Turning Nothing into Something: Building a Brand

Every author starts at the very same place: at the beginning. This is a universal truth, and I think it’s something a lot of people forget. Some authors remember picking up a crayon and writing stories from a young age. Others start out older. But all of us begin with nothing, and we turn that nothing into something. That something eventually becomes our books, our passion, and ultimately, our brand.

This post consists 100% of opinions, your mileage will vary, but if you want to read more about how I began building my brand and identity as an author, this is the post for you. It might help you. It might not. This post will contain a great deal of advice, however. Take the advice you like, make it yours, and leave the rest. Consider this just one facet of one person’s experiences. In short, what worked for me probably won’t work for you, but a little extra knowledge and insight hurt no one.

My journey as a writer began in fourth grade. At the time, I was functionally illiterate. This means I could read very basic words and write on a very, very beginner level. I could write and sign my name reliably. I could do some very basic writing–on the level of “Hi, my name is…”

I hated school, I would’ve rather been playing sports, and I slipped through the cracks–and I was okay with that. In fourth grade, that changed with a really good teacher who taught me I could like books by ditching the standard curriculum and giving me a book that she thought I might actually enjoy. I had to sound out every single word of that book, but she was right: I loved it. That book was A Wrinkle in Time.

I devoured books left and right, and by fifth grade, Stephen King was a go-to for me, and the thicker the book, the more likely I was to enjoy it. I was tested at college reading level at the end of fifth grade. That’s not intended to be a brag, but an illustration of how hard I worked to learn how to read and how many books I read from the moment I got my hands on A Wrinkle in Time.

This is the foundation of who I am now as a writer. Even in fourth grade, I had one thing going for me that I often feel many don’t get–or understand–out of the gate. I wasn’t afraid of hard work.

If you walk away with anything from this post, I hope it’s that. Hard work is the one thing guaranteed to move you forward. It may not bring you wealth. It may not bring you success. It may not make your financial goals come true. It may not skyrocket your book to bestseller status. It may not do a lot of things. What hard work will do is make it so you keep moving forward. It’s easy to become discouraged. There’s a lot of drama and negativity in what should be a learning environment for many writers. There’s a lot of, frankly, awful information out there. Some of it is blatantly false. Some of it is misleading. Some of it is literally designed to get rid of you, the competition.

I hate that a great deal. As such, I’m putting this information out there and telling you what has worked for me and what hasn’t worked for me. I’m going to tell you why. This post will be long. I’m not sorry about that. I could break it up, but the reality is–this is a singular journey. To make it easier on you, I’ll give you fancy little headers and places to go get a drink, take a break, and come back to it later.

But I’m going to give you everything at once in one place so you can see as much of my full picture as you can. It won’t be complete. I’m not sure it’s possible to give you a complete picture of my career without writing a book about it. There’s a lot of things I’m condensing.

Learn the Craft

Before you can publish, hell, before you can make it anywhere with a book, you need to know how to write. This is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and it’s the first thing I’m mentioning–and it’s the last thing you’ll stop doing. Seriously. Every day, every book, every word, learn your craft. Learn how to improve. Strive to make every sentence better. Strive to tell better stories. Strive to find better plots. Strive to build better characters. Strive to transform your garbage to gold. Your first few books? They’re probably going to suck.

That’s all right. Because to learn, you must do. You won’t start out perfect. You’ll never be perfect. You’ll write a book. You’ll polish that book. You’ll hate that book. You’ll love that book. You’ll want to set that book on fire. You’ll want to put it on a throne and praise it. That book is a part of you. Be proud you wrote it, but always acknowledge that the book could be better. Learning the craft is truly the hardest part, and it’s a moving target. Even the greats can write a better book. I’m sure you’ve noticed it before. You’ll be reading a book from an author you love, and at some point, you’ll realize something. You’ll see it, as though someone has shined spotlights on it.

The book just isn’t as good as the ones before it.

The author just stopped caring about writing a better book. The author just stopped caring about learning the craft. The author just stagnated.

And as a fan, as a loyal reader, there’s really no worse of a pain. Because once that begins, it rarely stops. The books just never get any better.

