Why Authors Should Believe in Their Websites

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Jane Friedman regularly writes about the author-publisher relationship and today’s post struck a odd chord for me. She writes about “Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites?” (Thanks, Jane for a provocative essay.)

Basically, she says that publishers have three reasons for this attitude:

  1. Publishers see author websites as a time sink: they must train each new author on best practices and then many authors flub it, or once set up, they ignore the website.
  2. Publishers believe that social media is more effective.
  3. Publishers are building an audience that THEY own; there’s not much use for an audience that the author owns.

I would like to argue, though, that author websites are essential FOR THE AUTHOR.

Paid, Owned, and Earned Media (POEM)

When discussing book marketing, a useful concept from marketing people is the idea that there are three ways to reach people.

Paid media, which is the traditional advertising. This type media will attract strangers who originally knew nothing about you and your book.

Owned media, which means things in your direct control. Today, this means your website, your profile on numerous online accounts. This type media tends to attract customers who have already bought something and want to know more about you and your book. This will, in the long run, feed a career, not just support one book.

Earned Media, which is what others say about you because you are interesting in some way. This is the traditional press release, or earning the right to be heard by having something interesting to put in front of journalists. Today, this includes the wide world of social media. This type media attracts fans who want to follow your career and know you more intimately.

In the old days—twenty years ago—there was just earned and paid. Advertising drove all marketing campaigns, you started and ended there.

Today—the Modern Marketing Campaign—starts with Earned Media, especially what you can Earn through social media. But it is a mistake to only camp there, even though some publishers think that an author website is unnecessary.

I would argue, that you should first be the master of your Owned Media, especially your own website. A website is easily available, cheap and totally under your control.

5 Options for Promoting Your Book

Traditionally, we might talk about these ways of promoting a book, and separate it into categories based on media.

  • Print: flyers and posters, ads in magazines/newspapers/specialized publications, sample chapters, direct marketing, newsletter, interviews, business cards, slogans/pitches
  • Audio: radio or online interviews, read samples of your work, give reader’s reactions and comments
  • Web: website and/or blog, email marketing, online ads, sample chapters, RSS, feeds, bulletin boards or forums, ezine or newsletter, affiliate programs, online contests, webinars, advertisements (from Craigslist to GoogleAds), ebooks, podcasts, vlogging, internet memes
  • Personal appearances: BEA, ALA, local library, bookstore signings, literary festivals, teaching, school visits, speaking engagements, seminars, conferences, asking for referrals, elevator pitches, personal PR
  • Social Media: Facebook, GoodReads, Twitter, LibraryThing, delicious.com, StumbleUpon.com; spending enough time to become part of the community; using announcements, contest, giveaways

If we recategorize these with a POEM outlook, you get this:

  • Paid Media, which attracts Strangers: posters, advertising in print or online, direct marketing, high profile interviews, high profile personal appearances
  • Owned Media, which attracts Customers and Fans: your website and/or your blog, flyers, newsletter, interview, business card, slogan/pitch, podcasts, email list, RSS, bulletin board followers, newsletter, affiliate programs, online contests, webinar, internet memes and the whole category of personal appearances
  • Earned Media, which attracts Customers and Fans: Interviews, comments/likes/shares, conversation online, GoodReads/LibraryThing/Amazon reviews, community endorsements

What Should be on an Author Website?

A 2008 Codex study surveyed about 21,000 people who buy books. Its objective was to “understand the relative effectiveness of author sites among shoppers and to determine the elements that will keep them coming back to the site.” The Codex study reported that 7.5% of readers visit an author website before they purchase a book.

“The Codex report found that visiting an author’s website is the leading way that book readers support and get to know their favorite authors better. And this is true regardless of age.”

Wow, don’t we want fans who will “want to get to know you better”? Of course.

What are these customers and fans looking for? According to the Codex report, these are things that will keep fans coming back.

