Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
What’s it take to make a book successful? We don’t always think of the element I’m writing about today because it seems to be a bigger-picture focus than we have when we ask about a single book’s success. That element is brand building. Today we’re going to take a look at how brand drives sales by checking out the author Sarah Vowell.
But first, let’s acknowledge that an author has developed a brand when the reader expects a certain, distinct experience each time that person reads one of the author’s books. John Grisham has an author brand, as does Stephen King, as does Karen Kingsbury. And as does Sarah Vowell.
I first “met” Sarah Vowell when I saw a couple of interviews with her on television talk shows. I had a hard time figuring out what her books were about based on the interviews, which isn’t an auspicious introduction to an author. Still, I came away with the impression that Vowell was intelligent, insightful and quirky in how she saw topics.
So, when my book club decided to read Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, I was pleased to take a look at her work. You might well ask what a book entitled Assassination Vacation would be about. Vowell visited the sites of all three of our presidents’ assassinations, as well as examining who the assassin was, who the president was (“insider” sorts of details), the affect the assassination had on the country, etc.
It’s a downright macabre subject. But in Vowell’s hands, the droll writing style entertains and instructs. Even reading about Lincoln’s assassination, which I thought I knew quite a bit about, was fascinating. I learned tons–and smiled a lot as I visited the sites with this witty history expert.
But the real surprise of reading Vowell’s book is that I unearthed a community of Vowell fans. Sarah has done her own brand building. Her significant cadre of loyal followers have come to expect an unusual look at history, an intelligent and subtle humor, and a reading experience that gives insight into Americans’ responses to their country’s history. (See how easy it was for me to define her brand?)
My first encounter with how well Vowell had become branded was when I boarded a plane and settled in to read more Assassination Vacation. I observed a passenger make her way to the restroom and then wander back to her seat, but she stopped along the way to talk to a stranger who happened to be reading a Vowell book. Both were Vowell fans. They chatted at some length about how much they adored her books, each recounting their favorite aspects of her writing. I knew that I could join their “club” just by showing my Sarah Vowell novel, sort of like a password to a secret club.
I might have dismissed that as happenstance except one week later I was getting my hair cut. My stylist and I love to talk about books since we’re both avid readers. I started to tell her about Assassination Vacation when the woman in the chair next to me interrupted our conversation with, “Oh, my gosh, don’t you love Sarah Vowell?!” Then she riffed on how fabulous every one of Vowell’s books were. She thought she had read them all, but I mentioned that I thought Lafayette in the Somewhat United States was my favorite of her odd duck books.
The partially-coiffed woman hadn’t heard about Lafayette and jumped out of her chair, scrounging for a piece of paper to write down the title.
My conclusion, based totally on subjective observation, is that Sarah Vowell has so consistently written in a certain style about American history as to become a brand with a loyal following.
How does a writer go about brand building?
- Consistency. You can’t develop a brand by being all over the map. Choose a place to “live” and settle in. I mean, really settle in. Work to develop a consistent, strong voice and write in the same genre time after time.
- Give yourself time. Few writers build a brand with one book. If often takes many books before enough readers find you and form expectations of what you’ll write.
- Don’t disappoint your readers. It doesn’t matter how bored you might be with your brand, find ways to go deeper within it rather than looking for other ways to write that would surprise but disappoint your readers.
Who is one of your favorite authors? What do you expect to experience when you read one of that person’s books? Do you think he or she was intentional about brand building, or was he or she branded by what the readers wanted and responded to?
How to build your brand one book at a time. Click to tweet.
How to succeed with your next book? Build your brand. Click to tweet.