7 Steps to Building Your Author Name and Brand (On a Really Small Budget)

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Indie Horror Creation Indie horror writers

How many times have you heard a writer say that they are completing a novel and plan to start submitting it to commercial publishers? It an overnight success story that is kind of similar to the garage band that has a music label scout discover them, and whisk them away in a limo to sign a million-dollar contract?

It used to happen that way. But not anymore.

As we discussed in our introductory advice article for horror writers, publishers want to eliminate as much risk as possible, when they take on a new author and book launch. Until your work has been tested at the retail level, there is no way to measure how successful it may be. Will it be a profit or loss situation for the publisher?

Publishers expect writers to build their own fan base first, before launching a commercially published book. This was work that was done previously by publishers who had public relations and vast marketing budgets to create a buzz and stimulate sales for any new book.

Today, the best indicator that an author will sell a large number of books commercially, is determined by the size of the authors fanbase. Email subscribers, website traffic, social media followers and other measurable audience metrics will help you pitch your book to a publisher. The problem is that you have to spend a few years building up that fan base before a publisher will even read your excerpts.

We have taken some of the mystery out of pre-marketing and brand building for horror and paranormal writers. Here are 7 ways you can help build momentum and fan demand, while you are completing your first novel. And since no writers we know have a $50,000 launch budget, we have provided some cost saving resources and hacks to save you time and money.

1.Define Your Author Persona

It is time to get existential and ask the deep dark questions only answered on a cheap leather couch in a psychologist’s office: “who are you?”   Every writer has the opportunity to use their own name or develop a pen name. When it comes to your persona, will you mirror your exact personality and lifestyle, or will you work on something with extra creative license?

When it comes to marketing and sales, a little intrigue goes a long way. Does that mean that every writer persona is made up, and not authentic? In our experience most writers incorporate a little bit of themselves into their public brand and persona, while keeping certain things private for personal and safety reasons.

Let us say you do become a New York Time’s Best Seller. Would you want the world to know your address? The names of your children, where your parents live or the kind of car you drive? Safety is usually the reason why some authors choose a pen name, and a persona that protects their identity, without misrepresenting who they are.

Because one of the coolest things an author can do, is reveal their pen name(s) after they have become an international bestselling writer. You want that option later without being accused of lying. It is a fine line you want to be aware of because fans will fact check.

Have you ever looked at the logos created by and for conventional writers? It is usually the writer’s name and a small embellishment. Something dignified and understated that can look more like a signature on a check than an actual graphical logo.

In the horror genre however, writers use their logos as a powerful branding tool. We are allowed to be even more creative by celebrating the macabre with artwork in our logo. A skull? Cthulhu? A knife dripping with blood? In the horror genre, everything is fair game, particularly if it helps build audience and brand recognition.

If you do not have Photoshop chops, you can work with a graphic designer. There are a shockingly large number of designers who specialize in logo and branding materials for horror authors too. Choose a design that feels like you, and one that has an impact. This may involve driving your friends crazy and showing them a variety of different logos.

3. Build a Website

Take a deep breath… we are not suggesting that you drop several thousand dollars and have a marketing agency design an HTML or WordPress website for you. If you plan to sell e-commerce products on your website (you’re welcome; it is a great idea!) then a WordPress site is your best bet, and you will need to make an investment for secure payments, etc.

But if an e-commerce marketplace or store on your website is not part of your monetization plan, then you can choose from a variety of insanely affordable DIY website design providers. For a small monthly or annual fee, you get access to easy-to-design templates, and some even come with free photo stock images you can use.

Here are some of the most affordable and beginner friendly website hosting and design providers:

You do not have to have training in website design to be able to slap together a really great looking site on your own. Make sure that you only use copyright free images on your website. Photography that is licensed to use for a business website can be found for free at Pixabay, or through other paid photo stock services like Adobe Stock.

The design of your website as a horror writer, is probably going to be in theme and a little ‘on the dark side’ of the spectrum (which is exactly what fans want to see). In terms of the content you should have on your website, the standard pages and functional elements are:

  • Biography
  • Portfolio of Published Work
  • Blog
  • Contact Me
  • Social Media Icons (Follow Me)

One of the criteria that publishers look at, is how many followers a writer has on social media, but also on their subscriber list. Getting your fans to subscribe to your email, allows you to have a growing headcount of readers who are interested in your work. This helps later when you are pitching commercial publishers.

