• Andrew Johnston

How to Gain a Brand by Throwing Your Craft Out of the Window: 17 Simple Tips

Updated: 3 days ago

I start the post with an arbitrary image, preferably something book related but that's not critical. It's there partially to look good in search results and partially to give me another place to hide my SEO key phrase.

Next is an introductory paragraph. I'll give an introduction of course, but the important part is the hyperlinks. I'll be putting lots and lots of internal links into the body of the post, but I must save room to really cram them in to this first section. It will make the thing slightly distracting, which is what I want - it leaves the reader just a little unsatisfied, which keeps them clicking around. Since my goal is to maximize their time spent on the site, this is exactly what I want. I may need to rewrite this section to achieve the proper density.


Now that there's enough space below the title, I can add the first subtitle, which is just the SEO key phrase again.


How to Gain a Brand


This is the part of the post that the prospective reader actually wants, but I'll meander a little bit to make it seem more impressive. Once I get started, I'll make sure to chop it up into lots of little pieces. It's best practice.


Seeded throughout this section will be yet more links. The nature of those links is important. In a blog of years past - the kind I read and kept in high school, for instance - links were a way to provide context and information, give a hat tip to someone you like and respect, or to really single someone out for mockery. They were mostly external and served to create some kind of network.


By contrast, most of my links are internal because - again - I want you to get as deep as possible into this blog.

I have pages of notes that look like this. They're not as confusing as they look - all you need to do is find the highest level post, the one with the most links, and then link to that.


Not everything is a link back to the blog - that would be counterproductive. Some of them link to things that help me accomplish my long-term goal. Perhaps I'll link to one of my books, in hopes that you'll download it and share it around. Maybe I'll throw in an affiliate link that will help pay for the site. If I'm feeling really saucy, I might even embed one of my YouTube videos:

You see, if enough of you click on that, it will trigger the algorithm, which means my stories will be shared automatically and I won't have to do this bullshit anymore. But I'm not there yet.


As to that content itself, it will be material that I think is useful. However, it was an SEO tool that decided the topic, not me, and I will fabricate or appropriate content as necessary to make that article work. Don't get me wrong - I won't steal or lie, but I will take the easiest route to fill out that critical part in the middle. If I don't have strong opinions about the topic at hand, then the aggregate


And all of this is a brand-building exercise. In this age, you are only your brand. If you don't have a brand, you don't exist, and if you're not promoting yourself, then your brand is half in the grave already.


The Essential Business of Writing


It might be that the years of smashing my head against the doors of various publishers has made me cynical, but it seems to me that writing is no longer about writing. It's about marketing. I started this blog in hopes of drawing in some writers who might form an initial base, but if I'm being honest, these posts on story development don't matter. There are a lot of writers out there in need of advice on craft, but craft isn't important - branding is.


I'm not proud of this. I never wanted to operate an SEO blog. For that matter, I never wanted to record myself reading short stories, or flog links to what I've done all over the internet. I wanted to write things, but that's not enough. These are things you have to do.


I'll repeat that on its own line, with emphasis: These are things you have to do.


It was Quora that got me thinking about this - and say, does anyone care to guess the only reason I'm active on Quora? Anyway, a gentleman asked why his book wasn't selling well on Amazon, and in short, I suggested it was because he wasn't promoting it. After all, no one's going to find your book in the global library of Amazon if they don't know it's there, and how will they even know to look if you don't tell them about it?


And so you promote yourself. You maintain seven or eight different channels of content. You kiss all the right ass to get contacts who'll get you ahead. You exploit SEO tricks and trendsurf when you can. You make articles and podcasts and videos that are just excuses to plug your book or site or something else. You spend money to bribe "influencers" to talk about how awesome you are. You ultimately spend so much time hyping yourself that you no longer have time to write or edit, but you get the branding you need.


Then you can get published. Maybe.


Writing is a Dead End


And you will have to do this - all of this and more - because novels are one of the hardest things in the world to sell. I don't care what the people at the National Novel Writing Month say - the world does not need your novel. Indeed, nobody needs any novel. That's problem number one - you're selling a product with no market.


Problem number two is this:

There are just too damn many of us, writing too many crappy novels. The market for fiction is massively saturated, to the point that it's next to impossible to stand out. In sales, they say that every product needs a USP - a unique selling point. Agents and editors alike say that the author doesn't matter as much as the work, but that's a transparent lie. For most books, whether fiction or nonfiction, the author is the USP - and when I say "author," I mean brand. There's that word again.


So you never stop selling - and while many of you may have suspected that this was true for self-published authors, it is equally true for traditionally published authors. For starters, if you don't have a strong brand coming in, agents don't want to talk to you because you're a risk. But even after you get an agent and a publisher, you will never stop selling, ever. Did you ever notice how, after someone has published a book, that a link to buy that book shows up in everything they write? How their content becomes a little more sensationalist, a little more narrowly keyed to whatever that book is about?


