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:
- An introductory home page that indicates the type of articles that will be found on the site. It's a good idea, if possible, to organize a clip site around a particular theme (e.g., science fiction), rather than "shotgunning" your site with copies of clips on a host of unrelated topics. Another option is to cluster clips around two or three separate categories (e.g., pets, travel, writing). Your home page should also list your name and provide an overview of your credentials.
- Selected clips of your best work. Before posting clips of previously published work, be sure you own the necessary rights. If you've sold all rights, produced the material as work-for-hire, or do not own electronic rights, you won't have the right to put the material on your personal Web site. Nor should you simply scan clips and post them as image files, for two reasons: First, image files are cumbersome to download, and second, a magazine clipping may contain copyrighted elements that don't belong to you (such as artwork, advertising, etc.). If you prefer to scan your clips before posting them, translate them into text files first.
- Copyright information on every page. Since the point of clips is to let editors know where and when you were published, be sure to include complete copyright information with each article. In your copyright notice, list the title of the material, the copyright date, your name, the name of the publication in which it appeared, and the date of publication. (This information will also be useful to anyone using your material for research.) Your copyright notice might look something like this:
"Ten Ways to Get the Most from the Internet"|
© 1997 by Ima Good Author
Originally published in Write Write Write, October 1997
All rights reserved. For reprint information, contact IGAuthor@myisp.com.
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:
- A home page that describes the subject area itself. Title this page in such a way that anyone interested in your topic or area of expertise is likely to find it. Choose keywords that would be chosen by a searcher, and put those words at the top of your page, so that they will be properly indexed by search engines. Make sure your home page clearly describes the subject area of the site, the types of materials that will be found there, and how to access those materials.
- An array of information resources. The best way to establish your expertise is to provide expert information. This could include articles that you've published on your topic, a set of FAQs developed specifically for the site (e.g., "Ten Ways To . . ." or "Questions People Ask About . . ."), or full-length articles written for the site. You might also consider posting a regular column, such as a news column that keeps visitors up to date on developments in your field or a Q and A column in which you answer questions posed by visitors to your site. Archive back issues of your column elsewhere on your site. Whatever materials you choose, your goal is to ensure that anyone who comes to your site with a question is going to leave with a worthwhile answer.
- A selection of top-quality links. To position yourself as a vital resource site in your field, you'll need to surf the Web for the best links to other sites in that same field. This accomplishes two purposes: It adds to the value of your site and encourages other sites in the field to link back to you (thereby increasing your traffic). Remember that your visitors rely on you to screen sites -- don't add any link that you haven't personally checked.
- A bookstore. If your goal is to establish expertise, consider offering a bookstore of titles related to your subject or field. While such a bookstore may compete with your own title, it will also give readers the added benefit of your expert recommendations -- and show editors that you have done your homework and are familiar with the top titles in your field. If you set up an "associates" program with an online bookstore, this portion of your site can also earn money -- see chapter 10 for more details.
- Your credentials. Keep your bio short, sweet, and professional. Focus on anything that supports your standing as an expert: education, credentials, job history, personal experience, and so on. Let visitors (and editors) know that they can trust you as a source.
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:
- An introductory home page that clearly lists your name (e.g., "Welcome to the Joan Q. Novelist Web Site"). Keep in mind that most fans will search for your work by author name, not by title, so your name should be prominently listed toward the top of your home page. Otherwise, it may not be indexed properly by search engines (see chapter 9 for more details). This page may also include your table of contents (TOC), perhaps a list of your novels (with click-throughs to pages with more information), and perhaps some images of your covers. It should also include your copyright statement (see "Five Things Every Web Site Needs," below).
- An author bio. Fans will want to know more about you, so satisfy their curiosity with a brief, professional biographical sketch (and a photo, if you wish). This is a good place to discuss how you began writing, why you write the types of books you do, your expertise relating to those books, your future writing plans -- and, of course, how many cats you have.
- A bibliography. Many authors provide a list of all their writings, including short stories, awards, and any other credits.
- Descriptions of your books. This is your chance to give readers a better summary (and teaser) than they will find on the backs of your books. Try to include images of your book covers as well. If you can't obtain image files from your publisher, you can scan in your covers yourself, or take them to a commercial printer for scanning. If you are providing lengthy descriptions of more than one novel, consider using a separate page for each, with a second-level TOC listing all the titles you've included.
- Excerpts. Selections from current or forthcoming novels are often a major attraction on novelists' sites -- and an excellent sales tool as well. Such excerpts give readers something free to take away, but also leave them hungry for more. Choose an excerpt that a reader can understand without having read the rest of the book -- but ends with a cliff-hanger that will make the reader want to read the rest of the book. (You'll probably need your publisher's permission to post such an excerpt.)
