Building a brand

Some years ago, when I was interviewing quite a lot of reader-nominated ‘favourite historical fiction authors’, I asked those authors: Do you think of yourself as having a brand?

Elizabeth Chadwick: Loosely I think. I haven’t pro actively gone out to build a brand, but that brand has formed around me by a couple of decades of really strong word-of-mouth recommendations by readers.  The perceived view is historical accuracy married to vivid storytelling that puts the reader there in the moment.  Again it’s what I’m told, and what I have built on from there. 

Hilary Mantel: All my books are different, whether contemporary or historical. So I’m the opposite of a brand. I have never allowed myself to be pushed by a perceived drift or shift in the market, but have always gone my own way and presented my publisher with the result. This is perhaps why I wrote for 12 years before finding a publisher; I was unwilling to compromise. This is also why it has taken me so long to sell books in large quantities. I didn’t build up a core readership because I could give my publisher and my readers no idea what would come next. Artistically, I think this is a good thing. Financially, not so good.

Sharon Kay Penman: No, I do not think of myself as a brand.

C.W. Gortner: If I were solely responsible for creating my own brand— and I’m not, let us be clear about this: branding is a marketing effort that often transcends the writer’s intentions— it would be as an author of strong historical fiction that brings to life those misunderstood or maligned characters or eras. I am drawn to controversy and always will be; for a story to interest me, it has to have an edge. It can be subtle, embedded in the era itself; after all, not everyone can be a Catherine de Medici, but an edge has to be there, nonetheless.

With soon-to-be five published novels and an effort underway to rebuild my author website and the look and feel of my blog, the advisor I’m working with asked me what my unique selling proposition is — my USP. Apparently a key component in building a brand for M.K. Tod. My initial reaction was to claim that I don’t have a unique selling proposition, emphasis on unique, given that I write similar stories to many other historical fiction authors. “Go think about it,” she replied.

So I dusted off my consulting hat and went searching.

Steve Jobs once said: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards.” At one level, the customer experience is ‘a good story’ and an enjoyable way to spend time. We could broaden this to entertainment or getting lost in a story or the way a story makes you feel.

We could also consider what a reader learns from a story be it contemporary or historical – learning about a particular period of time, a particular industry or country or city. And then there’s learning about the human condition in all its varied shapes and complexities. Good stories help us make sense of our world, they make us think and feel, they allow us to imagine the what ifs of life and help us understand ourselves.

Why do you read? – from my 2018 reader survey

But hang on a moment, maybe there’s more. The reader experience might also be tied into what kind of person the author is, how that author interacts and connects with readers, what that author reveals about her/himself, whether the author seems authentic and relatable, whether the reader can depend on the author from book to book, whether their public persona is consistent, whether readers could imagine having a cup of coffee and a great conversation with a given author. Further, the reader experience might be enhanced by book club discussions or by sharing your thoughts about a particular novel over coffee with a friend or on an online forum.

Furthermore, there’s the reader experience of choosing books and talking about books. What role can/do authors play in those activities? How might this influence my brand?

I decided that one source of insight might be what readers say about my novels so I read through various reviews:

  • tales of resilience, strength, and hope
  • key turning points in history
  • bringing to life the details that inform great events
  • stories of hope despite tragedy
  • well-drawn characters
  • meticulously researched and educational
  • pulled the heart strings
  • historically illuminating and emotionally engaging
  • women who prove their mettle
  • if this author wrote 100 books, I would endeavor to read them all
  • CAUTION: You should reserve the proper amount of time to read Mary’s novels because once started it is very difficult to put them down.

Have I come up with my USP? Not yet, but I’m making progress!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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12 Responses

  1. Excellent food for thought! James Scott Bell, in his books and posts, wrote about the “brands” of different authors. Often subtle, the text and subtext of these writers became benchmarks by which to readers measured the quality of their novels and others.

    When writers suddenly deviate from their actual and perceived brands, they may (and often do) receive adverse reactions from audiences. Thus, an author’s brand can attract readers, but it can also repel the target audience if changed.

    I recall one writer known for clean historical thrillers, created a new series containing coarse language and blatant violence, the antithesis of his prior work. Despite my love for his older novels, I now pass on anything he writes.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, Grant. The notion of deviation from your brand is important to me because I have a contemporary novel waiting in the wings – and I’m currently known for historical fiction!

      1. A famous artist lamented he had painted himself into a corner (his pun), and known for certain high-value work, he felt forced to continue. For writers, pen names come to our rescue, but that’s a whole new set of pros and cons.

  2. Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
    It took me a long time (and many mis-steps) to come up with what I call my branding statement and others might call a tag line or unique selling point: I am the award-winning author of historical fiction with a twist!

    I found that thinking of it as a 10-second elevator pitch helped me get down to the most basic point.

    Anyway, there is some excellent food for thought in this post from M.K. Tod.

  3. A very thought-provoking post, Mary, with some interesting responses both as quoted and here in the Comments. Because I’ve always considered myself more than a ‘writer,’ I’ve lately come to describe myself as a “Packager of Information & Entertainment Content.” But that’s a bit too generic for a brand. So my current USP is: “Creator and teller of unique Harald Johnson stories.” So a possible thought for you in your USP quest: include your name. You are unique in the world. And so are your stories.

  4. Hi Mary! Enjoyed your post. My day job is in marketing so I have a particular affinity for branding. I teach a course on it and would be happy to share my PPT with you (or go over it with you on Zoom). No charge. Let me know if you’d be interested.

  5. Interesting quest.
    What about all of the surveying and analysis you have done to provide insights into the historical fiction community. Isn’t that another facet of your unique brand?

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