  • Exclusive, unpublished writing. 43% of survey respondents said they return regularly for exclusive content. This could include related short stories, but might also include a short essay on your cats. An interesting blog could do this, as well.
  • Author Schedules. 36% want to know the author’s schedule of tours, book signings, and area appearances. In other words, is there any way that a fan could meet-up, get a signed book, watch you speak, etc.
  • Author’s Literary Tastes. Readers want lists of the author’s favorite writers and recommended books. Younger fans are also more interested in knowing about their favorite authors’ book, music, and movie recommendations.
  • Insider Information. 36% of readers (especially men) want “insider” tidbits. YOU know why you killed off that mother in chapter three; explain that to the readers on your website. Include things such as: Background info–where and how you did research; important inspirations for the story; your biggest struggles and biggest successes as you wrote this book.
  • Freebies. 33% want downloadable extras like icons and sample chapters.
  • Regular contact. 33% of readers want weekly e-mail news bulletins with updates on tours, reviews, and books in progress.
  • Fans under the age of 35: contests, puzzles, and games, with prizes like autographed copies of books.
  • There’s one last reason to create an author website and online social media accounts: YOU, the author, OWN these. Your publisher does not. If and when you move on to another publisher (or to Indie Publishing) you still own your audience.

    From a publisher’s point of view, they want to own the audience, so they can sell more books. From the author’s point of view, you want to own your audience, so you can continue to write and have a career and sell more books. The publisher has an interest in your overall career; but not like you do. Only YOU are more passionate about your career than anyone else, certainly more passionate than an agent with dozens of other clients or a publisher with dozens of other authors.

    You OWN this channel of information going out to readers. Why not take advantage of it? Where ELSE will they find this information?

    Yes, building an audience is slow. Watch Jane Friedman talking about the slow growth of her audience.

    If you can’t see this video, click here.

    8 Comments
    • Kathy Steinemann
      September 27, 2013

      Thanks for sharing with us, Darcy. A website is a good investment if the author takes the time to provide interesting, gramatically correct content. Unfortunately, I have seen many sites so riddled with mistakes that they scare away readers.

    • Christa
      September 27, 2013

      Great post. Seeing the question of whether authors should have their own website (which linked to Jane’s, who linked to you) after someone at a publishers basically said they shouldn’t, my cynical thought was they don’t want you owning your own audience. Love the POEM breakdown – I need to turn it into a checklist :D

    • Stroppy Author
      September 28, 2013

      Absolutely. And I think you can’t stress enough that although new authors tend to think in terms of their publisher (singular) if you are successful you are likely to have more than one publisher, at least eventually if not soon, and you need somewhere that brings together all your books.
      Finally, your website sells you to agents and publishers. I work with a lot of publishers, and new editors often check my website. On that note, don’t include anything that will put a publisher/agent off – such as details of how your life is so hectic you barely have time to write. If you’re a professional, writing is the bit that doesn’t slip when life is hectic.

    • Linda Thomas
      September 29, 2013

      As I prepare to go down this road, this is invaluable information. Thank you!

    • Courtney
      September 30, 2013

      Excellent info. I’ve designed web sites for over 12 years now, but never considered how an author’s site might be different from other businesses. Thank you very much for posting!

    • Kaarthik
      October 6, 2013

      I totally agree with the article. Authors need a website, however they do not need to spend thousands of dollars on the site design itself. Whatever time they spend posting content is going to bring them more traffic/fans. Social metrics is one of important factors in search engine rankings and should complement the website. Also authorship adds author’s picture to their posts in the search results thereby bringing in more traffic due to better click throughs.
      Also there are many authors who sell their books via paypal and not through any publisher. For them a cost effective website is the best way to go.

    • pd workman
      November 5, 2013

      I really appreciate the list of what fans are looking for in an author’s website. Gold!

    • Peggy Nehmen
      January 25, 2015

      Great article — I’m sharing it on St. Louis Publishers Association!