What Is Identity Marketing?
A column about identity is a dangerous thing to write. But identity marketing is something that affects your life, and you need to know about it.
If you’re a writer or bookseller, you might do it intentionally, you might do it unintentionally, or you might have it done for you with no regard for your opinion on it.
If you’re a reader, you’re being sold books (and other stuff) through identity marketing.
Whoever you are, whatever your relationship to your identity and others, identity marketing is here, and you’d best read up on it.
Disclaimer for Lack of Disclaimer
Because this column touches on the topic of identity, I wrote an entire disclaimer chunk. But you know what? I’m tired of forcing you all through long paragraphs that only exist to appease a person I created in my head who will read this in an intentionally dishonest way.
I’m here to tell you what identity marketing is, not to tell you how to feel about it.
Identity marketing is using the entirety or a portion of your authentic identity to sell something. This could be an assigned, non-elective identity (race, gender, ability, etc.) or an elective identity (political affiliation, cause-based, interest-based).
Elective and non-elective identities are complicated, but in the microcosm of identity marketing, let’s look at it this way: You have two hammers. One was given to you, one you picked out. We’re looking to drive a particular nail here, and both hammers will drive that nail just fine.
What's Different About It?
Identity marketing recognizes that an author’s personal life, beliefs, and behavior are factors book buyers consider.
Readers are increasingly selecting books based on facets of the author’s identity. Spending a set amount of time reading only authors of color is a common practice. Reading only women for a year is common. Avoiding authors who’ve engaged in questionable or illegal behavior is common. Avoiding authors on the opposite end of the political spectrum is common.
Identity marketing recognizes that the artist, as well as the art, affect sales.
With non-fiction, especially non-fiction concerned with identity, it’s easy to see how identity marketing works.
Between The World And Me is an impossible sell if it’s by a white man. Or, it sells, but to a VERY different audience. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ racial identity is important to selling his book.
Jazz Jennings’ book cover is a big photo of Jazz. Her book is a memoir about being a trans teen, and that identity facet is critical to the marketing of that book.
Those are pretty obvious, right? And it’s because those books are directly concerned with topics of identity. Let’s look at some different examples where the identity marketing and books aren’t so closely aligned.
Stephen King tweets about politics. It’s pretty well-known that King is not conservative, to put it lightly. Even though his well-known works aren’t terribly political, he makes his political identity very public. As a privileged, white, male author in a position of power, his stances market his books to people who might otherwise assume he doesn’t care about marginalized people. Plenty of people only want to read books by authors they consider good people, and King can put himself in that camp by being clear about his political identity.
Donald Ray Pollock is known for coming from an extremely blue collar background. That portion of his identity is marketable because everyone loves reading grit lit by someone who’s actually gritty. There are plenty of gritty crime books, but not many are written by someone who worked in a paper mill until age 50.
Sending stories to anthologies that publish only writers from certain identity groups (racial, experiential, political) can be a form of identity marketing. Adding that you’ve won an identity-specific award (country-based, language-based, race-based, religious-based) to your bio or the front of your book can also be a form of identity marketing. Consistently engaging with certain topics online, whether through social media or other means, can be a form of identity marketing.
But Pete, Having An Identity Isn’t A Marketing Activity
Donald Ray Pollock didn’t work at a paper mill until he was 50 as a diabolical plan to market gritty books. However...
Here’s the first bit of text from an NPR interview:
Pollock worked in a paper mill and meatpacking plant for 32 years before becoming a writer.
Here’s how his bio starts:
Donald Ray Pollock is an American writer. Born in 1954 and raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio, Pollock has lived his entire adult life in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he worked at the Mead Paper Mill as a laborer and truck driver until age 50, when he enrolled in the English program at Ohio State University.
The opening of another interview:
At age seventeen author Donald Ray Pollock dropped out of high school to start work in the small town of Knockemstiff, Ohio.
Pollock’s identity as a blue collar person from a rural background serves as his sales pitch. His identity is an entryway for readers to understand a little bit of what he's about.
Jason Reynolds is a wonderful author and speaker, and although it’s not usually stated in text, most interviews with him and profiles of him feature his picture. He’s a young, handsome black man. He’s often smiling. He does not look like a leather elbow patches type of author who is set to bore a roomful of kids talking about the history of literary canon. He looks relate-able, especially for kids, especially for kids who might not like typical required reading, especially for people of color.
Jason Reynolds is a very authentic, nice, fun person, and he's not that way just because it’s good for business. However, being Jason Reynolds also happens to be damn good for business.
Having an identity is not, in and of itself, a marketing activity. However, when you are a public figure attempting to sell a product, your identity and your product become enmeshed.
