Monday, January 24, 2011

What Color Is Your Font?

By Steve Weddle

What color is your website? Is it dark? If it is dark, you need to write dark fiction.

Do you use a Hotmail account? AOL? Then the protagonist of your thriller needs to be a computer n00b.

More importantly: What font do you use on your postcards? You do have postcards, don't you? And a mailing list?

See, what's important in selling books is branding.

Says so right here: Branding: The Secret to Selling More Books. The nice, helpful Penny Sansevieri -- CEO of something called "Author Marketing Experts, Inc." says that it is important to keep a consistent brand. Like Kleenex. Like Charmin toilet paper. Like Preparation H. Like Janet Evanovich.

Here is what the article says about branding product:

"Regardless of whether you are fiction or non-fiction, a brand is a brand. Think Nora Roberts or Dan Brown, both of these authors are brands. Their messaging is consistent and their packaging uniform. The audience is told in word, color and image exactly what they are going to get...."

See. Your writing is your product. And you are the spokesperson for that product. And why shouldn't you be? You do readings. Signings. You blog. And your brand needs to match up. You must have "consistent marketing materials," the article says. Your "leave behinds" have to match. Your bookmarks and postcards have to of a similar look -- color, font. The article preaches time and again -- do not confuse your readers. Let them know "exactly what they are going to get."

This is the way to move product, people. Whether you are selling your twenty-book series or your eleven stand-alones, the lemmings must know which cliff is yours.

Think about what makes you buy a book. It's the postcards, right? The bookmarks left behind at the signings? You know, that's how most of the books on my shelves were bought. I saw a catchy postcard near the register at the bookstore and said, "Damn. Look at that postcard. That's the same font I saw on a bookmark last week. That author must tell a damn good story."

But that's not all. What is the most important part of all this? The. Most. Important. Think about it. C'mon, you can do it. Some of you are writers. You probably already know this. Here. Let me step aside so the marketing person can tell you what is the most important part:

An author's website is the single most important piece of your brand. Yes, your book is important, but before a reader gets there they will often find your website first.

There you go. The author's website. I must admit, it wasn't the postcards that first drew me to Cormac McCarthy. It wasn't the bookmarks that made me pick up Dennis Lehane's newest novel. No. I went to their websites. I saw how professionally they were put together, how they used top-notch fonts, and I knew that I was dealing with talented writers.

Some readers may rely on word-of-mouth. Some on good reviews from trusted sources. Some readers might thumb through a few pages of a book to look at the writing before they decide whether to shell out $10 for the product in front of them.

Remember what is most important. Fonts. Color choices. Consistent "leave behinds."

As the article says:
A brand not only shows consistency but it shows you're serious about what you're doing; and if you show you're serious, your readers will take you seriously, too.

And if you want more than anything to move product, you need to devote yourself to your brand.

If you want to be serious about "being A Writer," then sure, spend your time writing. Editing. Revising. Whatever you think it means to "be A Writer" is different than moving product. Here, we're talking about moving product. Selling books. As the article at Huffington Post suggests, branding isn't about being a better writer. Branding is about selling, which is what Penny Sansevieri's business is about. And who wants to sell fewer books, right?

And, all kidding aside, these are really two different things. No, screw you. They aren't "two parts to a writer's life." They're two different things. If you want to argue that branding is part of a writer's life, then screw you. Seriously. I am not kidding. Screw. You.

I'm not trying to play semantic games here, but maybe it's part of an author's life. Maybe "An Author" is someone who writes for a few hours in the morning, then answers emails, then talks to a radio station eight states away about his/her new book, then has lunch at the club, then works on updating his website, then spends a couple hours editing some earlier work. Then dinner. Then a talk at the public service group two counties away about whatever it is you're building for your platform. Maybe there's animal abuse in your book, and it's important to you, so you want to talk to these folks about that aspect of your book. OK. Maybe you sell a few books, too. Great. You're building your audience. You're whatevering your platform. You're strengthening your brand.

But you're not writing.

You think Cormac McCarthy spent three seconds on his website last year? You think he even knows he HAS a website? Franzen? Hell, no.

