The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

Speaker Series Recap: What Is a Brand and Where Can I Get One? with Literary Publicist Claire McKinney

by Mally Becker

The idea of promoting my own literary work makes me want to hide under a blanket with a bag of leftover Halloween candy. Or maybe mint Oreos…, but you get the point.

clairemckinneyNoted literary publicist Claire McKinney understands.

At a two-hour Writers Circle workshop she led on author branding and promotion last weekend, McKinney acknowledged this common reaction. “This is not something writers like to do. But in the current publishing environment, there’s a greater onus on individual authors to be involved in promoting themselves and their projects.”

McKinney, who started Claire McKinney Public Relations LLC after stints as VP, Director of Publicity for Henry Holt and Company and Director of Publicity for Miramax Books, made development of an integrated public relations strategy seem less intimidating for the packed-house audience.

What if book promotion and branding meant finding ways to talk to people who are already interested in the kinds of things you write about? Don’t you already do that to some extent?

“Building your brand,” McKinney explained, “means identifying ways to continue the conversation with those people through traditional and online media to build your audience.” Still a lot of work, but “do-able” with consistent, focused effort.

McKinney began by defining the difference between publicity and marketing and then reviewing a variety of traditional and digital outlets.

IMG_2218“Since publicity aims to grab attention for your book project, the message you send out needs to have ‘news value,’” McKinney said. If your book was just published or you have an upcoming reading or speaking engagement, whether it’s at a big literary conference or a local school, your publicity efforts need to have a newsworthy “hook.”

Author branding requires that you “become a part of the general stream of dialogue in media,” McKinney said. Your brand is the consistent name or symbol you use to identify yourself or your project to your intended audience.

To develop a brand, authors first need to answer a critical question: Will your brand be you, as an author, or your project? McKinney used the example of J.K. Rowling, who is herself a brand, as is Harry Potter. James Patterson and Deepak Chopra, the authors, are both brands, but their individual books – not so much.

“If you plan to write a book series, it may make sense to ‘brand’ the project,” McKinney said. “If you’re working on a how-to book, then consider branding yourself as an expert in that field.”

“This doesn’t mean you need to – or can – reach everyone in the United States. You need to define the audiences that will be interested in your project and find ways to reach them through traditional and online media.”

That’s where the marketing component of your public relations strategy comes in. To illustrate how to identify audiences for your project, McKinney offered “speed marketing” plans to several attendees who summarized their works-in-progress. One participant offered up a fictionalized biography of the 20th century composer Oscar Levant. McKinney and the audience brainstormed ten different interest groups or audiences, including people interested in theatre arts, New York history, old movies and Broadway.

clairemckinney2Once you’ve identified your message and core audience segments, it’s time to research how to reach them. The web is a terrific source for finding special interest groups and making contact. And don’t discount your own local community. The home front is often the first place to find people interested in what you’re doing.

McKinney suggested starting promotional activities six months in advance of publication. “It can take four months to see a review published,” she said, and advised not to wait too long and miss your window.

Writers should focus on both traditional and digital media markets. Traditional means identifying local newspaper reporters, book review editors, traditional and online magazines, newsletters, radio programs, podcasts and websites where you can pique some interest in covering a book’s release. Writers should also attend conferences, and inquire at local libraries, universities and schools that might be interested in hosting you as a guest speaker.

Another basic marketing tool is a great business card that identifies you as an author. Once you’re published, add a postcard featuring your book to your stash. Carry them with you everywhere and hand them out at every chance.

When it comes to digital marketing, every writer should have an online presence, whether a website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter account – or all of the above and more. In advance of publication, writers should, at very least, sign up for WordPress and start blogging. That will get your message out and lay the groundwork for readers who will discover and follow you while you develop the rest of your online promotional strategy.

The four most important social media sites for writers are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and (especially for nonfiction) LinkedIn. As you develop your online presence, you can email politely to other online sites, interest groups and blogs that connect you to your audiences. You might offer a free reader’s copy of your work to interest them in your writing, or suggest that you could speak to their organization about your novel.

IMG_2206For social media, spread the word by posting your blog entries on your Facebook account and looking into relevant hashtags on Twitter. But not every social media option is right for every author. “If you don’t feel comfortable on Twitter, don’t do it!” McKinney advised. “But if you do jump into the Twittersphere, don’t buy followers. Trust me, we’ll know,” she warned.

Finally, McKinney advised writers, “Spend time every week communicating with key audiences, just as you regularly devote time and discipline to their writing.” Consistency is key, as is staying visible to catch the attention of potential readers and fans.

Other great resources and platforms where writers should explore include Goodreads (, a massive book review site that also has an author’s program. “See who’s reading books like yours and who’s commenting on them online,” McKinney suggested.

Where Writers Win ( is a terrific resource for author publicity and branding with tons of marketing information and advice online, much of it free, but even more available at a membership cost of only $59.95.

McKinney finished her workshop with what might be the best advice of all: “When it comes to author branding, don’t worry about what you can’t do. Figure out what you can accomplish and do something. Start your blog, for example. Just do it.”

After McKinney’s talk was done, I almost felt ready to crawl out of the covers and give it a try.

Mally Becker is The Writers Circle’s Outreach Coordinator and all-around invaluable staff member. She is hard at work on a historical mystery novel set during the American Revolution.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

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