Some writers will add a photo gallery to their website (usually feeding from a host site like Flickr or Google Images). Fans who follow up and coming writers, enjoy learning about the creative process behind the stories they read. Writers that share images that inspired them, or a picture of a diner where they were writing a new chapter? They create a close relationship with their fans when they share the ‘behind the scenes’ details.

Make a few CTAs (call to action) elements on your website that encourage your audience to subscribe. If you really want to be proactive and grow your email subscribers quickly, consider adding a contest or incentive. Have a monthly draw for a $50 Amazon gift card or give away a horror merchandise collectible every month. Make it a fun horror trivia contest or something engaging, and you could find yourself adding several hundred new fans to your email marketing list.

And remember to send them at least one email per month to stay in touch. You can write about upcoming horror events, new projects that you are working on, releases of new horror movies and novels, etc.

4. Start Blogging Obsessively

Website visitors do not become real literary fans, until you have shared your writing with them. Since you want to sell books (including starting with self-published short works), you do not want to constantly give out previews or excerpts that add up to a reason why fans should not buy your books.

What kinds of things can you blog about? Observations about human nature, some of your personal experiences, character traits you enjoy writing about, upcoming projects, behind the scenes inspiration, creative ideas for book covers (fans love to contribute their feedback!), interviews (blogs or podcasts) and more.

Since we just mentioned interviews, you have to be your own public relations specialist and agent when you are starting out as a new horror writer. That means approaching horror and paranormal websites and podcast channels to offer interviews on interesting topics. You will have to pitch the editorial team for the opportunity and free traffic (and new audience exposure). Many blogs and podcasts will provide the opportunity for free; the largest ones require an administrative and advertising fee for putting your brand in front of a huge target audience of millions.

5. If You Do not Feel Pretty Start a Podcast

Some people love being in front of the camera. You know who they are; just check out their Instagram account, right? But many of us (myself included) would sooner watch one of those mushy Hallmark movies than jump in front of the camera to record a video for public consumption).

My phobias are pretty simply; I think I have a face for radio, not television. And that is exactly why I love to podcast. Under a pen name for freedom and anonymity. My podcast took me about thirty minutes to set up and Podbean costs me very little and is one of the easier dashboards to use for beginners. After four years, I am still using it, because it is fast and easy to use.

When you record podcasts, you can talk about any aspect of your writing and process. People love to see how a writer’s brain works, and the more details you share about your activities and how you work on a book, the more enthralled they will be.  Also remember that podcast episodes can be imbedded as rich content (press to play) on a WordPress website. Do not forget to install a podcast link and player as a call-to-action to get more subscribers to the podcast and listeners.

When you are paying for hosting on a podcast, remember that you are also accessing an exceptionally large community of digitally fluent information or entertainment seekers. That is the profile for the average podcast listener. Part of the cost of subscribing to a podcast host includes that large audience, and the growth and advertising potential the podcast community provides.

6. Ramp Up Your Social Media

If you love being on social media and creating content like graphics and videos, you are not going to have a problem with this. If you absolutely hate being on social, try to change your mindset on it because it is one of your most valuable marketing tools.

You can get a little help from a family member or friend to post interesting content at a regular 2-3 times per week schedule. If you hire someone to manage your social media, make sure they are monitoring your account, and responding to as many fans as possible. That is what we do at Puzzle Box Horror, because we think if you made the effort, we should show our gratitude with some bilateral conversation and appreciation.

One of the things you do not want to do (no matter how tempted you are) is to buy followers. First of all, it is breaking the Terms Conditions and Limitations TOS for all social networks. Networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram are only interested in real followers, not fake accounts, or bots. It is not the quantity of the followers but the quality that matters, as you are building your literary fan base. They can’t buy your book if they are a bot!

7. Self-Publish Novellas or Short Story Collections

People want a taste of your writing, and you can only feed your fans partial excerpts on your blog so long before they want something more substantial. That is when authors will typically start releasing self-published books or print on demand softcovers for their fans. Not novels, but novellas and sometimes short story anthologies. Like Stephen’s King’s Skeleton Crew, or virtually every amazing thing written by Edgar Allan Poe.

It is exciting to earn some residual income from your writing for the first time. Think of it as a preamble to the success you may see, if you are able to get your novel published and distributed commercially. Create small fiction works, but do not share too much about your novel(s) with your fan base. It is your product and you do not want to give it away for free; nor do you want another writer ripping off your idea. And trust us, it happens!