That’s different from just not liking a book because you don’t enjoy the characters or plot line. Authors will write books you just don’t like. But when it falls flat time after time, and all that’s left is their name, I strongly feel that they just stopped trying to improve their craft and just wrote what they think will sell.

It’s sad when this happens. So I hope, throughout the entirety of your career, you remember you can always write a better book–and that the next book needs to be better than the one that comes before it.

This plays into the working hard thing I mentioned before. Constantly striving to tell better stories is hard work. Old hands at it just make it look easy, but it’s really not. In the background, there’s someone who is sweating and busting their ass to make their books as entertaining as possible.

This is an opinion I believe many will dislike, but I can tell when an author wrote a book for the money. They lack life. They lack inspiration. They lack that something that says, “This book is different.” And that’s sad. (I like making money. I like having a writing career. I am always battling with “Will this series make me enough money to keep writing?”

Which leads me to my next subject…

Writing to Market

Should you or shouldn’t you? It’s a real problem. If you don’t write close enough to the market, you’ll have a hard time finding buyers. If you write too close to the market, you’ll have a carbon copy book just like every other one of the same genre and plot type. Also a problem. This is where the brand part of this post begins to come into play.

Knowing the market, writing to market, and writing what you love are three key points to having a successful career. Writing what you love, to me, needs to come first. Knowing the market comes in as a solid second to me. How do you know the market? You read books. You read a lot of books. You browse Amazon and other book vendors to see what is currently selling. You check out bookbub. Bookbub is such a powerhouse it has the ability to make trends. That’s absolutely terrifying in so many ways. You can launch your career from a single featured bookbub deal.

When you begin your journey as a writer, please, please, please write what you love. Learn the craft writing what you love. Learn to love the entire process of writing a book. Editing is hard. Improving your craft is hard. Hell, everything about writing is harder. But please learn to love it. Writing isn’t a career to get into if you can’t love it. It’s brutal. It’s often petty. It’s driven by an economic machine prone to breaking. In the grand scheme, few succeed.

I’m one of the ones who has found success, and I don’t believe for a minute it’ll last. Writing is not a career where you can find success and expect it to stick around. Success is as fleeting as snow in July. You might blink and miss it. If your goal is to become filthy rich, writing probably isn’t for you.

And that’s okay. Write because you love it. Invest in it like you would a hobby. Do everything you enjoy and ignore the rest. (Except that whole learn the craft thing. PLEASE learn the craft. Please. You’ll make spelling and grammar errors. Editors will also miss them, but the more you know about the craft, the better your books will be. Even if you’re writing as a hobby.)

Treat yourself and your books seriously. When you slap a book together with no care of its quality, I feel that’s saying you don’t value yourself or your hard work. Think about that. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but please value yourself and your work.

Work hard to make it better than your best. Then the next one, work harder to make it even better than your best. That’s how you’ll see real improvement. But it’s hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Don’t allow them to discredit your effort, because writing a book is rarely an easy process. I will say this much, sometimes, there comes along a book that just sings for you. From the first to last word, you love everything about it. You dance through the pages, and instead of shed blood, there’s nothing but sunshine. To me, that’s the greatest feeling in the world. The struggles are there, but they’re drowned in the sheer joy of writing that book.

It’s only happened twice for me in the entirety of my career. The Captive King was the first. Last but Not Leashed was the second.

Huntress had a rocky start, but once I started over and let Kelvin out of his cage, it’s looking to be my third.

Storm Called had a rocky start, too, but it’s becoming a true joy to write.

In some ways, after over twenty books, I’m just starting to hit my stride. And even when I find these books that are sheer joys to write, still I persist, still I try to make the book even better.

But they’re joyful experiences. When I walked away from the Captive King, I was content to let it go. It’s like watching a lantern released during a festival of lights float away. There’s something deeply satisfying about the moment it takes flight, a beacon in the darkness.

Writing has a lot of darkness. Writing to market can make you money, but don’t sacrifice your passion and love to write to the market. When you can, do both. No matter how often people say to focus strictly on the market, I’ll always be of the opinion that if you can’t love something about the book you’ve written, how can you expect others to love it? Some books I’ve written have been so, so hard. Doubts rule when I work on those. Depression and anxiety often triumph for a while. I often need a kick to the ass or a push.

