Hear, Create, Deliver: Building Your Author Brand Online

I recently committed to joining on as a Round Table Mentor! Applications open on October 31, 2023 for mentees. In the lead up to launching this year’s program, mentors are sharing expertise on the Round Table Mentor blog. Here’s a repost of my recent article.

Ten years ago, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador with my husband. Together, we helped two different rural coastal communities launch several micro-enterprises that are still in business today. From opening the area’s first pizzeria to commercializing a women’s artisan cooperative, one of the keys to our success was in creating a distinctive brand voice for each enterprise and finding our target audiences whether funders (thanks Starbucks and Disney!) or customers.

As a writer, you too are an enterprise.

While you may not have a team of marketers working for you (yet!), there are some simple ways you can discover and amplify your personal brand online even before you’re published. In fact, getting yourself out there may just help you land an agent and eventually boost sales of your books.

During Peace Corps orientation, our trainers would often tell us that the only expectation for the first year of service was to show up. Initially, our most important role in our new communities was to listen and learn. 

This is similar to the first step in the Human Centered Design (HCD) framework pioneered by IDEO. The simplified version of the framework’s steps are: Hear, Create, Deliver.

For each of our Peace Corps projects, we started by testing our assumptions via research (Hear), crafting projects to meet the articulated needs (Create), and then putting it all into practice via programs aimed at the appropriate target market (Deliver).

While the steps are presented linearly, think of this process as a circle. Each step will inform the next and you can continue to cycle back and iterate as you learn new things and continue to hone your brand. 

Remember, your brand is your promise. Everything you put out there is an extension of your author persona.

Step One: HEAR

Just as we spent a year listening and learning in the fishing village we would call home during our Peace Corps service, your first job is to “listen in” on other brands to develop an ear and eye for what you like.

If you’re as fond of spreadsheets as I am, you might start out by creating a table of websites and social media accounts of authors and brands you admire. If you prefer to save Instagram posts into collections or create Pinterest boards, do that. The important thing is that your examples are accessible and all in one place.

The important thing is that your examples are accessible and all in one place.

Look up various authors, literary communities (virtual or in-person), affinity groups, and trade associations. Inspiration can be anywhere. Cast your net wider to include brands not related to writing that you respond to. Love that social media account posting memes that make you smile or admire the Etsy shop that curates the best handmade housewares? Add them to the list.

Then, get more focused by conducting searches related to the age group and genre that you write and/or your geographic location. Add these to your spreadsheet, too.

Now, reflect on your list. Take some notes and track what speaks to you (or doesn’t) about how each brand represents itself. Love the irreverent tone and clean design but dislike the font and colors? Write that down. You’ll start to notice patterns in terms of the types of content, the subjects, the aesthetics, and the written style that feels most authentically you.

You’re looking for content that aligns with who you are and not necessarily who you wish to be. While you may have a preference for complicated French pastry, when it comes to baking yourself, your grandma’s chocolate chip cookies may represent who you are better. The same is true for your brand. 

This listening exercise will help you to familiarize yourself with how others brand themselves and will also serve to populate a list of potential content creators to emulate (read Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon) and to re-post from in the future.

Step Two: CREATE

If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “but I’m not creative/an artist/a designer” I’d be rich. Seriously, I believe every human being is creative. Sure, you might need help exercising this specific muscle but you can do it if you have enough time and a desire to do it. 

You’re a writer! What’s more creative than that?

Designing digital assets like websites, social media posts, and newsletters may seem daunting but there are several free and low cost options that provide templates. If this is the part of branding that gives you hives, there are digital creatives that can help you out. Find them through networking, searching freelancers online, contacting artists you follow to see if they do commissions, and asking for referrals from friends and colleagues whose websites and profiles you like.

I’ve found that word processing and presentation programs like Word, Pages, PowerPoint, Google Slides, and Keynote are all easy alternatives for non-designers. Besides those basic programs, a few good free options for designing social media posts include: Canva (free and premium), Adobe Photoshop Camera (free with in-app purchases), Adobe Express (free), and Instagram Layout (free).

