strategy.
In Star Trek, the character with the greatest fiat power is Q. He is continually perplexed that, despite his god-like powers, he can rarely get people to do what he wants them to do.
We’ve talked about internal credibility, external credibility, and power. The final element of becoming a big-name author is trust. Ultimately, readers trust big-name authors to give them what they expect. The name means something.
So how do you make your name mean something?
Pick a specific target reader and then thill them. Usually this means sticking with a narrow profile of genres. If you write sci-fi, you can get away with writing fantasy because those genres overlap, but you won’t get away with writing contemporary romance.
Most big-name authors become big names because the name of the author morphs into a microgenre of its own.
This isn’t just a horror book. This is a Stephen King horror book. That means something.
Once you focus on who your target reader is and what he wants, your next step is to thrill him consistently.
- Writing books frequently enough so that he doesn’t forget who you are.
- Maintaining (or improving) the quality of your writing.
- Preserving your voice as an author.
If you can discipline yourself to focus your writing and publish consistently, you are well on your way to becoming a big-name author.
Ethos is Worth the Effort
All elements of ethos require work.
But remember, a strong ethos is what gets you a standing ovation as you walk up to the stage. Ethos causes people to trust you with their email addresses and their money, and their very precious time. They will live their whole lives and die and never get back the time they spent reading your book.
Developing your ethos is worth the work because. It will benefit your reader and your brand and set you on a course to the stratosphere of the big-name author.
Persuasion is one of the most important things authors so. It’s part of the selling process for fiction writers, and it is at the heart of good nonfiction writing.
Yet persuasion is hard to do well and easy to botch. In this video course, I break down the science of how to help your readers truly change their minds for good. This is one of my most popular and enduring talks.
This course is ideal for:
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Jack, our youngest, is officially crawling, and he couldn’t be happier. Previously, he was often stuck in the middle of the room where we put him down. Now he can go anywhere he wants. He has been exploring every corner of our house now that he is mobile.
He is also trying to put our vacuum out of business by eating everything on the floor. The only thing more appetizing to him than a Cheerio is a Cheerio covered in dust and aged under the couch for a year.
Here’s to building a brick wall of immunities!
Wow! What a jam-packed article of great advice. I think I need to read it again to glean everything I can from it. Thak you so much for writing it Thomas.
As usual, your articles give a solid understanding of the mechanics in play. It helps with thinking about what to do and what not to do!
Excellent material jam-packed with wise advice! Will have to listen to it again to get more out of it. Thank you! Oh, and I like when you speak and a little good-natured laugh comes through, it’s makes you very friendly.