But I work hard to finish, I do what I set out to do despite it being hard, and good things sometimes happen. Sometimes they don’t.

Failure is always an option. What writing to market does is safeguard against failure. But in the writing world, there are never any guarantees.

Who are you as an author?

This is where things begin to get murky. Who are you as an author? That’s where your brand begins and ends. I’ve been told I’m good at branding myself and my various author names. (Honestly, I think people are crazy, but I think they’re also right in certain ways.)

When I began my journey, I ignored branding. It was a mistake, but it was also not a mistake. If I had a chance to go back and do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing in that regard. Yes, mistakes were made, but I needed to make them. I never would have learned otherwise.

Who am I as an author? I’m RJ Blain. Typically, there are little dots behind the R and the J, as my graphic designers tell me my name looks better that way. They’re right. Hint: the good designers are almost always right. I’ll talk more about that in a bit. I’m a USA Today Bestselling author. I got onto the list twice teaming up with other authors in boxed sets. I learned a lot about the process. I learned a lot, period. My next goal is, to one day, make that list without lifting a finger. That’s not going to happen anytime soon. (I’d need a runaway bestseller, and frankly… I am not going to delude myself into thinking that’s going to happen.)

Huntress is my best chance for it magically happening, as it’s my last $0.99 preorder. I don’t think it’ll happen because I’m not going to be working hard for it. I’m just going to do what I do best, which is write my next book and worry about telling an even better story later.

I’m an award-winning author,  but this hasn’t changed me or my career. It was a nice pat on the back, I got a little exposure. That was a wonderful feeling. It didn’t make or break my career, though. I’m okay with that.

One of my novels has been recommended by Charles de Lint as a Book to Look For in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue. This didn’t change me or my career, but it did make me cry. I met Charles de Lint and his lovely wife at a convention once. They’re exceptionally sweet people. I doubt he knew my name. He was one of many who called me me “Red Sweater Girl” because we were in Toronto and I’d forgotten my coat in the autumn. Yeah, that wasn’t my brightest move. I was distinctive because I tried poorly to hid in plain sight always wearing a bright red sweater and being afraid to mingle with people, so I watched the other writers from nearby nooks and crannies. I was grateful I had brought two red sweaters to the convention, else I would’ve frozen my poor little ass off even worse than I had.

Now my coat is the first and last thing I check to make sure I have before I leave for a convention.

Realistically, I’m a nobody who had a little luck making money. I’m never going to be an industry name. I’m never going to make millions. I’m okay with that. Honestly, I don’t give a flying fuck about that. I care about making minimum wage so I can keep on writing–after expenses. And I do.

I worked hard to get here, and I’ll work hard to stay here.

Who you are as an author is your brand. Everything you say or do will be scrutinized in the court of public opinion. Your brand is more than your covers, but I totally recommend you hire a good cover artist to help you figure out your brand. It’s more than a series. It’s you. You are your brand.

Who do you want to be as an author?

If you screw it up, you can fix it… with a lot of time and care. But I recommend hiring a professional cover artist to help you handle the cover side of things. They’re super helpful.

Adventuring into the Writing Community

Without fail, at some point in your career, be it before you publish and are looking to learn your craft or you just need help and advice, you’re going to venture into the writing community. Danger: Peril Ahead.

I used to be a part of the indie community. I quit. My time and effort have a value. Yours does, too. Finding your tribe can be difficult. Authors so often need or want validation. I know I need and want it. But here’s the thing: writers are never going to validate you.

Writers are not your audience.

Writers are not your bread and butter.

Writers are not your fans.

Writers are not a lot of things.

Writers are a lot of things, including founts of wisdom and advice if you find the right person. They can be supportive. They can be helpful.

Writers can also be toxic.

Writers can also be petty.

Writers can also be competitive.

Writers can also be jealous.

Writers can also be vindictive.

Writes might become your fan. They might become your audience. They might be supportive. They might be everything they’re also not. The trick is determining how to reach the right people. But at the end of the day, you need readers, not writers.

