Three Myths About Personal Branding for Authors

What Myths Are Stopping You From Branding Yourself?

The concept of the writer as the “lone wolf” is not new. In fact, since the first holy men and women began transcribing scrolls in monastery turrets, seclusion from the world has been a prerequisite for composition. In his book The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, novelist Fredrick Forsythe tells us that “a writer must be a loner and thus always an outsider.” Author Joanna Penn says “writing is a solitary art… We are not naturally team players. To be a happy writer is to enjoy solitude for creation.” Certainly this mentality has worked for the great writers of the past. Emily Dickinson garnered fame sequestered in her chambers. J.R.R. Tolkien hid in his garage and mapped Middle Earth while adoring fans were shunned at the front door.

But these days it’s different. These days “publishers want a writer to have a brand, a platform, a blog, a built-in army of fans.” Common questions to be asked by an agent or an editor looking to acquire your book are: “What is your online presence like? Do you have a blog? A Twitter account? How many followers do you have?” This ongoing game of marketing, networking, and self-promotion can feel like the antithesis of what feels natural to you. It might even feel like a distraction from what you should be doing: writing your book. Instead of focusing on your literary craft, you might be feeling pressured to ask: “What do I have to do to be as buzzworthy and employable as Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga?

Here’s the thing, though. You don’t have to be. And self-branding for authors, while definitely requiring time and commitment, doesn’t have to be a nightmare for your artistically-minded, introverted brain. The key is to address three myths about personal branding for authors:

1. Creatives are introverts and introverts can’t network

2. Self-promotion means Tweeting into the void all day

3. Successful personal branding means achieving celebrity status

Let’s break down these misconceptions one by one, to help us set the stage for creating a practical, realistic, and grassroots plan for personal branding.

Before We Begin…

This isn’t going to be a post about how easy personal branding is. As approachable as it should be, this process is a lot of work. It takes time, commitment, and dedication to a schedule (and will sometimes even require leaving the house). It takes realizing who you are in the world, a sometimes daunting thing. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of.

Myth #1: Creatives Are Introverts and Introverts Can’t Network

This assumption is at the heart of the argument against personal branding. Chances are, you’ve heard about (and even ascribed to) the idea that writers are lone wolves, creatures of solitude, introverts who prefer to stand on the fringes of society (or are even incapable of participating in it). The image of a figure bent over a desk or a typewriter, papers thrown around the room, dim light pouring in from a dusk-lit window is practically iconic.

And it isn’t just writers. I was once close friends with a composer who would disappear for weeks at a time, staying up all night writing songs shared with no one, wrapped securely in the concept of solitary creativity.

It’s an alluring, dramatic, romantic, and even comforting concept. It helps that being an introvert (much like being a nerd) has recently become “cool.” But it can also hurt us, hampering our ability to move ourselves forward in the world and — through intentional engagement — realize exactly what part we play in our communities, literary or otherwise.

Now, many new authors say something these lines: “But I took the Myers-Briggs test and it said I’m an introvert.” Indeed, the Myers-Briggs test (MBTI) closely connects creativity and introversion: the ISFP personality is actually labeled “The Artist,” while the INFP (my MBTI result from 2013) is told jobs like “writer” and “editor” are right up their alley. This kind of validation, while immensely helpful for self-reflection and meditation on your worldview, should never be used as the end-all-be-all for life or career decisions, mostly because your type can change over time (thanks to something called “neuroplasticity”). Type scientist Ann Holm says that “It is not uncommon to hear a client say, ‘I used to be an INFJ but now I am an ENFJ.’ Or, ‘I am an introvert but I enjoy parties and nights on the town’.” This leads her to believe that:

“You may have [sic] natural preferences (of innate tendencies) that are not fully utilized or have been suppressed that can be tapped into now which can bring about a more fully functioning self. Or, you may have facets of your personality that you would like to modify so that you don’t fall into the same bad patterns time and time again.”

Meanwhile, philosopher Roman Krznaric notes that if “you retake the test after only a five-week gap, there’s around a 50% chance that you will fall into a different personality category compared to the first time you took the test.”

This has happened to me. As I mentioned before, I was a quiet, shy, writerly undergraduate student in 2013. I had my small circle of equally quiet friends, a writing companion who also identified as an introvert, and came from a family of very bookish, home-schooled kids. Of course I was going to be an INFP.

Then, I left my private suburban college to study in Philadelphia’s inner city, and then in London. After graduating, I moved all the way out to Portland, OR for my graduate degree in a field I found to be a lot heavier on networking and personal branding than originally expected. All this forced me out of my shell… and I found I enjoyed it. When I took the test again in 2016, I was an ENFP. (That same year, I had creative work published in a literary magazine and began working on a new novel. My creative output had nothing to do with the letter on a personality quiz.)

I’m not trying to say that introversion is something to be fixed or ignored, or that everyone is secretly an extrovert. What I’m trying to say is introversion (however you quantify it) shouldn’t be something that stops you from doing something, not only because that limits you, but also because it could simply be you never gave yourself a chance to be anything else. Personal branding is not outside the realm of your abilities because it requires more extroversion than the stereotypical lone wolf writer would be comfortable with. And, anyway, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut and others all are considered “E” types.