Three Years? That is What Seth Godin Says

Seth Godin is one of the mega marketing brains on the planet and a millionaire entrepreneur and author. This is his advice for writers who want to get published commercially:

“The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.”

Three years is a long time of preparation. But you can do these important marketing activities in tandem with your writing. When you need to take a break from your novel(s), consider writing horror and paranormal short stories that you can bundle into a self-published anthology. Give away some of your self-published books to fans and use them as a promotional tool to grow your audience.

Fiverr can be a great place to get some extra help, and if you think you don’t have enough time in your schedule to post regularly on social media, and create email correspondence, a virtual assistant may be an affordable way to make sure that those promotional pieces are done consistently.   Ask your social media assistant to do following activities on Instagram and Twitter, to seek out horror fans to connect with.

The end goal will be a successful website that demonstrates strong personal branding. A large following of real fans on your social networks; people who are avid engaged readers who will give you feedback. Some may even become brand advocates, by recommending your novels or horror short stories to others.

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Interview with Award Winning Author and Teacher Richard Thomas

Categories
Featured Indie Horror Indie Horror Creation Indie horror writers Lifestyle

Richard Thomas is an award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 150 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

Christmas Horror Book Cover

PB: We talk to a fair amount of new writers – What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?
RT: Great question. I think one of the most important things to understand is your voice. So—what kind of stories are you trying to tell, what are your strengths (and weaknesses), and what excites you when you write? It’s the first assignment I give my students in my Short Story Mechanics class. You need to understand the genre (or genres) you write in, your influences, and contemporaries that are doing similar things. You learn by reading those authors, by finding “your people” and their audiences, as well as publications. It’s all connected. I started out writing more neo-noir and thrillers but then shifted into fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I still do both. The main difference between the new-weird speculative work I do and neo-noir is often realism vs. supernatural. As far as those weaknesses I just mentioned, study those voices that do it well—whether that’s setting, plot, character, or dialogue. Read, read, read. Read books and stories, read the “best of the year” anthologies, and then fill your head with images via film and tv, such as the amazing work at A24 Films these days. Take a few classes if you need to. I took quite a few, with authors I loved and respected (such as Jack Ketchum and Stephen Graham Jones) and THEN got my MFA. It all helps.

 PB: A lot of aspiring horror creators think about making the leap from day job to becoming a writer. In fact, I also transitioned from the corporate world and great salaries to chasing my passion for storytelling in multiple formats with puzzle box – Tell me a bit about the transition you went through as I imagine it was a difficult decision to make moving from a known career into the unknown world of writing and teaching fiction? Any advice there for others in this position?
RT: It’s very difficult. I spent 25 years in advertising as an art director and graphic designer, and woke up one day and realized I was very unhappy. If you want to make the shift, understand it takes years to do it right. You first have to find your voice (see my previous answer) and hone your craft. That alone may take 1-5 years. Write, practice, and publish. I encourage authors to write short stories until they figure out who they are, and what they are going to write. Once you start getting work published, push to get your stories into the BEST markets. Until you can start doing that, getting pro pay, and setting up a network and presence, I wouldn’t quit your day job. Once you get to that level, make sure you have a social media platform, and presence—that will all help to build your name, reputation, brand, etc. At that point, you probably want to write a book and find a small press or agent. I’ve published 150 stories, three novels, three collections, ran a press, and a magazine and I still teach and edit. I’d say my income is all related—all a part of the industry—but my actual stories and novels probably only account for half of my income. So be prepared to teach, to write a column, to edit, to do more. Very few can make six figures as an author. But man, it’s the most fulfilling work I do. And my teaching helps others, and I learn a lot in the process as well. I was reading those “best of the year” anthologies anyway, and it helps me too, but now I really pay attention. It’s all connected. 