You want to stand out? You think you're going to stand out from all the other self-promoters because your postcards have a nicer font?


Because your platform reaches more people?


You want to stand out as a writer, then write the ass-kickingest book you can write. When you're done, write a better one.

If you're worried about being popular, then study branding. Listen to everything the marketing people you. Spend your days on the forums and the boards and let people know how much you love puppies.

Look. I do this, too. Maybe we all do this. I'm not arguing at all that "branding" in and of itself is a bad thing.

I'm saying I've never bought a book based on a brand. Sure, the marketing people might tell you that the best branding works in the background. That I didn't even know I bought MYSTIC RIVER because of the branding. You know why I bought MYSTIC RIVER? Because friends I trust told me it was good. Because I read SHUTTER ISLAND and thought it was great. Why did my friends love it? The writing. The. Writing.

Think of an author you love. No. Love. OK. Now think about that author's website. Her postcards. His "leave behinds."

See, a writer writes. And that's what keeps me coming back to books. Not postcards. Not email blasts. Are they important to the brand? Sure.

So maybe the marketing people say this: "Of course you have to have a great book. We're talking about how to brand the book after it's written. How to market it consistently with the message the publisher wants to associate with this imprint."

Look, marketing is great. Important. Necessary. But if you tell me the most important thing is an author's website, well, then you and I probably aren't reading the same books.

As writers, we can all get caught up in this "marketing" talk, so much that we spend more time on that than on the writing.

See, if we would all just focus on the writing, we'd have more bookstores selling out of Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, Dennis Tafoya, Patricia Highsmith, Reed Farrel Coleman, Hilary Davidson, Benjamin Whitmer, Lynn Kostoff, Chris F. Holm, Bill Cameron, and JT Ellison. We'd have more quality on the shelves. We'd have more people excited about reading.

Maybe, just maybe, we'd have fewer layoffs in the industry. We'd have fewer "Death of Publishing" stories.

Maybe, if we focused on the writing instead of the branding, we'd have fewer bookstores closing.

What color is your font, Borders?


Jerry House said...

I don't care about grammar, structure, punctuation, spelling, background, color, fonts, thoughtfulness, or quality on my blog. However, every time I type my name or the words "I" and "me", I used 72 point type. Thus I am branded and thus I'm gonna be rich.

Michelle said...

I like books that are different. I like it when the author does not use quotation marks. I like it when the author spells the words like they sound. I don't look at chapter numbers or check if the words are spelled correctly. I just want to read a damn good book. If the book is set in the South, I want the people to talk like the south. I don't care what font is used.
Now, after all that, I do not want my books bound so tight that I break the binding when I open the book. I don't want cheap paper that I can see through. I don't want little bitty font and jamming every word on a page to save money. Spread it out and let me enjoy the book and I will pay more.
Writing is far more important and I hate that most of the authors I read are not on the center table when I walk into Barnes and Noble. But the books that I read are shining bright at the local independent book store.

Anonymous said...

A well deserved lambasting if I ever read one. The article while trying to promote the need for brand awareness really misses the point of the what an author's job is. I love the assertion that a website is the gateway to sales. If more writers believed that, I'd go back to designing sites like Xuni, with simple templates that are easy to update.

It would be nice if the publishers were more interested in quality, pushed harder for the midlisters. Unfortunately it's all bottom lines and creator brands.

Lamar said...

So, you subscribe to the "if you build it, they will come" school of self promotion?

Yes, I agree that a writer needs to concentrate on the writing, on creating the best work that he is able to create. That's key, absolutely... for someone who cares first and foremost about writing a good book.

That may be the first consideration, but it isn't the only one, not if you want to actually get published, not if you actually want to build an audience. Not if you actually hope to make a living doing the writing.

Like it or not, promoting your work is an essential element of selling your work, and the techniques Ms. Sansevieri suggests are tried and true methods of selling product. As creative people, we don't like to think of our babies as "product," but at the end of the day, if you want to get paid, you have to.

