This week authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain discuss the ins and outs of working with a brand agency and their personal experience with the process.
Crys: Welcome to The Author Life Podcast. I’m your host Crys Cain with my cohost J Thorn. How’s it going this week, sir?
J: Great. Great. Have you locked that in yet, that new podcast name?
Crys: I think it’s in my brain now. Like it’ll probably be six months down the line and I’ll completely F it up. But right now at least it’s fresh enough that I have to think of it beforehand, so I’m getting it right. We’ll see where we’re at in another month or two.
J: I’ve done the ad read for Writers, Ink, and a few times I’ve almost said The Career Author Podcast. So it never entirely goes away.
Crys: As long as it’s like in my brain, I’m good. But the moment I revert to instinct, that’s when I’ll F it up.
So what did you get to do this week in your creative writer life?
J: What did I do this week? I finished up some of the stuff for Writing Scenes. So that’s getting ready to ship pretty soon. I’ve been preparing for a challenge that’s coming up. I don’t think I’m going to mention it specifically just yet, but there’s going to be a free five-day challenge I’m hosting that’s coming up, and I’ve been doing a lot of the backend work for that. So a lot of admin stuff this week, but the kind of things that have to get done.
Crys: Today, this morning, I got back the last of my current sample translations. And so I’ve sent them off to our German speaking friend to evaluate. Hopefully at least one of them is good. I told her, I was like, if they’re all terrible please do let us know and I will go ask for more.
And then I have to sort out where a couple of audio projects are because I think the narrator did two books and I thought he was only doing one, which is great. This is just picking up where we left off months ago with me being on the road and everything. And so he’s on top of things it looks like, and I’m not. So I’m trying to get my brain back on schedule.
And then I got some writing fiction in this week. I’ve been trying to work on that big epic serial fantasy project for a while. And I had a lovely conversation with a friend this week that pointed out, like the reason I’m struggling with it is that I don’t have a good concept of the ending, and that’s why I’ve been writing on it, but I haven’t been moving well. And I was like, ah, it’s because I actually don’t know what the full story is about. And before we had that conversation, I was like, okay, like I have this possible stand-alone idea. So I plotted that whole thing out and started work on that, and that’s what I’ve been getting the words on.
And I’m really excited about finishing this because there’s an easy end date. I can see like, okay, 60,000 words down the line this one is done. Whereas the serial project is much larger and more epic and will be years in the writing. And so having a completion thing will give me a lot of motivation just in life and everything.
J: Good. Good. I probably should mention too, by the time this goes live, it’ll be live, but The Author Life Summit is happening in Colorado Springs September 10th and 11th. So if you’re interested, if you go to theauthorlife.com you’ll be able to get all the info. That’s opening up and we have some great speakers lined up and it’s going to be fun.
It’s the conference that won’t die. Zach and I tried killing it multiple times and people keep saying, no, please do it again. We are doing it again. It’s very small and intimate. We’re only going to have 50 people in the room and we’ll have a virtual ticket too, but we want to keep it small manageable. That worked really well in Nashville. So we’re doing it again.
Crys: Yeah. And you guys keep getting energized by a new way of doing it. So at some point it’s going to be like, aha, like this is basically what it’s supposed to be. This is the one that we can continue on doing for a while now.
All right. So normally I like to do the last week of the month with our emerging tech conversation, but because we started our conversation about the name change, the branding redesign, we wanted to continue that conversation and talk about what it was like to work with a brand agency and put this whole thing together over the last six plus months.
J: It was a crazy ride. I’m not specifically mentioning them yet because I’m still waiting to hear back. I have a meeting with them and I want to ask them about like, do you want more authors as clients? Because I don’t want to talk about them if they don’t. It’s a good problem they have, they’re in very high demand because they’re really good. So I don’t necessarily want to have them flooded with inquiries unnecessarily if they’re not taking that kind of client. So that’s why I’m not mentioning them by name. It has nothing to do with the quality of work that they did.
It was intense. It really was.
Crys: I think you got the bug in your brain, specifically, when there was a branding book that a bunch of us in the community read, and you reached out to that fellow but he was like six figure cost.
J: Yeah, this was the gay brand book. What was the name of it?
Crys: Yeah, Your Brand should Be Gay, that’s what it was called. But you had a meeting with him that was not in the price range, but he gave you a few recommendations and you ended up going with them.
