Traditional & Indie Publishing: A Symbiotic Relationship?

I’m borrowing the word ‘symbiotic’ from biology, which is used when two different types of organisms live together (rather intimately) to their mutual benefit.

For example, there is a rather brave bird (called a ‘plover’) which shares a symbiotic relationship with the crocodile. Incredibly, the crocodile opens its mouth and lets the plover pick meat out of its teeth, not harming the plover. The plover gains a meal, while the crocodile gets its teeth cleaned.

Perhaps this wasn’t the best example. I’m not implying that the traditional publisher is like a crocodile and indies are bravely picking its teeth. I am implying that the relationship may be symbiotic, but not quite that way. 🙂

In biology, the relationship may not always be mutually beneficial, but that’s what I have in mind by applying this concept to the publishing world. I believe the relationship between traditional and indie publishing to be mutually beneficial, not parasitic.

Here are some ways in which traditional and indie publishing are mutually beneficial:

  • Authors have the opportunity to avoid possible rejection letters by self-publishing. This benefits traditional publishing by reducing the number of proposals that need to be filtered.
  • Self-publishers provide ample business to print-on-demand publishers like CreateSpace and Ingram Spark. Traditional publishers benefit from this service, too, keeping titles ‘in stock’ which would otherwise be retired. The combined use of this service helps to keep the cost low for everybody.
  • Small publishers have increased their business by offering formatting, editing, and cover design services to self-publishers. This helps self-publishers improve their books.
  • The presence of indie authors significantly enhances the population of authors overall, which helps boost participation in author support groups – like writing groups, blogging communities, and social media sites. Many traditional authors in these communities have much experience to share.
  • The combined number of books – i.e. indie plus traditional – has led to an increased number of writing contests, review sites, magazines, etc. This increases the opportunities for all authors to improve their exposure and branding.
  • The combined number of e-books – i.e. indie plus traditional – impacts the price of e-readers in a positive way for consumers, and the availability of e-book publishing services for authors.
  • Both types of authors draw readers, especially when the books are very readable, enjoyable, or informative. I personally buy and read many more books now than when there only used to be traditionally published books available, and there are many others like me in this regard. Both types of books may generate sales for the other type through customers-also-bought lists.

Let me take the analogy a step farther.

The crocodiles could eat the plovers. They would gain some meals in the short run, but their teeth would be dirty in the long run. Even worse, the plovers could bite the crocodiles’ tongues.

Now imagine traditional publishers marketing negative things about indie books or vice-versa. If successful, this would be bad business for everybody. Many customers buy Kindles not just to read traditional e-books and not just to read indie e-books. If marketing efforts portray a lousy image for many e-books, it makes the e-reader itself less attractive.

If you could put a huge dent in either type of publishing, that would reduce the usage of print-on-demand services and e-readers both, which would impact pricing, competitiveness, and availability of services. It would also put a huge dent in readership.

The relationship between indie and traditional publishing may not be ‘obligate,’ meaning that survival of one entirely depends on the existence of the other. However, if either form were to vanish, it would have a major impact on the other.

From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to say good things about books, e-books, readers, authors, and publishers of all kinds. Putting time and effort into marketing your own book would be partially negated by also spreading a negative image for books at large. That negative image would decrease sales overall, which would come back to haunt you, statistically. Spreading a positive image of all kinds of books helps to reinforce your own marketing.

Similar books may also share a symbiotic relationship. Customers usually don’t buy one-or-the-other, but buy several similar books (if not all at once, spread over time – thinking, “Where can I get more like this?”).

Foolish authors who blast the competition shoot themselves in the foot. If successful at hurting the sales of similar books, they also hurt their own books.

When instead similar books are thriving, they all tend to thrive together – e.g. through customer-also-bought associations.

It’s not like there is only one book at the top and nothing else sells. There is plenty of room for readable, enjoyable, or informative books. Similar books can thrive together in symbiotic relationships.

It used to be that a paperback book selling about once a day had a sales rank around 50,000 at Amazon. Now it might sell once a day and have a sales rank well over 100,000. This shows that the total number of books selling frequently has increased. Much of this may be the result of symbiotic relationships among similar books, plus the increased number of good books to read and an increase in readership, as well as an increase in e-readers and e-books.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

Goofy Branding

I took my daughter to Disneyland a couple of weeks ago, and the experience got me thinking about branding.

My daughter loves Mickey Mouse and Cinderella. These are the big stars, the main brands. How can the small guys compete with the big names? I’ll get to this question if you have some patience.

We saw Mickey Mouse a couple of years ago. We waited in a very long line in Toontown to meet him. It was a great experience; we got good photos and everyone was very nice. But it was such a long line, and once you get your turn it’s time to rush a new group in.

One year, we accidentally entered a line to meet Tinkerbell. After several minutes and scarcely moving forward, we finally realized the long line wasn’t for a ride and got out of it. This year, there was what looked like a reasonable line to meet Cinderella and other Disney princesses. However, in several minutes we hardly moved at all. Fortunately, my daughter decided that her time would be better spent waiting to go on a ride.

