The Author Branding Conundrum

This is a topic that’s weighed heavily on my thoughts lately, over-clocking my poor brain until I feel like I’m running around in glitchy circles like a robot whose circuits are fried. But after quite a lot of research, and  a few sound-board sessions with my trusted advisers, I think I finally have a plan. Or at least have my thoughts straightened out enough to discuss it intelligently. Maybe.

The idea of creating a brand is one most people are familiar with. Building name recognition, consumer trust, and recurrent sales for a product line are all foundational practices in marketing. And since books are products, branding is something every writer will have to face eventually. Unless you plan on being a One-Hit Wonder.

An author brand is one built around the author’s name and it’s entirely dependent on the associations people attach to that name. It can also be built around the books themselves, but for the purposes of this post, and because I’ll dissolve into an incoherent puddle if I try to explain every convoluted aspect of author branding, we’re going to stick to branding through name.

Author branding is everywhere in the publishing world, but most of us don’t really notice it. To see it in action, let’s take a look at some of the prominent names in publishing and the most common associations attached to them. Anne McCaffrey is synonymous with Light Sci-fi/Fantasy. Anytime you pick up one of her books, you’re sure to get something set within that genre. Maggie Stiefvater will almost surely be found in YA Urban Fantasy. Stephanie Meyer is most known for her YA series, but she’s also written an adult Sci-fi title that no one ever really hears about, called The Host. And J.K. Rowling will have a hard time shaking her fans expectation for the next Harry Potter when she debuts her new title for adults– The Casual Vacancy; a title that, from all accounts, contains nothing magic-related and would probably be more accurately described as a political/mystery/drama and likely shelved in general fiction.

What we learn from this is that author branding has a lot to do with expectations. Readers expect a certain style/genre/voice from an author, booksellers expect a title that’s easily presented with other works by that person, and publishers expect something that is easily marketed and sold. But what does that do to the author? It corrals them into having to conform and deliver what their audience wants if they want to be able to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. An idea that doesn’t sit well with a lot of writers, but that is sadly the truth of the situation.

Once you’ve established your brand, there’s very little chance to break out of it, to extend those creative wings and experiment in true literary fashion. Say someone who’s well known for writing Historical Romance suddenly feels inspired to pursue Horror, Mystery or Contemporary Fiction. If they are able to sell something so drastically different from their established brand, it will likely have to be under a pen name. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, in which case you can write whatever and publish it under your own name simply because you’re a superstar. But even J.K. Rowling is faced with the potential loss of sales/fans because she dramatically altered her brand, so you know it’s serious business.

Personally, I’m not a fan of pen names. I know there are plenty of people who use pseudonyms quite successfully, (Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb being the perfect example), but to me it just feels like a lie. I would feel like an impersonator if I had to publish under an alternate name. Like I had somehow stolen the identity of someone more brilliant than myself and taken credit for their life’s work. I know that’s not how it is, and that a lot of authors do it because of branding considerations, or a desire for anonymity. But what can I say? I’m vain. I want my name plastered on every title I slaved over. I want that small chance of bumping into someone and having them recognize me for my work. I want a whole shelf dedicated to the trophies of my prolific career. Is that so wrong?

So that leaves me with two choices– decide forevermore what my genre will be and never step outside of it, thereby ensuring I never get splattered with rotten fruit thrown by angry fans, or figure out a way to market my brand that allows me some leeway in my creative endeavors.

Until recently, I’d never given this topic much thought. It never really applied to me, as everything I wrote was most definitely Fantasy. Set in medieval worlds, darkly dramatic, and action-oriented, there’s a definite structural similarity between 75-80% of my 168 ideas.  But then, along came my nemesis– Unmoving — with a whole slew of Contemporary/Urban Fantasy plot bunnies trailing behind it, and suddenly, I found myself facing the branding issue every author dreads– crossing genres without being pigeonholed into one or the other.

