Author Branding Strategies That Won’t Kill Your Creativity

Abi Wurdeman
October 20, 2023

You may have been led to believe that having an author brand is a necessity for anyone who hopes to have a successful writing career. Allow me to correct this misconception.

Establishing an author brand is a necessity. Having one is an inevitability.

To define it in the most basic terms, your brand is essentially your reputation. It’s how your readers perceive you and what they expect to get when they open one of your books, follow you on social media, or sign up for your newsletter.

Considering our tendency as human beings to categorize and define everyone else, you can’t get around having a brand. What you can do is choose and manage it.

And if you’re the artist type who gets a little itchy when you hear business terms like “branding,” I’ve got good news for you:

The best author brands arise naturally from the writer’s values, voice, and mission. No B.S.-ery required. 

If you doubt it, stick with me as we discuss:

  • What this type of branding is and why it matters
  • How to establish your brand as an author
  • Tapping into authenticity during this process
  • How to measure the success of your author brand and allow it to evolve

Let’s start with the basics.

Understanding Author Branding

A well-dressed man looks at himself in the mirror.

To be clear, your author brand is much more than the genre you write or the book series your readers associate you with. What we’re talking about is a personal brand. As weird as it might be to think about, you’re kind of the product here.

So What is an Author Brand?

Your author brand is who you are as the human being behind your books. What you write is part of your brand, but why and how you write are equally important parts of the equation.

How do readers perceive your voice and values? What do they imagine when they picture the human being behind their favorite novels?

It might seem like these details shouldn’t matter, but I’d be willing to bet you’re hooked on the personal brands of some of your favorite authors. 

Do you get a dopamine rush just seeing Neil Gaiman’s name in your Twitter/X feed? Do you want to be besties with Jenny Han? Are you pretty confident Brené Brown gives incredible hugs?

Those are all reactions to an author’s brand—the image you have of them as engaging, unique individuals.

Why Would a Creative Person Like You Care About Branding?

A writer writes in a notebook with a red quill while sitting on the floor and staring out the window.

The term “brand” might feel like a cold, manipulative marketing term. Most of us writers prefer to think of ourselves as artists connecting with strangers through the power of our words. Why would we want to sully that profound exchange with a manufactured brand?

For one thing, as I mentioned before, your readers will brand you if you don’t. By building your image deliberately, you have more control over it.

For another thing, “brand” is just a marketing term used to describe the literary magic that happens when your work resonates with readers because it reflects your true self.

Maybe you write lighthearted romantic comedy centering relationships that are frequently marginalized in society. Or perhaps you’re a devious soul inviting readers to safely delight in their dark sides through cozy mysteries.

These are thoughtful and admirable artistic visions. Conveniently enough, they’re also brands. And when you can define your brand, it becomes easier to market yourself, connect with your target audience, and stay connected to your deeper purpose as a writer.

All big wins, right?

Key Strategies for Establishing an Author Brand

A smiling writer sits in front a laptop at a table surrounded by plants.

So how do you make an authentic author brand happen?

Well, first you gotta define it.

Defining Your Mission

A screenshot from Angie Thomas's website showing her author headshot and the quote, "I look at books as being a form of activism. Sometimes they'll show us a side of the world that we might not have known about."
Angie Thomas's mission is crystal clear and a huge part of her brand.

To figure out your brand, ask yourself:

What you’re setting out to do - Be specific. What genre and subgenre do you write? What format? (Novels? Short stories? Graphic novels?) What types of stories or characters do you want to create? Do you have any additional goals that go beyond writing but are in the same spirit? Podcasting or photography or TED Talks?

Why you’re doing this - What deeper mission or desire drives you in this direction? Do you want to spread empathy? Provide an entertaining escape in a troubled world? Do you feel the most like yourself when you express your ideas through writing?

Who you’re doing this for - When we talk about writing to market and other practical matters, we talk about really understanding and knowing your reader based on your genre. 

When you define your author brand, genre still matters, but give yourself a chance to get a little more personal. Who do you want to connect with? Who is the reader who understands you, who needs your novel, who’s waiting outside the bookstore at 8:00 a.m. on release day?

Picture them—their age, daily routine, interests, all of it. What do they feel when they read your work? What does your story mean to them?

Your brand story - How did you get here? What experiences or discoveries inspired your author journey?

If you can answer those questions, you have a better shot at answering my least favorite question: how are you different? What do you offer that no other author does?

The answer to that question is what we call a value proposition. In marketing, you want to emphasize the value proposition as much as you can.

