Branding is not a logo, a font, or the collection of colors on your website. 

Your brand is your reputation. It’s how you are known and perceived in the world. A Hebrew proverb says, “A good reputation is more valuable than rubies,” but how do you develop that good reputation? 

Every author, whether you’re published or unpublished, writing fiction or nonfiction, can benefit from having a solid author brand. 

How do you develop an author brand that stands out from the crowd and sells books? 

David Loy knows how. He is a brand coach, digital marketing expert, and co-founder and CEO of Leverage Creative Group. He works with authors like Jerry Jenkins to help them get their content into the hands of readers who need it.

Why is an author brand important?

Thomas: In 2022, are author brands still important? Can’t I just buy a bunch of Facebook ads and ignore branding?

David: Oh man. Wouldn’t that be great? Like it or not, I think we do still need branding. It’s still necessary, but it doesn’t have to be a necessary evil.

Thomas: The truth is that you have a brand whether you want one or not. The real question is about who is creating your brand? Do you want to create your brand on purpose or by others on accident?

If you don’t purposefully create your brand, readers will do it for you. They may come with a dozen different ways to explain your brand. But if you deliberately create one, you’ll have something more cohesive.

Authors often accidentally build a convoluted brand that’s difficult for readers to talk about or explain. Confusing branding torpedoes word of mouth marketing that could actually help the author if the branding was cohesive and clear.

David: You’re creating a brand for yourself whether you want to or not. Whether you’re being intentional or not, you’re already creating your brand, so why not be intentional. Bring in some strategy so your brand will be as productive as possible.

Where do we start building our brand?

Thomas: How does a beginning author choose what they want to be known for? Where do we start building our brand?

David: Everyone starts at a different point, but there are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • Who’s the audience I’m trying to reach?
  • Where are those people hanging out?
  • Am I a member of my potential audience? And if so, where do I hang out? What are the forums? Where do I enjoy spending time and engaging others?
  • Where do I want to spend my time? What platforms do I enjoy engaging on?

I would ask a few of those questions and then determine your “why.”

Simon Sinek made that idea popular when he gave a TED talk and wrote a book called Start with Why.

If you haven’t defined your “why” clearly, then you need to do that right now. Why are you doing what you’re doing? You need to know the answer so you can be clear on your own purpose, but also because the answer will tell you what you need to do to build a brand.

Thomas: Your “why” is your motivation. It gets you up and keeps you going during the hard parts of the writing. If you don’t have a strong “why,” you’ll give up at the first challenge or rejection.

But if you have a strong motivation for writing, you keep going. When you know your “why,” it helps you discover your “who.”

You don’t create a brand by figuring out who you are. You develop your brand by figuring out who your audience is.

In fact, the first commandment of Novel Marketing is “Love thy reader as much as you love thy book.”  

Your “why” must stem from a love for your reader. You should know who your reader is and how they’re different from everyone else. It informs everything else. It also helps you thrill them, and that’s how word of mouth spreads, and your reputation grows.

You’re not writing for a generic “other.” You’re writing for a specific person or a specific group of people.

David: That’s exactly right. I’ve had the privilege of working with Jerry Jenkins since 2014, and he is famous for repeatedly saying, “Think reader first.” When you’re writing, think reader first.

In terms of marketing and branding, I tell people to “Think visitor first.” Think email reader first. Think podcast listener first. Think YouTube viewer first.

Whatever the forum, think about your audience first as you create your strategy.

Thomas: I tell authors, “Find your Timothy.” Find one human person who represents the group.

We used to create imaginary avatars, but I’ve found authors to be such creative people that they create an avatar who loves everything they write. That imaginary avatar is not very useful for making brand decisions. 

When you force authors to find one real-life human being who would actually read their writing, it forces them to crystallize who they’re really writing for. It also allows them to get feedback to see if what they’re writing resonates with their target audience.

David: I’ve worked with authors for almost 17 years in some capacity.

One author I worked with played a mind game with himself. He would envision himself writing for his two sons sitting on the other side of his desk. He would imagine he was writing to them.