On our way to eat lunch, we saw Tiana. There were only a few other girls in line to see her. My daughter got to see her very quickly. I was really impressed that Tiana sat down to get down to my daughter’s level. She spent good time with her, we got great pictures, and my daughter felt very special to get such personal attention from a princess. Tiana moved way up on my daughter’s list of favorite characters (and mine, too).

We got to see several characters during the parade. Goofy came over and patted my daughter on the head during the parade. He scored major points with us from this simple wow-factor.

This reminds me, if you want to see Donald Duck, Goofy, or Pluto in Toontown, you can very often do so with a very short line. You also see them at other parts of the park from time to time, and they are usually very accessible.

What struck me is that the small guys can compete with the big names. Personal attention, little personal touches, a simple wow-factor – these kinds of things can make a huge, lasting impression.

If you’re one of the small guys (like me), striving to brand your own image, personal interaction is something you can use to help stand apart. Branding is about getting people to remember your name (or the name of your product or business), getting recognized, getting associated with some quality, and the potential for word-of-mouth referrals. Personal interactions with members of your target audience can help to achieve this.

Are you just selling a product? Or are you selling an experience?

Have you ever bought a product from someone where without that interaction you never would have bought that product? Maybe you happened to walk by a shop and noticed it. If it had been a vending machine, you never would have put money into it. But after a nice experience with a sales associate, you made the purchase. Not because the salesperson twisted your arm, but you enjoyed the personal interaction. Has this ever happened to you?

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Challenging How Big the Author’s Name Should Be

Name Pic

The consensus among critics is that the author’s name should be relatively small (compared to the title) unless you’re famous.

Why? There are two popular reasons for this:

  1. The marketing view says that if the author’s name appears too large on the cover, it will distract the shopper’s attention from more important keywords in the title. If you’re famous, then it’s important to throw your name out there because your name has sales value.
  2. The critical view feels that the author’s name should take on a humble role on the cover (i.e. out of the way) if the author doesn’t have name recognition.

But is this correct?

Maybe not.

There are a couple of reasons to reconsider this point:

  1. Do you primarily expect to sell books to family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, social media followers, and people you interact with personally through marketing? If so, then you do have name recognition with your target audience. Make your name larger for their benefit and disregard the potential critics. Why not?
  2. Are you branding your name in your marketing efforts? If you are effective at this, then you want your name to be easily visible (but perhaps not dominating) on the thumbnail image of your cover. Potential customers who recognize your name from your marketing endeavors who see your name in the thumbnail may check out your book.
  3. Part of marketing is about creating a perception. If you’re thinking big, then you want to create a big name for yourself. If you’re going all out to try to make it big, then starting out with a big name on your cover might be a good fit. Make that big name for yourself and prove the cover critics wrong.
  4. If you’re a nonfiction author with a title (Dr., Ph.D., M.D., etc.), you may want your qualifications to be visible in the thumbnail image. However, if you don’t have a relevant title and aren’t well-known in your field, it may be better to place emphasis on a few important keywords instead of your name.

What is your personality? What fits you? A big name? A small name?

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon

Social Media Checks

Let me start with an employment-related fact and then discuss how this relates to author branding.

More employers are doing social media background checks and are turning down candidates based on what they find.

This doesn’t mean that people should avoid social media all together. Rather, it means that social media must be treated as a sample of professionalism. Companies that specialize in social media background checks actually have access to messages that aren’t made public, comments, and more. Scary; but it is what it is.

When a social media background check reveals unprofessional conduct (e.g. signs of not getting along well with others, negative comments about former employers) or evidence that contradicts the resume, these red flags are likely to deter employers from hiring.

However, when a social media profile looks professional and displays excellent communication skills, this tends to be an asset. Creativity and a touch of personality may help, too.

Readers do various sorts of social media background checks, too.

Many shoppers will glance at the customer book reviews. If they see authors making negative comments about former readers, this falls under the “bad-mouthing former employers” category. It doesn’t look professional.

Potential customers read blogs, tweets, Facebook author pages, etc. A shopper who discovers the book on Amazon probably isn’t going to do an extensive background check, but may explore the reviews and author page. Nobody is likely to read all of an author’s social media messages.

However, many potential customers will discover the book through one of these methods. It might be a blog, could be a tweet, etc. Perceived unprofessional conduct (e.g. bad-mouthing) may deter sales. Professional posts with excellent communication skills that show creativity and a touch of personality are more apt to boost sales.

What a potential customer sees when checking one form of social media and how this customer reacts is not much different from what a prospective employer would look for in a job candidate.

Remember, although readers probably aren’t going out of their way to do background checks on authors, potential readers are discovering authors through their marketing endeavors. What the potential reader sees in this discovery process serves as a “background check.” Is it a red flag that may deter sales, or is it something that is more likely to inspire sales? Think author branding.




Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers


Publishing Is not a Dog-Eat-Dog Business

I debated with myself whether or not this article would be worth writing. I feel that the majority of writers already realize this, and the minority who exhibit the dog-eat-dog mentality aren’t likely to read this article – and, if they do, be influenced by it. Then I considered that it may provide a little reassurance to the majority, if nothing else. So I have written this article with this possible benefit in mind.

Unfortunately, there are a few unscrupulous authors and publishers out there who incorrectly believe that they can become more successful by making their colleagues look worse by planting negative reviews on similar titles and other unethical practices. We see it happen occasionally. Most of the one-star reviews are from actual customers who simply didn’t like the book, but a few are actually from competing authors or publishers – sometimes directly, and sometimes indirectly by persuading or even paying others to do it for them.

We know it happens from the times that that the author was caught red-handed. Reviews have been removed, accounts have been suspended, and a couple of such authors have been featured in high-profile articles.

Let me stress again that the vast majority of authors do not behave this way. Most authors – both indies and traditionally published – are much more ethical than this. Most authors support one another. I don’t mean to suggest a bad image for authors or books in any way. I hope that you will keep in mind that the vast majority of authors behave professionally and supportively and that almost all books provide much value to readers, and not let the behavior of a few bad eggs adversely affect your image of books and publishing at large.

What I really want to point out is why the dog-eat-dog approach is foolish in the publishing industry: Similar books are generally much more complementary than competitive. Buyers usually buy multiple books (if not all at once, then over a period of months or years). It’s usually not a case of, “Should I buy Book A or Book B?” but, “Where can I find more books like Book A?”

Similar titles help one another through Customer Also Bought lists, word-of-mouth referrals, etc.

If an author succeeds in hurting sales of similar titles by blasting the competition, this author is very likely shooting himself or herself in the foot. Every time a customer buys a similar title, that author’s book shows up as a suggested add-on. So hurting the sales of one book tends to hurt the sales of similar books.

Similar titles tend to feed off of each other’s successes.

Another important point is that a negative review sometimes actually helps sales, instead of hurting them. This is a second reason that the unethical dog-eating-other-dogs mentality is likely to backfire.

No author wants to receive a bad review. But sometimes they help sales rather than hurt them. First of all, every review adds to the total number of reviews. More reviews is a sign of greater popularity. Second of all, a negative review among good reviews may help to provide balance. Occasionally, a negative review does hurt sales, but many times it doesn’t.

We must also give credit to the customer. Shoppers can often tell that there is something funny about an unethical review. If they suspect that the competition has blasted a book, customers are inclined to feel supportive toward the poor author who was blasted. They might even buy the book when they otherwise wouldn’t have.

If a customer recently read the book and was about to post a negative review, upon seeing a harsh negative review already there, the customer often reconsiders this. Thus, a malicious one-star review might not result in more negative reviews, just more obviously malicious ones. When customers see a harsh negative review, sometimes they post a positive review when otherwise they wouldn’t have reviewed the book.

Of course, it takes much time for the author to see what effect, if any, a review has. Occasionally, bad reviews do deter sales. It’s just that the assumption that a bad review will always deter sales is clearly false; sometimes it does, but often it doesn’t.

The vast majority of authors who are scrupulous have a great deal of support on their side. Those few unscrupulous dog-eat-dog authors are missing out on this wonderful opportunity.

Most authors help one another in various ways:

  • We discuss ideas with other writers for writing better, marketing better, publishing better, etc.
  • We provide support through comments and emails.
  • We share recommendations for cover artists, editors, etc.
  • We reveal tricks of the trade to authors we interact with and trust.
  • We support one another emotionally.
  • We offer advice from our experience.
  • We give critical feedback when it is solicited.
  • We buy, read, and review many books.
  • And much, much more.

The self-publishing community is very supportive and resourceful. It’s an amazing team to be on. The community is far stronger than a stray dog going around eating other dogs.

Finally, a few bad authors shouldn’t be casting a bad image for dogs. When I think of dogs, I think of wonderful, furry, loving creatures, who win your love with sad eyes, slurp your face with a salivating tongue, stand up on hind legs and throw their front paws on your chest, and faithfully follow you wherever you go. We could learn a lot by studying the natural goodness exhibited by the vast majority of dogs. 🙂

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Comparing Commercial Marketing to Book Marketing: What Can We Learn?

Commercial Marketing Pic

We’re exposed to marketing every day.

So when authors realize that they must market their books to sell them, it’s not like they have no experience with marketing at all.

We all have experience with marketing.

It’s not that marketing is new. It’s just that marketing books is different.

Some of the strategies that we see every day can be applied to books. However, some strategies that work for other products don’t tend to work well for books, or work differently for books.

(1) Advertising.

If you saw a commercial right now advertising a new brand of laundry detergent, would you run to the store immediately and buy it?

  • I’m guessing not. But if your answer is yes, I’d like to pay you some money to watch commercials for half an hour. 🙂

If you saw a commercial right now asking you to run to the store to try a new brand of potato chips, would you do it? What if the commercial asked nicely? Pretty please? What if the commercial tells you instead of asks? Go there now! Or threatens you? Or else you’ll be the only person on earth to never experience this wonderful new taste.

