September 25, 2018

Branding 101: What Does Our Brand Promise to Readers?

Wedding rings beside lily with text: What's Our Promise to Readers?

Many, if not most, readers have a few go-to or auto-buy authors. Readers support their go-to authors by buying almost everything they’ve released, keeping their name top-of-mind to suggest and recommend to others, and generally feeling a sense of loyalty.

As authors, we long to be on readers’ auto-buy lists. We want readers who support us, share the word about our books, and love what we do.

As readers, we know how we feel about our go-to authors. I don’t expect their every book to be a five-star, keeper-shelf story of perfection, but I know I’ll get a consistently good story that hits my buttons.

And that brings us to today’s topic. Just as we have go-to favorite authors that we know we can depend on for delivering a certain type of story, readers are evaluating us for what we can deliver: What’s our promise to readers when they pick up one of our stories?

Branding 101 Recap: What Is a Brand?

Yep, this is a branding thing. Sorry. However this is more about our writing and stories than about marketing, so don’t worry too much. *smile*

While we often think of our brand as logos, colors, products, and other tangible things, a brand can actually be thought of in broader and less tangible terms. Our brand is simply the impression others have of us:

“Our brand is how we and our stories relate to others. Or more accurately, it’s how others relate to us and our stories.

Do our stories make our readers feel good or frustrated, enlightened or disappointed? Do our social media updates make us seem friendly or whiny, helpful or self-absorbed? Do our blog posts make us seem informal or formal, amusingly crazy or crazy-crazy?”

To highlight my favorite line from a great post by Seth Addison that explored this idea:

“Your brand is the relationship between you and your customer, not a logo or a product.”

Or as the keenly missed Maya Angelou said:

“People will forget what you said.
People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In other words, our brand is how we relate to others, how they relate to us, and/or how we make them feel. Long after the specifics of our words, characters, plots, stories, websites, avatars, color themes, etc. fade, people will remember how we made them feel. That’s the impression that matters.

What Do Readers Expect from Our Story?

When we’re first starting out as authors, readers might not have expectations about our stories in particular. They might not know us or our author name from any others.

Instead, just like any potential readers we encounter throughout our career, they pick up our book because of the cover or blurb or price or whatever. Any expectations in their mind of the story are built off those items.

Their expectations come from what the cover or blurb leads them to believe about the…:

  • story
  • characters
  • plot
  • genre

Does the cover look like a sci-fi or a western? Does the cover or blurb imply a romantic story? Does the cover or blurb hint at action or evil villains? Etc., etc.

However, once readers are familiar with our work, their expectations will change. They’ve related to our work, and through our writing, they’ve related to us. In other words, part of our brand is our “author promise”—what we teach readers to expect from our stories.

What Do We “Promise” to Readers?

Like many readers, I choose stories to read based on my moods. Sometimes I’m in the mood for an action or suspense story. And sometimes I want a story with more warm fuzzies.

Want to be an auto-buy author for readers? Know what you promise with your stories. Click To TweetAll that plays into how readers choose their auto-buy authors. If we as authors deliver the right story for the right mood, readers are more likely to choose one of our other stories when that mood hits them again.

Obviously, this right-story-right-mood match is harder if what we deliver to readers isn’t consistent in quality, style, etc. That’s how our writing relates to our brand.

Once readers have related to our work, their expectations are built off how our other stories have made them feel. Those feelings then lead readers expect similar reactions, experiences, and emotions when they pick up another one of our stories.

If we deliver on those expectations, we’ve fulfilled the “promise” to readers. If what we deliver is too much of a mismatch for their expectations, the promise goes unfulfilled, and readers are less likely to turn to our stories in the future, as they’d have less reason to believe we’d deliver what they’re looking for.

What Goes into an “Author Promise”?

Beyond just the feelings evoked by a happy or sad ending, several elements create impressions in our readers’ minds about what to expect from our stories.

An author promise encompasses the full experience readers get from our stories, including:

  • Genre: The most obvious aspect of our stories that creates expectations in readers is genre. Being in the mood for a thriller is very different from being in the mood for small-town contemporary romance.
    Our genre comes with a whole set of expectations and promises to readers. I write romance, which requires a happy ending for the couple.
  • Plot, Stakes, and Pacing: Some authors write twisty plots and high stakes that keep readers turning pages, and some stories are quieter or more introspective or have a slower pace that allows readers to settle in. Still others are a mix of action with a few breathers built in.
    My stories tend to be of the mix variety, with a steady build to an action-filled Climax.
  • Characters: Some authors focus just enough on the characters to get the job done, and others build deep characterization elements like backstory wounds, false beliefs, strong arcs, etc. Character personality is another point of distinction for our protagonists.
    As a romance author, I write characters as deeply as possible, as it’s essential for readers to relate to them. As far as they type of characters I write, my heroes tend to be strong but not alpha-hole jerks, and my heroines are their equal in internal strength and know what they want.
  • Themes: Our stories contain more than one theme, and our worldview—everything from optimism vs. pessimism to what we value or believe—often comes out in the themes we revisit in our stories.
    My themes as a romance author center on trust, partnership, self-sacrifice for love, and self-acceptance, often on a path to redemption.
  • Conflicts and Arcs: Related to the previous three elements, our stories can gravitate to certain types of conflicts and arcs. Some authors focus on external conflict (plot arcs), and some focus on internal conflict (character arcs). Others include both types of conflict and arcs.
    My novels include a mix, with strong internal arcs for the characters and the big external conflict (like taking down villains) common to paranormal romance.
  • Voice: Several elements go into our voice, such as how we use descriptions and language and grammar rules to build our own way of storytelling. In addition, this element can include our style, such as a cheery vs. eerie mood, the point of view we use, our level of showing and telling, or how much angst or humor we incorporate.
    I love using rhetorical devices to include rhythm, include banter and humor, write deep point of view, and usually save up the angst for the Black Moment.
  • Worldbuilding: Worldbuilding can be related to genre, setting, and situation. Small-town romance is very different from gritty, apocalyptic romance. The setting can also address timelines, such as if we tend to write stories with lots of flashbacks or play with chronology, or even if our stories span a few days or months or years.
    My novels are set in our world and the paranormal/fantasy aspect is revealed slowly over the course of the story. To make the romance more realistic, the story takes place over several months.
  • Sex Scenes, Profanity, and Triggering Situations: Especially in romance, readers build up expectations for authors based on whether their sex scenes are open or closed door, etc. Authors sometimes struggle to differentiate themselves from genre expectations in this category as well. RITA winner Kait Nolan includes a disclaimer at the front of her small-town romances that, contrary to many expectations of the subgenre, her stories include sex scenes and some light cursing. On the other hand, a fair number of readers would be disappointed if a paranormal romance didn’t include those elements.
    My stories include open door sex scenes to reveal how the intimacy changes and affects the characters, but profanity use depends entirely on the characters.