Physical vs. Psychological Branding

A screenshot of the navigation menu of Eric Carle's website depicting the Very Hungry Caterpillar and navigation buttons created in Carle's signature tissue paper style.
Eric Carle's website navigation menu. Physical branding at its finest.

Now that you have a brand, what should your brand strategy be?

Easy. Make sure everything you put out into the world aligns with your definition of yourself as an author.

Your social media posts. Your newsletters. The ads you create for your book. Your website. Your query letters. The way you present yourself at conferences and book readings and in guest blog posts.

You’re basically building brand awareness through both the stuff you create physically—like your books and logo—and the psychological associations you cultivate—like your reputation and overall vibe.

Your physical branding includes things like:

  • A pen name, if you choose to go that route
  • Your author logo
  • Your tagline
  • The color scheme you use for your website, business card, and all other marketing materials
  • The marketing materials themselves
  • Your social media profiles

Psychological branding includes:

  • The content of your books, blogs, newsletters, and social media posts
  • Opinions and perspectives you express
  • The way you connect and communicate with your target audience
  • What you say in live events… and especially how you say it

As you can probably imagine, strong psychological branding starts with having a strong sense of voice.

Developing Your Voice

A person screams into a bullhorn.

In writing, we often talk about the narrative voice, which is the personality that shines through the narration, even if your narrator is an unnamed, omniscient storyteller.

In the context of your brand, however, “voice” refers to the aspects of your personality that emerge in everything you create and share publicly. It consists of things like:

Tone - Are you playful? Philosophical? Fearlessly confrontational? Consider both the way you write and the way you communicate as a person in the world.

Values - How do your personal priorities and code of ethics emerge in your public persona? Do social justice themes always find a way into your stories? Are you trying to bring more laughter into the world? Is it important to you to lift other artists up as you find success?

Writing style - Will your readers immediately recognize your work by your casual, accessible writing style? Or do you like to leave them breathless with your lyrical prose? (You can learn more about finding your style here.)

Building Your Online Presence

Your online presence is a big part of establishing your author brand, because that’s where most people will go to learn about you and keep track of what you’re up to. It’s also where the vast majority of your readership will discover you in the first place.

Most authors find the best success with a brand strategy that includes an author website, newsletter, and one or more social media accounts. If you want to establish your author brand on a social media platform where you already have a personal account, create a separate account dedicated to your author persona.

Then make your personal account private. From here on out, any information your readers can access about you is part of your author brand.

As you create new platforms for yourself, be thoughtful about how they reflect your brand both aesthetically and in terms of content. Consider establishing a color scheme, incorporating a logo, and creating continuity between the look of your author website, newsletter, and social media accounts. Get an on-brand author headshot and use it everywhere.

You might even consider creating a signature style for your social media posts. Are you all about artsy video content? Striking images with thoughtful captions? Offering the transparency that comes with sharing moments in your everyday life?

That brings us to:

The Art of Content Marketing

A screenshot of Austin Kleon's blog with a post entitled "A peek into my diary."
Austin Kleon is a master of intriguing, inspiring, and consistent content.

One of the best ways to control your brand image is through content marketing. While content is a cringy word for many of us writers, “content marketing” is a tidy way to refer to everything you create and release into the world with the goal of connecting with readers.

This includes blogs, email marketing, podcasts, videos, and anything you post on social media. Through these vehicles, you communicate who you are and what you’re about on a deeper level.

Share a photo of the location that inspired your novel and use the caption to explain its importance to you. Write a blog explaining why you’re giving 20% of this month’s book sales to a certain charity. Give followers a video tour of your writing space.

While you’re at it, do an audit of past content—including the stuff you put out there as a regular person and not an author. 

If you find anything that’s out of alignment with your brand and you have the power to get rid of it or make it private, do so. You may contain multitudes, but if your brand is all about positivity and kindness, that snarky blog post from 2008 might leave readers confused.

Engaging With Your Target Audience

Don’t forget that your interactions with readers also tie into your author brand. In fact, this type of exchange is probably your best opportunity to sell them on who you are as a person.

Whether you’re responding to fan email, replying to a Facebook comment, or writing a note for the winner of your book giveaway, take your brand into account. Remember that the entire point of creating an author brand is to clarify the type of emotional connection readers can expect from you.

Should you respond to that question about your thoughts on AI with snark and sarcasm or thoughtful calm? Will you use social media to start a debate about romance tropes or ask your readers to share the advice that changed their lives? 

Your author brand has the answer.

Authenticity in Author Branding

A screenshot from Brene Brown's website showing an image of her recording a podcast with the caption, "Keeping it awkward, brave, and kind."

I know brand strategy might seem like the opposite of authentic engagement. After all, it involves a lot of planning, control, and some limits on spontaneous self-expression.

