Branding is a critical component of marketing. But it’s kind of abstract, often thought of in the way big companies like Coke or Apple do it: flashy commercials and billboards. This is one method – for those with deep pockets. For us, however, it means something different. It is not about a logo and consistent, prominent media advertising. Instead, it’s about a combination between your voice (genre/craft), packaging (title/cover/blurb), and pricing (where you position yourself in the market – as a premium entry or as more of a discount one). All of these are inseparable, creating an alchemical reaction that, when properly mixed, transmutes the component parts into a reader experience that only you can provide.
This is a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino film.
A new Lee Child novel.
A Foo Fighters record.
The point is not to attain that level of meteoric success, but, to be that recognizable to a small, core group of readers. That is when you have established a brand: wherein the reader goes, I want an Author X book.
This takes years to accomplish. But it’s well worth working on every piece of the puzzle, because not only does it pay long-term dividends, transforming you from a commodity into a unique entity, but short-term ones as well, where your books sell better. Recall that there are three steps to selling a book, which I call the Internet Marketing Formula:
- Traffic (getting people to your Amazon page)
- Conversion (getting them to buy)
- Optimizing the first two steps and also extending the series, repackaging it (box sets, audio, translations), extending your backlist to make this process profitable.
Rinse, repeat, with testing in between until you either A) maximize the profitability or B) figure out the book is not profitable.
Your brand involves six things:
- The genre [profit (sellthrough)]
- Your voice/style/craft [profit (sellthrough)]
- Cover [traffic/conversion]
- Blurb [traffic/conversion]
- Title [traffic/conversion]
- Price [conversion/profit]
Let’s break these down and talk about not only how to maximize conversion in the short-term, but also profitability long-term.
Creating a Brand
A brand is a promise of a consistent customer experience. Many authors and business owners mistakenly believe their customers want novelty. No; they want consistent quality. As Ray Croc, founder of McDonald’s said, “People don’t want the best burger in the world; they want a burger that’s just like the one they had last time.”
You know exactly what you’re getting from Starbucks or McDonald’s—whether it’s located in London, Tokyo, Sydney, or Seattle. Such is the power of a great brand.
Likewise, your name on the cover implicitly promises a specific reading experience. But it’s easy to shatter this promise by genre hopping or breaking expectations.
Thus, I recommend adhering to a simple rule: one pen name, one genre. This sets clear expectations for the reader and ensures that they will never be surprised (by the genre; the story can have twists and turns galore, of course). Certain genres are symbiotic; you can get away with writing science-fiction and fantasy under the same name, and enjoy some crossover. You can pull this off when you have a strong, distinct voice and style which have become a greater part of your brand than simply the sub-genre you write in.
The heart of your brand is your unique selling proposition (USP). A classic USP example is Domino’s famous “30 minutes or less” guarantee. In the indie realm, a USP is something your books offer that no other author does.
In other words, getting to the heart of your brand is as simple (and difficult) as answering this question: what makes your books distinct (while being familiar enough to appeal to that sub-genre’s readers)? As one might suspect, this is a challenging question to answer. It takes years of practice and experience. This, however, is the core of your career.
Understanding your sub-genre is the core of marketing. Deciding what to write is the single most important decision of your career. It will dictate how much you can potentially earn, how you target your ads, what covers you get, and onward. Every marketing, productivity, and craft decision reverberates from here.
And most authors get this wrong, killing any chance of building an actual career. They’ll painstakingly build their backlist, adding title after title, while seeing no inertia. And they might blame their productivity, Amazon, craft, their lack of ads acumen, or any other numerous culprits.
Maybe these problems exist. Maybe they don’t. But even if they do, they almost always trace back to failing to understand their chosen genre.
Writing to market is probably the most misunderstood term in all of the indie world. Here’s a quick breakdown of how that compares with writing to trend, which is what it’s often mistaken for.
Writing to market: writing a book in a well-defined genre/sub-genre, using the tropes, expectations, and common characters within. E.g., disaster fiction, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance.