I’m aware there’s a lot of negativity piled up in one place, and it, unfortunately, has a tendency to bubble up in the writing community and erupt with the same devastating force as a volcano, dropping molten slag on your head.

But writers can be hugely supportive, excellent teachers, and wonderful people. They’re like everyone else. If you put enough people in a crowd, problems happen.

The most important thing I’ve learned is this:

It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to leave the community. It’s okay to avoid the drama. It’s okay to avoid those who walk around with a miasma of negativity enshrouding them. It’s okay to block the people you feel are toxic. Walk away.

Your time, your effort, and your mental/emotional wellbeing all have a value. I love helping others, but my time and effort has a value, too. And I only have so much of it to give.

Critique groups can be invaluable, but it’s like everything else in the writing community. You need to take it with huge grains of salt. They’ll help you learn the craft, but so will good books or classes. You need to decide for yourself how to handle your presence in the writing community. I will leave you with this advice, though.

Watch what you say, watch what you do, and watch who you associate with. Expect everything you say to be screenshotted and spread around like a virulent little plague. Often out of context. The pettiest of people will try to use it as a weapon against you. They’ll try to make their agenda your agenda.

You’ll learn to spot these people and their friends. You’ll learn how to deal with them in your own way.

But I will say this much: I’ve never been happier than when I decided I had no fucks left to give about the indie community as a whole. I’m friends with a lot of indies, but I no longer give pieces of myself to the community as a whole. I’m happier for it, I’m making a lot more money now, and I’m going to keep working my ass off to keep doing so.

The hours I used to waste on people who didn’t actually want help are better spent writing better books.

I hope you don’t need to learn this the hard way like I did. I hope you never experience what it’s like to be a target. I hope you never experience what it’s like to be bullied by people who are jealous, misguided, or just plain mean and do it because they can. I hope you never feel the way I’ve sometimes felt.

But participating is a choice you make, and it’s one you can live without. And you can succeed without ever stepping foot into the cesspool that’s currently the indie community.

I hope it one day gets better, but I’ll remain at the sidelines, disappointed in the pettiness of people in large groups.

Building Something from Nothing

If there was a surefire way to launch a bestselling career, traditional publishers would have nothing but bestsellers, the gatekeepers would be all-powerful, and no one would want to indie publish because the traditional publishers would hold onto the secret of a successful launch under NDA without hope of it ever coming to light. The reality is this: no one knows what makes a bestseller happen out of the gate.

There is no one true way.

There is no one right formula.

This is because the readers decide who is a bestseller. Not you. Not me. Not our budgeting dollars. The prettiest cover on the planet isn’t going to sell your book. The best description isn’t going to sell your book. Those things help.

But you, as a brand, and you, as a writer, are what will turn your nothing into something. Your writing is key. Your writing is what sells the book. The cover gets people to look at the description. Some people will buy a book just from its cover because the art is so gorgeous they just want it on their kindle. They may never read that book. (Which is sad.) Your description convinces people if they want to give the book a chance. Some will buy. Others will check out the sample.

Your writing is what sells your books. Your writing is what determines if someone becomes a fan or walks away. Your stories will determine if someone wants to throw another $5 your way or if they want to wait until they can get a deal. Ninety-nine pennies can earn you a fan. (This is where the bookbub featured deal I mentioned before makes a difference.) They can make or break you.

A million advertising dollars isn’t going to do you much good if those readers hate your book because you didn’t write an engaging, interesting story. (See the section above about learning your craft.)

The only way to begin is to find a fan. Your first real fan, not your mother or best friend or writer buddies who buy your books because you bought theirs. Your first real fan. Someone who will buy your books because they love what you write. They’re someone you don’t know. They’re someone who found you, probably as a result of your mother or best friend telling them about your book. You might’ve posted to a group and mentioned your book. You might’ve posted on your facebook page and left a snippet they wanted to read.

But we all begin with nothing, and your goal is to make a fan one reader at a time.

That fan may tell another reader about your books.

When you do it right, your books sell themselves because your readers love your books so much they can’t help but gush about them to someone else. That someone else gets curious and gives you a try. Maybe they become a fan, too.

