Yesterday over lunch at the Grotto, where I’m subletting office space, another writer (also finishing up her novel) and I got on the topic of branding. You know, the “author brand.” I resisted the first time I heard the phrase, but have come to see its helpfulness. You’ve heard of the elevator speech? The one where you describe your concept or idea in a limited amount of time—from seven seconds to three minutes—to garner interest from that busy person with whom you’re sharing a metaphoric or actual elevator ride. The author brand is part of the elevator speech repertory—those succinct, articulate phrases or blurbs we can pull out when necessary, like a business card. You’re sitting in 32B when the person in 32A asks, “So what do you write about?” Or you’re pitching your book idea to an agent or editor—or answering a question about it on the radio.
It helps to have an answer at the ready. I’ve stumbled too many times through vague and embarrassingly rambling answers—uh, life? Relationships? People? Ideas? Implied in the question “What do you write about?” is the notion that we write about one thing. Which might be true in some large thematic way, but isn’t very helpful in seven seconds. How handy to have at the ready a specific, non-limiting answer. “My last book was about beekeeping, but I’m now researching the mating habits of seahorses.”
Seven years ago, when I was working on a book proposal, I struggled with the “book hook” for what would become The Water Will Hold You. What, in the juiciest, most precise way, was the book about?
Depression and loss.
Coming back to life.
I came up with “Coming to prayer as a skeptic.” I had to get the word “skeptic” in there, to balance out the word “prayer,” to make it clear that I was not a fundamentalist. From that, I got the subtitle and, in the seven years since, a way to answer questions about my memoir without having to mumble. My own elevator speech.
So now, after years of watching people’s eyes glaze over when I described my novel-in-progress as being about responsibility and how we love each other, I say, “It’s about a mother who kidnaps her own child and moves to a new town to start life anew.” This is exactly what I said at lunch yesterday, come to think of it.
So yes, having a brand is helpful, the other writer and I agreed. But then she shared with me the advice she’d heard, that a writer shouldn’t change her hair style too drastically, should stay recognizable and consistent.
Take a woman’s right to change her hair, and what’s next?
Whenever I pick up a book, I look for the author photo. What am I looking for? Have I ever put aside a book because the writer looks too hip? Too square? Too fill-in-the-blank? Actually, uh, I have…. But I like to think I’ve eventually come around and based my judgement on the words inside the cover. Consider Mary Gaitskill, who went from prim dark pageboy bob (in contrast to what one might have expected from her edgy stories) to white-blonde Pixie cut for Veronica. I doubt that doing so hurt her sales or reviews.
Last night, at a launch party for Louise Aronson’s terrific new collection of stories, A History of the Present Illness, I ran into another writer friend whose book will be out this fall. Katy and I didn’t talk about branding, per se, but she mentioned that’s it’s time to get her author photo taken, to gear up for publicity (what to wear?), and she admitted feeling at a loss. “This is dressed up for me,” she admitted with a grin as she gestured at her jeans, blouse, and leather jacket. “I don’t do hair and makeup.”
My author photo was taken by my cousin, in a crowded food hall at the Ferry Building. The shirt I’m wearing was slightly ratty at the sleeves, but you can’t see that in the photo. Yes, I’d blow-dried my hair to better than usual and I’d stopped at the Nars counter at Saks to have someone who knows how put some makeup on me. (Yes, it’s the one in the upper right-hand of this page.)
I’ll continue to use this photo for years, I imagine, as long as I’m lucky enough to have books coming out—until I go completely gray. But I reserve the right to change the cut. After all, the writer drives the brand, not the other way around. Many brands change their logos.
Yikes. Did I just compare writers to cereal companies? Did I really refer to my physical self as a logo?
Not every book has an author photo, of course—nor does it have to. In a world in which the writer is expected to put herself out there through social media, many of us prefer to let our books out in the world without joining them on stage. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Let the work speak for itself.
Wise, some say. Career suicide, according to others. Personal choice, after all. Putting ourselves “out there” is a fraught, complicated venture. Do what you’re comfortable with. At the same time, making ourselves uncomfortable goes with the territory, doesn’t it?
Maybe, in the end, this is another benefit of having a brand: We can answer the question quickly, we can reveal ourselves cogently, we can pull back the curtain on what matters and then duck back behind it, to re-enter the messy, inarticulate foundry where the real work happens. And where we don’t have to fix our hair.