Let me put this another way: If you use Instagram for photos of yourself and your life, and if you have no product to sell, that’s not marketing. If you start mixing commercial activity with personal activity on Instagram, the barrier between those photos that are for you and those photos that are for the world evaporates. The barrier between identity and identity marketing activities might stay clear in your mind, but for any outside observer, they're non-existant.
But Pete, It Sounds Like You’re Talking About Branding
Yes, it does. They're related concepts.
With branding, you set up your brand, and then you actively shape your actions and outward appearance to create and reinforce that brand. Chuck Palahniuk’s Twitter presence is an example of branding. His tweets are almost entirely about events, releases, and occasional books he’s recommending.
You’ll notice he doesn’t market his identity, though. You won’t see pictures of him at the beach. You won’t read tweets that are his personal thoughts. Chuck Palahniuk is gay, but he doesn’t talk about that terribly often, and you won’t see him weighing in on LGBTQIA+ issues online.
With branding, you set up the brand, and you follow the brand. With identity marketing, you live an outward life, and portions of that life will intersect with and be perceived as marketing activities.
So, What’s My Identity?
I’m guessing you already have some ideas, basic census stuff, but let me give you some ways to consider other identifiers outside of the obvious.
If you dropped dead, what would appear in the first paragraph of your obituary? Would they identify you as a “family man”? An “activist”? A “God-fearing Christian”? A writer? A sister or a son? A Mets fan? Which parts would be different if the obituary was written by your mom as opposed to your first roommate? Sometimes those disagreements represent the best place to define your identity.
If you went missing, what would be in the one paragraph people would put on a poster alongside your face? Imagine you’re a cat, and the people looking for you list the places you might wind up, the sorts of things that would cause you to wander off.
If you were filling out a dating profile, what would you list as a dealbreaker? That's related to your identity.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Whether you like it or not, that one thing is central to your identity.
If there was an asteroid headed to Earth and everyone on the planet had to write one paragraph explaining why they should get a seat on a space ark that would preserve human life, what would your pitch be?
When It Works and How
Roxane Gay is known for talking about issues related to gender and feminism. She identifies as a feminist, albeit a “bad feminist.” Her Twitter feed identifies her as a feminist, and her Twitter feed is also her best marketing tool. The feminist facet of her identity builds an audience online. If you are concerned with the modern state of feminism, you have to follow Roxane Gay. What Gay says is culturally relevant, and her book releases become more than just drop dates, they’re events in the world of feminism.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson is almost the personification of astrophysics, and he puts out little space facts and ideas online constantly. He builds an audience through this activity, and when it’s time to sell something, people are listening.
Craig Johnson shows up to events in denim, in a pickup, and the bed is full of books, and he’s happy to help get them unloaded. He’s the closest living person you’ll meet to his Walt Longmire character. Johnson’s identity, which gets mashed up with Walt’s, keeps people interested in Johnson and his newest title, and it speaks to the type of person who reads authors they could sit and have a beer with.
For you, if you’re an unknown author, your identity might be an easier entry point to your work than the work itself. Reading an entire book is a commitment. If people see you as someone they like and agree with, if your identity is unique, and authentic, if your voice is one they want to spend time with, if your identity sets you up as an authority on what you’re talking about, they might just take a chance on your book.
When It Backfires and How
When you write about a culture other than your own, you need to be careful. See: American Dirt.
When your identity is as an unlikable curmudgeon. See: Jonathan Franzen.
When your identity is inauthentic in an essential way. See: James Frey.
When people see your identity and product as a mismatch. See: Country music stars who are outspoken Democrats.
When the perception of your marketing activity is that it is commoditizing identity.
One Big Cautionary Note
You know how it’d be unfair to critique someone’s diary the same way you would a published memoir? Your identity, if you hang onto it for yourself, isn’t something that’s really up for critique.
If you put your identity on front street, and if it dovetails with your marketing, some people will see that as an open door to critique your identity and its authenticity.
I don’t need to tell you that the internet can be a nasty place, and when you reveal something of yourself, those random online blows aren’t so random anymore. They hit hard.
It's not fair, it's not right. It's reality.
Where Do You Go From Here?
That’s entirely up to you.
Some people will see identity marketing as selling out, selling a piece of themselves to sell books.
Others will see identity marketing as a way to connect with the people who need their books the most.
Some will see themselves as having nothing to hide, and therefore identity marketing is not a problem. Others will see their identity as separate from their work, as theirs to retain and control.
Some consumers will see identity marketing as honesty. Some will see it as shady. Some book buyers want to trust the artist, others are turned off by attempts to put the artist in front of the art.
The only bad decision on this one is an unconscious one. One you’re forced into.
Consider identity marketing, consider how you want to engage with it, and select your path.
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