Writing to trend: writing a book in a well-defined sub-genre that’s currently hot & selling well, using all of the tropes, expectations and common characters within. Trend books are often laser-targeted toward a very specific sub-genre (in a popular larger genre) that has suddenly grown to a size that outstrips normal demand. Often they’re simply sub-genre books that are enjoying a sudden swell of popularity. E.g., LitRPG or reverse harem.
Most genre fiction falls into the writing to market category. While certain genres ebb and flow in popularity over the years, the major ones have been around for upwards of a century or more. They’re not disappearing any time soon. This seems like a fancy Internet marketing term, but it’s simply writing genre fiction. This is what 99%+ of working fiction authors have written for the past 100 years, and it will be that way long after we’re all dust. It’s not an insane new concept, and anyone who claims otherwise, with rallying cries of “I don’t write to market and still succeed” is either a unicorn or delusional regarding the originality of their work which, upon further inspection, tends to be a very to-market mystery, space opera, urban fantasy, or another instantly recognizable sub-genre.
Writing to trend takes market research to an extreme, where authors identify hot genres and then write tropes exclusively the way people like them now (. This is often what authors envision when you mention “market research”: checklists of tropes, recycled characters and generally indistinguishable books. Such titles are mostly churned out as pulp commodities to capitalize on a sudden (and brief) spike in reader interest. People’s broader tastes don’t change much (romance has been around for almost two centuries), but niche sub-genres can fall in and out of favor rapidly. By focusing only on these tropes, your book will sink when that sub-sub-genre is no longer hot.
I recommend writing to market for building a long-term career. Trends die, and they’re very much dependent on the whims of Amazon’s algorithms and Kindle Unlimited readers. If you are successfully writing to trend, I would use that momentum as a springboard to build more evergreen series (i.e., paranormal academy = writing to trend; you can start bringing in some of those readers and using the money/readers who stay with you to build a more evergreen paranormal romance OR urban fantasy series).
(2) Voice, Style, and Craft
All this is well and good, but if you write a standard mystery, then the competition pool is large. You’re competing with everyone from James Patterson to the more niche mysteries. That takes a lot of money, advertising-wise, to rise above the fray. And, quite frankly, even with a huge budget, going after a general audience usually doesn’t work.
You need to niche down. That’s why I talk in sub-genres a lot. Fantasy is a genre; urban fantasy is sub-genre. You can get a lot more targeted with your branding and advertising here. Carve out a specific niche. And, if you want to grow into a more general fantasy author, this is how you start: by staking out a claim in a smaller sub-genre, building a fan-base, then trying to branch out into other sub-genres within that umbrella genre. Your readers may not always follow you. In fact, many will not. But that is easier than writing twenty-six different sub-genres at once.
That is not how you build a brand or momentum.
You also do not build a brand by simply being a commodity.
You build it by having a distinct voice and style. To be clear, there is good distinct and bad distinct. But the way you develop this is a mixture of honing your general craft and also leveraging your unique interests and strengths. For example, if you’re interested in thrillers and sci-fi, and also read dozens of biology books a year, you’re in a position to create a hard sci-fi police procedural with believable science that also satisfies the thriller/mystery tropes. Work on your craft, and study the bestsellers for pacing and structure, and suddenly you have a unique experience and voice that literally cannot be found elsewhere.
This is the heartbeat of your brand. More than the covers, more than the blurb, more than anything else.
And yes, it takes time. You do not develop it over a month, or even a year. Elmore Leonard, one of the finest crime writers of all time, once mentioned that it took him ten years to develop his “sound.” He began writing in the 1950s. His last novel, Raylan, was published in 2012, when he was 87 years old.
This is a long fucking game.
If you are 65, you might think you have come to the party late. And yet, you still have 10 years to develop your sound, and another 10 on top of that. If you are younger? Well, all the better.