J: Yes. Yeah. I’m thinking about all the steps that were involved. Yeah, I interviewed three different agencies after I talked to him and chose the one that I ended up going with. And I think this was probably in September or October, possibly. And the plan was to start working in November and the website went up in the end of March, so just to give you some idea of the span of time. And most of that was work was being done. Like we were having weekly meetings to go through things, but that’s what it took. It was quite an involved process.
Crys: So, what was the first thing they required from you once you signed on with them?
J: Where they start is, it feels self-indulgent and I said this to them many times, they were like, yeah, are all of our clients tell us this, but I spent half a day just telling them about me. Like everything. My history, my family situation, my interests, my hobbies, my experience. Like they’re just gathering all of this data, all of this information, and that’s the beginning of the branding process. They’re like, dump everything that you have out on the table, and then we start picking through it and trying to find things.
That was like the beginning. And then that transitioned into a second phase where we spent most of the time, which was talking about the avatars or the archetypes or the ideal members of the community or the people I’m serving. And that was months of work.
Crys: And did you have one avatar that you ended up creating or were there a couple?
J: There were three to four, depending on how you count. But there was one I was thinking of specifically the whole time. So it’s one of those things where you’re not necessarily excluding certain writer types, but I was focusing on one. And a particular member I was thinking of in our community, but I’m not going to say it on the air, they could be offended or elated, I don’t know. But there was one person I was thinking of and that was my north star, that was guiding me through. I would always think, what would this person think? Or what would this person say about this? And that was really helpful. And doing it for two or three different types gives you a little more balance too.
Crys: I find it much easier to create an avatar off of someone I actually know, versus the imaginary person. I find that my imaginary people are quite limited, whereas the people I know in life are far more clear and in depth.
J: Yeah, right. It’s just like if you’re creating a character in your story, they come alive if you’re basing off of someone or an amalgamation of a couple people, like they’re just more real that way.
Crys: Now, was one of the reasons that you had a couple of avatars because you were bringing several ideas and arms in line to all be like streamlined?
J: Yes, I think so. What started to emerge pretty early on, and this was not something that surprised me, but what started to emerge early on was that I cared about lifestyle. Like I’ve never cared about being a full-time novelist, I just wanted to have a lifestyle of independence and freedom. And I would have to say that the majority of the people in our community feel the same way. And once that was locked in, that really guided a lot of decisions around words that were used, phrases.
There was one three-hour session where they were like, okay, I’m going to say this word and I want you to give us the first 10 words that come to mind. And I’m like, ugh. It was brutal cause you rattle off the first three or four and then you’re like uhhh. But like those exercises, they were keeping track of all that, and even some of those words from the very early exercises found their way into sales copy or into headlines later on. So it was like a really important process.
And what I realized with the multiple archetypes is that even though most of the people in our community are focused on lifestyle and not necessarily on a rapid release model or that approach, but even within that, there’s a wide range of people. There’s diversity within our community that even though people all desire the same kind of lifestyle, the way that they’re going about it is quite different. So it helped to have that specific direction but then have these general archetypes to play with as we went through.
Crys: How long was it before you got the first visuals, like the first visual ideas?
J: Months. I’ve had websites designed before but I’ve never gone through a branding process, and they’re not the same. So I hired a web designer one time and the next week he had a mock up or a wireframe, and I’m like, yeah, that looks good, move this around here. And then back and forth a few times, websites done. That’s website development and that’s great, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. This was not that.
This was a branding experience. There was a style guide that they developed maybe around December, late December, that sort of identified fonts and colors and schematics, that kind of thing. But I didn’t see anything on a webpage until probably January or February.
Crys: Now, part of that question was a leading question simply because I wanted to tell everybody about the 20-year-old in a leather jacket that they photoshopped your head on top of, which was my favorite part of this little style guide that they had. It was great. Like J wears leather jackets, but this leather jacket was clearly not a J leather jacket. It captured the vibe. I just wanted to share that. I can’t be the only one who knows the joy of that image.
J: They were really good. I did some of my own research around color palette and what colors work in certain circumstances. Like very generally speaking, green is a color of money or success or abundance. Blue is more mellow or laid back. I knew early on that I wanted red. Red is passion, fire, blood. The red and black with the shades of gray and white has always been something that I felt like represented my energy, and so getting those in place made a big difference.
