Monday, June 23, 2008

The Power of Author Branding

I know very little about the inner mechanics of literary publicity, but I know enough to recognize when it's being done well. Last week provided an excellent example of author branding taken to an extreme level, and yielding awe-inspiring results. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee came to town, and around four hundred people turned up for her book signing.

You read that right. Four hundred people. I recognize that a number that large requires evidence, so here are a couple of snapshots of the crowd which I took about thirty minutes before the author arrived.

Do you know who Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is? Have you ever heard of her before this moment? Have you noticed her name atop the Times list, the USA Today list, the PW list? If you haven't, it's because you're probably not part of her target demographic. If you have, I can just about guarantee one thing: you knit.

Three years ago, Andrews McNeel released Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's first book. It was called Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter and it was a knitting book unlike any other knitting book. No patterns. No charts or diagrams. No tips or techniques to make your nupps clean and your cables tight. Instead, it was a book of humorous essays about knitting. And it took the hobbyists' world by storm.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee has done several things brilliantly to build her brand and her sales. Let's look at what she did, and maybe think of how it might translate to your personal brand.

Step One: Create a Memorable Brand Name, Then Leverage the Crap Out Of It.

Stephanie's first book and author blog both bear the brand name "Yarn Harlot," and in the beginning, both books and blog hit hard on her core theme: excessive and sometimes irrational love of all knitty things. Especially yarn. Any yarn. (Harlot, get it?) It's a clever, memorable name, and she leveraged it to the hilt. Half the first book plays on this "extreme love of yarn" theme. She has essays on everything from how to hide yarn in your house so nobody will know it's there (pianos and sofa cushions figure prominently), to the difference between a knitter and a Capital-K Knitter, to an essay about her ongoing war with a renegade squirrel who steals freshly laundered fleeces from her backyard. Every word builds on her image and brand.

Step Two: Connect to Readers Online With Readily Available Methods.

"But I already have a blog," you say. Okay. Good. That's a good start. Now, how are you using your blog?

Each of Stephanie's blog posts racks up several hundred comments, and when you post, you must provide an email address. And guess what? Sometimes, she emails you a response to your post. This is always a cause for shocked excitement in my area knitting circles. People love it when their fan mail gets an answer, and really, how long does it take to send out a one or two line email to a fan? This is something above and beyond responding in the comment thread, which is also a good idea.

Stephanie also occasionally reads the blogs of her commenters, and leaves comments of her own. How long does it take to post a comment to the blog of one of your readers? It doesn't have to be an every time thing. Once in a while will do. Just remember that the blogging community is a two-way street, and take a few moments to travel their way once in a while. They'll love you for it.

Step Three: Connect the Audience Back to the Author.

Stephanie also reaches her core audience in person. Initially, she toured yarn shops and bookstores to promote her book. It didn't take long for her to outgrow little shops, and as you see, now she fills ballrooms.

What fascinates me is the way these tours also provide her with blog fodder and essay material. She gets to talk about the bookstore managers who have no idea what they're in for, and I love her story about the store that set out ten chairs for one of her signings. She paced the stockroom and pleaded with the manager to get more chairs. "Don't you understand? THE KNITTERS ARE COMING!" (This ties into one of her secondary themes, that non-knitters just don't "get" knitters.)

And she gets to talk about the wonderful things knitters make while she speaks, and the cool shops she visits, and of course, all the new yarns she gets to fondle and hoard in the course of a book tour. Really, the audience is providing part of her message every time she goes out. She goes, she sees, she writes about it all. And who doesn't like to read about themselves?

At her booksignings, she speaks for about an hour (reading a prepared humorous speech on her topic). Then she takes Q&A. Then she signs books, and that is where she shines. She spends a minute or two with each reader, asking them what they've knit, how far they came to see her, and the like. She keeps her camera handy and posts pictures of attendees on her blog with various notes. (Check out her blog and you'll see what I mean. The June 22 post is about the signing I attended. I know half the people in those pictures, and they've been squeeing ever since the blog post went up.)

Step Four: Develop Some Shtick

Shtick? Yeah, baby, she's got it. There's an old knitting legend that says if an expert knitter places knitting needles in an infant's hand, that infant will develop a love of knitting. So knitters bring their infants, and Stephanie photographs them and hands them needles and carries on about how wonderful babies are. That's her first thing.

