My hairdresser grabbed my phone and held it up to her nose. I was showing her my new website, and her eyes scanned over my author head shot.
“You don’t even look like you!” she exclaimed.
I laughed. “That’s the idea.”
With the release date of Through the Veil looming, I’ve been working hard to develop a good platform to sell my book. Part of that has been developing what the industry calls an “author brand.” What is an author brand? Think about a writer you love. The kind of writer who, when you hear they have a new book coming out, you race to Amazon and pre-order it right away. Maybe you’re walking down the street and see their name through the window of a bookstore , and you get this swirl of emotions, images, and feelings running through you. You smile. You have a secret. A secret you have shared with this author. Maybe it’s a secret love, a secret world, a secret adventure. You walk on, thinking about the last time you read their book, what you loved about it, what you love about this person–THIS WRITER–who is able to work magic through words. That feeling? That’s an author brand. It’s elusive, but every writer has one. Good or bad. And it’s not accidental.
Recently, I was on the road going to pick up my kids, and I happened upon this great interview on NPR with JK Rowling. I immediately paused on the station, sinking into the lilts of her lovely accent. I don’t know what she was talking about. Her mystery novels? I don’t know, but I was completely charmed by her wit, her warmth, and her intelligence. As in love I am with the great JK, I could also hear a professional at work, someone who knows and understands what her readers want from her and is willing to deliver–and then some. When you go to her personal website (not Pottermore, which deserves it’s own visual analysis, for sure!), you’re greeted with her signature. The design is clean. It’s smart, but there’s a bit of playfulness in the fonts and artwork. She smiles in her author photo, but she’s poised with a pen in her hand, ready to work. Everything about the way she presents herself exudes an unassuming confidence that readers just…love. I love it, anyway.
JK Rowling has had years to cultivate a public persona, but when you’re just starting out as a writer, it’s a strange mantle to cast over yourself. I was at a party the other night, and someone called me a writer. I swear I almost looked over my shoulder to see who they were talking about. But then I remembered, yes, that’s me. The writer. I have a book coming out. It’s a real thing now. Slowly, I have found ways to embrace that identity, and part of it has been about developing an author brand. In many ways, my author brand has liberated me from a lot of my own fears and doubts about releasing a book out into the world. When I worry about getting bad reviews, I think, “Well, it’s Colleen Halverson-author who will have to deal with bad reviews.” When I’m nervous about emailing my editor about a change I remind myself, “It’s Colleen Halverson-author who needs to address an issue.” And when I get squirmy about going out there and pimping my book, I think, “It’s the writer, it’s this confident professional who is going to talk up her book and get readers excited about it. I just have to sit back and eat cookies and watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.(They’re alive dammit!).”
I know for many of us who grew up in the era of Kurt Cobain and the hipster cult of authenticity might cringe at such self-proclaimed phoniness. The Colleen of her twenties would have shook her head and told her to fuck that shit. Be who you are! But being a professional educator has changed me. When I walk into the classroom, I have to leave my personal problems behind and facilitate powerful learning experiences. I have to check my ego at the door, not take things personally, and have faith in the power of my pedagogy because when I’m at the top of my game, I’m a fucking literary wizard. There have been times when the facade has dropped and I let out an “f” bomb or two (I’m still me, after all), but the professional identity I put on in the classroom has given me the freedom to tackle enormous challenges and overcome incredible obstacles. As Big Daddy Kane said, “Pimping ain’t easy,” (and believe me, pimping Jane Eyre to a bunch of nineteen year olds was never easy), but part of what makes it possible is having complete and utter confidence in your own abilities–even when you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. Especially when you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.
As I told my hairdresser, my photographer managed some damn good lighting for that head shot. Indeed, you probably wouldn’t recognize me if you saw me now in my yoga pants, no makeup on, two-day-old spaghetti sauce stain on my fleece hoodie, but you probably wouldn’t recognize me in front of a classroom either, or having a stern discussion with my five year old, or at the club doing shots with my girlfriends. Our identities are fluid that way, and sometimes being able to build one from scratch allows us to take risks we might not in “real life.”