Some authors never get beyond having those one or two fans. But good things happen when you get to the stage of writing where your books are what do the marketing for you. (And that consists of cover, description, and sample–and that sample needs to lead into a book that’s better than the sample.)

Your name might one day be the first lure for a reader, but to begin with? It’s all about the cover and description, so be beautiful, stand out from the crowd, and write something people want to read while loving what you write.

That’s really much harder than it sounds. Sorry. I wish I had better news for you on that score.

Build Something from Nothing with Money

Money matters, and the harsh reality is, most authors don’t have a lot of money. I used to work as a developmental editor, and my job was to help people on a budget improve their books to the point they might be able to make money off them. I did a lot of work for gruesomely cheap because I wanted to help other authors. There were projects I worked for approximately $1 an hour. Not my best move financially, but the reality was, that money was reinvested into giving my books covers and trying to reach new audiences.

Nowadays, most of my money goes the following places:

Cover art, Editing, Newsletter maintenance and building, and bookbub featured deal advertising.

For Whatever for Hire, I’m doing a mass giveaway, so I invested in swag for it. That’s not how I normally operate. I do keep a $200 a month budget, roughly, for general advertising/gifts for my subscribers. I do this because I enjoy it, not because I expect it to pay for itself down the road.

My cover art ranges from between $200 to $500 a cover. It used to be up to almost $900 a cover, but realistically, I couldn’t afford that, not at the pace I write. I have a lot of banked covers, and honestly, that’s a mistake. Well, it’d be a mistake if I wasn’t making enough to cover the fees. My cover art bill was staggering last year. This year, it’s substantially less, and I’ve shifted to a two year rule. In short, if I don’t think I’ll be heavily working on the story within two years, I don’t buy the cover. I will book one to two years in advance, as my artists are booking that far ahead now.

Next year, I expect to be limiting to covers I’ve arranged for this year. I’ll see how I am for 2020 when 2020 arrives, but I expect I’ll be booking and buying a lot of covers in 2020 and beginning another two year cycle. That’s a good pace for me.

Your mileage will vary, but starting out, I recommend you do not invest in more covers than you’ll use within the next six months. You’re better off spending your money reaching your readers. I like newsletters, as they are an audience interested in what I have to say. Featured bookbub deals are the absolute best way to get your book in the hands of actual buyers, though. I know it’s stressful dealing with the rejection, but keep trying. They make such a huge difference.

I like both US and International Bookbubs, for those of you who were wondering. The international ones don’t bring in as much money, but they still bring in a good profit and they’re new readers. I’m all about expanding my audience, and I don’t really care about where they’re from. (I just want paid. And yes, I deserve to be paid for my work. And so do you, and you, and you, and every other author who puts in time, effort, and money into providing a product. We need to eat, too. And for some of us, our writing is how we eat. So don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t try to earn money. You totally should. Writing is a business, and when you decide to go into it, treat it like a business. You need to file taxes. You need to pay taxes. You’ll pay extra taxes compared to everyone else because the United States tax system isn’t really a fair system. That’s life.

It’s hard, but I recommend you accept it now and learn everything you can before you have to start paying the piper.

I spend anywhere up to $1,000 to edit a book as a general rule.

I am happy if I can get my expenses to $1,500 a title. I can usually earn that back relatively quick. Your mileage will vary, and some people will write books that never earn back $500. At my stage, though, this is realistically what I can afford with any expectation of paying bills, eating, taking care of my cats, etc.

Money Matters

Watch what you spend, watch what you earn, consider how you advertise carefully. Advertising campaigns that do not return your investment are losses. You want to avoid losses. Exposure campaigns can work, but they’re typically losing propositions unless you’re reaching tens of thousands of readers who actually want to read your book and aren’t just grabbing it because it’s free. Whenever you do a free book, your goal is to entice them into reading more of your titles. It might take months for a free book to result in a reader.

Exposure and reach are among the hardest parts of the writing business, and at the end of the day, it all boils back down to “Are you writing books people want to read?” If the answer is no, you’re not going to get anywhere fast. If you are, it’s a matter of biding your time and figuring out what your audience likes to read. Things get easier once you’ve figured that out.

