It’s not unusual for authors to be told by their publishers that an author website isn’t necessary or effective. Publishers may advise authors that they’re better off creating and maintaining a Facebook page instead. (I address the flaws in that strategy here.)
It came up again, yesterday, at a Digital Book World marketing conference. I didn’t attend, but I followed the Twitter stream. Here’s the conversation that happened.
— Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) September 26, 2013
— Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) September 26, 2013
— Rachel Packman Chou (@rachelchounyc) September 26, 2013
@rachelchounyc A site outdated by the time it launches? Ouch. I'm not sure most author sites require that level of time/planning.
— Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) September 26, 2013
@JaneFriedman true I think this is in the context of author requests for bells and whistles and more than a business card/brochure.
— Rachel Packman Chou (@rachelchounyc) September 26, 2013
It got me thinking more deeply about why publishers (in this case, Open Road Media, a progressive media company focused on e-books, founded by The Other Jane Friedman) would advise authors to forget the website, or what I consider the No. 1 calling card for a digital-age author. In my experience of having a website *and* being active on social, I would feel hobbled if either piece went away. Social is more powerful with my website, and my website is more powerful with social. That’s not to say there can’t be varying strategies and tools for execution (and there have to be—every author career is different), but to say “no” to an author website for most authors? That seems like an opinion formed in 2005 that hasn’t been seriously revisited or challenged.
But publishers aren’t stupid or inexperienced. They shepherd thousands of new and experienced authors and know what sells books. What’s going on here? Am I horribly wrong in continuing to advise authors to own and control their own website as a long-term priority? Here’s what I think is going on.
1. Publishers don’t believe websites are effective for the time put into them—they create an unprofitable time sink.
I can see how and why this might happen, since most authors are not educated on best practices of websites, what websites are good at, and how they integrate into a larger online presence. There’s a learning curve that no publisher can be or wants to be involved in, so it becomes easier to say, “Don’t bother (because you won’t do it right).”
If the author decides to establish a website anyway, the publisher may be rightly concerned that the author isn’t motivated or capable of maintaining it. Sometimes a bad website or out-of-date website can be more damaging than no website at all. Even if it is up to date, what if the author’s website doesn’t link to all retailers, and it offends an account? What if the author is saying or doing things that make life difficult for the publisher? (I experienced this to some degree at F+W Media, where the editors received requests from marketing: Please tell your author to change X on his site.)
What remedies might there be?
- Educate authors. No publisher really wants to do this, though I think it’s in their best interest. At the very least, publishers could write up a downloadable guide or record an hour-long webinar that’s periodically updated.
- Advise authors to use platforms that don’t require technical knowledge to maintain. We’re no longer living in the days of the webmaster; any individual who uses Word or Gmail can also learn to update a website. Some think WordPress is too complicated. But there are a range of solutions out there: SquareSpace, WordPress.com over self-hosting, even Blogspot will do.
- Clearly advise authors what constitutes a waste of time. No author site should take so long to launch that it’s out of date by the time it’s live. And there’s no excuse for an out-of-date site if you’re using a platform like WordPress.
Bottom line: I think it’s a mistake and a disservice to authors to make them think or believe a website is some sophisticated piece of technology that they can’t handle or maintain. I expect more, and I’ve seen many writers, some over 60 years of age, successfully start and maintain their sites after being encouraged and educated in a positive and empowered way. 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.
2. Publishers see better, clearer results from other types of activities, such as Facebook or Twitter social engagement, which may demand less of the author.
As a colleague said on Twitter, it’s important to start somewhere, anywhere. I also believe in the power of incremental progress; you don’t have to launch and perfect everything at once. Start small, and build your skills and presence over time. A Facebook start for most authors feels doable and sustainable—and sustainability is key.
This also helps authors focus on social marketing and soft-selling, which—even if they don’t know what that means—they might be more comfortable and successful at, if they’re new to online media. Plus, more than 1 billion people use Facebook. An author, if invested in it, may reach more people there and fewer people at their site, at least initially. (Go where the fish are.)
