Monday, July 15, 2013

Updating my Author Brand

There's a lot of talk in writer circles these days about the importance of defining your brand. Much like a wireless phone provider or auto manufacturer, an author's brand encompasses the the desired public image of his or her product. T Mobile wants customers to identify their service with a hip, young brunette sporting hot pink. Chevrolet targets their truck ads at rugged, hardworking men like farmers or ranchers. S.C. Johnson describes itself as a "family company", a definition that emphasizes the trustworthiness and quality of their products.

So what is my brand, and why do I need to update it? I never gave the concept a thought when I began writing decades ago. I wrote the kind of stories that appealed to me as a reader, and my first three published books were Western historical romances. However, my tastes as a reader and writer have changed, along with the tastes of the majority of romance readers. Western historicals still enjoy a certain dedicated readership, but they are no longer as popular as they once were. My newest book is completely different--a humorous contemporary with strong suspense elements--and because I've decided to publish it myself, the issue of developing an appropriate author brand is even more important.

When changing genres, as I'm doing, many authors choose to write under a different name. But unless you abandon all earlier titles, that requires multiple websites and online personas--way too much work for me compared to the potential payoff. Realistically, I was never a big enough name in Western romance to worry about damaging an existing brand. I decided to establish a new brand that would reflect my new style but which could also encompass my earlier work. Besides, I might decide to write historicals again someday.Should I decide to abandon romance entirely for mysteries or family sagas in the future, I would probably use a pseudonym, but for now my own name will suffice.

To prepare for the task of creating a brand, I took an online course for authors on Creating A Marketing Plan, which included a lesson on branding. I also read several articles on the subject. Then I set out to define myself, starting with the question: What words do you want readers to associate with you and your books? I took into account self-defined strengths, as well as comments from readers and reviewers, and came up with the following: warmth, wit, and a touch of whimsy. I think those words describe me as a person and a writer, regardless of the sub-genre I choose. And putting my brand into words helps me keep it in mind as I write.

Finally, there's the issue of visual branding. Our products--books--have a certain look that tells readers what to expect. It might be softly romantic, darkly sensual, or lightly humorous. Historically, large publishers and their marketing departments have commissioned covers to promote an author's brand (although I know many authors who have been disappointed by a cover). Small presses usually take less care. The covers for my Westerns are lovely but do not suggest any type of author brand. 

By self-publishing, I can control that. I choose the look and content of my covers. But with control comes responsibility, and it's scary. I have to do it right or risk compromising and weakening the brand I'm working so hard to develop. I'm also re-doing my website to reflect my new brand. I'll unveil it here when it's finished, and you can tell me what you think.

It's a brave new world, and I'm jumping in with both feet!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Copyediting for the Twenty-first Century

I'm old-fashioned and willing to admit it, but I didn't realize how far behind the times I was until I began the copyedits on my upcoming release, Unwritten Rules.

In January I announced my plan to self-publish my next book. I loved working with the small press that published my first three books, but I wanted to spread my wings and try something new. My main impetus was the desire to create my own cover and hone my editing skills--both necessary since I plan to start my own business offering those services to other writers as part of my new portfolio career. 

Last week I finalized the cover design and am delighted with the results. Unwritten Rules is my first contemporary romance, and the cover captures the sassy, modern tone of the book perfectly. If only the copyedits were as easy.

For the past several years, I had noticed what appeared to be the demise of punctuation in printed material of all types and assumed it was a question of style and author preference. Turns out I was right. However, those preferences are no longer individual; they have gained the weight of printed authority in no less than The Chicago Manual of Style and other influential style manuals.  

When I began writing decades ago, I used Strunk and White's slim little volume, The Elements of Style. It was chock-full of common sense advice and recommended using commas every place you would normally pause in verbal speech. I added that to my existing arsenal of absolute rules drummed into me by years of junior high and high school English teachers. Unfortunately I graduated from high school a LONG time ago. Practices and standards have changed, and I missed the boat.