While you may poopoo the idea that design and marketing have not influenced your decision to buy some of the books you've bought, you have to know that they really, really have. How many times have you picked up a book from the shelf at the bookstore because you found the cover intriguing? Can you say that you haven't passed over what may be an excellent work that you would enjoy because the cover design made it look like a Harlequin Romance, or a piece of extruded fantasy product or what have you?

Have you passed on picking up something from a small press because it was clear they didn't know anything about typography? I have, and I don't think it's just because I'm a snooty designer.

Like it or not, these marketing, design and promotion decisions affect how your work is accepted and perceived by readers, no matter how well written and creative the work.

Shoryland said...

I think what Steve's trying to say is, WRITE. Content first, marketing second. That's the distinction he makes between "author" and "writer."

If you're good at the marketing stuff too, then good for you. That's a good combination. But if you're not, don't give up on writing because you can't bedazzle people with your website and tweets. Write.

John Hornor said...

Lamar - I don't think Steve mentioned book covers, not even once, in his post and it seems like that's the only defense you can put up for focusing on one's "brand."

But the cover is part of the "product" and, so, your points about the cover and typography don't really make any sense.

I've worked in advertising since the mid-90's for clients like Elvis, Atlantic City, Phillip Morris, the US Army, Bayer, TCBY, Backyard Burgers, and many many more recognizable brands.

I'm going to let you in on a little advertising trade secret. Ssssh. Don't tell anyone.

Companies focus on marketing when their product sucks.

It's true. I've seen it time and time again. The companies with the best product traditionally have smaller marketing budgets. Sad, but true.

It's a typical American penchant, focusing on quality of marketing instead of quality of product. And, honestly, it's stupid.

Steve clearly states:

Look, marketing is great. Important. Necessary. But if you tell me the most important thing is an author's website, well, then you and I probably aren't reading the same books.

As writers, we can all get caught up in this "marketing" talk, so much that we spend more time on that than on the writing.

I think Steve is trying to turn the light back on what's the most important aspect of publishing.

As for the marketing itself? The woman who wrote that article STILL misses the point. She focuses on the concrete, the website color choices, they typography, the actual physical accouterments of marketing. When she should've focused on the point of marketing.

Any ad exec will tell you, effective marketing is the process of creating a connection between a possible "client" and company.

BUT WE ARE PEOPLE. We are not a company, Lamar.

So the point of "marketing your brand" misses the point.

The point of author marketing is HUMAN INTERACTION.

Human interaction, Lamar.

John McFetridge said...

Writing and sales are a back and forth relationship. It's interesting she mentions Dan Brown - when exactly did he go from a guy with a couple of books out to a brand? Why him and not some other guy with a couple of books out?

I have been published by both a small press that doesn't have much money for marketing and also by a big publisher whose philosophy seems to be to publish a lot of books and hope a few take off.

Niether publisher really gave me much advice about the content of books and what might sell more because no one really knows.

Some writers do no promo at all and sometimes the big push, big branding doesn't work at all.

But I think we're just beginning to see the effects of online conversations and recommendations. Yes, books like any other product need to be professionally packaged, but after that who knows.

Naomi Johnson said...

"Like Preparation H. Like Janet Evanovich."

I won't read anything funnier than that today. Thanks, Steve, for helping me snort that bite of croissant.

Lamar said...

"Human interaction, Lamar."

Meh. I could do with those pesky humans, myself. Life would be so much easier. :)

Your point is taken, John, and perfectly valid. The article does deal with the nuts and bolts of marketing material production without addressing the tactics and strategies of marketing. That doesn't mean the author's points are invalid, merely incomplete.

I think your idea that author promotion is about creating human interaction is also correct, but also incomplete. It's about creating human interaction for the purpose of converting that interaction into sales. Any author who wants to sell his books at a level where he can make a living at it -- a lofty and increasingly difficult goal, I know -- needs tools to assist with that interaction, which is what marketing materials are for. It isn't human interaction, but sometimes it's the best you can do if you want to reach a large enough audience.

Even before you get to the point of trying to get an audience for your work, you have to promote yourself and your work to get an agent, and then you have to work with the agent to promote yourself and your book to a publisher. Then you have to promote yourself and your book to booksellers. All this before you ever have the chance to promote it to actual readers.

