On Brands and In Person Appearances


Hey everyone, Kalayna here filling in for David today. As we are in the middle of convention and conference season, I thought today would be a great day to talk about in person appearances and visual brands.

Now I know branding has been discussed on MW before, but let me briefly define my understanding of it. Branding is  a part of marketing that ties an author’s name into a reader expectation. That means that even without actually seeing a book, a reader knows by hearing an author’s name that they will be getting a certain type of read. For instance, the name “Faith Hunter” means the reader will be getting an action packed urban fantasy following a strong lead character. Readers who like that genre can buy Faith’s books with confidence and can assume the next book she releases will also be in that genre. As most of you know, Faith also writes under the name Gwen Hunter, but Gwen has a different audience and brand. Gwen writes southern mysteries, and while some of her audience crosses over, having two names distinguishes the two genres and helps prevent a reader who loves one genre but abhors the other from auto-buying and ending up terribly disappointed (which can lead to bad feelings associated with the writer’s name and skeptical readers less willing to take a chance on the next book).

What does any of this have to do with in person appearances? Well, how a writer presents themselves becomes part of their brand. Faith will tell you that her Gwen name and Faith name have different clothes, and which outfits she packs depends on which of her names was invited to that particular event. I also have a particular style I aim for, but I didn’t realize until recently that my ‘look’ had become an anticipated part of my  personal brand. If you’ve ever seen me at an event, you know I favor corsets and boots, which I tend to build my outfit choices around. This is a personal preference, one I’ve had since before I was published, and as I wore such outfits to fantasy cons when pre-published, I started showing up in the same as a guest. In the beginning, I didn’t consciously realize  that I was building a visual brand (guess I’m lucky urban fantasy and big black boots go well together) but now I receive more remarks if I don’t show up in the anticipated style than if I do. Of course, this has led to a bit of fretting for events that aren’t fantasy conventions as trying to mishmash my look with something more conservative can be tricky, but I think I’ve pulled it off.

So why have a visual brand? Obviously not all UF writers should walk around in boots with big buckles or stripped tights–that would become terribly cliche very fast. And what would all mystery writers do, dress like Sherlock Holmes? No, visual brands are personal and can be anything from an extremely laid back and approachable jean and tee-shirt garb to a propensity for period costumes. If you fall on a more extreme side of clothing, it probably helps if it compliments your genre (such as a steampunk author making appearances in Victorian clothing) but of course, be aware of the  expectations of the event you’re attending–some venues don’t appreciate divergence from the norm. At the end of the day, a visual brand is about being yourself (or the side of yourself that best compliments the books you’re promoting) while still being consistent and recognizable.

Now that’s the visual part, but there is more to an in person brand. You wouldn’t want your name and face associated with a grouch readers don’t like. While on panels try to be interesting but also considerate of your fellow panel members–neither your fellow writers nor the audience likes it when one panelist monopolizes the topic. Remember that when you are at an event, you are always ‘on’ and making impressions. Even when you are at the hotel bar. Be friendly, be approachable, and be positive. Personally, I’m an obnoxiously shy person. Unfortunately, shy can often be mistaken for snobbish (I learned that the hard way in high-school) so I use my personal brand as a type of armor. When I’m at an event, I’m a professional writer, not that shy girl who spends more time with her computer than with people.

So tying this all together, what is an in person brand? It is a look, but also the way a writer acts at an event. While a name as a brand deals with a readers’ expectations in books, an in person brand deals with expectations on a person. For con coordinators, it lets them know if this is a writer they’d like to have at future events, and for attendees of events, it lets them know if this is a writer they like as a person and if the writer is someone they’d want to hang out with again. Is it effective marketing? Well, that is hard to measure. I’ve definitely bought books by authors because I liked that person and was more than willing to see what they had written. Conversely, on one rare occasion, I discovered an author was a total jerk and stopped reading that person’s books because I just didn’t like them. But, over all, I would say I’ve never met most of the writers I read, so their in person brand doesn’t influence me at all.

How about you? Have you picked up books by people you met at events just because the author was interesting? Has someone (no need to name names) negatively branded themselves to you by being obnoxious at an event?


13 comments to On Brands and In Person Appearances

  • I have purchased books from people because I liked their appearance at cons and at panel discussions. I have also definitely marked people off my list because of their behavior on panels.

