As a break-through author, especially in the world of self-publishing and digital media, there is something you might notice as you scope out "the competition". Depending upon your genre and target readership your first impression may be one of feeling somewhat overwhelmed; good gosh there is an awful lot when you search, right?
Oh good, gosh-darned, honest-to-goodness, awfully overwhelming lot!
You know that your story, your ideas, your prose, characters, and concept are amazing. Of course you do, you wouldn't have been able to dedicate so much of your life to it if you did not; the initial draft, the worldbuilding, the character refinement, the editing, the website, and so forth. All that time, the literal blood, sweat and tears you shed in bringing an idea you had into the world.
You know it's amazing but how do you not only convince complete strangers of that fact but get them to part with their hard-earned money and buy it? How indeed...
Do me a favour, close your eyes and follow me....
Oh dear, that is not going to work is it? How can you continue to read...hmmm
Imagine a fruit, associated with sin, a snake, and the forbidden, take a bite out of it...that's right, you have imagine a very expensive mobile phone and computer manufacturer's logo.
I say computer and make a binnng...bing bing bing bing! Noise and you think of a certain chip manufacturer.
I indicate a video game console and 8 out of 10 of you will imagine a certain controller with a circle, a square, a triangle, etc. on it.
Yes! I am talking about BRAND! Branding is when the mere sight or sound or something even resembling what has become an iconic identification of a brand makes one immediately think of or associate with certain products. One assumes both their quaity and the prestige one gains in spending large quantities of one's hard-earned money on said products. There are a hundred different types of training shoes, computers, mobile telephones, watches, etc. out there but these are seem as inferior to those which have entered our group consciousness as excellent.
It might be that generic device/item of clothing is not only equal in quality and durability to its named counterpart, as well as costing half the price thereof but we don't want to risk that, do we? It is inferior, it will disappoint and not do half of what we want it to so we will scrimp, we will save, we will pawn a child in order to have the excellent version.
It is the same with authors. You buy a Stephen King book and you know what to expect. You purchase something written by Neil Gaiman and you know it'll be good. Yet you see books by an unknown author and you fear the possibilty of disappointment. Now, you may never have read a word by, for example David Gemmel before but you have heard he writes excellent fantasy, brutal, visceral, no holds barred and decent fantasy. If you're looking for some new fantasy books and see one of his, you will likely buy it knowing it will be money well spent.
You Are A Brand
Many of these iconic products and authors have been marketed, exposed to the public (mostly decently), are all-present on social media, etc. We know who they are, they are famous. Their brand is strong and they had millions of dollars worth of marketing budget, as well as teams of cool people to make this happen. We, on the other hand, do not. We are, most often, a one-person band looking at our instruments in perplexed terror; we know what a trumpet is and, in theory, how it works but how do we coax notes from it? Maybe we can strum a few cords on the guitar but we need a catchy tune! We trawl the internet, our bestest of friends in this new endeavour and decide to learn to play. How though, can we play an entire orchestra?
Simply put, we cannot, yet somehow we must. It is an ominous sight ahead of us, our goal a dizzying height above us, we do not even know where to start. We might have written a manuscript or two, we have edited it, polished it, made a cover or had one made for us. But it sold a couple of curiosity copies and then...zip!
You may have written literary gold but if you drop a grain of gold into a windy desert, who will find your grain just by looking at the sand? If your grain is the same size, colour, and general appearance as all the other grains then hardly anybody.
The Aesthetic of Cine
Do Not Be Dispirited!
Seriously, do not. You want this badly otherwise you wouldn't be here.
So, you accept that both you and your book/series/IP are products I take it? Good, that is a great start.
A friends of mine, back in the pre-pandemic world when Facebook was still on friendly terms with me, had a few conversations with me about my early attempts at artwork for the Chronicles of Enoch and the website for the same. He described to me a the concept of "Cine" or cinema. Imagine a well known movie franchise, any one will do. Thank you. You will notice, consciously or not, that each one you imagine has an aesthetic; be it lighting, style, details you barely see that remains consistent throughout. You may feel jarred if something appears which does not fit that aesthetic. Certain genres also have their "cine" you may have noticed also.
What is it about your work that can really make it stand out? What is something about your world which is like nothing anyone has seen before? If your book were a movie, what would be its "Cine" or unique aethetic?
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
No-one ever said that this was going to be easy. Ignore anybody that tells you that immediately because they are lying. I started in this game almost six years ago and am only now gaining a decent following as well as some interest from places where it matters.
