Peace Corps Writers
Talking with John Bidwell (page 3)
 Talking with
John Bidwell
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How would you go about branding a Peace Corps writer?

Branding asks that the writer differentiate himself and present himself in a clear and consistent way. Many RPCV writers focus on similar themes, such as “They helped me more than I helped them” and personal growth. While these themes may be personally significant, they are not unique. Most writers want to assume that good writing is all you need to do. I don’t believe that. Assuming you are a good writer and you are interested in public recognition, you need to be uniquely purposeful. What is the purpose of your writing? To borrow from the branding world, what are your vision, mission, and values? And how do you convey those in a new way?
This became apparent to me when my wife Kris and I were working on Monique and the Mango Rains. Fortunately, Kris was not interested in simply retelling her Peace Corps experience, which helped brand the book in a unique way. The goal was then to keep the story on track:

  1. Focus on the cross-cultural friendship. Every scene needed to support that. The Peace Corps volunteer and her growth was important, but it was not the primary focus.
  2. Tell the story. This was not merely a string of isolated incidents. We studied fiction to get a better understanding of building narrative flow.

     These two things are not ground breaking on their own, but they are pretty different for a Peace Corps book.
Having an honest, differentiated book was the first step. Next, we looked at audience, asking ourselves who would be most interested in the book. Thus, finding readings at schools made sense, especially in women’s studies or public health.

[An aside about the author’s participation in promotion: As an author, if you want your book to be successful, you must get out and promote it. Nobody is going to do it for you. Kris deserves so much credit for taking her role as promoter seriously. She constantly works to improve her presentations, which are frankly fantastic. She pays close attention to her audiences, tailoring her delivery to make sure the connection between her story and her audience is clear. It is not the job of your audience to form the connection. It is up to you. I know that sounds preachy, but it is very important.]

     Key to all this is networking. Figuring out your brand is good, but will not open doors. It does, though, help you know what to say once a door is opened. Opening the doors relies on spreading the word through personal connections, your website, and PR.
Like most books, we didn’t get an advance or have a huge budget. Thus, we knew that grassroots marketing would be essential. We hired Zach Marcus of Maverick Media Projects and Mary Bisbee-Beek of the University of Michigan Press to help us. Their expertise, especially with event planning, independent bookstores, and publicity, was crucial. We focused on reading book clubs. Kris made herself available to any clubs, a fact advertised on the home page of the book’s website (
As testimony to the power of networking I must mention the Literary Ventures Fund (, which has been indispensable. LVF believes that great literature can thrive in the marketplace, given the extra help that most publishers can’t afford. Founder Jim Bildner and Editorial Director Ande Zellman immediately showed an interest in Monique after Kris sent them a galley. In the end, the book has to carry its own, but LVF’s contacts and funding have given us opportunities we would not otherwise have.
Lastly, the brand focus needed to be carried though the promotional writing and imagery of the book. Wording and messages focused not on Kris, but on Monique and her friendship with Kris. The title of the book was a struggle, taking years to emerge. It had to speak to the individual (Monique), imply the foreign (mangos), and pique one’s interest (what the heck is a mango rain?).
The design of the book was critical. We asked Waveland Press if Bidwell ID could design the book (layout, typography, images). They said yes. Readers love the cover of the book, which shows a large photo of Monique (not Kris, not a village scene, not even Kris with Monique). It intentionally draws you in. I tested the look against other book covers at bookstores to make sure it jumped out. My company also gave a lot of thought to the page design, making sure the font was not too small and incorporating icons drawn by Monique’s uncle. It is all appealing and attention getting, but also speaks to the heart of the story. I’ve been careful to use that exact image over and over, in ads and flyers and posters to build familiarity.
All this is to say that good writing is only the beginning if you hope to have critical success, much less a chance at financial success. Writers must concentrate on branding their work. Don’t work in a vacuum. Remember to work collaboratively. Strong positioning not only sells your work to readers, but also to people who can greatly help you. It requires digging down to find your core message — your wellspring — and refining that message to be simple and clear. That is what people are going to remember.

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