Personal branding for literary writers part 1: what a personal brand is not

This post originally appeared on Writer Hustle.

The Otherppl podcast recently opened up its archive for free. I’ve been going through and listening to old episodes with writers I like, and found an interesting conversation between Brad Listi and Jess Walter.

They’re talking about Los Angeles, where Brad Listi (the host of Otherppl) lives, and the conversation turns to creative professionals’ personal brands. This is a recurring subject for Listi, who’s often distrustful of the marketing apparatus around publishing. “There’s something profane about it,” he says to Walter, “but it’s unavoidable.”

Then Jess Walter — who, full disclaimer, is a writer I totally love and admire — completely misses the point:

I think it is avoidable. I think any time somebody says “brand” to you, you rebel. I started out writing non-fiction and I was told, “Write more non-fiction.” I said, “No, I want to write a novel.” I wrote a novel that was called crime fiction and they said “Great! Write mysteries!” and I won an Edgar award and they said “You’re a mystery writer.”
I think being pigeonholed is one of the worst things that can happen for any artist. To have your work shrunk that way to one section of the bookstore, one kind of writing — to me you’re trying to express your view of the world and that’s not going to fit neatly into one genre. So for me it’s been a really simple process: I write the next book I want to read… And not every writer is going to feel that way, but for me, I do think it’s something you can fight. As soon as you know what the Jess Walter brand is, then to me, that makes what you do a lot less interesting.

Listi tries to steer the conversation back to his original point:

I guess I would agree with you there, especially in the approach to your creative work, but I think it also applies to the marketing of that work, you know, your self-presentation, whether it’s online or elsewhere. I feel like brand management — it’s just something that drives me crazy. So when I say it’s unavoidable, I mean that you run into it everywhere and you might engage in it even when you don’t mean to.

Jess Walter concedes the point, but resists a bit. “I have a Twitter account,” he admits, “but the only time I ever tweet about an event is if I think no one’s going to be there, and it’s total fear and shame that causes me to do it.” More evidence for my thesis that a writer’s most complicated relationship is with Twitter.

The concept of personal branding is encrusted with the rhetoric and imagery of marketing. Because of this, writers turn away from it, thinking it doesn’t apply to them.

Walter has made a common mistake: confusing a personal brand with a writer’s chosen genre (or the genre chosen for him or her by a publisher). But Walter isn’t the only one who doesn’t get it. Amazingly, actual marketers who work with writers talk about personal branding in ways that (at least for the average literary writer) are counterproductive, tone-deaf, and completely miss the point.

WHY WRITERS HATE THE IDEA OF PERSONAL BRANDING

If you google “personal branding for writers” you’re going to find a lot of sites that look like they were designed a decade ago, that use terms like “author-entrepreneur” next to professional headshots, that have pop-ups for “Special Offers!”

This is not language or imagery that squares with how literary writers think about themselves. When they see advice like “Your brand needs a tagline” and “Business cards and other printed marketing materials are old-school, but they work” (both of which are actual quotes from a site I found) they check the fuck out. Does a poet need to “build an ideal reader persona?” Do short story writers get excited about “developing their brand purpose?” Of course not.

No doubt he’s thinking about his personal brand’s value proposition.

No doubt he’s thinking about his personal brand’s value proposition.

The concept of personal branding is encrusted with the rhetoric and imagery of marketing. Because of this, writers turn away from it, thinking it doesn’t apply to them.

But if you cut through all the businessy bullshit, you can find working definitions of personal branding that aren’t anathema to art-minded folks. In fact, they can be helpful in understanding how to use social media and build an online presence that feels less like a marketing move and more like a natural extension of your ideas and literary output.

Next week we’ll talk about what a personal brand is and discuss a few writers who are doing it well.

For more about what writers can learn from startup marketing, visit Writer Hustle.