Then they looked at my pictures with guitars and leather jackets and they came up with like grungy backgrounds and coffee circle backgrounds and stuff that really kind of fit the aesthetic of the website. But all of that came after months and months of meeting. So I feel like they really knew me by the time they got to that point and they weren’t just making like random design decisions. They were making them based on who I was and what I wanted.
Crys: Was there anything about the process that surprised you?
J: Yeah. What surprised me is how terrible I am at web design. Yeah. Like I knew I wasn’t bad, or I thought I wasn’t bad, I’m pretty bad. If you looked at my old site and you didn’t know any better, you’d be like, okay, like it’s not great, but it’s not like awful. Now I look and I think that was awful. And I don’t know, sometimes I overestimate my capabilities in certain areas and that’s definitely one of them. And you just do what you can.
When I started those websites, I didn’t have the money to pay for a branding consultant. Like that just wasn’t in the cards. And the longer you’re in business and the more you do things, you start reinvesting money back into your business. And that’s where I am right now. I’m not scraping to get by the way I did five years ago, so I can take some of that money and I can reinvest it in things like what I just did.
And so I don’t want people to feel like they have to do that. And there will be a time when that will be appropriate for you, listener, but it might not necessarily be right now. But I step back and look at what they did versus what I had and I’m just blown away. I’m like, wow, they’re experts, I’m a hack..
Crys: And I also want to say that the answers you would have given back when you had The Author Copilot as your idea, would not have been answers for a brand that would have carried you through to what you have today. And so it would have been a giant waste of money.
J: Totally, it totally would. And I think I can talk generally about this, but this is a conversation that we’re having with the Three Story Method editors right now, who many of them are just establishing themselves as a service-based business. And it’s hard, it takes time. Sometimes it takes some to even figure out what your niche is. So I reminded the editors, I’m like, I just now, like five years later, got this locked in. It took me five years of doing client work to get to the point where I feel confident in that I know who I’m serving.
So it’s not something you can just throw out a shingle and now all the clients run to you and you’re all good. That’s employment, that’s called a job. That’s not being a business owner. Being a business owner, you have to develop it and it takes time. And a lot of things you do, and this correlates to writing fiction as well, like you feel like you’re just writing into the void or you’re screaming into a hurricane. You feel like you’re not getting anywhere. You’re making podcast episodes that you think no one’s listening to. And all of a sudden you wake up a few years later and you start to see the benefits of that. But it’s a long haul. It’s a long tail.
Crys: Now, is there anything that I have missed in asking you about the branding that you did want to bring up?
J: This might not be hard for others, but the photo shoot was one of the most difficult things I did.
Crys: Was that something that they required of you or is strongly suggested?
J: Strongly recommended some new headshots and I surrendered to the process. And this is how I operate on my fiction side too. I’m not one of the authors who goes to the cover designer and it’s like, I want this character on it, and it’s gotta be this color, and I want this font. I basically say, here’s the palette, you’re the expert, you design it. And that was the approach I took with this exercise. And so when they said you need some new headshots. I was like, all right. Because I’ve always hated having my picture taken. Hated it. Like my mom will tell you I’m not in any of the family albums as a teenager because I would hide.
But I had to surrender to the process, and they started going through and like looking for freelance photographers in my area. And they found this guy and he’s 22 years old. And he’s photographing like very attractive young women and men, and I’m like what’s he going to do with this guy? He’s gonna be like, oh God, I got my work cut out for me. And that was really uncomfortable because I just felt like I didn’t feel like I belonged on a photo shoot somewhere.
Logan Winters is his name. He was really good. And he was super pro and he really helped pull things out of me and he got really good shots. And I was super pleased with it, but it was a very difficult process.
Crys: Yeah, I can only imagine.
J: I’m not the one to pose and I had to do a lot of posing for that shoot.
Crys: Yes. For a question for our listeners I think I would like to ask, just because this is an ongoing conversation: what’s the most difficult part of branding for you? Like what’s the most difficult thing that you struggle with?
I’d love to hear what it is that you’re struggling with. I don’t know that we will have the answers, but I would love to continue this conversation, especially in our community.
If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Life Community is all about.