Of course, he ended up writing to millions of people who would eventually read that book. Picturing his teenage sons sitting across from him helped him convey the message in a way that would directly impact their lives. And it worked for him.

I encourage people to come up with something that will work for you in that same way.  

Thomas: Aiming for that red dot in the middle of the target really helps you hit the target. Even if you’re not hitting the red dot, having something to aim for is key.

If you are in a different age range than your target audience, it’s really important to pinpoint a real human to write for.

If you want to write for a different generation, culture, or nation, you must spend time listening before you start talking.

David: In terms of branding, I have always taught people to start by listening first.

But in terms of creating, it’s tougher to listen to an audience. Do you see a distinction between the listening you do when you’re creating versus branding?

Thomas: I encourage beginning writers to read the most successful books in the genre that they’re writing. It’s one way to listen to the reader. Successful books are bestsellers because millions of readers have voted with their money to say, “This is what I like.”

If you’re not willing to read in your genre and find out what readers like, then you’re shooting in the dark, hoping that arrow lands on a target.

You don’t read to copy other authors, but it’s important to learn what kind of ingredients they’re cooking with. How are they approaching their different issues? What tropes are they using?

If you’re not reading in your genre, you may accidentally copy the tropes because you don’t know somebody else already wrote a book with that exact same plot format.

Reading in your genre helps you create something unique that resonates with readers of that genre.

What are the ingredients for a strong author brand?

Thomas: What are some key ingredients for building a strong personal brand?

David: First and foremost, authenticity is vital. There’s a lot of pressure to mimic other people, regardless of their skillset or yours. In my opinion, that doesn’t work.

Be authentic to who you are and to the skills you bring to the table.

If your skills don’t lend themselves to YouTube or podcasts, then trying to build a brand outside of your skillset is probably not going to work. At the very least, it’s going to be extremely challenging.

You have to be exactly who you are, but you’ll have to find the online space where you can maximize your skillset. Maybe that means you only focus on Facebook or Instagram for the first three months, and that’s okay.

You can do any of the things that are out there, but you cannot do all the things out there. Even if you think you can, you can’t do them all at a high level. So be authentic.

Thomas: There’s a story in the Bible of a young shepherd boy named David who was going to fight a giant enemy named Goliath. David was used to using a sling to kill predators, so he goes to the king and says, “I’m willing to fight this enemy.”

The king tried to give David his own armor and presumably his sword.

But David very wisely stays true to his own brand, so to speak. If he had worn that armor, he wouldn’t have known what to do with it. It would have slowed him down and forced him to try and out-Goliath Goliath. But you can’t out-Goliath Goliath. He’s bigger and stronger, and he’s had more training.

But David stuck with his skillset. In modern terms, he ended up bringing a gun to a sword fight. A person skilled with an ancient slingshot could sling a rock with the force of a 45-caliber gun.

By being true to his own brand, he ended up defeating the enemy’s champion giant.

Don’t try to be Goliath. Don’t take Saul’s armor, and don’t succumb to the pressure.

If someone insists that you have to do social media if you want to be published, don’t listen to them. Instead, listen to my episode on why most authors don’t need social media in 2022. If social media feels like a big burden and the thought of it makes you tired, you will never be successful on social media.

On the other hand, if you’re great at social media, you can do it. Successful social media influencers enjoy it and work really hard to be good at it.

If you want to grow a following on social media, you’ve got to enjoy it a lot and work hard.

David: There are so many things on the brand-building journey that are difficult. It’s hard to get your message out, and you don’t need to intentionally add more difficulty.

Instead, find things you enjoy that match your skillset.

What misconceptions do authors have about branding?

Thomas: What are some misconceptions that authors have about building their brands?

David: I was hosting a webinar recently, and someone asked, “Wouldn’t it take several years to build a brand through Facebook and YouTube, and what guarantee do I have that it will be time well spent?”

I answered, “Yes, it will take several years potentially. And there is no guarantee.”

This process doesn’t happen overnight, and there are no guarantees.

When someone new pops up on the scene, we tend to think they are an “overnight success.” But those perceived overnight successes almost always have been a decade in the making. They worked hard for a long time before they became well-known. Overnight success is a misconception.