Remember that you don’t need to create original content every day. Search hashtags or subscribe to specific feeds via RSS or Feedly to discover content that you can repost. Tools like Notion (free and premium) and Trello (free and premium) can help you to aggregate links to articles, blog posts, podcasts, and news stories to repost.

To organize my content, I am fond of kanban boards, a visual project management tool that organizes your tasks into columns. You can also make a spreadsheet (you knew I was going to say this). For a simple set-up, label the first column “To Post,” the second column, “Scheduled,” and the third column, “Posted.” Then, move each item from one column to the other as you publish your posts.

There are myriad free and premium tools out there to set up your content calendar. If you’d prefer to use your favorite spreadsheet program, search online for free content calendar templates to get you started. You can also create a dedicated view in your calendar program just for social media. The options are endless.

The important thing is that you choose a direction that is sustainable. Learning new tools can be confusing and exhausting.

Choose what you will actually use.

Another important search to do is for social media holidays or content ideas per month. Did you know that March 2nd is World Book Day or May 23rd is National Library Workers Day? Neither did I until I searched for book-related “holidays.” Note these special days and plan to create or re-post messages celebrating them on your calendar.

For scheduling posts in the future, some social networks make this task easy, while others will only let you schedule out posts if you are a business or creator account (I’m looking at you Meta Business Suite). If you don’t want to convert your profile to a business one, consider a third-party app like Hootsuite and Buffer (both offer free and premium) to schedule posts out. Canva Pro accounts can schedule posts on the most popular platforms from within the app, one of the many premium features I love.

Step Three: DELIVER

One of the ways we were able to find international buyers for the women’s artisan group and to establish an eco-tourism project in our fishing village was through a website. At the summer SCBWI conference, a presenter went so far as to say that an author’s website is the only thing they should focus on. I agree with this on one condition.

If you’re only going to stake a claim to one digital space, it should be an author website. 

Ideally, one with your name (or pen name) as the address. However, I believe there are many more places where you can make an impact online in addition to your author website if you so desire. Links to each additional channel should be prominently displayed on every page of your site. The footer is a good place to do this.

Content Management Systems like WordPress (free and paid hosting options), Weebly (free and premium), Wix, (free and premium) and Squarespace (only paid options – free trial not to be confused with a free hosting plan) make this easy.

If this is another aspect of marketing that is daunting to you, find someone with CMS skills to set up your site. Setting up your website hosting is the most challenging step in the process and you can skip it if you choose WordPress, Weebly, or Wix.

After all the research you did into social media accounts, it’s time to decide which social media platform or platforms are right for you.

Again, choose the platform or platforms you will actually use.

The most important part of fulfilling your brand promise is being consistent. If you’re shy about being on camera, TikTok and Instagram may not be for you. Or, if you still have the desire to dip your toes there, get creative about the types of posts you can make that don’t require showing your face on camera. You can use images of books, bookstores, cafés where you write, quotations, or movie scenes that inspire you.

If you’d prefer to express yourself in written words, look to social platforms like X (formerly Twitter), Threads, Discord, Bluesky Social, LinkedIn, and Facebook; or, consider reaching out to potential readers by starting a Substack newsletter or writing on Medium. If you already have a list of folx who want to hear from you, look into e-newsletter platforms like Mailchimp or Constant Contact to reach them directly via email.

Build your virtual and in-person writing community to nurture an audience for your content. 

Starting by being a good writing community member. This means in addition to following social media accounts, joining Facebook groups, subscribing to newsletters, and becoming a member of associations; you should participate. Whether it’s liking or re-posting, commenting or offering advice, be a giver and not just a receiver.

This applies to in-person networking, as well. Does your local library host a writing or book group? What about a middle grade speaker series? Is there a local chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) or Romance Writers of America you can join? Is there a writing or co-working space you can join near you? Any writing conferences or pitch contests coming up? If you have the means, ability, and time, volunteering is a great place to get your foot in the door of a new community.

In today’s crowded publishing landscape, creating a personal brand as an author is more important than ever. A strong personal brand can help you stand out from the competition, build a loyal following of readers, and ultimately boost sales of your books. Building your personal brand make take time, effort, and dedication, but I believe the rewards are worth it. Using the Hear, Create, Deliver framework, start building your personal brand as an author today.