Your Time is Money

I discussed the writing community earlier, and it’s worth mentioning again. Your time is money. View your writing as a job. You’re paid on completion, so unless you do your job, you have no money. If you spend three hours goofing off on the internet and getting sucked into unnecessary drama, that’s three hours you’ve lost when you could have been writing your book instead. You won’t make money until your book is finished, edited, polished, and published. So, the next time you see a fight break out among people online, ask yourself, “Is this really worth it?”

Generally, the answer is no. Pick your battles. He said/she said brawls usually aren’t worth your time, effort, and energy.

While they’re fighting, you can be working. If you’re working, you’re publishing. If you’re publishing, you’re earning money. It might take a long time to make profit, but unless you’ve published something, you’re making nothing at all.

Drama is the ultimate time waster, and there’s usually no benefit for participation. You do get stress, a bad mood, and lost hours you could have been spending with your books, your family, or hobbies that are actually important to you. Let those who attract drama keep each other company and focus on what’s important: moving forward.

I spent years flitting through the indie community, and at the end, the most valuable lesson I learned was that I could learn everything I learned in the indie community through reading books by knowledgeable people (and paying them for their effort and expertise) and actually doing stuff rather than talking about how to do stuff.

So, if you feel like you need the community to learn, you really don’t. There are fantastic writing resources available for sale at your favorite bookstore, and the library is a fantastic resource for you as well. A few books I personally recommend is Zimmerman’s On Writing Well, Stephen King’s On Writing, The Transitive Vampire, and A Grammar book for you and I–oops, me. (Oops? See, tired brain got it wrong the first time, so go ahead and laugh. Title is fixed. I need coffee. I haven’t had coffee today.) The Chicago Weapon of Literary Style Version Oh My Fucking God It Weighs Seventy Billion Pounds is also a priceless resource–and a damned good thing with its $60 price tag. (AKA The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition I think is what they’re on now. Or something like that.)

You don’t have to join the herd of drama llamas to succeed. You can make your own waves and find readers plenty of other ways without relying on toxic people who view you as competition. Really. You can. And you’ll probably be happier for it, too. Bookbubs are probably the best way to reach actual paying readers. It’s expensive but worth it. But there are other ways, too. But building your audience is an article for another day.

Let’s Talk Branding

I’ve mentioned branding before, and it’s one of the hardest parts of making a pen name. You need to do something that makes it a cohesive whole. That’s not easy, especially if you want to have varied series under one name. There’s no secret, no one easy way, nothing like that. Ultimately, your name is your brand. How do you want people to view you?

Act like that person. Eventually, you’ll become that person because that’s what you do. You want to be known as a friendly person people can trust?

Be a friendly person people can trust.

That means keeping your mouth shut when you’re told something in private. That means keeping your mouth shut when you kinda want to tell someone they’re an insufferable asshole. (I recommend the block button.) It means being kind to people even when you don’t like them or don’t like what they do. (I also recommend the block button.) Being a friendly person doesn’t mean you’re a walking mat. It means you’re friendly. You control your temper. You don’t engage in pointless arguments that hurt feelings. It means you do a lot of those nice people things. You help people when asked, if you can. You offer to help people, when you can. But you’re not a walking mat. Don’t let people use you. Set your limits, and learn to say no. “Sorry, I can’t help you right now. I have to get this book done, so I need to get back to work.” And because you’re moving forward every single day, it’s the truth.

That’s a bit preachy, but it’s just reality. Be honest, be friendly, ditch the negativity, be helpful when you can. Don’t throw away your money being nice to somebody. If you don’t like your friend’s book, don’t buy it. Seriously. You don’t have to. There’s nothing in the writer’s handbook that says you have to support other writers financially. Peer pressure sucks. (This doesn’t mean don’t pimp out your books when you have new releases or whatever. Be totally proud of those.) You’re just under no obligation to buy books written by your friends.

That sounds mean, but the reality is, you have limited money, and so you should totally buy the books you WANT to read so you can love reading. It’s that simple.

Then take a look at that book you desperately want to read and ask yourself why you want to read it. You probably want to capture that with your writing.

May these 5,818 words of unasked for advice be of use to you… and if they’re not, toss whatever you don’t need.

Best of luck, writer friends!