By releasing Unmoving first, I would essentially be declaring myself to the world as an Urban Fantasy author. My droves of fans (a girl can dream right?) would be waiting eagerly for my next release, expecting it to be another Urban Fantasy. Publishers would eagerly accept my next submission, expecting more of the same, and booksellers would recommend me with other Urban Fantasy writers. Not a bad scenario, right? Except that I’m not really an Urban Fantasy author, aside from the 7-8 titles that would be considered as such. My other 160 ideas are most definitely not Urban Fantasy. And, when asked, I would classify myself as predominantly a Dark Fantasy author. So what happens when I want to write the Light Sci-fi title I have in development, or the Dark Fantasy ones that are my more standard fare after I’ve released Unmoving? Would they be unsellable unless I wrote under a pen name? True, I have a kick-ass pen name just waiting to be used thanks to the telephone company, but still. That wasn’t how I saw my empire forming, disjointed into two halves. So you see my dilemma. And the reason I’ve lost so many brain circuits trying to figure out the right strategy.

I know a lot of you out there are probably wondering why I even care at this point. I haven’t finished anything longer than a short story, and I’m not on the threshold of publishing my first novel. Yet. Most of the advice you’ll find from other writers, professional and otherwise, on this topic says to simply write what you want to write and deal with branding later. But I think that position is naive. Branding can define your entire career, so figuring it out beforehand just seems like smart business sense to me. I’m the type of person that likes to have a plan. I drive my friends and family crazy with my need to always have a schedule/routine/itinerary/strategy for everything. And I usually have at least two or three back-ups in case Plan A derails beyond redemption. (Yes, I know, I’m an OCD freak.) I’m also the type of person who’s never been good at focusing on the small picture. My dreams have always been large, overly-ambitious, and probably impossible. But they’re also long-term. Simply finishing one book isn’t enough for me; has never been enough for me. I’m drowning under an avalanche of continually breeding plot bunnies and if I don’t give them their moment in the sun, they might actually become carnivorous and eat me in a fit of rage. So yeah, ignoring the business aspect of writing until you absolutely have to deal with it might be sound advice for most people. But that’s just not how I roll.

So what have I figured out about the author branding conundrum? Well,

  1. It sucks and makes my head want to implode.
  2. It makes me add one more thing to my list of reasons Unmoving is a giant pain-in-my-ass and I’m not sure why I wanted to write it in the first place.
  3. It makes me want to crawl in a hole until someone else figures it out for me.
  4. It’s almost as brutal as trying to decide between self-publishing and traditional publishing (a debate for another day).
  5. It’s a critical step in understanding writing as a business/career.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I had finally figured out my strategy for dealing with this difficult decision. And in the interest of helping other writers struggling with this topic, I’ll explain. Be warned though, the validity and success of this strategy is still to be tested, so it may be a giant load of crap and you’re better off figuring out your own path. At this point, I’m counting my research a success by the sheer fact that what I’m about to say actually sounds like a coherent plan, instead of the confused jumble ending with a flat-lining  “uhhhhhhhh…..” that’s been my verdict on the subject up til now.

First, I’ve decided to tie all of my Urban Fantasy titles (with the exception of one or two that really only work as stand-alones) into a single series. This will allow fans of my work to follow the series, while keeping my options open for straying outside those expectations. Those same fans may not ever buy my other titles, but they won’t automatically expect everything I release to be Urban Fantasy unless it’s tagged under that series header. (Plus my strategy for connecting all the books will add some really cool, extra layers that I think fans will appreciate.) Who knows, maybe they will eagerly follow me down other paths simply because they like my style. I’ve read everything ever written by my favorite authors, regardless of genre category. So it does happen.

Second, I think I can manage to get around my conundrum of successfully crossing genres by marketing everything solely as Fantasy. I’m lucky in the fact that so far, all my titles are within that overarching genre header. They might cross between sub-genres of that category, but at their roots, they are all Fantasy, and they’d all be shelved in the Fantasy/Sci-fi section of bookstores. So by marketing them as Fantasy with shades of the various sub-genres, I create a brand expectation that everything I write will contain fantasy elements, have my signature voice and penchant for dark overtones, and most importantly, be published under my own name. Which was my ultimate goal for my author brand, because I’m conceited like that.

