Do You Need an Author Website?
by Moira Allen

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Do you want to impress editors? Do you want to attract more readers and sell more books? Do you want readers and editors to know that you are an expert in your field? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you've answered the title question as well: Yes, you need a Web site.

For the first time in history, writers have access to something they've craved since the first cuneiform was chiseled: worldwide publicity at almost no cost. The Internet offers writers an opportunity to promote their books, become more accessible to their readership, establish their expertise, and enhance their professional standing with editors (and other writers) -- all for the cost of your ISP connection and a little time spent learning HTML.

Before you rush out to post a home page, however, stop and take a deep breath. The Internet is flooded with sloppy, unimpressive, cutesy, and trivial "writer" home pages. As a professional, you want something that says more than, "Hi, my name is Bob, click here to read my stories, click here to see a picture of my dog!" Before you launch, you need to make some important decisions about your site.

Five Great Reasons for a Web Site

A professional Web site requires a professional purpose: It should, in some way, advance your career (or your dreams). Your first step, therefore, is to determine what writing goal is most important to you at this time. Is it to sell more articles to magazines? To sell more copies of your nonfiction book? To attract more readers to your novels? To interact with your readership? To educate and inform your readers? To become more involved in the writing community?

Keep in mind as well that visitors aren't impressed by sites that are little more than electronic ads for your books. Purpose must be supported by content, just as content must be guided by purpose. Choose both with care, and you'll be able to give readers a reason to stop by, to stay and browse, to come back -- and to tell their friends.

Following are five of the more common purposes for writers' Web sites and the types of content that can help support those purposes:

Reason #1: To Post Clips

One of the downsides of electronic queries is the impossibility of attaching clips. The easiest solution is to post a selection of appropriate articles on a Web site and provide the URL in your e-query. A clip site should include:

Reason #2: To Establish Your Expertise and/or Educate Readers

Some writers focus upon a particular area of interest, expertise, or passion. Others pursue writing as a secondary interest, in support of or in the context of a special interest, hobby, career, area of study, or similar area of expertise. In such situations, your goal may not be to convince editors that you are a brilliant writer, but that you are an expert on a particular subject. Similarly, you may be as interested in promoting a general understanding of your field as you are in promoting your own writings in that field. In this case, an expert Web site may work better for you than a purely writing-focused site and would be likely to include the following elements:

Reason #3: To Promote Your Novel(s)

Novelists are finding the Web an excellent place to highlight past, current, and forthcoming novels of all types and genres. A novelist's Web site will often contain many of the following elements:

Reason #4: To Promote Your Nonfiction Book(s)

The key difference between a fiction and a nonfiction author site is that while fiction readers tend to be author-focused, nonfiction readers tend to be subject-focused. A Web site designed to promote a nonfiction book, therefore, should usually focus on the subject of the book, and include:

Reason #5: To Educate and Inform Writers

Initially, one of the most common features of any author site was a selection of writing tips. Now, sites for writers have proliferated beyond count (the resource appendix at the end of this book just scratches the surface). There's still room on the Web, however, for high-quality writing advice.

The best approach to a writing tips site today is to move beyond general "how to write" (or "how to format your manuscript") topics and focus on your area of specialty. What can you offer writers that isn't easily found elsewhere? Focus your site on writing for a specific genre, category, or field.

For example, if you're a mystery writer, share tips on how to become a mystery writer -- or how to become a better mystery writer. Be creative: Don't just talk about writing techniques, but tell your readers where to find helpful research information, such as sites that cover forensics or police procedures. Offer links to publishers of mystery books or short fiction. Seek reciprocal links with other mystery sites. Offer a "contest" page that lists writing contests for amateur mystery authors. Offer links to mystery e-zines. Offer a bookstore of how-to books for mystery writers.

A writing site will need much the same type of content as an expert site, including:

Needless to say, these aren't the only reasons writers launch Web sites -- and in many cases, these reasons may overlap. You're certainly free to mix and match the items listed above, as well as to add items of your own. Be cautious, however, about attempting to develop a Web site that serves too many purposes at once (e.g., to promote your novel, showcase nonfiction clips, help writers, and establish your expertise in a completely unrelated area). Many writers have several separate career tracks. If you're one of them, consider creating a separate, stand-alone Web site (with its own home page) that supports each of your career goals.

Five Things Every Writer's Web Site Needs

No matter what the purpose of your site, certain elements are essential, including:

A useful table of contents.

Whether you think of it as a table of contents, a menu, or a site index, your site needs one (or several). A typical approach is to offer a general, first-level TOC on your home page that provides an overview of the contents -- e.g., Articles, Bibliography, Resources, etc. A second-level TOC can then be developed for each section -- for example, under "Articles," you should list all the articles posted on your site. However, beware of building in too many layers of menus (e.g., Articles > Articles for Writers > Fiction Articles > Short Fiction > Finally, The Actual Article List). Remember that each layer of menus adds an extra barrier between your visitors and your content -- and another opportunity for that visitor to grow impatient and move on to a more accessible site.

In addition to your main TOC, be sure to include a version of the top-level TOC on each page of your site. This enables visitors to navigate within your site without having to return to the home page.

Annotated links.

Every site needs links -- and one of the best ways to please visitors is to annotate those links with a brief description. Let visitors know, in a line or two, what to expect when they visit the recommended site. In addition, it's a good idea to include not only the title of the site, but the actual URL. Then, if visitors print off your material to read later, the links will still be useful. (I learned this the hard way when I distributed copies of my own articles at a conference -- and realized that a list of underlined sites with no URLs wasn't terribly helpful!)