    Brand is important, but I’m not going to worry about mine until I finish revising my novel.

  • K,
    way to wake the Anxiety Demons! I have no brand. I have no look. I’m hopeless at stuff like this and am doubly handicapped by writing (under the same name) in multiple genres (mystery/thriller, adult(ish) fantasy, middle grades, even–I suppose, thanks to Macbeth thing–historical fiction). For me what perhaps should be separate identities all blur together and I’m sure I miss the opportunity to ‘brand myself’ (sounds painful) as a result. If only there was a way to yoke all these things together and still be distinctive and specific! I’m open to ideas on how to build the A.J. Hartley brand from all comers. Seriously. I really am.

  • A part of me feels like I should work out, grow my hair out long, and carry around a portable fan so that my hair can billow in the breeze, since I write romance. Then I can carry a laser gun for sci-fi romance and a sword for fantasy romance. 😉

    Kidding, but the image evoked is amusing.

    Still, I don’t think I’ll change my image much based on my genre, but the name may have to change, though I’d be saddened by that, because I’ll also want to write non-romance and the name could become branded as “that guy that writes those romance novels.”

  • Hmm, SFF cons do typically mean dressing up. I wonder if those of us with a propensity for corsets, leather, the color black, and other fun things during the week should perhaps dress in business casual for cons. Just to keep in the spirit of dressing up for cons. Muggle-drag, as it were.

    I think we shouldn’t forget personal politics and religious beliefs, both in the media and in-person. There’s a definite cost to expressing opinions in those areas. You’ll turn off people and agent and publishers may notice that. I’ve personality decided to avoid authors who’ve expressed scary opinions on certain topics (and by saying that, I guess I am indicating that I do have certain opinions).

    I’ll second the ‘friendly and approachable’ as well. I just happened to stumble across a Charlaine Harris signing in NOLA, so I figured what the heck. The line was epic. Heck, NOLA, vampire capital of the world. Despite that, she made personal contact with each and every person in line, with eye contact, small talk, and so on. You could tell she loved her fans. The fact that I remember her grace and friendliness during what must have been a 4 hour signing means something.

    Heck, the fact that Patricia Briggs remembered me at the second con I’d seen her at, well, that floored me.

    I’ve come across authors who approach signings like an assembly line. Glance at person, ask name, ask what they want written, write it, call for next person. Somewhat of a turn-off.

  • Vikki, I totally agree–finish the book and get it out there before worrying about branding.

    *hugs* AJ. Yeah, kind of hard to brand mystery + fantasy + middle grade fiction + historical fiction, but you’re not the only author who writes a lot of different genres under a single name. (Hey, maybe you should try “AJ Hartley, a book for every kind of reader” ^_~ )

    Oh Daniel, I’m giggling here imagining you walking around with a fan so you always have a dramatic windblown look! As far as pen names and branding, while separate names for different genres makes branding easier and is often encouraged these days, there are still some who choose not to do it–or are forced to stay with a single name. I recently met with Melissa Marr who is a NYT bestselling YA author. She wanted to use a pen name for a recent project, but her publisher wanted her name (and the reader base it would bring with it) on the book despite the genre change. *shrugs* Everyone talks about marketing strategies a lot, but none are sure successes, just a best guess based on experience and research. If you want your name on all your books, make your plans accordingly but be prepared that you might be advised to take a pen name by your agent and editors when the time comes to publish. At that point, you’ll have re-evaluate and decide if you want to fight the name change. (Or it might not even come up. The market is constantly changing.)

  • I wonder if those of us with a propensity for corsets, leather, the color black, and other fun things during the week should perhaps dress in business casual for cons.

    Roxanne, that idea horrifies me! LOL. I do own one or two requisite smart looking suits, but I always feel like such a fraud when I wear them. So not me.
    Good call on voicing (or really NOT voicing) political and religious beliefs. People tend to feel very strongly on certain topics based on their own experience and understanding of the topic. Unless you absolutely don’t want to associate with XYZ minded people, there really isn’t a lot of point alienating anyone. (Not to say a writer can’t get behind and speak for a platform they believe in, but they should be aware that they will stir up controversy.)
    I agree about Charlaine Harris– I met her at dragon*con several years back and she is one of the nicest people to talk to. Oh, and I’m so jealous that you’ve met Patricia Briggs!