Thomas: If you’re wondering where to focus, I encourage you to find an area where practicing the skill also helps you improve as a writer.

For example, if you’re writing nonfiction, blogging will help you become a better nonfiction writer. A good blog post and a good book chapter have a lot in common.

If you’re writing fiction, learn to write short stories and build your email list by giving away short stories. Mastering the craft of writing short stories will help you write better scenes and chapters in your novel.

Conversely, improving your dance moves and video skills for TikTok has almost nothing to do with writing.

Look for methods of message distribution that have synergy. Find the methods where your fame-building relates to your craft development.

David: If you are a beginning writer, maybe your first writing project shouldn’t be a novel. It’s okay to start with something shorter and a little more achievable.

It’s applicable in the branding and marketing platform building sense as well. You can start small.

Thomas: Our ninth commandment of Novel Marketing is, “Thou shalt not publish thy first book first.”

Your first book is meant to teach you how to write a book. It’s not meant to be published. If you’re willing to let those first fruits fall and fertilize the tree, the tree will be much healthier over its lifetime.

In the same way, your career will benefit if you allow your first book to teach you rather than insisting it should be published.

David: That is wise advice, Thomas. But do you feel like people resonate and take that advice? Because that route may require a lot of time, frustration, pain, and learning. It also requires them to write more books. Do people adhere to that guideline?

Thomas: Out of all the Novel Marketing commandments, this ninth one is the hardest for people to believe and accept.

Most people say, “I’m the exception. That one doesn’t apply to me.”

But when I talk with successful authors who’ve sold millions of copies, they all agree with it 100%. I only get pushback from unpublished authors.

In fact, almost all career authors say their first book wasn’t very good. Or they tell me they did a lot of writing before they ever wrote a book.

I interviewed Jerry Jenkins on my other podcast, and he told us about all the writing he did as a journalist before he ever started writing a book.

This is the metaphor I like to use: when you get in the shower and turn on the hot water, cold water comes out first. You just have to let the cold water flow.

When you start writing, the first thing that comes out is bad writing. You just have to let the bad writing flow.

Eventually, it will warm up. Your writing will get better, especially as you read books on craft, take writing courses, and get feedback. Then you’ll have hot water.

David: Let me add to that. If the cold water makes me so mad that I shut off the faucet, what can I reasonably expect when I turn it on again? It’s still going to still be cold water.

Thomas: Writing and brand-building require persistence. People get really weirded out by the word “brand,” but it’s simply a new term for the old concept of reputation, which dates back to the misty past of humanity.

What are your thoughts about authors who dabble in a bunch of different genres?

David: I spent the first five years of my career as a booking agent for keynote speakers, many of whom were fiction and nonfiction authors. Corporations would hire them to speak at their annual events.

Our company received 25 to 30 proposals every day from new speakers who wanted us to represent them and get them booked for speaking engagements.

The main red flag that would keep us from representing someone was a statement that said their content was for anybody. They’d say something like, “I can speak to any audience. I just put me on stage, and I will deliver.”

We never represented that person.

While you might believe you can speak to anyone, the reality is that an audience is looking for authenticity, expertise, personality, and engagement. They’re not looking for one-size-fits-all. They’re looking for one-size-fits-me.

Thomas: I’ve seen two different ways to focus your writing that work well.

The most common way to focus is to write one genre so that your name is associated with that genre. For example, James Patterson doesn’t even have to write the book anymore. He just oversees the writing. His name is so attached to the genre that the book sells millions of copies because of his name and reputation.

The other approach, which is less common, is to focus on one audience. For example, Tricia Goyer writes in many different genres, but she writes for a very specific audience of homeschool moms.

She’s very well known in the homeschool mom world, and she speaks at homeschool conventions. Everything she writes is either for homeschool moms to read or for homeschool moms to give to their children to read.

She has 70 books across all different genres, and she can sell them at a homeschool convention because homeschool moms trust her.

She’s very successful, but it requires a lot of discipline to say no to anything that would not appeal to a homeschool mom.

David: Just because you’re deciding on a genre or audience today doesn’t mean you can’t expand down the road. It does mean that you can’t do it all today.