- Background information. Is your novel set in a particular historical period, locale, or cultural milieu that readers might want to learn more about? Your Web site is an excellent place to answer questions, post background history or details, explain unfamiliar terms and concepts, and provide links to other sources of information on the Web.
- Writing tips. Many of your fans undoubtedly dream of writing the types of books you write. Give them a hand by offering some advice on writing in your field or genre. Such a section will also improve your chances of receiving links from other writers and organizations in your field, because other writers and organizations will regard it as a useful site for writers as well as readers.
- A news page. Let readers know when your latest book is coming out, what awards you've won, when you'll be appearing on television or radio talk shows, when and where you're giving talks or book signings, and anything else of a newsworthy nature. Some authors also provide links to fan sites, book reviews, and online interviews.
- Links. No site is complete without a few links. Choose those that relate to the general purpose and content of your site -- other sources of background information or other sites for writers in your genre. You might also seek reciprocal links with other authors in your field.
- Other works. Some authors use their Web sites to archive previously published stories. This works well if the stories are relevant to the novel you're trying to promote. Be careful, however, about posting material that is likely to shatter the image your fans have of you as an author; this could have a negative effect on the works you're currently trying to promote.
- Ordering information. Make sure that visitors can find out where and how to get your books. One easy way to prompt sales is to link your book title(s) to an online bookstore, such as Amazon.com (see chapter 10 for more details).
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:
- An introductory home page that will attract visitors searching for information on your subject area. Your name may be less important than keywords that describe the subject. To be indexed properly in search engines, those subject keywords should be close to the top of the page.
- Information of value to readers. Perhaps the best way to promote a nonfiction book is to offer useful free information. Turn your site into a resource on the topic of your book. Offer FAQs, articles, and other forms of information that will help the reader immediately. Avoid, at all costs, the appearance that the information is just a plug for your book or that you're manufacturing some sort of hype or crisis that your book will solve. Make sure that visitors can benefit from your site itself, whether they buy the book or not; this will also encourage referrals.
- Links. One way to make your site a genuine resource is to include a list of links to other sites covering similar topics. This will help convince visitors that you are genuinely interested in sharing information, rather than simply trying to peddle a product.
- Your credentials. Before accepting your advice or information, readers will want to know why they should trust you. Readers won't want personal details here, but information about your education, experience, background, and anything else that will demonstrate your qualifications.
- A summary of your book. On a nonfiction site, it helps to keep book promos low-key. Offer a summary of the book, along with a cover image, on a separate page that also includes ordering information (such as a link to an online bookstore).
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:
- An informative home page that describes the types of writing tips that will be offered. If your name is well known in the field, make sure it is prominently displayed on the page. If readers are more likely to locate your page through an information search than an author search, however, move your name and biographical information to a lower position on the page and keep the topical information toward the top.
- An array of top-quality information. Again, consider posting previously published articles, FAQs, a column, and anything else that will help writers (and would-be writers) improve their skill. An important consideration to keep in mind is the quality of your own writing: Be sure that your information not only discusses good writing, but models it as well! Nothing will detract from a writing page as quickly as fiawed grammar, spelling and punctuation errors, or errors in content.
- Links. If you're offering a general writing site, you can go crazy with links. If you're specializing in some field, however, limit your links to the area that your site addresses. For the mystery writing example, one might include links to mystery writers' organizations, sites of other mystery writers, sites that address the how-tos of mystery writing, and sites that provide useful research or reference information for mystery writers. A good selection of links helps establish you as a resource site and will encourage related sites (such as other mystery authors and organizations) to link back to you.
- A bookstore. Rare is the writing site that doesn't offer a selection of the best writing books on the topic. If you've published (and are promoting) your own writing book, consider listing it both on your bookstore page and also on a separate page of its own, where you can offer an expanded summary and a cover image.
- Writing samples. If you're a novelist, you may wish to incorporate a "tips for writers" section into a site designed primarily to promote your novels. If you write short fiction, consider posting samples of some of your previously published works. These can serve several purposes: to attract readers, to serve as clips for future editors, and to stand as examples of the techniques you discuss in your "tips" section. Again, be sure that you own the relevant rights to the material you post.
- Your credentials. If you're a fiction writer, describe your writing background and feel free to add some personal information. Consider including a bibliography page of published works, along with cover images of your books. If you're discussing nonfiction writing, keep your bio professional, listing credentials and credits but leaving out such personal details as how you started writing. (However, it's perfectly OK to mention that you have a spouse and twenty cats!)
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.
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:
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.)
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:
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
- Creating an Online Portfolio - Moira Allen
- The Disappearing Writer - Why You Need a Website - Moira Allen
- Do You Have a Website? - Audrey Faye Henderson
- Writing-World.com's Links to Social Media, Blogging and Website Development
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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