The cover is the most important conversion factor. If it sucks, or it misses the mark in any way, your book is dead in the water. That is not an exaggeration; it is that important. You need to get this right, and if you have any money to invest in your book, it should go first toward craft, then toward the cover. To avoid purchasing a beautiful piece of art that will not sell any books, here’s a repeatable process for commissioning an appropriate genre cover:
- Find 3 – 5 covers that you like on your sub-genre’s Amazon Top 100 bestseller list. Identify a mix of traditionally published books and indie titles. Readers have voted with their dollars that they prefer these covers in this genre. Maybe you’re getting sick of me mentioning the bestseller charts; too bad. These charts are like the ultimate focus group that definitively answers the question “what do readers want?” totally free.
- Find a cover artist with a portfolio matching your desired style and book genre. Visit my resources (com/resources) if you’re stuck. I only list designers that I’ve personally worked with and recommend.
- Send your 3 – 5 sample covers to the designer and tell them to MAKE IT LOOK SIMILAR TO THE EXAMPLES. It is crucial to provide your designer with clear visual expectations, as text can be easily misinterpreted. Be specific regarding the design elements you do or do not want. The more clearly you communicate expectations, the better your final cover will be.
- Ensure that the typography is consistent in terms of font/placement across your series. This is critical for branding and to signal that books are in the same series.
This has been repeated almost ad nauseum, but you are not commissioning a piece of artwork. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I see many authors doing. Your cover art is your book’s product packaging. Its only purpose is to signal what’s inside. Do not package a Snickers bar in a Starburst wrapper. This will only attract the wrong customers and make them very angry.
You will eventually get to the point in your author career where you’ll want to stand out from the crowd and really signal your author brand. This is smart, but you need a firm foundational understanding of why your readership responds to certain cover tropes/elements before “zagging” off on your own. Even slight deviations from the sub-genre formula tend to spell disaster for less experienced authors, as their “minor” deviation removes a key trope without replacing it with another more subtle element that triggers the same underlying psychological “feel.”
Understand what the glowy hands on urban fantasy covers (or the naked man torso on steamy romances) signals before you reinvent the branding wheel. Once you have the basics down, feel free to subvert, lampshade, and omit cover tropes—just as you would in your novels. But the freedom to improvise is earned through a deep mastery of the fundamentals.
This is what consistent series branding looks like:
I want to highlight two things here: first, consistent typography is one of the most critical factors for tying books together at a glance. If you take a closer look at this series, the prequel novella (on the left) and the box set cover (on the right) are visually different from the others. The former is a close-up of a woman’s face; the latter is hand-illustrated. Yet they feel like they’re part of the same series. Why?
The fonts are all the same. There’s also a little “badge” on each one (shaped like a shield) that ties the books together. Finally, the typography placement itself is consistent, taking up the bottom third of the cover (save for the box set, where the author name couldn’t fit).
Two, other subtle touches maintain the branding. The close-up model on the left? Same one as featured on the three individual books. The shotgun makes an appearance on all five covers. Even though the hand-illustrated cover doesn’t use the model as a reference, the broad strokes of the character’s appearance remain the same. At a thumbnail, they fit in cohesively.
Blurbs are also critical for conversion. As writers, we often focus on other factors: Amazon’s algorithms, the cover, keywords, whatever. But readers are interested in words, which means the words we use to pitch our book matter a lot. A great blurb can pique readers’ curiosity and get them to pick up the book.
A bad one can kill sales dead.
Many authors complain about blurbs or hate writing them. I could beat around the bush, but I’ll just stop here and say: that’s a dumb mindset. Anyone who thinks this way is cutting themselves off from the single most important skill in all of writing.
Writing effective blurbs will impact the effectiveness of your ad copy. Of your taglines. Of your Amazon page. And even your writing itself, as you begin to understand what words emotionally move readers and which ones leave them bored and uninterested.
Practicing blurbs for 15 minutes a day (exercise below) is the single most valuable thing you can do for your career. It is also probably the least likely thing people will do in this entire guide.
I cannot control what you do. All I can say is that every time I do that exercise, I see massive changes in the quality of all my writing. Massive.