  • Conversely, on one rare occasion, I discovered an author was a total jerk and stopped reading that person’s books because I just didn’t like them.

    Several years ago, I went to a big-big-super-big con, one featuring a number of really famous names. I was in the bar on the first night when someone pointed out WellKnown Author whose WellKnown Book I’d admired for years, and I worked up the courage to go and tell her how much I’d loved that book. She smiled, and said, “Oh. Everyone always talks about that one,” and turned back to her friends.

    I know that she was probably hoping I’d be gushing over her latest work, but her ungracious response has made me never want to read another word she writes.

  • AJ, remember sometimes no brand is a brand! Think of Dan Simmons. That guy writes thrillers, horror, sf, mystery, other stuff I’m sure — all under the same name. The brand he established is that if it’s got his name, it’ll be good. Really, Stephen King is the same. He rarely writes horror anymore. Fantasy, SF, character driven dramas — he’s done all that. People follow because his name means “a good story” as opposed to a specific genre.

  • Razziecat

    I would also suggest that one be very careful how much liquid refreshment one imbibes, especially if convention organizers are paying. I know of an author (not in the fantasy genre) whose bar bill at one convention reached four figures. To my knowledge this person was never again invited to be a guest at subsequent cons run by the same people. You’d think it goes without saying, but I guess not.

  • I must be the odd-ball. I’ve met several authors whose attitude or politics or body odor (yes – really!) were turn-offs, but I still read them because I like their work. I will admit, though, that I will pick up a book from someone I’ve never read if I’m impressed by them in person or online (Faith, David, Misty, Stuart, etc.).
    As a reader, I personally don’t like psuedonyms for different genres. I read all types of books, and I’ll pick up a familiar author in any genre, trusting I’ll like what’s between the covers. But that’s me, and I am by no means a marketing expert.

  • Hi Kalayna. SO sorry I am late to the party. Yesterday was … interesting. Okay, not interesting, except in Chinese curse ways. But impossible. Yeah, that one.

    I do have much better clothes than Gwen, and she is always borrowing stuff from me. Expecially the jewelry. She really likes my jewelry. 🙂 She raids my half (okay, 3/4s) of the closet. And we fight over boots. Can we say schizoid?

    I’ll add one comment to the part about espousing religious or political beliefs. I never hold back if asked, but I am always very quick to say that I hold other’s beliefs and opiinions as high as my own, and would fight to protect their rights to those beliefs. I often add that our brave men and women in the military have fought and died for the right of everyone to think and believe as they choose. If there are hotheads on panels or in the audience who push for a certain viewpoint, this usually calms the waters.

  • Brent Williams


    Great article. I used the idea of a visual brand effectively when I was an industry pundit/strategy consultant years ago. I wore conservative dark suits, usually solid navy, but very visible and unusual tie and shirt combinations, which I worked very hard to pick out. It helped me to be visually compelling and recognizable on stage in front of large audiences, similar to what a book author would face at a convention of some sort.

    The best example of a writer with a great visual brand is Tom Wolfe, whose white suits that he wears almost constantly in public are the stuff of legend.

  • I never thought about the in-person aspect of branding before. Online, I keep my writing identity mostly separate from my real-life identity, since my online writing friends and my offline friends are very different groups. I’ve always imagined I would have a pen name if I ever got published. But the whole thing with Faith/Gwen wearing conciously different outfits to a con never occured to me. It’s kind of like writer role-playing. Which is totally awesome. 😀

    I really liked the comment on using your writer persona as armor. I am incredibly shy, and whenever I move to a new environment, it takes me forever to feel comfortable talking to people and to make friends. So over the past three years, every time I end up in a new environment, I make an effort to establish myself early on as more out-going in that context. That way, whenever I find myself back in that context, I’m used to being more open and extroverted. Of course, this is a concious extroversion that I wokred to create. So the whole persona thing really clicked for me.

    Personally, I’ve never been stopped from picking up books by the same author but different genres. Considering that the kind of stories I write are all across the board genre-wise, including basically every sub-genre of speculative fiction in YA and AF, plus contemp-y YA, the issue of branding has always been something I’ve been really aware of, and I’m constantly on the look-out for good information. This post definitely qualifies, and Magical Words has been the best source on branding I’ve found. Keep up the good work.