Check your links regularly to make sure they are still active. If you're daunted by the thought of doing this manually, don't despair: There's an easier way. Simply submit your URL to a diagnostic site such as Site Inspector, and you'll receive a list of inactive or inaccurate links within minutes. If you have more than twenty-five links on your site, you'll need to repeat the process until all the links have been checked.

A copyright notice. Actually, you may need not just one, but several copyright notices on your site. The first should be a blanket copyright notice that covers your entire site. This should be posted prominently on your home page and might read something like this:

Copyright Notice

Flights of Fantasy - Copyright © 1999 by Joan Q. Novelist
All rights reserved on all material on all pages in this Web site, plus the copyright on compilations and design, graphics, and logos. For information on reprinting material from this site, please contact JQNovelist@myISP.com

Keep in mind, however, that many visitors may arrive at your site indirectly, either through a link or a search engine that takes them to one of the subordinate pages on your site rather than the home page. If you post articles, columns, or clips on your site, therefore, you may also wish to include a separate copyright notice with each article. (See "Reason #1," above, for an example of a single-page copyright notice.)

A hit counter.

The best way to find out whether your site is serving its purpose is to track the number of visitors it receives. To do this, you'll need a counter not only on your home page, but on each separate "content" page. This will enable you to determine which aspects of your site are attracting attention and which are being ignored. For example, if your home page registers two hundred visitors in a single month and your article on "The Importance of Flossing" registers only two, you know that only 1 percent of your visitors are interested in this article -- a good clue that you might want to swap it for something more enticing.

Your hit counter should provide some indication of the longevity of your site. For example, you might want to incorporate it into a phrase such as, "You are visitor number (XXXXX) since January 1, 1999." This is also a good place to include a "last updated" date, to let visitors know how fresh your material is. On the other hand, if you don't update your pages, leave this information off, or visitors will get the impression that your material might be old news, no matter how timeless it is. (You may also wish to use web-tracking software for more detailed information about what pages are visited, etc.)

Contact information.

Unless you prefer to toil in seclusion, include an e-mail address so that your visitors (and fans) can contact you. On your bookstore or links pages, you may want to invite visitors to suggest additional references or links. (It's wise to have a policy about the types of links you will accept -- for example, no commercial links -- so that you can explain, if necessary, why you are choosing not to add a particular link.) Another way to solicit feedback from your visitors is to incorporate a guestbook into your site.

Three Things Your Web Site Can Do Without . . .

In developing a Web site, as in writing itself, it's as important to know what to leave out as what to leave in. Certain elements can significantly detract from the professionalism of your site, including:

Unpublished writings.

Many would-be writers view the Internet as the ideal place to self-publish material that they have been unable to market. Unfortunately, the only result has been to convince savvy surfers that self-published stories, poems, or novels on a Web site are an indication, not of professionalism, but of desperation. Even if your unpublished materials are of the highest quality, posting them online is likely to tarnish your professional image. (Note that this does not apply to materials written specifically for the site itself.) Another issue to consider when posting unpublished materials is the question of rights. Increasingly, publishers are regarding material posted on a Web site as previously published -- which means that once you post something online, you may no longer be able to sell first rights to that material (if you can sell it at all). The best rule when it comes to rights, therefore, is to sell the piece first and post it later.

Too much personal information. If your goal in developing a Web site is to advance your writing career, be sure to keep it as professional as possible -- which means making sure that it won't be confused with a holiday newsletter to friends and family. This is not the place for news about your grandchildren or photos of the family pets. That doesn't mean that you can't develop a personal site, but you'd be wise to keep it separate from your writing site. At most, add a discreet link that points readers to "Joan Q. Novelist's personal home page."

Links to everything. Resist the temptation of offering links to every site on the Web that interests you, no matter what its subject. No matter whether you are a veteran rock-climber, an armchair archaeologist, or a connoisseur of filksinging groups, leave those personal-interest links off your professional page, unless they somehow relate to its focus.

And Finally, the Greatest Danger of All . . .

The greatest danger of a writer's Web site is not what you put on or leave off. It is the speed with which such a site can consume your writing time. The temptation to tinker with a Web site is hard to resist. There's always the urge to redesign your pages, add new elements, rewrite your menus, add better graphics, or simply to surf for new links or new ways to promote your site. Moreover, it's easy to justify such tinkering as "working to promote my novel" or "gathering important information."

Before you quite know what has happened, however, you'll have spent the entire day tinkering -- without adding a single word to that article or story you're trying to complete by deadline. (Trust me. I know.) Designing and maintaining a site can be an excellent way to promote your writing and advance your career, but it should not be allowed to replace writing. High-tech procrastination is still procrastination. If necessary, ration yourself to only so many hours of site development per week or month. Otherwise, you may end up with the perfect writer's Web site -- and nothing for it to promote!

Find Out More...

Create a Website that Works for You - Barbara Florio Graham
http://www.writing-world.com/blogs/barbara.shtml

Creating an Online Portfolio - Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/blogs/portfolio.shtml

The Disappearing Writer - Why You Need a Website - Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/coffee/coffee18.shtml

Do You Have a Website? - Audrey Faye Henderson
http://www.writing-world.com/blogs/website2.shtml

Writing-World.com's Links to Social Media, Blogging and Website Development
http://www.writing-world.com/links/website.shtml

Copyright © 1999 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

 

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