Two of my first purchases when I decided to embark on my new portfolio career were The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn and my own copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. I suspected (correctly) I needed updating as well as authoritative references. These resources introduced me to the concept of "open punctuation" and convinced me to give it a try. I can't begin to count the number of commas I've removed from my manuscript: after introductory adverbs, before terminal adverbs, between co-ordinate adjectives. Thank heaven the punctuation gurus still allow serial commas. I need to be allowed to retain a few favorite old habits.

I now recognize the kindness of my previous editors who made no effort to reign in my comma addiction, and I'll do my best--in my own work and that of my clients--to keep modern and up-to-date. Even in the face of near-fatal comma withdrawal. I promise.

Monday, July 1, 2013

It's Time for a Six Month Check-up

Six months ago today I began my new life, my Second Half. So much has happened in that time, it seems only fitting to stop and take stock of the changes. 

Health: Six months ago chronic stress from my job had caused me to lose a third of my hair, and I was sleeping no more than four hours a night. I had also lost a substantial amount of weight, although most of that was voluntary as I joined OG on his weight loss program for better health. Today my hair has grown back (I even have a fun new haircut!), and I sleep around seven hours most nights. I exercise six days a week and have recently  added yoga to my routine. OG exercises daily, and his 55-lb weight loss has allowed him to throw away his cholesterol and blood pressure medications. In addition to our exercise routines, we're both more active in general. The beautiful weather and convenient location of our condo encourage us to do many of our errands on foot. We enjoy exploring and searching out new places and activities and have already found a number of new favorites.

Home: The biggest change. Moving is always difficult and stressful, but we were lucky enough to sell our home in Minnesota without much hassle and relocate to Carmel, California. It's a good thing we already owned a condo here because the new house we purchased in March has a good basic floor plan and spectacular views but is unfit for human habitation. We are basically rebuilding it from the studs out. At this point demolition is complete, and the new heating system and interior framing are well underway. Friday, we spent 2 1/2 hours with the lighting designer choosing fixtures and developing the whole lighting plan. Our contractor says we're still on schedule to complete the project at the end of November, and I hope he's right. So far it's been a fun experience and not too stressful, aided by the fact that we're not trying to live in a construction zone.

Work: Before I retired, I spent several months thinking about what I wanted to do in my new life. Since I was already a published fiction author, I knew I wanted to continue writing. However, I also wanted to expand my literary horizons a bit. I decided to start my own company offering editing and book cover design services to independent authors. Although I have not yet formally launched the company, I have been learning the intricacies of Photoshop and have designed three covers for a friend's indie-published novella series. I've also designed a cover for my own first venture into self-publishing. I figured if I hope to work with other self-published authors, I need to understand and experience the process first hand. That book, a contemporary bodyguard romance entitled Unwritten Rules, should be ready for release in the next couple of months. After that, I hope to complete and self publish a Christmas novella in time for the holidays. I want to remain flexible and not drive myself crazy, but I think it's important to have goals. We'll check back in six months and see how I've done meeting them.

Finances: I would be remiss if I didn't address this important topic. After all, money doesn't grow on trees, and I don't want to pretend it does. Before I took the big plunge and retired  earlier than planned, OG and I took stock and decided we could afford it. I hope that's still true (I think it is), but we really don't know yet. Right now we're living off cash assets and haven't started drawing any actual retirement income. I expect that to happen later this year after we move into our new house and sell the condo. At that point, we should know exactly where we stand financially. Health insurance has been one of my largest concerns, as it is for most early retirees. For now we're on COBRA from my former employer. It runs out right about the time OG becomes eligible for Medicare next year, and I'll have to buy an individual policy. I just hope my good health continues and the Affordable Care Act lives up to its name.

So there you have it: the last six months in a nutshell. OG and I have given up the security of a regular paycheck and moved half-way across the country, away from everything we've known, in search of a healthier, more fulfilling life in The Second Half. I think we've found it. I'm grateful for where we are and what we have every minute of every day. (And I think OG's coming around, too!)