So let’s talk about how you can do all this image-orchestrating without burying your true self.

Authors Known for Their Authentic Brands

It might help to see who’s nailing the authentic author brand game. When you can see how other authors manage their brand strategy, it’s easier to differentiate between sprinkling marketing B.S. everywhere and projecting a genuine image.

Stephen King is most famous for being a prolific and massively successful horror and supernatural fiction author. But he’s also famous for his candor, personal transparency, snark, and irreverence. 

Angie Thomas has a great example of a compelling brand story. She speaks openly and often about her personal history and her mission to tell stories that empower Black youth. Also, her dog, Kobe, features prominently in her Instagram (always recommended).

I don’t even read fantasy, and I know Brandon Sanderson’s brand strategy is astoundingly comprehensive, especially when it comes to reader engagement. If you’re looking for ideas on how to introduce a new audience to your work and keep existing fans on the hook as you write new books, Sanderson’s website is a masterclass.

Staying True to You

Creating an author brand doesn’t mean you have to invent some false identity. Let it emerge naturally from who you truly are and what you value. And remember that you’re a complex being with many sides. It’s not inauthentic to keep your snarky side private if it might confuse the vibe you’re trying to give.

You can also indulge that multifaceted aspect of yourself when/if you choose to write in a second genre using a separate pen name. You don’t have to just be Danielle Steele when you’re also a little bit Lemony Snicket. That’s the beauty of intentional branding.

Finally, if there’s a branding strategy that’s probably effective but not you, skip it. The whole point of your brand is to demonstrate that you bring something different to the table. Let someone else succeed with sass or feel-good content or whatever. You do you. Make a genuine emotional connection with your readers.

That’s where the money is. 

Measuring and Adapting Your Brand

A pen points to a bar graph on a sheet of paper.

So how do you know if you’re doing this whole branding thing well? And is there wiggle room as you and your audience evolve as people?

So glad you asked.

How to Know if People Love Your Author Brand

Some of the feedback you get on your brand will come in the form of cold, hard numbers. 

You’ll see the number of likes, comments, and shares on a social media post. You’ll see your open rate rise or fall as your subscribers learn what to expect from your newsletter. You can track the traffic that comes to your website and how long folks stick around.

Check these metrics regularly and look for trends. If you’re just starting to build an online presence, your numbers might be a little low for a while. Don’t panic and don’t make any major adjustments right away.

Rather than obsessing over the size of your following, look for changes and discrepancies. Did you gain a ton of followers after a specific post? Is the average website visitor spending very little time on your blog even though it’s getting great traffic? Did several subscribers forward your last newsletter to other people?

This information helps you see what type of messaging resonates and what falls flat.

Also look at soft data, like the way readers engage with your brand online, what they say about you to others, and the feedback they give you directly.

Did your post get a lot of crying emojis when you were trying to make a joke? Did you get tagged in someone’s vlog entitled “10 YA authors who just get it”? 

Again, look for trends. You won’t be everyone’s cup of matcha. But if you’re consistently struggling to connect with your target readers, review your content (sorry) and see if something comes off differently than you intended.

Adapting and Evolving

A green chameleon blending in with the leaves of a tree branch.

Maybe you discover you need to rework your brand a bit. Or perhaps you’ve changed as a person and you want to adapt your brand to reflect that. It could even be that cultural shifts have changed the priorities of your target audience.

So how can you adapt without confusing your readers?

My suggestion is to start by identifying a core characteristic of your brand—the thing that won’t change. It might be your sense of humor, your commitment to community, your love of witchcraft, whatever.

Let that thing shine through as you shift towards your new and improved brand. Emphasize your witchiness as you soften your tone or introduce your new logo or explain why you’re branching out into fairy tale retellings.

Your biggest fans will stick with you. You’ll pick up new readers who jive with your rebrand. And you’ll feel pretty darn good about branding yourself on your own creative terms.

The Next Step in Building Your Author Business

Many of us begin our writing journeys dreaming of the day when we can sit in our lakeside cabins, thinking about nothing but our art.

The truth is that whether you self-publish or take the traditional path, your art is also your business. In order to build a financially stable writing career, you have to think about annoying things like brand story and social media profiles and market trends.

Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate these things alone. You can find a ton of advice on both the craft and business of writing in DabbleU, including articles like:

It also pays—literally and figuratively—to connect with fellow writers. Dabble’s Story Craft Café is a great place to meet other authors, share resources, and get inspired. It’s free to join for Dabblers and non-Dabblers alike.

Just click here and get to mingling like the business-savvy artist you are.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.