Ask Alice: Do YA authors have to build a personal brand or can they just write books?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
We often describe authors as passionate artists who craft their tomes in a creative space where money and the sales of their books are never as important as the satisfaction and fulfillment that accompanies seeing your work out in the world.
It’s lovely, but as an author with seven fantasy novels and one nonfiction mini published, I can tell you that money is definitely important, as are sales. Partly it’s because you need to sustain yourself with material things rather than pure satisfaction. But it’s also because if you want to keep writing – unless you’re a very unusual exception – you need to be able to fund future publications (if you’re independently published like me) or justify future publication opportunities (if you’re traditionally published) with sales and sales figures.
What does that mean? Well, in layman’s terms, you gotta hustle. But hustlin’ isn’t as straightforward as saying to people ‘hey go and read my book’ (trust me, I’ve tried to be this blunt; it…rarely works). You have to create an image which, in the words of the wonderful Sarah Epstein, “clearly signals the kind of author you are and the type of books you write, [which] is a shortcut for readers who are seeking new favourite authors.”
To help look at what goes into the author branding machine, I reached out to Clayton Zane Comber (100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze) and Sarah Epstein (Night Lights, Deep Water, Small Spaces, Sugarcoated) to ask them about their experiences and see how they compared to my own.
An author identity is what you present to the world which signals to people what to expect in your content.
Clay emphasised the importance of “just being genuinely you, [because] no one will connect with your content if it’s not genuine. Your identity will come together with your book but being available and connecting with like-minded readers is the most important.”
He’s absolutely on the money. People can sniff out disingenuous behaviour and content from miles away, and they’re much more likely to connect with a true and authentic post or presence. However, something I only realised after doing the author schtick for a while is that you need to narrow what you present. As a fantasy author, I often lean into the ‘nerd’ aspect associated the genre, posting about certain videogames I’m playing (I’ve just returned to one of my great loves, Dragon Age: Inquisition), whatever piece of academic work is currently rendering me neurotic, whatever craft work I’m doing to try and counter that neuroticism, and of course, what I’m reading. But that’s not all I do in my day, or the full scope of my ‘genuine’ behaviour. I’ve picked a slice to present to the world.
Sarah sums it up, really, as she notes, “the aim is making yourself memorable enough to the YA readership so they are enticed into checking out your books. And then being present and consistent enough that you never fully slip out of their minds.”
For YA authors, author brand is even more important.
I’m going to just put the full quote from Sarah here because I really don’t have anything more to add:
“Unlike the adult category, where sticking to one genre for a number of books seems to be important in finding a readership, YA is almost considered a genre in itself, and readers tend to read very widely within the YA category. Many YA authors write more than one genre, and their readers follow them anywhere because the author’s personality and their writing style is the drawcard, rather than the genre of their books. This can make branding more challenging for YA authors, especially if they are private people or don’t enjoy being online. It’s also difficult for debut authors who are virtual unknowns and don’t have a readership yet.
[…] Since [my thriller debut] I have written more books in different genres, so my website has changed to accommodate, and I’ve also updated covers for my first two books to new self-published editions. So while my cover designs are quite different for my YA thrillers and YA contemporaries, I use similar positioning of typography across all covers and bright colours in the title text. I also use colourful photographic background images consistently across all covers, so readers will start to recognise this as my brand for YA books whether they realise it or not.”
Unsurprisingly, the business of selling books requires work – and part of that work is thinking about your brand and putting it out there consistently.
The final thing to note is that it is work. You need the luxury of time in order to maintain a presence. I’ve fallen out of practice of this a bit myself and I can tell you, there has been a corresponding drop off in the sales figures of my books. While I’d never say that it’s a simple equation or ratio of putting in X amount of time generates Y amount of sales, there’s an obvious relationship between consistent, dedicated posts which remind people about your books, the general content of your books, and why your books would be really great to go and buy, and the number of books of yours which are sold or read. As I was writing this column, I came across this Instagram reel from Lili Wilkinson and had a damn good chuckle, because the carefree quick videos or posts that seem to be so easily thrown together have so much work behind the scenes. Point is, there is always something that you as an author can be doing (and refining in presentation) to promote yourself and your books.
Clay noted that in the course of promotion beyond social media, “Being in a bookstore all day [he is the owner of Bouquiniste in Kiama NSW] certainly helps, but visiting other bookstores, schools, festivals, connecting with bloggers and readers,” are the ways to go, adding, “it’s such a joy to share books with others in any manner.” Obviously, as book nerds, authors will very willingly delight in talking about all things bookish at the drop of a hat. But Clay’s list points to the hustle authors undergo as part of the promotional machine, and that includes the person you present to the world when doing something that’s attached to your book.
Sarah’s rundown of her routine is a really great recipe for success because it acknowledges that presence is really important (presence, by the way, in my experience doesn’t equal book sales but it lays the foundation for consistent and enduring name recognition, which is vital for robust sales): “I work on my author brand every single day, sometimes only in small ways, like posting on Instagram or fine-tuning something on my website, or in bigger ways, like designing the next cover in my book series. I’m never not thinking about my branding because it’s intrinsically linked to my books and my writing career. […] Aside from writing the actual books, the main areas I work on are: my website; my social media pages; my newsletter; my book swag and promotional material (bookmarks, postcards, giveaways); and my book covers. […] No matter what your capabilities are, you’ll need to learn new things if you intend to craft your author brand and maintain a consistent online presence. Whether you’re trad-published or self-published, you can’t rely on anyone else to do this for you.”
One of my biggest bugbears is the lack of understanding around the fact that being an author is a job which requires time, promotion, and resources in the same way of any small business. A large part of that is branding. Social media in particular means people look up the author just as often as they look up the book they’re considering. A lot of material tells authors that it’s not about them, it’s about their book. However, when you’ve published several books, you’re ultimately the point of commonality. Rightly or wrongly, readers think they can divine something about whether they will enjoy your books from how they perceive you. Crafting – and maintaining – a brand identity isn’t just important, it’s good business.