In the beginning, you need to decide what you’re going to be about, who you’re writing for, and which genre you’ll write. Stay focused so you can build up enough credibility so that someday you have the option to add or expand your writing.

Thomas: You have the freedom to move from one genre to another as you grow.

Authors sometimes shift from fiction to nonfiction, or vice versa, later in their careers. That’s much more effective than trying to write in multiple genres at the same time. If you try to do it all at the same time, you won’t have the focus you’ll need to do any of it well enough to succeed.

David: Andy Andrews is famous for saying, “I have a decided heart.” He encourages people to decide what they will do, focus on it, and go after it.

When you have a decided heart, you intentionally decide not to do many other things. But having a decided heart means you’re moving forward in a focused direction. You’re going to make as much progress as you can and then evaluate and decide if you want to keep going or if you want to do something different.

How do you evaluate what’s working?

Thomas: How do you find out if your brand is resonating with your audience? How do you know if you have a good brand or a good reputation?

David: Most people either immediately know how they want to gauge their brands, or they have no idea how to do it.

If you have no idea where to start, pick the thing you want to start with and try it for a set period.

Start attaching specific timelines and metrics to the things you want to try. Then set up a 90-day alarm to revisit it and see what progress you made in 90 days.

If it didn’t work to the degree you wanted, then reevaluate.

Thomas: If you’re trying to grow your email list and you’re starting at zero subscribers, give yourself 90 days to get 100 subscribers. Maybe you can try to get one subscriber per day. It’s not a lot, but it is more than what you’ll get doing nothing.

If you already have a bunch of subscribers, you’d set a different timeline or goal.

Authors who are farther along in their careers can measure their brand by reading their Amazon reviews, specifically the two-star and three-star reviews.

One-star reviews typically come from somebody who wasn’t your target reader, and that’s not helpful information. But three-star reviews often tell you about the reader’s expectations.

Reviewers don’t care about you or your book. They care about themselves. When they write reviews, they’re writing about themselves.

I did some word analysis on the reviews of my book, and the most common word was “I.” Once you realize that, you can read a review without feeling judged. You can see reviews as wonderfully accurate research about the people who spent money to buy your book. They’re telling you about themselves.

As you learn what their expectations are, you can learn to thrill them with your subsequent books.

David: When you do that market research and read your reviews, take off your personal, creative author hat and put on your business hat. Separate yourself from your work and look at it from a brand standpoint. Read the review as though that reviewer was talking about a business or a brand.

If you can read it through those eyes, you’ll learn and see what the audience is seeing, and their opinion matters.

Thomas: Some authors hate reading reviews because it’s psychologically painful. Other authors get a false sense of confidence by reading only their five-star reviews.

So, here’s a hack you can use. To get information from your reviews without having to read them, team up with another author who’s in a similar spot. Maybe you’re at the same place in your publishing journey. You can say, “I will read your reviews and give you a report on what I’ve learned about your brand, and you do the same for me.”

You can act as a filter for each other. You can report on the common themes and common complaints. When you partner with another author, you get the data from your reviews without having to go through the emotional roller coaster of actually reading them.

David: That’s a great idea. That can be really a safe way to go on that journey.

I’ve worked with several authors who absolutely refuse to read the reviews out of pure terror of being derailed by the one-star reviews.

Thomas: It’s important to realize that one-star reviews aren’t that helpful for collecting data, but they are helpful for selling books.

In the early nineties, when Amazon first launched amazon.com, there was a huge controversy over the five-star rating system. No brand wanted to have star ratings.

But Amazon shared a lot of research showing that products with one-star reviews sold more products on their platform than products without one-star reviews.  

One-star reviews actually have a positive impact on your overall sales. If all the reviews are five stars, people don’t believe the reviews, and the rating system loses all credibility. But once there’s a mix, especially once there is at least one one-star review, that one-star review validates all the five-star reviews.

The other example they cited for a star rating system was based on product performance. If you’re getting one-star reviews for your oven because it melts when it gets hotter than 450 degrees, you don’t have a review problem. You have a product problem.