Tying into that, she will look for the youngest knitter at the signing and post a picture on her blog. If several young knitters show up, they usually all make it onto the blog, because hey, they're kids, and it's fun, and it lets her put the focus back on her audience for a bit. She will also post pictures of senior knitters, knitters who traveled long distances to see her, knitters who bring her gifts, and so on.

At some point, probably in connection with an essay about packing knitting to go on the road (which is harder than you might guess), she started The Travelling Sock thing. For each tour, she knits one pair of socks. She deliberates over yarn and patterns (more blog fodder), and then she photographs the sock everywhere she goes. She talks cab drivers, yarn store owners, waiters, tour guides -- everyone she encounters, just about -- into posing with her sock. And she starts every signing by taking a picture of the sock with the crowd, like so:

And she makes people hold the sock for posed pictures with the author, like so:

(Author on the left; Tricia Kennedy of Nana's Knitting Shop, which sponsored the signing, on the right.)

Other shtick has evolved as her brand has evolved. I won't go into further detail except to explain that most of what she does connects directly to her central theme (yarn harlotry) or to one of her secondary themes (knitters as a social phenomenon, inexplicable knitter behavior, knitter/non-knitter encounters, and the like).

Step Five: And This Is Relevant to Fiction Writers How?

What are the take-aways? I think the big one is to make it about your audience instead of about you. I'm sure you've all heard the advice, "Be very careful in public, because you're always in danger of alienating a reader." But guess what? When you're talking about the reader in a positive way, that danger evaporates.

Second, identify your core themes and messages, and yes, you do have them. Get past the trite or universal. "Love Conquers All" might be a truth universally acknowledged in romance land, but go deeper. Find the personal truths that compel you to write. For example, what precisely does love conquer? And how does it go about making that conquest? And why?

Once you've identified your themes, you're in position to build your brand. If your theme is about how love can make an ordinary day feel bright, then you might want to take a girl-next-door pen name and write sweet, homespun contemporaries. If your theme is about the mystical force of love and how it brings completion to the human soul, you're probably not going to write wisecracking romantic comedies.

How else can you apply the techniques we've discussed here?



Edittorrent said...

I think also there's a nerve to touch in the "second-time-around" category of romance... you know, maybe the author was divorced and found a great second love, and her books are about that, and she can focus blog entries on that aspect, like "dating with kids," and "worst blind dates my best friend set me up with," and "why volleyball is the best matchmaker....

I'm always surprised at how many author blogs are just about, well, the author and her books. Only those who already by your books are going to want to read about you and your books. But if your blog or website is ABOUT something-- I don't know, Scottish tartans-- all those people who are interested in that subject will come to hear about that, and maybe buy your books too. NEW customers. This is the Internet, after all- you can find hundreds of people interested in just about anything.

Josephine Damian said...

Any advice for thriller writers? What sort of gimmick can we use?

Edittorrent said...

How about a blog about murders? Well, that might attract the wrong crowd... historic murders?
But you know, reading recommendations of good novels of that sort (not your own-- just put a bio note maybe at the end with an Amazon link) is something we're all looking for. Well, at least I always am. :)


Unhinged said...

What a WONDERFUL post!

I don't know anything about knitting, but already I'm interested in the writer because she seems like a genuine hoot. And I love geninue hoots.

Now for my own shticky gimmick. Hmmm. It has to be something I love and do well. It doesn't have to be a new idea.

I know exactly what I'd do. Maybe I'll do it, too, and you'll write a blog post about me in a few years, lol.

Edittorrent said...

Unhinged, I look forward to writing that post. :)


Unknown said...

Unhinged sent me, and she was right--this is a a cool post. Thanks for doing it. Knitting?? Who'd thunk it?

Anonymous said...

I'm a knitter, and I love the Harlot both for her warm and witty blog and books, but also for her writing talent. I never really thought about her marketing savvy, but you're right, she's brilliant. This post makes me consider just how some of my other favorite authors have successfully marketed themselves. John Scalzi and Christopher Moore both spring to mind...

Thanks for giving me something new to think about, as well as a bit of knitterly glee at seeing one of my yarnie idols mentioned in an unexpected forum.