Now all that’s left is to figure out my mode of distribution– traditional publishing or self-publishing. But I don’t have enough brain circuits left to tackle that one right now. In the meantime, I’d be very curious to hear thoughts/opinions from other writers, or even readers, regarding author branding. Have I figured out a solid strategy, or is there some piece of the puzzle I’m still missing? And if you have first-hand experience with this concept, please share. Insider tips are always welcome. 😉


Demo Teams: A Brief Introduction

I’ll be the first to admit that my views on the martial arts– especially demo teams– are a bit progressive. And as such, probably rankle the feathers of the traditionalists out there. For the record, let me just state that I’m not devaluing traditionalism. Quite the opposite actually. There’s something powerful about being a part of something that’s steeped in the history of thousands of years, having been passed down for generations upon generations. That said, I also think that tradition without innovation can cause a style to stagnate and eventually disappear into the dust of ages. So, yes, I’m a progressive martial artist, but it’s not meant to offend.

When you reach Sam Dan (3rd Degree) in Tang Soo Do, there’s an underlying expectation that you begin to specialize in something. You’ve already semi-mastered the basics (no one’s ever perfect, after all), you can competently defend yourself and can adequately pass your knowledge on to others. Now it’s time to find your niche, to declare your martial arts identity, if you will. Some specialize in self-defense techniques, some in empty hand forms, some in specific weapons. Others choose to extensively research the history behind their art, and still others focus simply on the intricacies of instructing.

My specialty is demo teams.

What is a demo team? At their heart, demo teams, short for demonstration team, are a marketing tool. Anytime you give a performance geared toward attracting new students, you’re essentially using a demo team in its most basic form. The vernacular may vary from school to school (I’ve heard them referred to as Performance Team, Demonstration Squad, Creativity Team, etc) but the principle is always the same. And they’re very poorly utilized by the vast majority of schools out there.

Usually, they are thrown together last minute with volunteer students. They’re rarely given much rehearsal, and there’s usually even less thought behind the organization or presentation of the performance. Which gives you, not surprisingly, a highly disorganized group of students milling around looking lost, boring displays of generic techniques, and absolutely no originality. Some of you may be shaking your heads right now, thinking I’m being overly judgmental, but admit it, we’ve all seen these types of demos. Performances comprised of kids in rumpled uniforms who can barely form a straight line, displays of adequate-at-best techniques, poorly practiced routines where students end up flinging their weapons all over the place, absolutely no music except for the chaotic ki-haps of the students or maybe the counting of the instructor, and my favorite– people breaking boards any civilian could flick in half with a couple fingers, they’re so thin. There may be one or two high-ranking students that really dazzle, but overall, I think we can all agree that these types of demos are, in a word, uninspired.

Every audience is comprised of only a few things– the family of the students, who will cheer no matter how bad their person does; fellow martial artists vaguely curious how your style differs from theirs; the hecklers who think it’s amusing to shout horrible impressions of the Karate Kid at you; and potential students. That’s it. Really. So in any given audience, you maybe have 25% that can be enticed into enrolling. That’s a pretty small window in a lot of venues. How do you reach this small minority of potential customers? By entertaining them.

We live in a society flooded by the martial arts. It’s included in every action-oriented movie or TV show. It’s in nearly every video game on the market; it’s even crept it’s way into literature. So the mystique is gone, folks. It’s no longer enough to show the world what your classes look like on a daily basis. We’ve all seen it a thousand times. We’re not impressed. Doesn’t matter if we train in the martial arts or not.

Give us something original, something flashy, something that makes us pause in that parking lot or mall, or gets us in the door to your studio’s open-house. In short, give us a performance. None of this last minute, non-rehearsed, reliant-on-cute-factor, traditional uniforms stuff. What you need is a dedicated Demo Team– the elite of your student body, trained to perform, proficient in things like musicality, synchronization, advanced techniques, and storytelling/acting. These are the people who impress. They’re the ones who will entice new students to walk in the door, who will make the hecklers shut up, get the other martial artists to nod in appreciation and floor their family with their abilities. They are your secret weapon. And every studio has them. Unless you just opened your doors yesterday. In which case you have white belts. And white belts are never impressive. Sorry.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting what I’d call a master class in demo teams à la me. I’ll go over every aspect involved in my style of “professional” grade teams, including how to create your team, the principles of musicality, staging, and storytelling, and the intricacies of performing– all in regards to martial arts demonstrations. For those of you more interested in my advice/opinions on writing, don’t worry, those posts will be mixed in too. I even have one dedicated to art, (The Genesis of a Logo Design), upcoming on the schedule, for any who were starting to doubt whether I’d actually tackle that subject. 😉