  • People usually don’t like being told what to do, or being asked to do something that seems quite inconvenient for no other reason than to give others profit.

If you saw a commercial right now telling you about a new brand of shoes that’s the best ever, would you believe it? Suppose instead that the commercial describes what makes the shoes better. Would this strategy have a different effect?

  • Just hearing that a product is good doesn’t tell a customer how the product will help him or her. But knowing something specific that the product does might accomplish this.

When you go shopping, what you probably remember is which brand names sound familiar. People are more likely to buy products they’ve heard of before. This is the idea behind branding.

Advertisements help to establish brand recognition.

When you’re shopping, you might also remember something about the brand. For example, you might associate a particular brand name with luxury (like Cadillac) or trust (like Sears when they branded their image of Satisfaction Guaranteed), or you might recall a slogan or logo.

One strong goal of marketing books is developing a brand. The author can be the brand. Or it can be the name of a series (like Dummies) or a distinguished character (like Sherlock Holmes).

Branding occurs through repetition. You can brand a name, an image, a sound (think Jeopardy), and even a smell (with free samples of perfume).

Paid advertisements may not be cost-effective for most books. Although millions of people read books, there are 20 million books to choose from. There aren’t 20 million brands of paper towels, so advertising is cost-effective for large-scale paper towel manufacturers.

But there are many ways to brand an image through free marketing.

The key is to get the target audience to see the same name and image in a positive context a few times. Not so many times that it become annoying (then people think, “Oh, not that book! It drives me crazy!”). Not in a way that it seems intrusive, yet gets noticed by the target audience.

One way is to offer content that attracts your target audience, and allow your book to be discovered by an interested party (rather than shoved in front of their face).

When having conversations with people in your target audience (and natural conversations with anyone, but it’s your target audience who are most likely to buy your book), it’s natural to be asked, “So what have you done lately?” They’re more likely to be interested in your book when they asked you than when you come out and say, “I just published a book last month.”

You can get discovered through your blog, social media, a website for your book, personal interactions, book readings, book signings, attending workshops or conferences, giving presentations, doing community service, and many other ways.

But there are three things that you need for this to be effective:

  1. Traffic. (But note that you can interact with a much smaller group in person and have a higher yield than when marketing to a large group online. Personal interactions can have a powerful effect, if you can charm your readers conversationally. To some extent, you can also provide some charm online when interacting with people individually. I’m not saying to flirt with your readers; but maybe make them feel special for a moment – obviously, it’s far better if you really mean it.)
  2. Relevance. If you wrote a mystery and 70% of the traffic reads mysteries on a regular basis, then your marketing is highly relevant to the audience. But if only 2% of the traffic reads mystery, your marketing effort is being wasted.
  3. Value. People don’t like advertisements. If you can brand your image while providing something of value to your target audience, you’re marketing efforts are more likely to be noticed. You can provide nonfiction information that relates to your target audience, or you can provide a nice bookmark that doesn’t just look like an advertisement, or you can provide a service to your community, etc. Ideally, you want to give the reader something he or she is likely to want, where your brand gets recognized unobtrusively.

People aren’t going to remember a paragraph. They might recall a picture that has one central image (this gives covers that have multiple images a disadvantage). They might remember a few key words (so shorter titles without strange names have an advantage). They might remember a logo. The might remember a catchy phrase about the book. But definitely not a long sentence.

(2) Packaging.

Your intuition might tell you that the product is far more important than the packaging. If so, let me try to convince you how wrong this is.

If you thoroughly analyze product A and product B, and determine that product A suits you better than product B, then you would definitely prefer to have product A regardless of the packaging. Unfortunately, shopping isn’t so easy.

It’s often not easy to tell which product is best. Packaging has a very significant impact on buying decisions. We almost always look at the packaging to help determine which product suits us best.

Here is another important point: Nobody will ever know how good your product is if the packaging doesn’t attract their attention.

You can’t buy a product if you don’t discover it first.

Suppose you’re hungry for a candy bar, and one of the candy bars is packaged to look like sticks of gum. Would you even notice the candy that looked like gum? If you were shopping for gum and picked it up, would you buy it when you realized that it was candy?

Packaging helps people find the specific product that they’re looking for. If the packaging doesn’t fit the product, it will be highly ineffective. Good packaging attracts the target audience.

Poor packaging – and even average packaging – sends a message that the product wasn’t good enough to warrant better packaging (alternatively, perhaps they invested as little effort in the product as they did in the packaging).

Effective packaging does three things:

  1. Grabs attention. (In a positive way.)
  2. Attracts the specific target audience. (It should also look appealing and professional.)
  3. From a distance, it sends a short message (not necessarily in words) about what to expect from the product. (There may be more details in print upon closer inspection, but it’s the distant message that determines whether or not the consumer will ever inspect the packaging closely.)

Book packaging includes the cover, title, and blurb.

