Thursday 29 May 2008

Authors and Websites: What You Need to Know

Before anything else, a bit more shameless publicity: I'll be doing a two hour workshop at the British SCBWI annual conference on 22-23 November. I haven't got a title yet but I've pretty much decided that it's going to be in the format of a web designer/client meeting going through step-by-step what the client needs to know about putting up a website. The tragedy is that my workshop is at the same time as a workshop on character and plot headlined by my friend Miriam Halahmy, uber creative writing guru. Drat.
Anyway. Speaking of the internet. I keep finding myself in little conversations with friends about author websites.

Do authors really need them? What's the point if you're writing picture books for little kids who don't go online? Should authors blog? Aren't there too many blogs in the world already? Aren't MySpace and Facebook just a big waste of time?

And what if THIS is the sum total of our computer savviness:

It's a big, big subject. And if I wrote too comprehensively about it, nobody will ever invite me to speak at their conferences again.

So instead of giving everything away, here's a list of things that authors who are thinking about getting a website need to consider:
1. Which gatekeepers are you targeting? The look and feel of your website is determined by your audience. Are you at a stage in your career where you need to present a professional face to publishers or stir up the interest of readers? Are you trying to get librarians and booksellers interested in your book or are you trying to meet like-minded people for support and contacts?

2. It's not about you, it's about them. The internet is no longer a world of static homepages. The internet-user is used to being able comment, upload, download and engage with a site in a million different ways. If your website can't engage with your visitor, you might as well print out a flyer.

3. It takes five visits to make a sale. I don't know where that fact comes from but it comes up time and again in reference to website effectivity. Whatever it is you are selling (your book? yourself?), ask yourself: how do you get someone to return five times? The answer is what will make your website successful.

4. Nobody can drive it but you. Content management is the bugbear of author websites. You see a lot of author websites that were last updated in the previous century. Ask your web designer, how am I going to update this without you? These days, you don't have to learn code anymore to be in control. The reason blogs are so popular is because blogs are just websites with easy-to-use content management systems. You don't have to be a blogger to have a blog.

5. Write the book. You can blog, you can facebook, you can myspace ... you can do everything possible online but your web efforts are nothing if your product doesn't measure up. At the end of the day, the internet cannot save a bad book.
So go write.

And write well.


  1. I'm not surprised you don't want to go further than this. It seems to me (via emails and blogs and discussion groups all over) that more and more authors are starting to feel like they've been sold a crock.
    That publishers are getting a heap of free publicity from authors busting their guts over this "web presence" but where is the evidence that it results in more book sales?
    Book sales result from your book being on the display, in the advertising the publisher does, reviews, and often from blogs and online reviews that you have no control over. Those are all things the publisher does.
    Sure, a writer who gets out there and does heaps of promos and maintains a huge database of contacts and a MySpace page, etc etc, may sell a few hundred more copies. But that might take 10-12 hours a week (or more - many writers are pretending it doesn't take that much time and effort, but the net sucks up hours like nothing else). Where is your quality writing time going?
    On promotion.
    What does everyone else think? Honestly.

  2. >publishers are getting a heap of free publicity from authors

    well, one thing that used to amaze me is how little marketing publishers seem to put behind their investments. what they seem to do is put all their marketing muscle behind the big names to assure a return on that investment and the smaller names are left in the wild.
    the fact is, publishers are in the unenviable position of building not just one brand but thousands of little brands - each author is a brand!

    so it's down to the author (unless you are JK or eoin colfer or someone who's proven themselves to make good money for their publisher) to build his own brand.

    which is a problem - most people are authors because they like to write, not because they're good at brand building.

    that aside, the really really good thing about books is that word of mouth seems to be the most powerful driver of book sales. which is obviously where the internet comes in.

    and yet that opportunity is often wasted in poor websites, poor targeting, and misunderstanding how social networking works.

    and it's not enough just to have a web presence if you do not work on your real-time presence. as in, try to use traditional media and appearances too.

    they say news on the internet spreads with viral speed. but there is no virus without the initial infection.

    authors should think about that. why would people go online to seek them out out?

    people will look you up

    (1) if they see you in traditional media - being featured in newspapers, TV, radio (make those publicity people find opportunities for you!);

    (2)if you go out and meet your constituency - doing school visits, literary festivals, workshops; and

    (3) if you wrote a good book.

  3. Yes, school visits if you are a children's writer are important, but you have to be good at it. Although most kids are pretty forgiving, and if they are excited about you as a writer, they make it fun.

    You said: opportunity is often wasted in poor websites, poor targeting, and misunderstanding how social networking works.

    My website was always aimed at children first, with enough solid information for adults too. But kids first. However, you are right about the social networking. I have not really gone into it for two reasons - I *don't* understand how to make it work for me, and I don't have the time either.
    It takes me all my allocated promo time to maintain my blog and my websites, do school visits and library stuff. I see writers who use MySpace to get material out every day, and I have heard of one writer who stopped writing for a couple of years simply to concentrate on marketing the books already published, because they weren't selling anymore.

    The balance between writing and marketing is, for me, the question of the moment. I totally agree that the writing of a good book should come first, but I do think that more and more, marketing is sucking up valuable writing time. But do we have any choice, if we are not JKR, or of a similar profile?


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