For now, I will leave you with this video of my most popular demo, “The Dream Sequence.” As with all recordings, there’s something lost in the translation that would have been better experienced in person. But it will still illustrate my particular demo team style, and what I hope to impart to you in following posts. Is it the most brilliant thing ever? I wouldn’t say so. It’s actually rather slow, and I was shocked by the acclaim it received. Is it entertaining? Hopefully. After all, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To entertain.

Dance & Martial Arts; Not So Distant Cousins


It’s officially my favorite time of year– Dance Season! For those of you unaware, I’m an avid fan of So You Think You Can Dance. I literally never miss it. I’ve been to the live tours. I record it and save it for way longer than I should (until my DVR threatens to implode and I have to erase it). I watch Youtube videos of my favorite routines over and over (borrowing more than once from their acrobatic repertoire for my own choreography). And it is my favorite part of the summer, hands down. Can anyone say dorky Fangirl?

This week marked the first episode of Season 9’s actual competition. We’re past all the auditions, the talking, the dramatic tears, the blah blah blah. (I should probably note that I’m not really a fan of Reality TV, contrary to how it may sound.) Now we get down to the meat– the performances filled with spectacular tricks, beautiful choreography, strange concepts and engrossing musicality. This is the part I love. And this season brings an added level of excitement in the person of one Cole Horibe. This guy is my hero. Why? Because he’s proving on national television what I’ve been saying for years– that dance and martial arts are sister styles. Don’t believe me? Check out his LA audition below and see for yourself.

Pretty cool, wasn’t it? His blend of martial arts techniques fused with dance isn’t all that unusual though. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. He’s just the first to appear on a TV show and bring it to everyone’s attention. The idea of pairing martial arts routines with music is one that’s long been a staple of the martial arts world, in the form of Demo Teams. (I promise, I’ll give the full definition of these soon). But Cole brings it to the level that I myself prefer, and that few other martial arts studios currently employ. Namely, he utilizes musicality to its full potential, putting the art in martial arts, and bridging the gap between these similar styles of physicality to create a meaningful performance that entertains.

I’m not saying that martial arts and dance were developed similarly– they weren’t. The martial arts were intended to be just that– martial. They were developed as a disciplined regimen of lethal fighting techniques used to defend country, life and honor. Dance, on the other hand, is about self-expression. It’s always been an art form shaped by the era it was born in, the emotional context of the times and stylistic innovation meant to entertain both the dancers and the audience. And nothing illustrates that divide more than comparing the ideals of Ballroom dance with those of martial arts.

But while there are definite differences between these two motion-oriented sports, they are superficial in nature. Ok, some are ideological, but if you strip all that away and just look at the movement itself, you’ll see they’re actually very similar. At the heart of martial arts you have discipline, intense training, focus, hefty muscle memory, rhythm, flexibility, power, controlled movement, balance and a fine-tuned sense of body awareness. (Trust me, you never realize how much you can be aware of every ligament, tendon, muscle and skin surface until you train in something that utilizes all of it in minute detail). Breaking dance down to the same level, you have… guess what? Discipline, intense training, focus, hefty muscle memory, rhythm, flexibility, power, controlled movement, balance and a fine-tuned sense of body awareness. If you look closely, you’ll even notice visual similarities between several dance moves and their martial art counterparts because they rely on the same muscle groups and level of control to execute properly. The only thing dance tends to have over martial arts is the inclusion of creativity. But that doesn’t always have to be the case.