A good book with a fantastic cover and a killer blurb can make the difference between consistent sales and dwindling to the depths of millions of books.

It’s very important that authors realize this: The cover isn’t just part of the packaging, it’s also a permanent part of the book.

The cover is fashion. Just like clothing.

The reader has to feel comfortable holding the book. It must suit the target audience well. Better yet, it should attract them. If the shopper visualizes himself or herself holding the book in his or her hands and enjoys this feeling, then the buyer will be begging for the blurb and Look Inside to give him or her a reason to click Buy Now.

The cover is that important.

At least, if you’re hoping for many sales to come from people who discover your book. If you plan to sell most of your books in person after presentations or because you’re providing expertise that people will crave, then the cover may not be as important. Although it’s still important for similar reasons then, too (especially, if there are other expert books similar to yours).

The blurb and Look Inside are your only salesmen at the point-of-sale. The blurb has to draw the reader’s interest (without making empty promises, as that will affect reviews and word-of-mouth sales).

The cover, blurb, and Look Inside need to send a unified message. They must make it instantly (shoppers might look at your thumbnail for two seconds to decide whether or not to check the book out) clear what type of book it is. Precisely what type (e.g. contemporary romance, not teen romance; or does the cover look a little naughty, when the romance is light and clean?).

If the book cover doesn’t clearly suit the genre, it’s like packaging candy to look like gum.

Look at the covers and blurbs of top-selling books similar to yours to help get a sense of what readers expect.

(3) Promotions.

Everybody loves a discount.

Not quite true.

Everybody loves a discount on something they want to have.

Getting a discount on something you don’t need isn’t helpful at all.

Just discounting your book probably won’t help sales much. Amazon discounts books, and sales don’t always improve with the discount. People give books away free, and sometimes few are given away and almost none are read.

So if you offer a temporary discount, make the first book of your series free to help hook an audience, give away free bookmarks, or offer any other type of promotion, you have to realize that the promotion itself probably isn’t enough.

People don’t buy prices. People buy products. A discount is only effective if the target audience discovers the product and realizes the value of the discount.

So you have to market your promotion. A sale isn’t a substitute for marketing. A promotion can help your marketing efforts, but won’t work in place of them.

If sales are too frequent, word will get around and people will wait for the sales. This means that your sales rank might climb considerably in between sales.

Stores can put the same products on sale at the same time every year (like Black Friday). And some people will wait for the sale, but many won’t. But stores sell many products. And often you can’t wait for Black Friday. And not everyone likes to shop on the busiest days.

But books are different. You only buy the same book once, unlike many products that you need to buy every week, month, or few years. Many books, you can wait for if you know they will go on sale in the coming weeks.

(4) Mailing list.

Businesses strive to get customers to sign up for catalogs, email notifications, focus groups, etc.

Authors can have fan mail, book websites with supplemental material, preview readers, etc.

If you primarily use such things to send out advertisements, they probably won’t be effective. But if you provide significant content (like supplemental material), they can be effective. Content helps to attract your target audience. Then you can occasionally (10% or less of the time) announce a promotion, give a cover reveal, solicit input on a title, etc. (The cover reveal and asking for input on a title are ways that you can help to build buzz for an upcoming book.)


Think about the different forms of marketing that you’re exposed to every day. Consider what is and isn’t effective with you. For those things that are effective, see if you can find a way to achieve a similar effect with your book marketing.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

The Person Behind the Words

Person Words Pic

The author wrote the book, but exactly who is the person behind those words?

There are a few different ways that this information is useful:

  • Potential customers might have a more enjoyable reading experience if they check out the author page and blog to learn more about the writer before buying the book.
  • Fans can learn more about the author.
  • Authors can reveal something about themselves through marketing in order to help match their books to their target audience and to make their marketing efforts more personal.

You can learn more about the person behind the words by checking out the author page, author’s blog, author’s social media pages, and more.

As a reader, the author’s blog provide an additional writing sample, which may not have been edited as well as the Look Inside. This extra writing sample can help demonstrate the book’s potential for being well-written throughout (not just in the beginning of the book, which may receive more attention) for those readers who strongly value this.

Checking out an author’s other writing (e.g. the blog) gives an indication of the author’s personality, character, and possible motivation for writing the book. Occasionally, blogs and social media pages consist mostly of requests to please buy the book now. Sometimes, they are packed with useful information. If there is supplemental material that may interest fans, this may be a reward for reading the book. Does the author mostly blog about himself or herself? Does the author seem genuinely concerned about others? Are the author’s websites up-to-date or outdated? Are the posts too rare, too frequent, or just right for you? Is the material of interest to you?

You also get a sense of the author’s visual style, writing style, and thinking style. Some writing and thinking styles may conflict with yours, so you may have a more enjoyable reading experience by taking a few moments to avoid possible conflicts. You don’t necessarily need to find writing and thinking styles that match yours; we’re often attracted to different ways of thinking. What you want is to sample whether or not you find it agreeable.