PB: One of your classes is writing a novel in 365 days, how many students have completed that and have any been published?
RT: We’ve only been doing this two years now, so the total number of students is 24. Two are done and actively shopping—Joseph Sale and Erik Bergstrom—and their novels are amazing. I expect them to get published. There are quite a few from the first year that are putting the final touches on their work, making a last pass, etc. This year’s class—all eight students are really doing well, and I expect them to finish on time, and start submitting next year. Hard to say how many out of the 24 will make it will publish, but I’d say at least half. Quite a few of my students who have gone from Short Story Mechanics to Contemporary Dark Fiction to my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop have published, gotten into pro markets, have gotten nominations, have won awards, have written novels, and landed agents. Really proud of them all.

burnt tongues book cover

PB: As a published writer, teacher, and entrepreneur do you feel that indie writers stand a chance in being successful vs finding a publisher? 
RT: Depends on what you want to do, but yes, it can work both ways. I find that quite a LOT of the best work is being done at smaller, indie presses. The big five (or whatever it is now) will certainly get you more money, into brick and mortar stores, and have teams of people to help you. Working with the editors at Alibi (a Penguin Random House imprint) was a TON of work, so many rounds of revisions, but I knew that Disintegration and Breaker were TIGHT when they came out. I felt so supported. When Breaker got a Thriller Award nomination I was floored. So yes, I’d actually encourage authors to connect with indie presses first, and then write that first book and publish short stories. It’s a great community, so many supportive people, and when you finally DO break out, you’ll have a lot of fans excited to pick up your work. It’s so rewarding.

PB: Finally, we’d love to hear a writer quick tip for creating suspense from you?
RT: Suspense it tricky. When I talk about it in terms of what a HORROR story is, this is what I say. There is the terror and then the horror. Think of it as the suspense, the hints, the clues, the anticipation—that’s the terror, the emotion you create before we see it. The horror is the actualization, the fulfillment of it, the dropping of the veil, the unfurling of the creature, the physical manifestation and consequences. I talk about it a lot in my column, which you can read here: https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-using-terror-and-horror-to-tell-powerful-stories

 CD is a magazine, and the exact issue is not online yet no. They are BIG, circulation of 10,000. PRISMS is just starting to get a cover and all so they aren’t online yet either sadly. I did have a co-written story in Best Horror of the Year, Volume 11, which is out now. Had a few things in books last year as well—a novelette, “Ring of Fire” in The Seven Deadliest anthology, and a story, “The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation” in the Shallow Creek anthology. You can find links to those all here: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B0036EYNDC

PB: What can you tell me about the upcoming arctic horror novel? (one of my favorite settings!)
RT: I was just on Twitter saying it was The Thing if written by Jeff VanderMeer, set in New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville). It’s about a sin-eater, and the way that he protects his portal, set in a place much like Barrow, Alaska where it goes dark for 60-90 days. I’m still trying to figure it all out, but I want to approach it from a place and time that is outside of our current narrative, so it’s not 2020 Alaska, but based on a similar location, culture, and weather, of course. A friend of mine lives in the arctic and is giving me some great nuggets, just working on finding the right angle, so it can be original. I’m looking at several books for inspiration—Annihilation, Come Closer, All the Beautiful Sinners, and many short stories set in this climate.

PB: What inspired you to go artic with the next novel?
RT: I live in Chicago, so I’m familiar with the cold. Obviously not on the same level, but I felt I could tap into that sensation and reality. I wanted isolation, and was fascinated by the Barrow, Alaska darkness. What might flourish in the dark? What happens before and after the dark? And the idea of a sin-eater and a group of people holding the world together through their actions and sacrifices appealed to me.

PB: What/who are some of your major influences?
RT: I grew up on Stephen King, then the beats in college, later getting into more indie work. My MFA was a big influence, literary dark horses, and then the new-weird movement. And then all of my contemporaries, the authors I’ve published. So while I love King, and Clive Barker, and Jack Ketchum, I also love the literary voices of Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Cormac McCarthy, and Haruki Murakami. The most recent authors that are a heavy influence of my work would probably be Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Hodge, Livia Llewellyn, Alyssa Wong, Brian Evenson, AC Wise, Usman Malik, Steve Toase, Kelly Robson, Kristi DeMeester, Damien Angelica Walters, and so many others. For films, I’ve really enjoyed what they’re doing at A24 Films, my top five being Hereditary, The Witch, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and Enemy. 

PB: Anything else related to life or writing you care to share? 
RT: For the authors out there, figure out what you have, what authority, what experience, that nobody else has going for them. Maybe it’s where you grew up, your culture, your mythology, your job, or what you’ve seen. Weave that into the genres you love, and then swing for the fences—take chances, surprise your audience, be innovative while delivering what your promise, in a way that’s satisfying. There’s only one of YOU, so tell your stories with heart, and passion, and intensity. 

You can find Richard on twitter and at his personal site https://whatdoesnotkillme.com/