Friday, November 19, 2010

You are not a Brand...

So I've been googling author websites this week as I'm trying to redo my website so it doesn't look as if it was created by a six-year-old and I've been finding this disturbing trend I want to discuss--  Branding.

Not cattle or clothes, but people.

Here's something I read that annoyed me:

I was reminded again how many authors think that by just hanging a website in cyberspace they are somehow building their brand. As it turns out, not so much.

This idea that we (authors/writers/artists) are a "brand" is really disturbing.  I had heard about this "create your brand" and "you must have a platform" at a few writers conferences I've been at, but I thought it was something trendy.  It seems it's not.

There's tons of websites dedicated to helping you "build your platform" and I am going to tell you this quite honestly, unless you are in a bathing suit and jumping off this so-called platform into a pool, then I don't want to hear about it.

I kind of kills my spirit to hear writers talked about as if we were corporations with logos and mottos and theme-songs.  

I am not going to go into a grocery store and find your sweeping name across some sugary cereal.  I am not going to recognize you for your commercial jingle.  

I feel this "branding" idea is limiting.  It feels as if it's another way for people who don't really write to sell things to writers:  Be Your Own Best Brand!  How to Create Your Brand for only $295.  Build Your Brand BEFORE the Book!

Are you an artist or a commodity, my poet's heart asks.

I guess there is a part of me that knows many of us became writers because we could not *not* write, not because we thought of ourselves as a product.  Maybe this branding is for those who became writers for the big bucks.  

But it's not the money thang or the success thang I'm arguing here, don't get me wrong.  I don't believe being a writer should equal a life of poverty.  I want all of you to sell many many books. I want poets and writers and artists to have so much money they have no idea how to spend it all.  I want all your pockets filled with success and spending money.  I believe it's part of the job to promote your book, share your art, be part of the conversation, the community.  But I don't think it has to be done by limiting yourself or creating yourself as a so-called brand.

Maybe this branding feels like selling something else. 

I'm not sure, but I think focusing on branding dilutes the passion for the writing and puts the emphasis on being a "Writer" (capital W).  

And it feels that this "branding" and "platform" language was made *for* us, not *by* us.  And I take issue with that.  It's hard enough to be a writer without someone trying to tell you to figure out exactly who you are before you begin.  I mean, that is the beauty of art and writing-- DISCOVERY.

I don't think I should have to brand myself. I don't think you should have to either.

So if you've come here for the lecture, here's my final thoughts--

Forget your brand.  You can write sci-fi and poetry.  Fiction and romance novels.  You do not need to limit yourself because it doesn't fit with your brand or because you were told you are an expert on bananas from South America, you can still be an expert on doughnuts in Cleveland.  Or sex.  Or bathmats.

When I hear sentences like this one (one that almost makes me weep), Brand-building is constant. It should always be in the back of your mind, what I want to say in response is:

Writing is constant and should always be in the back of your mind.

Or replace "writing" with "art" or "art" with "creating," but don't use brand.  
Anything but brand.  

I can't let myself be put in that box.  I am not a Twinkie.  You are not a Ding-Dong (okay, you could be a ding-dong, but I don't know that for sure).  But you are definitely not a Twinkie, that I know.  

So there I said it, I'm against this idea of branding oneself.  I don't like it.  I'm pretty sure it's for livestock and not writers.  

When it comes to writing and art, your name tag should not read, "Hello, I'm Whomever You Want Me To Be."  Ever.  It should read, "Hi, I'm me,"  a complex person with complex thoughts and ideas. Overflowing. Various and Diverse.   