From the author’s perspective, author pages, blogs, and social media are opportunities to make your marketing efforts more personal, attract your target audience with information that is useful for them, show your personality, demonstrate good character and values (in the eyes of your target audience), and show that you care.

Are you an author? If so, you’re not just an author. Exactly, who is the person behind those words?

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Visual Branding for Small Businesses and Authors

Visual Branding Pic

  • When you see a large brown delivery truck, does UPS come to mind?
  • Do you recognize the Mercedes symbol when you see it?
  • Which brands of shoes can you identify when you see people wearing them, even when the brand name and logo aren’t visible?
  • Have you ever been on a road trip hoping to see a pair of golden arches in the shape of an M?

These are businesses that have succeeded in visual branding.

And even though these are huge companies, they didn’t achieve their visual branding through advertisements. Sure, you’ve seen their commercials. But the commercials aren’t the reason that your mind has been stamped with these visual brands:

  • There are thousands of UPS delivery trucks. They are all the same color, and it’s a unique color so it stands out from all of the other trucks making deliveries every day.
  • Every time you drive, you see other cars. Even if you just go for a walk outside, you see them. This is why you recognize many car brands by their logos.
  • If you’re really into shoes, you can distinguish between different brands that have similar styles, even if the brand names and logos are removed. You have partly been branded by your own interest in them, and by each manufacturer adopting a sense of style that defines their brand.
  • If you drive through the US, you see those yellow M’s all over the place. It’s simple and you see them frequently.

The point is that smaller businesses and artists, including writers, can also achieve similar visual branding. And they can do it without advertising.

For small businesses who may be able to afford advertising, following are a few examples of visual branding that you may be familiar with:

  • Do you recognize any insurance or real estate agents whom you’ve never met? It may be because you’ve repeatedly seen their faces on billboards or in brochures.
  • Have you ever seen a car fully decorated to match the theme of the business? A dog grooming service might have a car that looks very much like a dog, or a flower delivery truck might have flowers painted all over its surface. Such vehicles grab your attention and clearly reveal the nature of their business.
  • Can you think of any local businesses where the employees wear very distinctive uniforms?
  • Would you recognize the logos from any local businesses?

Here are a few examples of visual branding among books:

  • Can you tell that a book is part of the Dummies series when you catch a glimpse from a distance?
  • Do you recognize Waldo from the Where’s Waldo? books?
  • Would you know if a book is part of the Dr. Seuss collection if the title and author were covered up? The cat is distinctive.

Visual branding occurs even in the world of self-publishing:

  • If you’re not already familiar with them, check out Aaron Shepard’s books. He features a similar drawing of himself on every cover. Not everyone is fond of holding a book with that image, but it works: You see that picture and immediately recognize it as one of his books. He may not have been famous when he did that with his first book, but this consistent branding and unique style have helped create fame.
  • Search for Fifty Shades of Gray at Amazon and look at the covers. The style is distinctive and it’s carried over into other books in the series.

Whether you have a small business or you’re an artist or writer, here are the keys to visual branding:

  • Frequency. You need people to see your visual brand repeatedly. Not several times per day, but here and there over weeks and months; you want the message to be pleasing and the frequency not to be annoying (or your image will be branded the wrong way). Marketing isn’t just about what you say; it’s also very much about what you show. If people forget what you said or wrote, they might remember what they saw.
  • Consistency. Show the same image consistently; don’t show different images in each marketing effort. Choose your visual brand wisely from the beginning and stick with it. Select one image that you want people to remember.
  • Distinctive. If brown delivery trucks were common, would you associate this color with UPS? If every author had their picture on their cover, would you recognize Aaron Shepard?
  • Unity. Sending a unified message may be more important than being distinctive when it comes to visual branding memory. When the image relates to the nature of the business, this makes it easier to remember. A car decorated to look like a dog helps people remember if the business relates to dogs. Those golden arches that make the M are French fries, fitting for a restaurant.
  • Appealing. The image should attract the target audience. It needs to look good, else the audience thinks, “Ugh,” every time it is seen.
  • Deliver. The product or service needs some feature that stands out to associate with the visual branding. It might be luxury, or it could be cheap. It could be fast, or it could be quality. Visual branding is enhanced when the brand has some aspect that makes it worth remembering.

Authors have a choice of what image to brand. How do you want to be remembered? What will be distinctive for you? Pick one image and have it visible in all of your marketing efforts. Potential customers may see your image on your book covers, social media banners, online profiles, author pages, author blogs and websites, business cards, bookmarks, etc. The more your target audience sees the same image, the better. Here is what can be branded visually:

  • A logo for a publishing imprint.
  • A style consistent throughout a series.
  • A protagonist (like James Bond) or a children’s character (like Winnie the Pooh).
  • An author’s photo.
  • A distinctive visual feature common to all of the author’s books. It could be a distinctive font that the author developed that really stands out and grabs attention. It could be a unique way of arranging objects on the cover. It could be a design layout used on every color. It could be a particular image.
  • Even a blog can be branded visually by having a consistent style for the main image used with each post. Do you ever see posts in your reader and immediately recognize the blogger from the image? Those bloggers have succeeded in creating visual brands for their blogs.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Authors: You’re not Selling Books

Selling Books Pic

If you aren’t selling enough books, maybe part of the problem is your mindset: You shouldn’t be trying to sell books.