Here’s the general structure of a blurb before we get into the formula on how to write one:
- Hook/tagline: the most important part of your blurb. Must pique serious curiosity in a very brief time frame. A hook is a high-concept idea that can be summed up in 15 words or less. Most books don’t have them. Thus, you’ll often rely on a snappy tagline (Only a demon can save the world from burning) that hits precisely the right genre notes. Not all good blurbs have taglines, but it’s worth coming up with a few anyway.
- 80 – 90 word lead: the lead is the first few sentences of your blurb. A pithy lead combined with a strong tagline or hook can sell the book on its own. The area “above the fold” (before readers have to click read more) on Amazon totals less than 90 words (30 on mobile). Most readers will only see this, so make it engaging. Browse your genre’s bestseller lists to find effective examples. You’ll see how good taglines and leads not only make you want to read the book, but also quickly communicate the underlying flavor, tone, style, and experience a reader can expect.
- Body: this is where you talk establish the book’s core conflict. Focus on one thread, rather than a myriad of subplots that distract or confuse the potential reader.
- Snapper/cliffhanger: end with a “snapper” —a rhythmic, pithy line that establishes the stakes, hooks the reader’s attention, and forces them to either purchase or check out a sample. Alternative is a simple cliffhanger, which works the same way as it does within the book. Please don’t write “scroll up and grab a copy.” This is a direct-response hard-sell call-to-action (CTA) that is out of place in fiction.
That’s it: tagline, lead, body, snapper. Four parts.
It’s helpful to consider that a blurb is just a fractal story. A fractal is a part that resembles the whole: a puddle has the same characteristics of a lake, just on a smaller scale. The same idea applies here: a blurb is, in effect, a miniature story with a beginning, middle, and end. If you can use your storytelling chops, then you can write an effective blurb.
Here’s a standard formula adaptable to most genres. I maintain an updated, downloadable blurb cheat sheet with additional formulas on my site (nicholaserik.com/blurb-cs). The formula below should cover most books.
- Start with a hook/tagline (e.g. “The world’s burning. And only a demon can save it.”) or a hooky review quote/bestseller accolade etc. (note that using excerpts from Amazon reviews is not allowed in the TOS).
- Then introduce the main character/plot hook (e.g. he’s a demon with a conscience). This should be powerful enough to sell the book on its own—one sentence, or maybe two short ones. It must be above the fold.
- Follow that up with the stakes/main story question. This will introduce the antagonist or threat to the world.
- End with a “snapper” or a cliffhanger a la what you would have at the end of a chapter. A “snapper” is hard to define, but it’s a sentence with a certain rhythmic finality to it that firmly establishes the stakes. The reader should be so interested that they have no choice but to buy the book to find out the answer.
- (optional) End with a hard sell (e.g. “for fans of Sookie Stackhouse and Anita Blake” or “a pulse-pounding international thriller, Spies & Lies will keep you on the edge of your seat”).
- Sprinkle in the tropes/themes to flesh out the details. The optional hard sell is a great place to clearly state the genre, or allude to it, if you’re having trouble working it in elsewhere (“full of bloodthirsty vampires and brooding alpha werewolves”).
Okay, so it’s great to have basic principles, a formula, and examples.
But how does one actually apply all this info to get better?
Here’s how to practice your copywriting chops, step-by-step.
- Find 5 blurbs in your sub-genre’s top 20 lists that make you want to read the actual book. Make sure they’re not discounted $0.99 books enjoying a temporary promo surge. Try to find indie books priced above $2.99. Read + copy them over to a document. This is known in copywriting as a “swipe file.”
- Find 5 more blurbs—not necessarily in your genre—from NYT Bestsellers. These are usually written by pro copywriters. Read them and copy them to your swipe file.
- Skim the reviews of popular books in your genre. What did readers consistently hate/like the most? Does the blurb reference these elements? These are the tropes readers will expect to see mentioned in your blurb (and in your book).
- For professionally written (and split-tested) copy, subscribe to BookBub’s newsletter in your genre(s) of choice. Add good ones to your swipe file.
Then, each day for the next 30 days, set a timer for 15 minutes and:
- Hand copy one blurb word-for-word. This is a classic copywriting technique and works wonders to get the feeling in your bones. Analyze what tropes the author is using, how the language flows, what encourages people to buy. Why did the writer use a certain word? Why did they leave another detail out?
