The Truth About Author Websites
For some writers, the author website is a thing of pride of beauty. It’s an active well of new material, a place of engagement and connection, an extension of their books, even an invitation into their writing life. It gathers email addresses, expands audience, benefits SEO, and is their personal beachhead on the Web.
For others, the author website is an annoyance, an obligation, and a static reminder of all they hate about digital media’s encroachment on their writing life. The landing page is three books old, and the author photo three years outdated. The blog page whose latest post is dated 6 months ago makes them feel both guilt for not updating weekly as they’d promised, and resentment that anyone would expect them to.
What exactly is the purpose of the author website? Is it essential or decorative? A primary focus or an afterthought? An effective tool or a waste of time and money?
During the pre-lunch panel at Digital Book World’s Marketing and Publishing Services Conference (DBWMP), Rachel Chou of Open Road, Kristin Fassler of Penguin Random House, Brian Parsons of Houghton Mifflin and Peter McCarthy of McCarthy Digital debated the value of the author site.
Their consensus: for most authors, it’s not very valuable at all.
- Parsons: Facebook has replaced author sites — especially for comments…
- Chou: I don’t believe in author sites for most authors. I’d rather them spend time on social…
- McCarthy: I think about the first page of Google. Author websites don’t often help you get there…
Meanwhile, on Twitter, the view looked a little less clear:
- Jane Friedman: Would we take any other business professional or entrepreneur seriously if they said “no” to a website & depended on social?
- Guy Gonzalez: Author website + email list = only 2 things you control directly when shiny du jour goes away or changes policies
The difference in perspective derives from where you’re sitting. From a publisher’s chair, there’s very little to gain in the near-term from most author websites (big author brands are exceptions, of course). Author websites don’t often sell books, they don’t often drive traffic to retailers, and they don’t often find their way into conversations on the web. Social does. So it makes sense that, when asked, publishers would privilege management of Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc over an individual author site.
But in an author’s calculation, short-term gains are weighed against long-term results. In an email exchange after the panel, Jane Friedman: wrote me:
I have a hard time endorsing a social-only approach when you, the author, are at the mercy of the social media tool for reaching your audience. You can never control what Facebook or any other site does—with its design, with its user interface, with your likes/followers, with its functionality, with its ad displays. And if and when it goes out of favor, you’ll have to rebuild somewhere else—whereas with a website, you only get stronger and better over time, assuming you don’t abandon it (and why would you, if you’re still writing and publishing?). This is part of being a capable author in the digital age, if you want to grow your career over the next 5, 10, or 20 years.
Friedman’s point about the variability of social media platforms was echoed by Guy Gonzalez, and it’s a fair point: no platform is eternal. Friedman’s larger point, which you can read in a few days when she posts on this topic at her site, is about the kind of author and publisher partnership required nowadays. Publishers are having to do some kind of digital education with all of their authors, and are having to choose what to teach. From the stage at DBWMP, this sentiment was shared: each publisher rep expressed a desire for their authors to be active in the spaces they were most comfortable and best equipped.
But whether the author website was one of these places was debatable.
Here are the arguments as best articulated from both sides:
Author Websites Are Important!
1. B2B. People checking your site are booksellers, librarians, reviewers, media etc. And you need to look like a pro.
2. D2C. Fans and detractors of author websites do agree on the power of personal newsletters. No better place to capture them than on your homepage. Out of all the sites on the Web a reader could go, if they’ve found their way to yours, chances aren’t bad that they might be interested in hearing from you.
3. Control. Third party platforms disappear or change policies–you want to control your content and engagement practices when today’s beloved new platform becomes tomorrow’s Posterous.
Author Websites Are Unnecessary!
1. Engagement and influence are far easier to develop in social platforms than on single pages. Few will come to listen to you at your site, but many will engage in conversational streams elsewhere. Go where the people are.
2. SEO is benefitted more easily with social profiles and social content. Google yourself, and chances are Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc, dominate the top results.
3. Maintaining a personal page requires far more time and money than managing social platforms, and since writers are always pressed for both, budget for impact.
While the two perspectives seem to be in contrast, they agree on one point: whether you think author websites are must-haves or time-sucks, if you’re going to have one, you better do it well. As overheard at DBWMP, “a bad website does more harm than a good website does good.”
So here are three pieces of advice from DBWMP panelists on an author’s mission, should he or she choose to accept it, to make the author website matter.
- Build on a platform that optimizes content for search, builds a site responsive to devices, and allows you to easily and quickly update. Recommendation from Brian Parsons: use WordPress.
- Update regularly and integrate with your social profiles. Note especially Google + connections, says Peter McCarthy. By claiming your blog via Google Plus, your image will appear in Google results next to posts, which results, on average, in 9x the click-throughs.
- Drive all visitors to sign-up for email newsletter. In Fassler’s opinion, if you can only do two things, make them Facebook and a newsletter.
What do you think? Are author websites essential or superfluous, brand-builder or time-suck? What advice would you offer to authors pressed for time and resources? Comment below or join the discussion on Twitter using #DBWMP.