Hemingway, Proust, and the Authorial Brand

Sooner or later every aspiring author is going to be told that they need to work on building their brand, improving their platform, increasing their presence. I grate at these terms. I don’t like to think of myself as a brand. I’m a person. I have a personality. I have interests and quirks and an aesthetic and a manner of speaking, and these things transmit through my writing and my social media posts. But I’m not a brand, not like Coca-Cola or Sony. And I get even more bent out of shape thinking about my authorial brand when I imagine old Ernest Hemingway sitting in some wing-backed chair drinking Scotch and like, thinking about Proust or something, and definitely NOT thinking about his brand.

Look at this guy. He’d slug you one if you started jawing away about an authorial brand.

But for better or worse I’m not Ernest Hemingway, and the world of publishing and promoting books has gotten waaaay more complicated in the hundred or so years since Hemingway entered the scene. And so with some exception, (I see you, Jonathan Franzen) the rest of us have to not only write a great book, but also try to have enough of a voice on- and offline that people will actually buy our great book.

So what is branding? And what’s the different between a brand, a platform, and a presence? And finally, do authors really have to worry about all this stuff? 

I think of branding as an author’s overall package: how you dress, how you present yourself at events, the voice you use on social media, the colors or graphics you use in your posts, and how all of this ties in with your book and your work as a whole. Are you relatable? Funny? Erudite? Or if you’re me, are you all three? (j/k — see how I said I was funny?) Your brand will be all of these things combined. But here’s the catch:

Your brand should be natural. It shouldn’t feel contrived. Your brand should just be the personality you naturally exude in everything you write, post, and say. 

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t amplify certain aspects of yourself, push yourself a little, and sometimes take risks, but your brand should essentially be you, showered, shaved, relaxed, and ready for prime time.

Ok, so what is a platform? A platform is your entire network, every single person you can reliably reach out and touch when you tweet, post a new blog, or publish a new story. A platform can also be your area of expertise – are you a former immigration attorney? Then you can speak with great authority on that subject and that, too, can be part of your platform. And finally your platform is also a regular space from which you can speak. Kind of like a literal platform: a big stage where you get to stand and shout. Part of my platform is this blog, where I am very lucky to get to post and interact with all of you. And I’m also a regular contributor to Ploughshares Blog, where I get to write about books and writers and fractals and all kinds of weird, cool stuff.

I like to think about presence as sort of a combination of branding and platform, as well as how often you show up. When someone asks, What’s your social media presence, they’re asking, Do you have an account, Do you have followers, Are you an active member of the community, and Do you show up?

So that’s sort of a brief overview of authorial brands. Is it exhausting? Yes. Is it confusing? All the time. Is it fair that we have to worry about how many likes and RTs we get while Proust got to sit in a wing-back eating a Madeleine and like, thinking about swans and stuff? No, not in the slightest. But this is the world we live in. Proust didn’t have Bridgerton, so I guess we’re even steven.

He did have some come-hither eyes, though. Damn!

And I have one quick caveat for the author who’s just starting out:

Your first and last priority should be to write something great.

Put your effort into perfecting your craft, and the branding/platform/presence stuff will come later. Focus on creating the best art that you can. Because you can shout your work through the loudest microphone from the highest mountain, but if the story is no good, it’ll all be for nothing. And we all just want to hear a great story.

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.