Myth #2: Self-Promotion Means Tweeting Into the Void All Day

Personally, I love Twitter. I find it’s the perfect place to post all the random stuff that would otherwise clutter my Facebook wall. It’s also a great place to track industry news, follow individual editors, agents, and publishers, and begin developing a personal brand. That said, I understand that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The format could be more intuitive, and unless you dedicate time generating leads and tweeting regularly, it can feel very much like shouting into the void.

Personal branding too often gets locked into the magical but restrictive “social media” box. Social media is an amazing business tool for those who know how to use it, and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have practically leveled the playing field between small businesses and giant corporations. But there’s so much more to personal branding than simply amassing electronic followers.

For authors — especially new authors — it’s not so much a numbers game as it is a reputation game. Contrary to what you might have heard, publishers don’t necessarily look for a set number of Twitter followers or blog subscribers when making the decision to purchase a book. “This book is exactly what we’re looking for, but this author only has 150 Twitter followers, so we’re going to reject it,” is not a line that gets said in editorial boards. What potential publishers are looking for is:

  • Quality, on-brand media content that plays to your strengths, whether that’s critiquing the latest sci-fi trend or sharing motivational self-help quotes. As long as it accurately and appealingly represents you and your focus, you will make a good first impression.
  • Dedication to a personal schedule. This can be anything from posting a 1,000-word book review on your blog every other week to making sure you post at least two Instagram #shelfies a day. If you can show a publisher that you understand and implement deadlines, and can commit to creating content on a regular basis, you will instantly be more appealing.
  • Interaction with a community, whether that’s on a writing forum or just retweeting other local authors and publishers. Because interpersonal connections are so important in this industry, it’s important for you to affirm your willingness to participate and be a unique voice.

Of course, it goes without saying that authors dedicated to building a quality personal brand will invest more than a little time and effort into setting up, maintaining, and growing their social media presence. But an all-out internet campaign isn’t the only option, and might be better avoided if you aren’t ready to make that kind of commitment or aren’t sure where to start. Making small steps toward a presence in the online community and focusing on quality content instead of the panicked accumulation of likes and shares is all that’s needed.

Myth #3: Successful Personal Branding Means Achieving Celebrity Status

Let’s be honest here. Unless you’re one of those name brand authors (think Stephen King or John Grisham or JK Rowling) who were building book empires before the internet was a viable marketing tool, you’re probably not going to achieve “celebrity status” online. Authors just don’t gain that amount of traction, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But skipping personal branding because you’ll never rival Katy Perry or Justin Bieber is like never exercising because you’ll never win the Tour de France.

As someone who has worked with literary agents and acquisitions editors in both small and large houses, I cannot stress this enough: Despite what certain people may suggest, no publisher is going to hold the fact you don’t have 100K followers against you.

Instead of worrying about gaining national name recognition on an online platform, focus on your immediate, real-world community. What is your city’s literary scene like? Are there events you can go to, even speak or read at? Are there writing-related volunteering opportunities you can donate your time and money to? Who are the five literary names everyone in your community should know? Taking the time to cultivate an in-person, grassroots brand that is hyper-localized and super specific will yield better results — and be much more impressive — than desperately trying to meet an abstract number of followers.

This method of more modest personal branding not only helps you in the short term by providing you with an excellent network of helpful individuals and possible career opportunities, but also will make publishers sit up and take notice. Local presses are always on the lookout for rising stars in their area, and big houses will value your obvious dedication to your craft, to putting yourself out there, and to developing working relationships.

If, for example, you’re in the Portland, OR area, here are a few ways to get involved in the thriving creative community:

  • Literary Arts is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the community through an appreciation of writing. They offer writing classes, lectures, youth programs, and book festivals.
  • Willamette Writers is a community of Pacific Northwest authors who support each other through meetings, workshops, critique groups, contests, and conferences.
  • ProjectConnect is a networking group that meets weekly. Creatives from around Portland discuss their passions, collaborate on potential projects, and support each other in the arts.
  • Write to Publish is an annual conference set up by Portland State University’s Ooligan Press, and is a great way to learn more about the industry, pitch your manuscript to acquisitions editors, and meet local authors and publishers.

A quick Google search for similar organizations around your area should turn up some pretty interesting results. Making a name for yourself at large can only happen when you start small.

So… How Do I Start Branding Myself?

The first step to creating a personal brand is setting aside some time to really contemplate how you want to present yourself to the rest of the world. Be silent for a while, listen to what everyone else is saying. What about your book is different? What do other writers in that genre say about themselves (both with words and with presentation)? Where is there a gap in the conversation, an opportunity for a unique dialogue that only you can jumpstart? These are the kinds of questions you will need to answer before you can begin taking more concrete steps toward generating leads, optimizing conversions, networking, and making a name for yourself in the writing world.

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