Yet 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?). When I first launched my website, it was a shadow of what you see now. (I discuss that journey, in depth, in this 20-minute video.)
Finally, Facebook is not an ideal set up for delivering straight-forward information. It’s better at conversation and ongoing connections, rather than delivering things such as media kits, official author bios, event listings, book club materials, and so on. Sure, you can put those things on Facebook, but that’s not an ideal setting for it, especially when people are typing your name or book title into Google. (And what about all those people who don’t use social media?)
3. Publishers aren’t sufficiently invested in the author directly reaching an audience on their own–or don’t believe it happens at a meaningful enough scale, except for a minority.
We all hear about agents and editors who want authors with a “platform”—which means authors who can directly reach readers. This mitigates the risk involved in publishing a book because there’s a ready-to-go audience that the publisher doesn’t have to find.
This presents something of a paradox. How can publishers seek authors with platform (which often involves an online presence that can be quantified) AND claim author websites aren’t terribly effective? But I can see the rationale. If the platform is essentially established ahead of time—and that process probably took the author years—it’s integral, but it’s difficult for an author, on her own, to establish a meaningful platform from the time a book is contracted to the release date, especially if she’s starting from ground zero. (Though, undoubtedly, the author will still be advised to participate in some range of online marketing activities, without being educated on what’s good for the short-term vs long-term, and may not realize that getting on Twitter is kind of pointless if you’re only doing it because your publisher said so.)
Put another way: Some authors are motivated and pretty good at the online and digital platform stuff (and at reaching an audience), and some aren’t. And for those who aren’t, the publisher may believe it’s not worth bothering because the payoff won’t be there in time for the publisher to see an impact on sales.
That seems rather focused on the short-term, or on the publisher’s immediate ROI rather than the author’s long-term career.
I’d argue it’s now the publisher’s job to help authors connect with readers—to be marketing partners. And if they’re going to be a valuable marketing partner, it means educating authors on how to do this stuff for the long haul even if the authors think they’re “bad” at it—which requires authors undergoing an attitude adjustment, not a miracle injection of computer-programming know-how.
There could be another reason publishers aren’t helping authors with this: it takes away their power if the author can reach readers without them. I don’t honestly believe this is motivating publishers in their advice to authors, but when you see hybrid authors such as Hugh Howey, CJ Lyons, Barbara Freethy, and others who do well because they’ve made the investment of reaching readers directly, publishers have less negotiating power. Being in direct contact with readers (through your own site, blog, e-mail newsletter, wherever) is like money in your pocket, a long-term investment that pays off over time. Any of the authors I mentioned above would confirm this. Sylvia Day, speaking at an industry conference earlier this year, said that publishers have to offer “a comprehensive marketing plan that covers things that I’m not doing myself. I expect them to hit a market that I’m not already reaching. You need to find me a new audience, to broaden my audience. As far as digital is concerned, you cannot compete with what I’m doing on my own. You have to knock my socks off with a brilliant marketing plan to be my publisher.”
There are probably two questions in this whole conversation that are most debatable and most difficult to answer, at least on a broad, general, and continuing level:
- How much of an impact can an author website have on book sales over the long term, versus other strategies such as social media engagement, metadata optimization, Amazon promotion, Goodreads advertising, traditional media/PR, etc? This assumes that sales is the only or primary goal, and that other benefits are negligible (which is also highly debatable!).
- Assuming the overall impact is meaningful, how many authors have the aptitude, patience, and/or perseverance to be like Sylvia Day? Can this be taught effectively, and if so, is it worth an author taking time and energy away from her writing? (And/or: Should an author spend money on someone else doing it?)
I say it’s worthwhile (because I’ve experienced the benefits firsthand), but I understand why others say no.
- For more on this topic, read the Digital Book World piece by Jason Allen Ashlock, which accurately summarizes both sides of this debate.
- Darcy Pattison responds with “Why Authors Should Believe in Their Websites” and links to a Codex study that found visiting an author’s website is the leading way that book readers support and get to know their favorite authors better.
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