- Then write your own blurb. Don’t focus on making things good, just write it and put it in a document on your computer.
- Read it out loud. It should flow well. You can do this the next day, or as a last check to iron out any rough spots before you either test the blurb on FB or put it up on Amazon.
- Bonus: test your blurbs/taglines on Facebook to get direct feedback on what’s working with your target audience (and what isn’t). Judge the quality based on CPC (lowest CPC wins).
You can either split your time each day between the hand copying and writing (i.e., 7.5 minutes each), or alternate days—one day hand copying, the next writing.
This may seem too basic to work. I have personally done a lot of hand copying and can attest to its efficacy. As I’ve said above, it is the best way to improve your blurbs and ad copy, bar none. If you do this exercise consistently for thirty days, you’ll massively improve your blurbs. And you can apply the same concept to ad copy, creating a swipe file of Facebook, Amazon, and BookBub Ads that catch your eye, then breaking them down to understand the key principles.
Oft overlooked, the title is an important conversion factor because the right title can immediately signal the genre to an interested reader.
The wrong title…well, perhaps you have a beautiful title that you just can’t let go of—a song lyric, or a passage from your favorite book. You envision the story behind the title receiving its own sub-section on your book’s Wikipedia page.
If this sounds remotely like what you’re doing, stop immediately.
There are many questionable recommendations regarding the elements of a good title. Most of the advice on the topic tends to be fuzzy: “make it sing,” “metaphors are the best option,” or “follow your heart.” All such information is egregiously incorrect for genre fiction—I have some awful selling books to prove it—so I recommend this instead: as with the cover, the title should clearly signal to the reader what the book is about.
There are innumerable exceptions to this rule: Divergent, The Hunger Games, Red Rising, The Sound and the Fury, Infinite Jest, and The Sun Also Rises are but a few of the titles that tell you little about the book prior to reading. To which I say: yes, you’re right. But we don’t have a big publisher who will put our book on the front table of Barnes & Noble and spring for a nice spread in Publisher’s Weekly. We will not be reviewed in the NYT. We must create our own little marketing storm.
Overly clever and artistic titles tend to confuse or mislead the reader. Remember, you have seconds (milliseconds, even), to grab their attention. Make it count, and don’t make them do more work than necessary. As one book out of thousands on Amazon, you haven’t earned the benefit of their doubt yet.
This doesn’t mean you title your latest romance Two People Who Fall in Love and Bang at the End.
Consider the book Killing Floor. If you didn’t recognize the title, you surely won’t be surprised to learn that it’s the first book in the Jack Reacher series. It captures the genre and subject matter perfectly, without being overtly cliché or obvious.
Titling your book correctly isn’t a magical fix—I released a book in 2016 called Ashes of the Fall, and it sold 148 copies in its first 30 days (and 260 during the entire year). But with zero additional information, you know that it’s a dystopian/disaster/post-apocalyptic book. If you’re interested in that genre, there’s a good chance you’ll consider clicking the cover thumbnail and giving it a closer look.
There is one key question to answer when pricing: what price maximizes my long-term profit? This, however, can be broken down further into two sub-questions:
- Is my current primary goal profit or long-term visibility/fanbase building?
- Based on this goal, what is the optimal price for my specific book/series?
- General rule of thumb: lower price = more visibility/more volume/less revenue; higher price = less visibility/less volume/more revenue. Sometimes this is thrown out of whack, i.e., where a book sells more volume at a higher price.
- Look at the indie bestsellers in your genre—what do readers expect to pay?
A good baseline if you have no idea what to charge: price your book around what indie authors in the Top 100 of your sub-genre are successfully charging. In romance, there’s generally a cap of around $4.99; in other genres, it might be higher or lower. And if you have a name brand or a big fanbase, you can generally command more dollars. And remember, $4.99 v. $3.99 is not $1; it is a difference of 25%. That has a massive impact on your bottom line when applied catalog-wide.