Looking at all that, I’d hope my readers learn to expect that my romance stories will deliver a healthy, optimistic relationship that:

  • develops over a unique paranormal-based, high-stakes plot to defeat the bad guys,
  • offers deep point-of-view insights into characters who call each other out on their crap and yet are shown to have deep compatibility,
  • adds a mix of humor, fun, and steaminess through banter and sexual tension leading to sexy times, and
  • ends with them in a respectful partnership where they’re equal in power and belief in the strength of love.

I might not be there yet, but that gives me a goal. *smile*

Why Should We Define Our Author Promise?

We might not be able to define ourselves and our stories according to every category above, especially not until we have several books under our belt to see what carries over from story to story. If we struggle to define ourselves, we might also turn to our beta readers or reader-fans to help us see ourselves.

But the more we can learn about ourselves and our writing, the better, as we can:

  • Find Our Readers: The better we understand ourselves and the types of stories we write, the better we’ll be able to find the right readers for us. There’s no point trying to appeal to readers that would be a bad match for our stories.
  • Identify Readers of Compatible Authors: It’s beneficial to identify authors who write stories similar to ours. Some platforms allow us to target their readers, or we might be able to learn how and where to reach our readers by studying what they do.
  • Partner with Compatible Authors: Authors with similar reader-expectations might be good for us to partner with, such as pointing our readers to each other’s books in our newsletters. Or if we find several compatible authors, we might be able to put together an anthology of our stories to introduce our readerships to each other.
  • Build Up True Reader Fans: Marketing gurus often share advice about how to get loyalty from readers in ways that feel manufactured. But true reader fans choose us as a favorite auto-buy author because they want more of the feelings and experiences they get from our stories—not because they’ve been bribed or railroaded into performing recommendation tasks, etc.

In addition, knowing more about what we write (or don’t write) might help us plan our future stories, from brainstorming to prioritizing, as we see what would be a good match for reader expectations. That doesn’t mean we can’t branch out, but we might keep some aspects of our author promise and change up others (such as keeping our voice or how spicy the sex scenes are).

If we want to expand further from readers’ expectations, we’d know to make the difference very clear in how we market the new story to avoid reader disappointment. Or we might just use a new pen name to avoid issues.

The point is that the more we understand our brand from the perspective of our author promise: the better we can deliver on the expectations of readers, the stronger impression they’ll have of our work, and the higher our chances of being some readers’ go-to author. Not to mention the better we can make our choices work for us. *smile*

Do you have auto-buy authors? What makes them a favorite go-to author? Have you heard of or thought about an author promise before? Can you add other elements of our author promise to this list? Can you define your (or another author’s) promise?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Alessandra Hazard is one of my auto-buy authors, as she is one of my favorite gay romance authors! Her books are unusually addictive, and I love how vivid and pithy her character dialogues and interactions are! I love the emotional tension and stakes in her stories as well. Also, I actually like reading her sex scenes, which is saying a lot, because I typically find sex scenes boring. One of my favorite couples ever, are the two heroes in Alessandra’s latest book. It was an enemies-to-lovers plot, set in a sci-fi world! Loved it so, so much. Hmmm I noticed that my story style has changed over these past few years. Recently, my writing has become less humorous and more serious… This is odd, because previously, I had a problem where it seemed like I couldn’t be serious about anything— there was always something silly that happened to deflate the somber mood! But now the tone is a lot more serious, and I don’t know if this is because of these particular characters, this particular plot, or what. Interestingly, I’ve been going to queer comedy shows every week, and I still frequently make my friends laugh in person and sometimes online too. But the humor has been going out of my stories. XD As well, my stories used to be very clean, as in no swear words, no sex scenes. Gradually, though, there were more and more swear words, and more and more sexual innuendos. Lol! In my latest story,…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks! You say:
“My novels include a mix, with strong internal arcs for the characters and the big external conflict (like taking down villains) common to paranormal romance.”

The amount of such stories I’ve read which contain nothing but the romance! How many times can you write about ‘I didn’t know he/ she was a shapechanger until…’ I always feel there should have been more conflict to the story. After all, this is a life-changing proposition.

Anne Stormont

Such a useful post. Has really helped me analyse and focus on my readers. Thank you!


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