But none of this is unique to authors. It's true of musicians, actors, filmmakers, visual artists, performing artists, video game developers, etc. They're all doing the same thing - pushing their craft to the side to spend all day maintaining that litany of content channels. Hell, maybe one of those channels is a book - lots of people write those just for the brand boost.


But all of this constitutes a third problem - the modern media environment is not designed around people with narrow focus who painstakingly work on one project at a time for years and years on end. It's designed around people who do anything and everything they can to establish a brand, discarding whatever they're doing once it's outlived its purpose. How much of that is organic - i.e. what people want as opposed to what the platform holders want - is an issue for debate, but that doesn't change the fact that this is not a world for people who sit and quietly write novels.


This is How We Live Now


Which leads me back to one of my favorite bugaboos - all those people who swear that everyone is trying to steal their goddamn book. Get this through your head: Your book is worthless. Despite what you've been told, it is not hard to write a novel. There are professionals out there who can write novels to a consistent level of quality, in a timely manner and for a reasonable price. It's the name on the cover that makes it valuable, and the fact that you're worried about someone stealing your book suggests that your name isn't worth anything either.


Really, all of the above is just entertainment catching up to what the corporate world more generally has known for a long time: Your brand is the most important thing you own. People strongly preferred the taste of New Coke to Coke Classic, but it didn't matter. Coca-Cola the carbonated sweetened beverage is not important - the important part is the comforting feeling you get when you see that familiar red-and-white. In a sense, the true Coca-Cola product is the brand - the soda is just a delivery system.


On a similar note, one could say that a novel is merely a delivery system for the true product, which is the brand in the form of the author's name. This is unquestionably the most cynical thing I've ever written, but then there have been multiple scandals just in my lifetime where someone fabricated an author in order to sell a book...and it keeps working. It's probably happening right now.


There's one particular agent (I won't mention his name, though I might write a post about him in the future because he's truly a remarkable asshole) who has said, in so many words, that authors who want his representation need to focus on getting famous and spend less time on the whole "writing" thing. He would obviously disagree with my characterization, but to some extent that is our world. Fame is a currency, and if you want to succeed, you'd better find a way to start earning it.


And This is How We Get Out


So what is the way forward? Well, it's probably not writing novels, at least not if you're an unknown. And a lot of the advice you get in "how to promote your book" articles is bad, or at least old. Many of these tricks just don't work if the whole world knows about them.


I think we're heading into a new age of serials. In a sense, we've been there for a while, but I've seen signs that the entertainment industry more generally may be adopting this strategy. In particular, this has been showing up in music lately. A recurring piece of advice for musicians is to stop thinking in terms of selling a single product - an album - and instead think in terms of offering a service, releasing a steady drip of content to build a brand that they can leverage later. In the last few years, we've seen the birth of the serial LP, released one track at a time over a period of months.


If it works for music, then why not for written fiction, something that has a much longer history with this concept? And it's already working - the much-mocked Wattpad is essentially a serial site. A lot of the mockery aimed at Wattpad novels tends to overlook the fact that such works were means to be read over a period of months or even years, rather than days or hours, and that such works are written differently. I had a post about this that I was going to expand upon, but the SEO gods didn't approve of it. Maybe I should revisit that.


As I write this, there are numerous companies trying to jump on this bandwagon with, essentially, monetized versions of Wattpad. They're dodgy as hell and I can't really recommend them, but they do seem to think that there's money here somewhere. Monetization has always been the big problem with serials - the half-dozen or so failed monetization schemes was ultimately what killed JukePop Serials, my old host. Finding a sustainable way to make money from serialization without shafting the writers is truly the philosopher's stone, and we're all hoping someone finds it.


Or maybe it's not serials at all - maybe it's podcasting. Not the usual dreck wherein writers ramble on about their projects, but fiction meant to be listened to. Hey, did I mention that I do this? Here's a good one:

...Sorry. But there are quite a few fiction podcasts now, and there's potential for growth into live readings. I'm a big fan of audio, and it seems like after years and years of video being dominant that sound-only is making some gains. It's nice to be able to take your eyes off a screen every now and then.


Then there are the forms for the multi-skilled. Animation is resurging in a big way, and graphic novels remain very popular. Maybe you lack the talents to do these by yourself, but with a little networking, you could find a partner to make these works real. I, for one, would love to see animated versions of some of my shorts - maybe one day.


My point is that there are alternatives to bashing your brains out against the publication wall, or wasting time doing the same "platform building" exercises that attention-hungry authors have been writing articles about for years, or giving money to some charlatan making unrealistic promises. There might be another way - a better way.


But in the meantime, please download The Fabulist. Thanks.

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