  1. May I play devil’s advocate? As a person who has “branded” herself, I must disagree with your ideas about branding. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of your blog and many of your ideas but this one I disagree with. I actually took a class on branding and I didn’t do it to become famous but rather to focus on the writing. Before the class, I had a now defunct blog titled, “A Little Known Fact,” in which I discussed everything under the sun including my mental health struggles. I managed, in a relatively short time, to build a poor reputation—one that no publisher anywhere would want to publish no matter how good I get at writing—and deleted the blog in disgust of blogging altogether. I had managed to learn to hate what I had thoroughly enjoyed doing in a matter of months. Now, after being “branded,” I once again enjoy blogging, when I have the time, and focus purely on the writing. In my case, I blog only about haibun, but I write, in my private life, whatever hits my fancy. So the branding is not necessarily for fame or for limiting myself but for connecting with others in my chosen favorite genre of haibun. Thanks for the interesting commentary on the subject, but, for me, branding has been a success in that I am having fun with it and focusing more on my building my skills as a writer as a result. BTW: I thoroughly enjoyed the free monkeys poem you sent me!

  2. i love this post and agree 100%!

  3. Thanks for this. I've been following the "branding" trend with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I get it. In an extremely competitive publishing environment, I can imagine it helps tremendously to put in a query letter that you bring a built-in audience of XXX to the table. At a time when authors are expected to do more and more of their own marketing, having 10,000 page hits on your blog or 20,000 twitter followers must be a huge asset to sneak into a query to an agent who spends half her days thinking "How am I going to market this??" (I became familiar with you, for example, as a blogger first and bought Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room because of becoming familiar with you here on your blog.) So I get it.

    On the other hand, ugh. It just makes me think, ugh. There is something deeply unappealing about it. Plus, as the mother of 2 kids under 6, it's all I can do to find the time and energy to write the poems. I can't divert any of it, really, to branding. I can see the opportunity I might be passing up, but I think it's not for me.

  4. I am sort of a ding dong, but I do appreciate this entry and the discussion it will provoke. Art or commodity, such a good question. I will repeat what I've said elsewhere about the philosopher/art critic Jean Baudrillard speaking to students at the Art Institute of Chicago. "Stop saying you are making art. You are making commodities." But he wanted them to make art, and it meant going out and living, and then painting/making something in response to that. He was very clear. (And if you've read, or tried to read, some of his philosophy and art criticism, you know how remarkable that is--his clarity when speaking, and in English!) He was advising them to break out of the art- degree/networked-connection-to-art- galleries path, and go out and see, hear, touch, smell, and taste stuff. And then make some art.

  5. Cindy -- Thanks for your note. And I like what you said. I guess I'm taking issue with the language. For me, when I read your story above, I thought you were not "branded," but *focused*. I believe in focus, in clear ideas and keeping things orderly and to help both you and your readers.

    I can see this: "So the branding is not necessarily for fame or for limiting myself but for connecting with others in my chosen favorite genre of haibun," but again, maybe I'm arguing with the word chosen for us.

    I don't see your blog as a brand, but a part of a deeper you, a focused part.

    I would take no issue if someone said, "I will help you focus your blog as a writer so you will connect with others and perhaps, find a publisher." Really, the more I think about it, I'm realizing it's the word "Brand" that is upsetting to me. Not what it does, but how was chosen to represent us.

    Thanks so much for your note. It really helped me understand my thoughts and why I reacted so negatively to the word.

    And glad you liked the monkeys!

  6. Hi Jennifer --

    I do think coming to a publisher with a successful blog, will help you get a book (probably a nonfiction book) and yes, authors are expected to do more, but since you also seemed turned off by the word "brand" too (I realize after I responded to Cindy this is what really sank my gut) again, I think if you're writing about something focused that interests you, that is another way to look at it. But not to see yourself as a brand, or your blog, but as a passion or focus.

    Like the woman who did all of Julia Child's recipes. She probably didn't write out a platform, sit down and declare herself Brand Julia, she did something she loved and it worked for her.

    I do believe if you are writing about what you love and are passionate about, others will listen. I know there are blogs devoted to the life of raising children, to being a mom, and they have many thousands of followers. It's because of the writing, the passion, the caring for the words, not because of they've branded themselves a mom and only a mom. (I'm not sure I'm making sense anymore but I hope you are following this.)

    As I said, I'm just interested in the feelings the word "brand" gives me. I definitely want people to be published, successful and to have an overflowing wallet of money, I just don't want this new language claiming us as a "brand." And I think we can have both.

    Thanks for writing!

