Behind the written word: Contemporary authors and their personal brands

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September. For many adults, the month is still associated with that “back to school” feeling. So what better time to continue our examination of literary brands? In July, we tapped into a “summer reading list” theme by visiting some classic literary brands. Last month, I posted a tribute after we lost author Toni Morrison, highlighting what made her such a strong personal brand.

Continuing with contemporary authors this month, I’ve chosen just a handful of those whose brand is expressed and differentiated through their writing. As outer branding is also an important part of the whole brand package, I also picked authors that are instantly recognisable to most, whether you’ve ever picked up one of their works or not.

Let’s pick up with Toni Morrison to celebrate our contemporary authors who have exceptional and enduring personal brands. Again, this is not an easy feat when your work is communicating through the written word!

Toni Morrison

In my post on Morrisson, I comment on how Morrison’s personal brand has in many ways come to represent the black American experience (particularly female), and her work is largely known for her honest examination of this experience. Throughout her novels, Morrison weaves in such cultural references as jazz, blues and folktale, threads that make up part of the rich tapestry of black America. She also challenges us to confront topics of slavery and racism from a very compassionate, personal level.

Black culture not only permeated her content but was also reflected in her style of writing. Morrison once spoke of developing “a way of writing that was irrevocably black”, because of “something intrinsic, indigenous, something in the way it was put together – the sentences, the structure, texture and tone”. Her poetic and mythic style are also signature marks of Morrison’s brand. She wrote fiercely, courageously, and with passion.

Morrison is credited for transforming what was possible for black writers in mid-century America. She was also a champion of free speech. You can read more about Morrison’s inspiring brand in my post here.

“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
– Toni Morrison

Salman Rushdie

You just have to have a glimpse of Rushdie’s website to know he has a pretty fascinating and differentiated personal brand going on. The imagery – the colours, playfulness, magic and mystery – all speaks volumes to his unique brand. His outer branding also includes his own distinct image; the bald head, that salt and pepper beard, his narrow frame glasses are all unmistakable Rushdie.

Rushdie is a British-Indian novelist best known for the novels Midnight’s Children (1981) and The Satanic Verses (1988). Midnight’s Children received a Booker Prize in 1981, and in 2008, it was awarded the “Best of the Bookers,” acknowledging it as the best novel to have won a Booker Prize for Fiction in the award’s history. Throughout his career, Rushdie has a remarkable collection of honors and awards. In 2007, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Then there’s the controversy behind his brand.

The Satanic Verses (1988), a novel steeped in magical realism, was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. While it received several awards and international acclaim, it sparked outrage and condemnation from the Islamic world “for what was perceived to be its irreverent account of Muhammad”. The novel was banned in several countries with large Muslim populations, and in1989, the spiritual leader of Iran issued a fatwa for Rushdie’s execution. Rushdie was forced to live out the next several years under police protection until he issued a public apology in 1998.

Interestingly, while Rushdie became a target of extremists, the Muslim religion was very much a part of his upbringing. Alongside of religion, curiosity and openness were also very much part of his personal brand growing up. His grandfather was a devout Muslim, however he did not ascribe to extremism or intolerance, and this is reported to have greatly shaped the young Rushdie. By expressing his view of religion through his writing, Rushdie was also expressing a very personal aspect of his brand.

Rushdie has also maintained a strong political voice throughout his work. His brand has become synonymous with freedom of speech, as his works often tackle the topic of political turmoil, most recently, his view of the Trump era in The Gold House (2017). His fourteenth novel, Quichotte, is forthcoming from Random House this fall.

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” – Salman Rushdie

Stephen King

Stephen King’s books have introduced many to the horror genre, and titles such as Carrie, The Shining, and Misery are household names. King has also stepped outside the genre of horror, such as with his books Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. His work also spans science fiction and fantasy (where he first published under various pseudonyms), however his personal brand has become simultaneous with horror. He is one of the most successful horror authors of all time, rightfully earning the title of “The King of Horror”.

Perseverance and determination are defining features of King’s brand story. He started writing and submitting his stories at age 16; he hung each rejection letter on a nail on his wall, until eventually the pile became so heavy that the nail fell down! King’s novel Carrie was his fourth novel, but the first to be published. Initially he had become so discouraged while writing the story that he threw out the entire manuscript. Luckily, his wife fished it out of the bin and encouraged him to keep writing.

There’s also a socially responsible side to King’s brand, one that is literally “close to home”. In addition to donating several million per year to libraries, schools, and other organizations, King also chairs The Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation with his wife, which supports community-based initiatives in Maine, his place of birth.

A brilliant personal branding strategy, King has also made multiple appearances in film, mostly cameos in movies based on his books, such as the minister in Pet Semetary. He is no stranger to co-branding too, having written for The Ramones, and collaborating with the likes of John Cougar Mellencamp and Michael Jackson on musicals.

The Stephen King Brand has inspired many aspiring authors. He is known for his prolific writing, authoring 52 novels and around 200 short stories! Has holds the Guinness World Record for the most motion picture adaptations from a living author, and also holds the record for the most books on the New York Times Best Seller List at one time. Once a school teacher, King continues to be passionate about education. He is a champion of young writers and readers, and his strong personal brand is one that inspires many beyond the classroom.

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” – Stephen King

J.K Rowling

Rowling is of course know her for the exceedingly popular Harry Potter book series and the series of films based on them. Whether you are a fan of her work or not, there’s little debate that she has built one strong personal brand for herself. Rowling also writes under the pen name of Robert Galbraith. Like Stephen King, she has separated her separate writing personalities so that fans known exactly what they are getting with a J.K. Rowling or Galbraith book.

Rowling has used her own life story to great effect in the creation of her personal brand. There was her backstory of a single mother on benefits writing novels in a steamy Edinburgh café, alongside of stories of her resilience and persistence after being turned down by twelve publishers before being accepted by Bloomsbury after the eight-year-old daughter of the chairman loved the book.

Rowling is also a shining example of socially responsible branding. Not only has she established two charities; the Volant Charitable Trust and Lumos, but she also wrote her three companion books to her Harry Potter series in support of charity: Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in support of Comic Relief; and The Tales of Beedle the Bard in support of her children’s charity, Lumos, which raised millions for the charity.

She is also very vocal on social media, not without its little spats. Rowling has become one of the most popular voices on Twitter, with nearly 15 million followers. Whether it’s shutting down trolls, sharing candid political commentary, or tweeting messages of hope, she shares a refreshingly authentic voice social media.

Overall, Rowling presents an authentic human brand who doesn’t hide behind publicists and glamour.

“I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny – a thousand things, before ‘thin’. And frankly, I’d rather they didn’t give a gust of stinking chihuahua flatulence whether the woman standing next to them has fleshier knees than they do. Let my girls be Hermiones, rather than Pansy Parkinsons.”
― J.K. Rowling

Author J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House. Screenshot taken from official White House video.


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