Cole Horibe’s routine is a prime example. No one can look at that and say it doesn’t illustrate creativity. Breaking outside of the expected curriculum is extremely hard for a lot of martial artists, though, and the idea that the traditional forms or techniques can be morphed to fit music is a foreign concept that has the traditionalists screaming “Corruption!” Tradition is fine. In fact, the traditional aspects of Tang Soo Do are what I enjoyed the most. But eventually, performing the same forms, techniques, self-defense moves, etc. can start to feel stale. Adding some theatrical elements, especially for demonstration purposes, gives your training something fresh, and challenges you in a way that repetition doesn’t. It would be like asking a writer to only write non-fiction, never experimenting with the use of language to create a new experience for their readers. Or telling an artist they can only paint the way Van Gogh, Picasso, or Monet did, but never find their own style. And what if musicians suddenly stopped creating new songs, new fusions of styles and sounds? The world would seem rather boring and static, right? So why do the martial arts have to be stuck so firmly in tradition that only the dedicated few with a high tolerance for boredom stick with it past a few years?

My argument for why musicality and creativity are so important to the growth of martial arts is a debate for another day. I’ll just leave you to consider this– how better to impress an audience of non-martial artists and martial artists alike, than to present them with something that blends concepts of entertainment– like music, costumes, story– with technical prowess? Apparently Nigel Lythgoe and the staff at So You Think You Can Dance felt it was an idea worth merit because they put Mr. Horibe through to the Top 20. I, for one, firmly believe that dance and martial arts complement each other, and that together they can create something beautifully inspired. So I intend to show my support for their decision, and vote for Cole every week in the hopes that the longer he stays on the program, the more martial artists he can inspire to think outside of tradition.

Coming Next Week: Demo Teams: A Brief Introduction– where I finally explain what exactly a demo team is and their purpose. Told you I’d explain it soon. 😉

How Does She Come Up With This Stuff?

This is probably the second most popular question people ask me, ranking just below, “Who, or what, is the Nightwolf?” and just above, “Why do you…(insert creative verb here)?” So it seemed only fitting that I take a moment to satisfy this ever-present curiosity.

The simple answer is that all my inspiration comes from music. All of it. I would be severely handicapped creatively if I suddenly went deaf. All my muses would disappear and I’d have to find a new career path to chase after.

Where does the specific inspiration come from? The music itself. I would say that this is where my natural talent steps in, derived from an innate sense of musicality– definition to be blogged about in detail later. The short explanation is that it’s a person’s ability to hear nuances within music and extrapolate emotion (or in my case, stories) from them. (That’s entirely my own definition, by the way, don’t quote me on that.) And it’s a gift more commonly associated with dancers and musicians. But every concept I create is the direct result of this same ability, representing the visual, written, or moving interpretation of the sound itself. A somber, melancholy piece of music will likely inspire a sad, tragic, emotionally heavy story. Something fast with high intensity will likely equal a fight scene or action piece. Haunting and dramatic music? Something creepy and mysterious. I think you start to see the point. The “feel” of the inspiring music has a direct correlation to the “feel” of the idea.

As for where the actual concepts come from…your guess is as good as mine. Did I expect Linkin Park’s “New Divide” to turn into a Sci-fi story featuring shape-shifting liquid aliens? No. Could I have guessed that Havanna Brown ft Pitbull’s “We Run the Night” would spawn a story about a nightclub full of Succubi? Definitely not. And if you had told me that Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” would spawn an as yet, undefined, cheesy paranormal romance, I would have laughed and said, yeah right. But those are all true. Along with a plethora of others equally as strange. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say they probably come from a voracious appetite for reading a broad mix of genres, a love for good storytelling, an almost pathological need to tell stories myself, and a keen ability to soak up reference material like a sponge, spinning it into new, weird combinations of fantasy, and a strange quirky brain that views imagination through a camera lens. Other than that, all I can say is…practice?

Creativity is a skill. True, some are born with a natural affinity for it, but it still takes time to develop. And my particular reliance on music for inspiration is no different. Just because I lucked out and was born with a slight advantage, doesn’t mean it’s a skill that can’t be learned. Where did I learn storytelling-by-music? Stuck in the back seat of a mini-van 9 hours a week, with nothing but a walk-man to entertain me. This, children, is what happens when your parents decide to live an hour from civilization in all directions. And yes, I did say a walk-man. As in, that archaic device that played 30 minutes at a time on a cassette tape. (Now I feel old. Thanks for that.) Don’t worry, I eventually graduated to a portable CD Player, and have long since traded those in for Ipods.

