Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Brand and platform building basics

by Stacey

We talk about a wide array of publishing topics on our DGLM blog, and in thinking about what to write for my longer entry, I looked back at our marketing and publicity posts and realized there was an opportunity to cover some new ground by discussing brand or platform building for nonfiction authors. I feel like so much of my time lately is spent speaking with and/or writing to nonfiction aspiring authors who are interested in writing a book, but are working on building their brand or platform to get to the point in their career where a book is viable. We are not branding managers, but helping authors to build their brands and platforms has become an important part of our job, in particular for nonfiction authors—advising, coaching, and making suggestions about ways in which an author can build their brand effectively and across multiple platforms. I've begun describing the process as akin to making a pizza, with the book project being one piece of the bigger pie. In order for the pie to be complete, all of the other pieces need to be in place. This is a different model than it used to be. When I first started agenting twelve years ago, many authors were able to build their brand by starting with their book project if they had a great new idea, or a fresh twist on an existing one. The book then gave them the credibility and opportunity to branch out into other areas. That is no longer an option for authors and publishers. Instead, authors must present publishers with a publicity and marketing plan in their book proposals that rivals a pr firm's. It has to be professional, polished, and very, very thorough. It should list ways in which the author has established their brand or platform in three key areas: print, television, and online. Print consists primarily of magazines and newspapers; television can be anything from local or national tv segments (think the Today show) to hosting or co-hosting a reality show; and online has endless possibilities, from blogs to websites to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, there are countless online opportunities to be mined.

To give you a couple of examples of very different authors who have worked hard on their brand building, and done it with some measure of success, there's Tori Spelling, who has a new book out, which talks on her book's promo copy about being her own brand: “It’s not every Hollywood starlet whose name greets you on a Virgin Airways flight into la-la land. But Tori Spelling has come to accept that her life is a spectacle. Her name is her brand, and business is booming. Too bad when your job is to be yourself, you can’t exactly take a break.” She's a celebrity (even if most would consider her C-list), so it's easier for someone like her, but she's still taken her celebrity and used it in a numbers of ways to expand her brand. Books, products, shows, etc. and she seems to be continuing to come up with new ideas all the time.

Another author who strikes me as having done effective brand building recently is Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt Free U. Here's a brief piece about him and his book that describes how he has been doing financial writing since high school. I've been seeing him and his message in all three key categories in recent weeks since his book's publication. He's no Suze Orman yet, but he's well on his way considering he's still in college!

In my own personal experience, a mother-daughter memoir I recently sold was the result of over two years of hard work the authors undertook after a branding/platform building conversation we had when I explained to them that I thought their story had merit (it's about the daughter's diagnosis of bipolar as a young adult), but that they needed to begin to speak about their story, and become prominent figures in the mental health community. Because they are so compelling and hard working, in a relatively short time, they've been able to do just that, and are now really changing the face of mental health. Their book when it is released in 2012 will be another piece of their pie.

Another story from my own list illustrates the brand/platform building concept. Allison Fishman is a well-known and respected chef and cooking school instructor who I know from high school. For years we talked about building her platform and the best timing for a book project for her. While I was on one of my maternity leaves, I saw that she was co-hosting a Lifetime show, Cook Yourself Thin, and that the accompanying book had become a #1 New York Times bestseller. I contacted her and told her the time was right to get a book proposal out for her with that piece of the pie in place, and we ultimately found her a good home for her first solo effort, which will release next spring. Years of hard work and dedicated platform building finally paid off in a book deal.

If you find you need help to build your brand, there are resources out there and a new industry is emerging as this type of brand building becomes more important in today's marketplace. Branding agents and managers, like publicists, work with not only authors, but celebrities and experts of all kinds, to help them manage the ways in which they can extend themselves into the marketplace in a positive and productive way, building on existing coverage and relationships without over saturating any one area of the marketplace. I'm hoping even more of these branding managers pop up because I think the need is there for these services, and from what I can tell, the pool of people out there doing this for authors is still pretty limited. I'd expect it to be a real growth area in the coming years. If there's anyone any of our readers have worked with or know of who you can recommend, let us know.

To a certain extent, the brand building needs to be strategic, and looked at from a short term and longer term perspective. I often ask authors if they have a plan for the next year, three years, and five years. Once they develop their goals, the work to get there can begin. All of that said, it's impossible to follow a straight path when things come up that could change the trajectory so it needs to be flexible. For example, if you are writing for several websites and blogs and get an opportunity to do a column at a national magazine, you jump at the chance, even if it means cutting back on other areas for a short time because the opportunity to gain major national exposure is an A-list brand building goal.

There are always a myriad of ways to get to where you want to go, and these are just a few basics for what to consider if you are embarking on this journey. We are always looking to find authors who have a positive, original message to share, and have managed to build their brand to a level that it can support a book. We'd love to hear about any brand building success stories out there if you'd like to share. There's a lot to learn from those who have managed to do it successfully.


  1. Oh, dear. If Tori Spelling is our role model, maybe we should all give up right now. Really? I suppose Paris Hilton is even better. Hey, that's the ticket! Maybe that should be required in every query letter: in how many countries can you get busted for illegal substances? If you can't manage at least one a month, don't bother trying to be a writer. Arrgghh.

  2. Branding is a major focus for non-fiction, but can it be expanded to fiction authors as well? I think that especially in the young adult fantasy realm, it would be interesting to see an author symbolize their novel somehow and spread the word via bumper stickets, shirts, etc - take whatever world that exists in their book and make it real for potential readers.

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