  7. Kathleen,

    Thanks for that. I agree that artists and poets can get lost in the life of being artists and poets and close the world out.

    I think a beautiful relationship is one where you are earning your living as a working writer or artist, and connecting with a larger community of people. But to live and write (or create) about it.

    I think I tend to be overly romantic in this area of artist or writer or poet. I always have been. I'm kind of the woo-woo side of things. I have always felt I'm a realist, but maybe when it comes to art and poetry, I'm a romantic. And I don't want the word "brand" thrown into my bedroom. ;-)

    Thanks for your note. It also helped clear my thoughts...

    I believe I'm going to have to write a follow up piece to this!

  8. I do not mind branding that much. I like it. I think it can be a very creative process and much fun. The thing is that indeed the word does not really work for artists. It was created to work for companies and products, and it suggests an illusion, a made-up identity attributed to a thing for commercial purposes. That is of course not valid for human beings and even less for artists, who are all very strong individualists, have very specific personal styles. The only thing is that they need to make this individual style known, recognized, associated with their name. Which is needed, especially in this world where the consumers of art are exposed to so much and have so much to choose from. You need to help your audience find you, that's all. That's how I see it.

  9. I was just having this conversation with writer Jessica Handler (who wrote the great memoir Invisible Sisters). We were specifically talking about branding ourselves. I don't like the term either, but if you are going to sell any books beyond your sphere (family, friends, colleagues), you are going to have to "get your name out there." That's what branding means to me.

    So, besides my poetry, I've also become a social media consultant and have spent the past year talking to other writers about how to use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. to brand themselves and get a message across.

    I also do essays, travel articles, reviews, etc. that tie back into my fiction and poetry.

    Yes, the writing should ALWAYS come first, but theses days you have to sell yourself and the writing to cut through the millions of people also trying to get their words read.

    I don't write with branding in mind, but I am always thinking of ways to promote my work and help channel it to a new audience.

  10. It seems that this is all a new form of an old argument. I think of Frost and how carefully he crafted (branded) his image. So, can you have a blog that is about your holistic life and not just your writing identity? I think so. I like your blog much better than those of some other writers I have followed because you talk about your thoughts, your feelings, your relationships. The writing about your poetic life seems natural and integrated. Not, "I am POET hear me roar." I think it comes down to what our mothers told us for so many years, "just be yourself."

  11. Kels - the word used in this way came "in" in the late nineties. There was this writer, Thomas Pink, I think, who did seminars and articles and even had a book with names like "Creating the Brand Called You" which I have always referred to laughingly to my family when I'm trying to help them with their resumes ("remember, you've got to sell the brand called you!") It is a fact that nowadays, having a blog and a Facebook id and a web site presence mean you have already created a Kelli Agodon "brand" whether you like it or not or use that word or not. There is an entity that people think about, maybe even a specific kind of writing that they think about, when they think of you. (Not friends and family, but those who only know about you.)

  12. Thank you for writing this. I'm glad to know someone feels the same way I do about this tpoic.

  13. Great post, Kelli. I do agree with you about the word "brand" being part of the problem. Being a fairly new blogger, I can honestly say that I do only blog about my writing life. The purpose is not to say "I am poet, hear me roar" as someone mentioned in an earlier comment. One reason is practical: I am a middle school teacher, and posting personal information/thoughts can be risky. Another reason is more close to home: I do not care to live my life as an "open book" on the internet. The people and experiences that are important to me deserve to not just be fodder for a post. By reading my posts about writing, people can know quite a bit about what I'm up to, what inspires me, and the type of person/writer I am. And if this helps to "sell" me? Great.

  14. "You do not need to limit yourself because it doesn't fit with your brand or because you were told you are an expert on bananas from South America, you can still be an expert on doughnuts in Cleveland. Or sex. Or bathmats."

    Loved this post from start to finish, Kelli!! I can't believe what you shared about websites all about branding your image, having a platform. Bah! Yag! Yick! Ugh!

    I feel the same way: if you're talkin platforms, it's either a bathing suit thing, or a shoe.


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