Companies should want to know about the problem so they can go to the factory and fix the oven rather than hide the problem.  

While you may not be reading your reviews on Amazon, your potential readers are reading them. They’re using the reviews to help them make decisions about you, your reputation, and your book.

How do you coach an author with a well-established brand?

Thomas: You’re working with Jerry Jenkins, who has sold millions of books. He’s writing a new book all the time. How do you coach somebody like that with their brand?

David: One thing that separates Jerry from others who have had similar success is that he understands that his gifting is to write books and teach writing. Anything outside of that, he’d be the first to tell you, is not in his wheelhouse.

He has intentionally sought out experts in other areas and surrounded himself with people who have skills that he doesn’t. He has empowered my team and me to do what we do for him online.

When I’m working with a new author, one of the first thing I look for is whether the person is coachable. Are they willing to listen to advice?

I am not a bestselling novelist or bestselling nonfiction writer. But I do have a track record of helping novelists and nonfiction authors sell a lot of books.

When I’m interviewing people or considering a new brand, I don’t need them to defer to every single thing I say, but they must be willing to have a conversation and be coachable.

Thomas: Once you’re successful, you tend to have money. And the question becomes, “What do I do with this money that I now have?”

You could do a lot of things with the money, but if you want to have continued success, use that money to hire experts who have strengths where you have weaknesses.

If you are weak at taxes and bookkeeping, hire a bookkeeper. A bookkeeper already knows how to run the software and do the accounting. They can take those tasks off your plate. Over time, you can delegate more of the tasks in your weakness zone and spend more time in your strength zone.

Some people take pride in bootstrapping their careers. That’s a useful worldview if you don’t have any money, but once you have money, it’s a hurtful worldview. It hurts your success because you’re relying on your weaknesses rather than your strengths. But it also hurts the people you could potentially hire with your money.

That bookkeeper you hired earns money from the job you gave him, and he’s better off. You both reap the benefits.

You’re not doing something bad by creating a job. You’re doing something good by creating a job!

Many authors have to undergo a worldview shift when they become successful.

They might feel guilty hiring somebody to clean their house. But if you’re writing bestselling books, you need to create a job for somebody to clean your house, and you need to keep writing bestselling books.

David: That’s exactly right. Create more space in your life to do what only you can do. That applies in a lot of different settings.

What are the things that only you can do? Your goal should be to offload things that other people can do so that you can operate at your highest and best most of the time.

What does Leverage Creative Group do for well-established authors?

Thomas: If someone wants brand help, what does Leverage Creative Group do for them?

David: We don’t charge you anything. That might be hard to believe, but it’s just like a traditional publishing company. They don’t charge the author anything.

We run the online presence and build the website, products, and audience. We do the marketing, the launch, the fulfillment, and the customer service. With the money that comes in, we pay the author a royalty on what we’ve created for them.

We’re trying to duplicate the book publishing model in the online course space.

We’re still involved with authors and their books. We help them market. But the core of our business is online courses, online products, and digital experiences with the brand expert themselves.

Thomas: You’re looking for authors who already have a well-established email list and reputation. You don’t make authors famous. You help famous authors monetize the following they already have.

David: Let’s say you have 10,000 people on your email list, and you believe it should be 50,000, but you don’t know how to get to that next level. That’s where our company could come alongside and help get the word out to many more people.

Thomas: If you’re curious and want to learn more, visit Leverage Creative Group. They also have a useful blog with many valuable posts.

Do you have any final encouragement for authors?

David: Keep going. You may be tempted to slack off, quit, make excuses, and slow down. Regret is not going to be fun. If you don’t keep moving, you’re not going to enjoy that feeling of “what if?”

I know it can be overwhelming, time-consuming, and really frustrating at times, but it’s worth it, especially if you feel like you’re supposed to be doing it. Keep going.

Thomas: It takes time to build a reputation. As Andy crouch said, “The only thing you can do with Rome in a day is burn it.” You can’t build Rome in a day, but you can burn it down in a day.

Be true to who you are. Keep the promises you’ve made to your audience and be persistent. It does take time, but persistence feeds on itself, and it gets easier as that flywheel starts to spin.

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