Being a professional brand marketer is a little like being a politician, a psychologist or a primary school teacher. Everybody knows something about your job and they are all certain they could do it better than you.

I’ll tell you a secret, though. Branding is not what you think it is. It’s not about selling people something they don’t want, or selling out your own integrity. For authors, it doesn’t mean cheap sales gimmicks or cutting your book into a thousand slices and selling them one by one. It does not even mean that you have to write in a single genre.

Brands exist for a simple reason. There is too much choice. Consumers are paralyzed by it. An average suburban supermarket contains over 100,000 separate, purchasable items. For each entry on your shopping list like “soap,” “cereal” or “tea” there may be as many as 100 choices. If we had to fully evaluate our choices every time we made a purchase, we would spend all day buying groceries.

A brand trades time for money. The consumer says: I like you and I trust you. As long as you don’t disappoint me, I will choose you over others when I see you. You can charge me a little more and work less hard to get my attention. I’ll remember your name the next time I shop. Branding is a promise, pure and simple.

For authors, understanding and developing our brand is vital. Please notice I’m not saying “choosing to brand” or “engaging in branding.” That’s the fallacy that authors who don’t understand consumer marketing would have you believe. The reality is that you do have a brand and you are branding, regardless of whether you are doing it intentionally or accidentally.

Some people have great instincts for branding even if they’re not professional trained, and they build brands that are strong and durable completely accidentally. But whether you think about your brand or not, please understand that you are branding. It’s unavoidable. Consumers have to make choices and when they encounter you they’ll make shorthand impressions and attach those to your name or the title, series name or protagonist in your novel.

If you admit that you’re branding, it only makes sense to try to do it well. This doesn’t mean advertising, selling, promoting or networking. It means understanding the appeal of your books to your readers and making sure that you don’t do anything to detract from it. So what is branding really about? It’s about maximizing the value of that promise to your readers. There are three traits that strong brands share: they are consistent, authentic and unique.

Being consistent means always delivering on your promise to readers. But that promise doesn’t have to be to always deliver a particular character or even genre. The promise could be the pacing of your books, a particular style of writing or even your unique way of viewing the world. If you want to mix up all of these elements, then it’s best to de-emphasize your name and punch up the name of your series and then stay consistent within the series.

Being authentic is about expertise. It’s about being the most believable voice writing what you are writing. But the odds are that if you write romance, you’re not Don Juan. Few science fiction authors are quantum physicists and nobody writing vampire literature is undead (I hope). So your authenticity must come from making your characters and situations completely real, even if they could never have existed in our world. For a writer that means finding the truth, whether it is emotional or factual verisimilitude. It helps if you can create a niche within the genre that nobody else occupies. Then you’re already the expert.

Uniqueness is the hardest challenge in a marketplace where a half-million books get published every year. This is a particular problem for genre literature. As long as we are imitating what others do, it’s hard to be unique. The good news is that there are many ways to be unique. If you have a strong voice, that may be enough. Your wit (as my blog host, Rachel has found) is unique to you. You may write dialogue or description in a distinctive and unique manner (look at Michael Chabon’s descriptions, for instance). Whatever it is, you have to find that unique thing about you and make sure that it shines through. If the people who love your writing best don’t talk about this trait in your writing, it’s probably not what makes you unique.

Branding is just this simple – and this difficult. It’s not about losing your integrity but maintaining it. It’s not about selling out but buying in. It is not about anything you do with your work but about the work itself.

How you talk about it and what you do to promote it has another name.

That’s called marketing.

Please leave your comments, experiences, or questions below.