All that being said, I think you're absolutely correct that sometimes the creation of the marketing plan and the marketing tools becomes more of the point than the work being promoted, which I suppose is especially easy to slip into when the product being sold is less than compelling.

You -- you mean -- advertisers *lie* to us??? I'm shocked. Shocked and appalled.


John Kenyon said...

Funny how that original writer and others have missed the point: For 99.9 % of writers, you need great writing, then everything else comes after. There are people who phone in crap and it sells thanks to branding, no question. But, do you think those people have anything to do with it? It all comes back to the writing.

Fiona Johnson said...

Oh I do love a good rant on a Monday!
Sets you up for the week!

"don't judge a book by its cover" ..always good advice;)

Anonymous said...


Check out my website -- Isn't it great how all the colors match? I anticipate this means I'll be joining Snooki on the bestseller list any day now.


P.S. It's more impressive once you learn that I'm actually color blind.

P.P.S. Good thing my web designer isn't.

Sean Chercover said...

Brad does have a very nice website.

But I want you all to know how much I like puppies. I really do. They're so cute. I'm so nice...

Diana said...

Even those author brands like Nora Roberts, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Stephen King et al, need to keep their focus on the quality of their writing. Once they disappoint a loyal reader enough, they will lose that loyal reader and will never get them back. A pretty website, leave behinds, or a kickass marketing campaign will not lure back a disappointed reader.

Anonymous said...

You know, I was just tweeting with Rebecca Cantrell about this, so now I'm going to plagiarize my own tweet:

The only thing sadder than the line "your website is more important than your book" is that, somewhere out there, there's probably an author who believes it.

(But, thankfully, Sean Chercover isn't one of them).

Paul D Brazill said...

Go ahead and laugh at Janet Evanovich all you want. Read one of her books, Ha! Then you won't be laughing!
Top post, Steve, though Oscar Wilde's new blog page looks spiffing!

Dave White said...


Dana King said...

Go ahead and laugh at Janet Evanovich all you want. Read one of her books, Ha! Then you won't be laughing!

You're right. I never did think her book were very funny. Hell, I didn't know they were supposed to be funny until someone told me.

Liam Sweeny said...

Many writers (like me) who want to make a living off of writing are poor. Let's face it; there is something to the phrase "starving artist". Marketing is great... if you can afford a few thousand dollars. But no matter how well you write, you pay to play. The average freelance editor can run a thousand or more dollars, and that may just get your foot in an agency's door. No guarantees.

Dennis Tafoya said...

Thanks for the nice shout-out, Steve. And I wanted to mention, too, that my publisher regards my self-promotion as statistically meaningless. They like to see me have a presence, but they don't really care how much time or effort I put into it. That's because the only metric they care about is books sold, and my website, twitter acount and facebook page aren't going to move more than a few books. I don't have the time or budget for marketing that really matters. My publisher knows that, and knows that very few of their authors do have those kinds of resources, so they don't worry about it.

Sara J. Henry said...

Yes, write a kick-ass book, but if you don't get out there and get the damn thing in front of people (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, reviews, whatever it takes) it may die a lonely death in a dusty corner of a bookstore.

One author we both know recently sold out his print run of his new book in six days - after his first-ever blog tour promoting the book, crossing over into non-crime blogs to introduce him to some new readers. Maybe coincidence - but I don't think so, and neither does he.

Daniel Woodrell is a abso-fucking-lutely brilliant writer - why has the rest of the world suddenly heard of him and sales of WINTER'S BONE are soaring? Not because he's a brilliant writer - he's been that all along. But because there's now a movie out based on the book, with four (well-deserved) Oscar nominations.

It sucks to have to spend time on promotion of books and not just on writing (and reading) - but unless you have a savvy publisher who's willing to pour bucks into promoting you, or you have an alternate source of income, I don't see any way around it.

(Note: My website is cheap, self-designed, very basic, and easy to maintain - I do think many people spend far too much money and time on fancy websites.)