The point is, I have those long periods in the car to thank for my ability to write, draw and choreograph. So it wasn’t all bad. Except for the car-sickness. That part was always bad. Nothing like an hour on winding roads to teach you how not to throw up.

But back to the music.

I’ve never actually tried to describe my process with words. I’ve always just left it at “music inspires me.” But since this blog is supposed to be about offering advice along with my snarky trips down memory lane, I figured it was time I gave it a try. You will likely think me an absolute freak and in need of psychiatric help after you read this. But it’s my process, so leave it alone. It works. Who knows, some of you out there might even want to try it for yourselves.

Obviously, I start with a song. I call them Spawners, because, you guessed it, they spawn ideas. (I’m sure my penchant for ridiculous nicknames continues to impress you. But no one ever said the inner quirks of an artist’s process had to be brilliant, did they?) Is there a set formula that identifies these Spawners? Nope. They’re completely random, ranging from classical, to movie scores, to pop songs, to dubstep. Some stories require full length CD’s, others a single song. If I really dissect it, I suppose there may be a theme that runs through most of them–somber keys, dramatic drums, multi-layered melancholy. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. Maroon 5’s “Payphone” spawned two stories, for example, and I wouldn’t describe it as fitting any of the above criteria. (It’s also the only one to ever spawn two completely different concepts. So something about it must be special. I just don’t know what.)

The way I know something’s a Spawner is actually kind of weird, and the part most likely to make you think me insane. It’s actually a physical reaction. Now, I know that “feeling” the music isn’t that odd, but just wait, I’ll try to describe it for you. It goes something like this: song plays, catching the attention of my internal ears (think the way a dog’s ears prick when they hear something interesting), goosebumps shiver down my arms and the hair on the back of my neck stands up, the right side of my scalp literally tingles, my eyes unfocus, shifting to peripheral vision, and images start to play in my head, like a daydream on steroids. I don’t know exactly why it happens, or how. Maybe I have a brain tumor, or an aneurism that gets ever closer to exploding when I hear certain notes. Maybe I’m a superhero with a super-evolved storytelling ability. Maybe I’m just a freak. All I know is that it’s a sure-fire signal something creative’s about to happen.

After that initial physical response kick-starts my inner projector, I just wait and the stories come to me. Sometimes I’ll only get a fragment, a brief scene, a still shot of a character or landscape. Other times it’s an emotional context, or thematic element that will run throughout the story. And more rarely, it’s just a character. The layers and nuances of the song become an intricate map of the action, syncing to the story the way a movie score does to a film. The melody itself is my narrator, creating a cohesive storyline that embeds itself into the music so thoroughly, they’re a seamless entity.

Last week I wrote about the idea of  summarizing a story with a single phrase and this is where that actually comes into play for me. I literally have hundreds of ideas– 168 and counting, to be exact– and I can’t possibly remember every detail about every one. I don’t even pretend to try. Some writers keep journals or computer files with notes for all their ideas. My system is more primitive. I keep them all in my head. How is that possible without overloading the hard drive? Because I only try to remember the gist of each story, which boils down to the title and a brief sentence describing the main goal. Each one of those summaries becomes inextricably tied to the music that inspired it. So by the sheer power of association, I never forget. Every time I hear that song or CD, even years later, the story that’s tied to it plays in my head like a movie. Spiffy trick, wouldn’t you say?

Now that I’ve thoroughly convinced you I’m strange, we’ll wrap this up. My intention was never to say that I’m the only creative person who relies on music for inspiration. That’s definitely not true. I think most of us do, honestly. But I also think that after reading this you’ll agree that my process may be a little on the unique side. And if not, please leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from others like myself– help me feel less like a weirdo, you know? At the very least, I’m sure everyone who’s ever asked how I come up with my ideas is regretting opening that can of worms now. Bet they thought the answer was simple. Showed them!

Music Inspires T-Shirt Design“Music Inspires”

by Kisa Whipkey

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