I had to teach myself everything from the ground up is the reason why that is.
My first websites, my initial marketing attempts, my early artwork was, to be brutally honest with myself, absolutely terrible and dire. It had no real uniting theme or "cine" to it except for the fact that it was bad. Now my Kalshodar model is iconic and recognised all over. How did it get to that phase? Let me give you the process as I experienced it;
Conceptualise and ask yourself what is the essence of your vision. If you do not know and cannot imagine every little detail of, in my case, a Kalshodar's weapons, armour, equipment, how can you realise it for others to see? For me, creating three-dimensional images of my characters and so forth tells me a lot about them and also tests whether my vision and descritions of them are good. If I cannot create a unique image from my descriptions and vision, I need to improve them.
Standardise. For each class of character, soldier, and suchlike, I created a range of 'templates' to which I can add little details etc. Every Kalshodar character is made from this one template. I vary equipment, I add the character's head if they're a major character, I decorate their armour differently...I make them unique but they are clearly a Kalshodar, right? The same goes for epibatoi, Empyraeum Army hoplites, everyone. They have key elements and items about their person which identifies who they are, where their loyalties lie, etc.
Saturate. You can see the Empyraeum logo up at the top. You can see the clever little thing I did with the ae. Everything associated with the Empyraeum Cycle carries at least one of those. My Youtube Channel, my Tumbl, DeviantArt, every image or video I produce carries the large or smaller logo on it. I designed a little flash animation including the large logo and every video I share begins with that animation. I have covered social media with that logo in one form or a another so when people search, they find.
Learn from Your Mistakes. If it doesn't work, find another way. Facebook used to be my source of greatest exposure; I had groups and an Author Page where I posted everything, I even had Series Pages too. Then Facebook permanently banned me. I had to find other channels and, after much work, have managed to do so. We have already discussed the sorry state of my earliest artworks so there is no need to repeat that. I have them somewhere, to remind me.
Decide and Protect your Brand. Whether it is your name, the title of the series in a particular (but unusual; protip, make sure it is a fair use or royalty free font) font, use it and use it consistently. Every book title, every webpage, every communication and newsletter I send used the same font and colour combinations. Custom, fair use fonts are handy because they make your stuff a darn sight harder to copy. A hand (or digitally) drawn logo is priceless because that makes you stand out and is even harder to copy. It also makes it instantly recognisable.
Accept that Mistakes Happen; nobody is perfect despite society's best efforts to convince us otherwise. Social media is a two-edged sword because you see mostly the triumphs and successes of others but few of their failures, one shows on social media that which one wants to be seen. One does not get a good edge on a sword just by deciding that it must be so, however. One must study the edge, spot the imperfections there, and hone them out with both effort and focus. At times one is not aware of a imperfection in a blade until one has struck something with it and watched it break; quite often the timing of this event will be an inopportune one but, if you're smart, you can turn that around.
Let the You Shine Through; that which will make your world, your story, your characters shine, be relatatable, be even interesting will be that which makes us human; imperfections. The danger a new writer faces when starting out, learning, exploring, is the danger of being overly inspired by others. One can think that this here is successful therefore I must be more like this is in order to be so too. No! Conformity is the road to stagnation. What people will notice, what people may well seek in time is your style, your uniqueness; they will look for you on a shelf or webpage because of something that you do which others do not. Nobody looks for a just like everyone else, people want unique and different.
Now, this does sound like an awful lot of work doesn't it? It is, make no mistake there. I have spend hours and days on one design. I have redone it countless times. I have edited what I'd thought was a finished design because I later spotted a problem. I have ruined designs by editing too much.
Know when to stop.
This is probably the most vital lesson I can teach. It is not about magical formulae, it is something you can learn from a blog, a video, a social media post or guru, this is all internal. Let us be honest, one thing most artists have in common is an issue with confidence. We are our own worst critics, our own most demanding taskmasters.
As I said a moment ago, I have ruined designs. I have fiddled and fuddled and changed something until it has gone from decent, to almost there, to perfect, to god-awful mess. You will know when it is pefect, you will feel it. Be prepared to accept that tingle, that buzz and know that here lies the best that you can make it. Be proud and confident of your achievement.
Confidence that is both the rub and the key. Have confidence in your creation. Have confidence in your readership. Have confidence in your ability and voice. Have confidence in you.
You can demand the best from you but you must also be capable and confident enough in yourself to recognise it when you see it. When you do, stop.