There are tens of millions of books to choose from. If someone just wants to buy a book, how are they ever going to find yours, and why would that be the one they choose?

You’re not a bookstore. You’re not selling a book.

What you have is more than a book. That’s what you need to realize. What you provide that’s more than a mere book is what can help your book get discovered and why customers might choose your book.

If you’re not selling a book, then what are you selling?

You can find some examples below. Your book is unique. Figure out what you should be selling and how to orient your marketing efforts toward this.

Use it to help you brand an image. Sell this image, not the book.

You don’t have to be a salesman to sell an image. You market an image. You make people aware of the image. You make them want the image. Crave the image.

The image is free. Once the image is sold, the books well sell along with it.

(And maybe some add-ons. If they really want the image, they might want to get it in the form of t-shirts, bookmarks, collector’s editions, etc.)

(1) Are you selling a better place?

Did you create a fantasy world that is better than our universe?

Then don’t sell the book. Don’t sell the story.

Sell the experience of living in a better world.

Brand your book as a better reality. Brand yourself as a creator of other worlds. Brand the fantasy world itself by name so that others want to go there.

Like Hogwarts. Imagine how many schoolchildren wish they could go to Hogwarts. They recognize this better place by name.

(2) Are you selling something exotic?

Is the book set in Paris, Tokyo, or someplace people dream of traveling to?

Does your book have exotic creatures?

Then you can offer the same wonders that a travel agent can offer, except that your ticket will cost much, much less.

Focus on the features that make your book exotic, not the book itself. Sell the experience of traveling.

Remember the movie Gremlins? It wasn’t just a movie. It was an experience with a really exotic pet.

(3) Are you selling passion?

Does your book offer a romantic escape from a mundane reality?

Sell the opportunity to experience romance.

Make your audience crave the romance, without giving any of the story away. It’s not just a romance novel. It’s so much passion it’s dripping off the pages.

The Blue Lagoon was a movie with a boy and girl trapped on a deserted island. But it didn’t sell because the description simply stated this. (Okay, maybe the movie stars – e.g. Brooke Shields – helped attract their own attention.) Imagine the previews for this movie. They weren’t selling romance or adventure. They were selling something much deeper than that. That’s what people crave.

Note: Make sure that your book is an excellent fit for what you are selling. Don’t oversell it such that it makes your book sound far better than it is. Disappointment leads to bad reviews.

Do make your book as good as you can, and then find a creative way to sell something that fits your book perfectly, in a way that it won’t disappoint anyone who buys into what you’re selling.

(4) Are you selling excitement?

Did you write a non-stop, action-packed adventure?

Sell the adventure.

Focus on taking a safari through the jungle, not a book about a safari.

Jumanji wasn’t just a safari, either. It was a movie that brought the jungle to you.

(5) Are you selling entertainment?

Is your book very humorous? Sell the laughs.

Is your book super scary? Sell the fright.

Focus on being scared out of your shoes. Create a video on YouTube that will frighten and intrigue, without giving any of your story away.

Check out this book trailer (I discovered this when the author shared it on CreateSpace; I don’t know the author) for a book called Nothing Men:

(6) Are you selling self-help?

Does your book help others lead better, healthier lives.

Sell the prospects for a positive future.

Suppose your book provides a ten-step plan to overcoming depression. Sell the idea of seeking happiness in ten easy steps. Use this phrase when you interact with others. Brand the image of seeking happiness. Provide help for others through a blog, on community forums, through community service, etc. Focus on selling happiness, not on your book; but make it easy for others to discover your book. Brand yourself as someone who cares about others and can help others find happiness.

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is selling a much better relationship.

(7) Are you selling information?

Did you write textbook, how-to book, or workbook?

Sell the knowledge. Sell the skills.

Focus on learning something new or improving what people know already.

You’re not selling a grammar book. You’re selling the benefits of improved grammar. You’re selling not having a resume thrown in the garbage and writing letters that get results.

Think about what people can gain from your book. That’s far more important than the book itself.

Use this in your marketing. Your blog, seminars, and all of your personal and online interactions should brand you as a helpful, knowledgeable person who is selling the knowledge or skills that people need.

Suze Orman isn’t just selling financial advice. She’s offering the keys to wealth.


There are a host of other things that you can be selling: creativity, fun, morals, wisdom, beauty, etc.

Differentiate what you’re selling from what others are selling. There are thousands of mystery novels, for example. They can’t all succeed in selling the experience of feeling like a detective. Find a way to make what you’re selling unique.

Remember not to oversell; you don’t want bad reviews from disappointment. The better your book lives up the hype, the more you may receive good reviews and valuable word-of-mouth sales. Make your book as good as you can, then build the hype to match it perfectly.

