Do Authors Really Need to be a "Brand"?

When I teach workshops on writing and/or publishing, I often start out by asking writers to work on the "one-liner" for their projects, whether fiction, nonfiction, or collections. I encourage them to try winnowing it down to just one line — and no, that single line can't comprise 200 words.

Usually someone will ask, sometimes a little aggressively, "Why?" The subtext is perfectly reasonable: their book or collection is too complex to be expressed in one line. I get it. It can feel derivative and overly simplistic to boil things down to its essence or a single theme.

But there's an upside to this kind of simplification: it helps us find readers. Isn't this our goal as writers?

These classes are about the business of writing, and my goal is to help writers transition from the notion that they're creating art to the reality that they're also trying to create a product. If you want to sell your book, if you're looking to find readers, your book is also a product.

This is not a bad thing.

Some years ago I read an article by Lori Gottlieb — author of the recent bestseller Maybe You Should Talk to Someone — about the changes in how people "shop" for psychotherapists, and what they expect from the process. A former journalist turned psychotherapist turned memoir writer, Gottleib explores why today's therapists need to "brand" themselves in order to attract clients.

Understandably, she is not a fan of this concept, but it's a useful perspective from which to look at consumer behavior.

The image accompanying the article speaks directly to the conundrum facing writers who want to remain "Authors" of "Literary Works" instead of becoming brand managers. Believe me, I get it. Not all of us want to become salespeople. These words in the photo caught my eye:

    • Psychotherapist: Digital-Media Navigator
    • Psychotherapist: Love Finder
    • Psychotherapist: Difficult-People Manager
    • Psychotherapist: Food-Issue Specialist

It made me laugh, but it also got me thinking. This consumer behavior is the same behavior we all exhibit, whether we are authors, readers, therapy-seekers or anything else. Just think about how often in a single day you come across a new idea, book, or image. How much mental space do you give that new idea, book, or image? Probably very little. You begin to form assumptions almost instantaneously. It may seem unfair, but it is the way most of us operate in this overly noisy world of ours.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell calls this kind of snap judgement "thin-slicing."

Gladwell writes, "careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful lot.” Eye tracking software recently revealed it takes less than three seconds for people to form an impression of whether a given website will be useful to them or not.

The bottom line? People need help getting to the important stuff.

If you want potential readers to learn about your work, you have to help them figure out where to position you and your book. The one liner is just the first sentence in what you hope will become a lively dialogue. And unless you open strong, you can't count on having that conversation at all.

"Branding" helps in similar ways. It helps people recognize and then remember you. The word has a bad rap with writers. So don't think "branding," instead, think "finding readers." After all, you're just trying to get more people to read more books, right?  

Here are some simple exercises you can play around with to come up with a fresh one-liner for your work. Have some fun with them — maybe they'll end up helping you connect with an audience who will love your writing and buy and recommend your books.

  • I have a completed [word count] [genre] titled [title] about [protagonist name/ subject + small description] who/that [conflict].
  • What do the people involved in the story want? 
(2) Why do they want it? 
(3) What keeps them from getting it?
  • Character name/description
of event or issue (2) The conflict they’re going through/ challenge faced 
(3) The choices people involved in the story have to make.
  • When the opening conflict happens to CHARACTER/S (2) They have to overcome obstacle/ conflict (3) in order to complete quest (what they want).
  • In this collection of [genre] titled [title] I explore [urgent conflict/ everyday concerns/ type of characters] in order to get readers to [xyz].
  • In my work overall [perhaps include genre] I am preoccupied with [xyz] because [abc], and in this collection specifically, I have attempted to [your goal].
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About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

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