Live what you’re selling. Your personality and lifestyle – your image – need to send a unified message with what you sell. You must look luxurious if you want to sell luxury. You must seem happy if you’re selling happiness. You must sound adventurous if you’re selling adventure.

Who is your target audience? Where will you find your target audience? You want to market this image specifically to your target audience. Let them discover what it is you’re offering (not a book!). Brand your image. Make them crave the brand – i.e. the concept that you’re offering. Then they can ask you (or check out your online profile) to learn about your book.

Package your book to match the image that you’re selling. The cover has to fit this image well. The title has to fit, too. The blurb needs to sell this image (not the book!). The blurb is the only salesman at the point-of-sale. Don’t oversell, but do show the reader that there is more than just a book in your book. The Look Inside has to seal the deal; it has to provide the content that endorses the hype. The rest of the book must also achieve this, as this makes the difference between a satisfied customer who is ready to share this image with others or a disappointed reader who may show frustration in a bad review.

It’s easy to hype a book. For the hype to work, the book has to also walk the walk. Perfect the product, perfect the packaging, and market the image (not the book!).

There is something more that you can offer.

You can offer the personal touch. You can interact with your target audience in person and show that you care, show that you’re passionate about the image that you’re marketing, show that you’re human, show your personality.

You’re not just selling a book.

You should be selling much more.

One last example (in the line below):

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers tour guide for your self-publishing journey

The Importance of Facial Expressions for Authors

Facial Expression

There are a few ways that facial expressions are very valuable tools for authors:

  1. People pictured on the book cover.
  2. Author photos online and in the book.
  3. Interacting with people in the target audience.

Body gestures go hand-in-hand with the facial expression, even in still photos.

(1) Book Covers

A simple, subtle thing like a facial expression can make the difference between an amazing cover that attracts attention and a lousy cover that gets passed by. I’ve seen covers with eye-catching colors, amazing imagery, interesting fonts, and did everything right except for the facial expression. Unfortunately, the facial expression can be quite influential.

Would the following facial expressions compel you to buy a book that you discovered?

  • Blank expressions make prospective buyers feel dull and lifeless. Is that what the book will be like?
  • Lack of emotion makes the model seem bored. The model wasn’t too interested in the book, huh?
  • If the displayed emotion doesn’t fit the theme, it can have an adverse impact on sales.
  • If you want to design an awful cover, just photograph somebody who is yawning. (Unless perhaps you’re selling a book that relates to boredom…)

The right facial expression can put the potential reader in a good mood. Many shoppers are impulsive to the point that the right facial expression can actually help to inspire sales; whereas the wrong expression can greatly deter sales. Even an expression that usually puts people in a good mood is poorly suited if the writing is horror. Everything has to fit.

The expression has to match the content. For example, a model would have a different expression for historical romance than romantic comedy.

Remember, gestures are just as important as facial expressions. The pose has to look realistic. It shouldn’t look like the model is posing for a family picture. For an action book, it should look like an action shot; but it has to look real. The pose has to fit the genre; an action shot won’t look appropriate on many other kinds of books.

Study the facial expressions, poses, and gestures of the models on top selling books in the genre that have highly attractive covers. Get plenty of honest feedback about the cover prior to publishing.

The answer is not that three-letter word. There may be plenty of magazines and other items selling that three-letter word effectively. But if the book isn’t erotica or doesn’t include such scenes, it’s not really selling that three-letter word. Instead, this sort of appeal on the wrong book can create buyer confusion, which deters sales. Very often, it is overdone on a book where the audience really isn’t look for it, and it doesn’t have the intended effect. (There is also possible embarrassment if someone else sees what they are currently reading.)

Think about this: If a girl is dressed up like a barbarian in combat, does it look better if she is smiling flirtatiously at the audience or if she looks like she is focused on the battle? Should she have bright red lipstick on her lips and a clean face, or should she appear battle-scarred?

(2) Author Photos

Many authors include their photos on their books’ Amazon detail pages. They may also appear on their blogs, social media sites, and an About the Author section inside the book itself.

Just like front cover characters, the facial expression and gestures are important on the author’s photo. These help convey whether or not the author should be taken seriously, and seems like someone who could write such a book. A professional looking author photo helps to send the message that the author is, in fact, professional. The photo can convey a sense of personality, but only if it fits the kind of writing that the author sells.

Would you feel compelled to buy a book from an author who looks bored or disinterested?

(3) Personal Interaction

Potential readers can meet authors at book readings and signings. Anytime authors interact with people who might read their books, their facial expressions and gestures can influence sales.

When people from the target audience sense an author’s passion, knowledgeability, devotion, preparation, and genuine interest in them (i.e. they feel special), such things impact sales.

Just like great characters can sell books, authors’ personalities can also help to encourage or discourage sales. The personality also needs to fit the writing.

Imagine an actor or actress who is so passionate about a part that he or she is playing that it carries over to his or her interactions with friends, family, and acquaintances. Similarly, an author’s passion for his or her own book can carry over this way, showing through facial expressions and gestures.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers