“Do I really need an author website?” We get asked that question every day by an author, or someone who wants to be one. Having spent lots and lots of time and energy constructing one ourselves, we are big believers in author websites, but we decided to take this question to the person we consider the expert on the subject: Annik LaFarge. Annik is the author of The Author Online: A Short Guide to Building Your Website, Whether You Do it Yourself (and you can!) or You Work With Pros. She also happens to have spent twenty-five years as an executive in the book publishing business, working at Random House, Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Bloomsbury USA. She began her career as a publicist, and went on to become an associate publisher, marketing director, senior editor, and publishing director. And she was involved in the early efforts to create e-books and develop strategies for digital publishing. In the late 1990s, at the height of the dot com boom, Annik took a year away from publishing to join entrepreneur and journalist Steven Brill in the development and launch of Contentville.com, where she published an original series of e- books and oversaw the website’s bookstore. In 2008 she left publishing to start her own company, Title TK Projects, which specializes in website project management, editorial work, and consulting on digital strategy. Author websites she has project-managed include MitchAlbom.com, FrenchWomenDontGetFat.com, MireilleGuiliano.com and TaraParkerPope.com. Clearly, Annik knows what the heck she’s talking about. So we asked her to share with us the benefits of author websites. She was also kind enough to share with us her 10 ½ tips for being a more effective author online.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: In this age of social media, why is a website still important? Is it possible to just get away with a blog/Facebook page/Twitter presence?
ANNIK LAFARGE: Even in this age of social media, having a website is really, really important. A recent study by the Codex Group showed that that websites are one of the key ways people find out about books. Surprisingly, in terms of new book discovery, Facebook and Twitter are much less influential than author websites. Some of the reasons for this have to do with SEO (search engine optimization) and keywords. When you type in an author’s name, his/her website is first thing that comes up. To be the first result that pops up in a Google search is reason enough to have a website. This visibility gives you the opportunity to control your message and to craft the experience that you want that person who is interested in your work — that person who has taken the time to Google you — to see. Your website also gives you the opportunity to capture people’s email addresses and to build a newsletter list. Your mailing list is extremely important, even if you’re a literary fiction writer. People who give you their names and email addresses are telling you that they’re interested in you and your work and want to know more about you; they want to be kept up to date. Even just a 100-person list matters because you can use it as a mini-focus group, testing book covers and plot ideas, and you can easily alert your fans about new releases. And over time that list will grow and grow.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: What are the top mistakes authors make when designing their websites?
ANNIK LAFARGE: The biggest mistake I’ve seen is building a website and not using it. People get excited, build the engine and then let it just sit there. You need to have a plan for your website — a monthly and yearly plan: what sort of content will you launch with? What will you add as time goes by? How frequently will you post new material? Enough to blog? If so, what will the voice of your blog be? What will be the first 10 things you write about? I tell authors to plan for their website the way they do for a new book: write an outline, like a book proposal, that includes not only the “big think” — the overall substance and point of view of the website — but also a list of all the different pages and what they’ll contain. Think of it as a business plan for your site. Or to put it in more literary terms, it’s like mapping out a long piece of nonfiction — for both the hardcover and the paperback edition.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: A lot of struggling writers are concerned about the costs of setting up a website. I know you write about doing it yourself, but if you don’t have the time or inclination, what’s the minimum a person can spend and still have something that looks professional?
ANNIK LAFARGE: Anybody should be able to get a fine looking blog/website using WordPress, Sandvox (only available for Mac) or Squares Space; these are content management systems that allow you to customize a site off an easy-to-use template for nothing (in the case of WordPress, which is purely open source) or less than a hundred bucks. If you’re working with WordPress pick a theme you like at themeforest.net— my favorite of the theme sites but there are zillions on the web. And if you’re intimidated by technology then hire a designer who can create a nice banner and who knows how to do the basic programming (so you don’t have to hire a separate programmer). This can be done for as little as $500 and most designers these days are very comfortable in WordPress particularly. BUT, there is a very strong argument to be made for building a website yourself. Writers care enormously about how they present their ideas and their presence on the page, and having control over their own “content” is extremely important. Understanding how your website or blog works — how to post new material, set up new sections, add photos and videos, link up with Facebook and other social media venues — means that you can always make changes and additions whenever you like; you’ll never be dependent on a webmaster or an overworked publicist again. For many authors a website is their beating heart in the public space. Creating one can feel daunting — anything more technical than Microsoft Word intimidates many writers — but it’s enormously empowering and creative, and the technology has evolved to the point where honestly anyone can do it. You can map out the structure for your website — e.g. create your own “wireframe,” which is to a website what a blueprint is to an architectural project — at a cool new site called GoMockingbird which is very easy to use and inexpensive. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way, using a pencil and an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of manuscript paper. But sketching out a site — putting your plan on paper — is a great way to work through your ideas about who you want to be on the web, and it can save you lots of time and frustration later on.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You are now a self-published writer. What platform did you use? What was the costliest part of the process? What was your favorite part of the process.
ANNIK LAFARGE: I went the more complex route by setting up my book at many different retailers. I used Amazon’s Create Space for the POD (print-on-demand) paperback version of my book and am very happy with them; they have great customer service and excellent help documentation. Early on I decided I wanted my book to look like a real book — even the ebook version — so I paid a designer to do a proper interior and a cover. I thought I could do the Kindle conversion myself but I made a real hash of it, so I sent the manuscript to ebookconversion.com and let them create the ePub edition. Then I set up accounts at Apple’s iBookstore (using iTunes Connect), Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! for the Nook), and Google Editions, and I simply uploaded the file at each place, created all the metadata (description, bio, etc.), and I was in business. For awhile I even sold a PDF of the book myself, on TheAuthorOnline.com, using an online tool called e-junkie, which allows you to sell digital products very easily and inexpensively. I could have gone to Lightning Source, which is a great company, and they would have streamlined the whole process for me, but I wanted to learn about each and every step along the way myself, and I make more money this way on every sale. It was time-consuming, but generally fairly easy to do. The most complicated part was dealing with Bowker who you have to go through to acquire an ISBN (the unique identifier for your book that retailers use to display and sell your book). But I’ve trained myself to go into what my partner Ann calls “the Sufi state” and become deeply patient before I visit any e-commerce site I want to partner with. I’ve found that eventually I can slog through and figure out just about everything I need to do, and there’s a particular satisfaction in that. Call it author empowerment. What I love about ebooks and POD is how nimble they allow an author to be. You can update the content any time you like, and also change the price at will. You don’t get locked into decisions. And if you set up your own website, as I did with TheAuthorOnline.com, you get the benefit of the huge amount of traffic data that Google Analytics provides — for free. So you can learn a great deal about who your readers are. My advice: start slow, be smart, have fun, and just get on with it.
Annik’s 10 ½ Tips for Being a More Effective Author Online
No. 1: Think Like An Author
One of the things that authors (unlike other mere mortals) do is organize their thoughts and ideas. You don’t just sit down and write a book from page 1 to 300; you do a lot of thinking, researching, and planning. Tip #1 is to approach your web project in the same spirit. Put on your author hat and make notes and an outline. Start with several general questions that will help inform the overall organization of your website or blog:
Who am I as an author? If you were writing the opening graf of a newspaper profile of yourself, what would you consider the ideal description of your work? Where would you place the greatest emphasis? Where the least? And then: What do my readers want? What sort of questions do they ask you when you make public appearances? What do they say when they write letters or emails to you? And: What do I want my readers to know about me that they may not currently know? This is your chance to write the Ur Q&A. Consider it a work-in-progress: post it, then keep adding to it as time goes by and your writing and career develop.
No. 2: Make a Content Plan, Part 1: Static Elements
Make a list of static elements that you want to include on your website: content that doesn’t get constantly updated or newly created like entries in a blog. First focus on things that you already have or would be easy to create: sample chapter(s); biography; reviews; Q&A; etc. Then start another list: stuff you’d love to add in the future (The Author Online contains an exhaustive list of features that readers say they like on author websites). Then go back and prioritize your master list and arrange the items into broad categories that could serve as the navigation on your site: Books (do you subdivide Fiction & Non-Fiction?), Bio, Journalism, About, etc. These are the categories that make sense to you, based on the work you did in Tip No. 1.
No. 3: Make a Content Plan, Part 2: New Elements
Consider where your new content will come from. Do you want to blog? (Do you have time to blog? Will you run out of steam after 3 months?) Will you write occasional articles/essays to post on your site? Will you share early chapters with your fans? Invite them to vote on jacket art from your publisher? Will you constantly post new links to bloggers, videos, new studies/research in your field, etc.?
No. 4: Be Smart Today and Plan to Grow in the Future</strong>
Websites evolve. The best thing you can do is be smart and focused at the beginning, and assume that you’ll grow your online presence with time and valuable feedback from fans, traffic data, and other sources. So if you’re just starting out be honest with yourself about how much time you can devote to your site; be ambitious but also realistic about your plan for adding new content. Focus on quality of content not quantity, and always circle back to the questions you asked yourself in No. 1: what do your readers want? What do you want them to know about you? Then think about what’s the best way to deliver that on your site and map out a plan for the coming months. And be sure to keep a handy list of “Future Features” and ideas for new content. Tip 4a Set up a Dropbox account and keep your list in the cloud so you can always access and update it. This is particularly handy if you travel a lot, and you can install Dropbox on any mobile device. (See here for more about how Dropbox works. While you’re there, check out Evernote, another great app that helps you keep track of stuff you find online.)
No. 5: Build a Mailing List
Even if you don’t intend to send out an email newsletter create a sign-up form and place it conspicuously on every page of your website or blog. Do this on Day 1. You may not see a reason to have an e-letter today, but in a year or so you may. People come to your website because they like your work or they’re interested in your subject; give them a simple way to stay in touch. An author’s email list has tremendous value, and it will grow over time. Start now.
No. 6: Use an ESP
Use a professional email service provider (ESP) like MailChimp or Constant Contact. Some of these services are free until your list reaches a certain size (like MailChimp) and there are many benefits: they provide simple templates for creating professional-looking emails; easy opt-out links for your subscribers; and vast riches of analytic data about who opened your emails, what they clicked on, how many times they forwarded it, where they live, etc. From that data you will learn to do things better and more effectively in the future.
No. 7: Be Creative About Your Newsletter Signup
You don’t go on the radio and simply say “buy my book, it’s a great read.” You say: “buy my book because I describe all the best tools and strategies for killing a zombie and tell you how to prepare yourself in both an urban and a rural setting.” So in your newsletter signup offer some specifics about what your emails will deliver. For a very good example of a smart newsletter sign-up see the form that SocialMediaExaminer.com uses. They promise a value-add (a free video tutorial on using Twitter), and the text has a real voice. Another example of a creative newsletter signup is the blog CrazySexyLife.com. The first signup box I saw there (in 2009) had three separate options: daily, weekly and monthly, so the reader could choose how much of author Kris Carr’s stuff she really wanted. Recently Carr updated her newsletter signup and it’s still great, but very different and now she also offers a free piece of content for folks who sign up. You’ll find screenshots of all these examples at TheAuthorOnline.com/newsletter
No. 8: Use Google Analytics
Set up your Google Analytics account on Day 1 and get addicted. As you gain traffic you will find this a terrific editorial tool because you’ll know what your readers are looking for, what they actually spend time reading, where they come from (country, state, city), and much more valuable data. Nothing will teach you more about how you’re doing online than Google Analytics, and it’s free. Don’t forget: launch it on Day 1.
No. 9: Visit Your Own Site Regularly
Go to your website at least once every few weeks and test your links (they have an uncanny way of breaking for no apparent reason). While you’re there, chances are that something will strike you: “gee, I could do this better,” or “that featured article is feeling a bit long in the tooth, it’s time to replace it with something else.” Be objective, be critical, be creative. Test new things and check the results in Google Analytics. Then lather, rinse, repeat.
No. 10: Have Fun, Be Empowered</strong>
Websites are stressful — everybody knows that. But remember all those times you had a great idea for your publicist and it just never got off the ground? Well, guess what: with your own website you can do a whole lot on your own. And once you start understanding how to use it well, and you get in the groove (and you build up your mailing list, social networking fan base, RSS subscribers….) you’ll be able to reach your readers directly whenever, however, you want. And you can invite them to provide their feedback, both publicly (through blog comments, message boards, and of course in social networking environments) or you can keep things quiet and just enable people to email you via the site. You can start small and grow. Most of all, can you can do it yourself. Visit TheAuthorOnline.com for a rich (and constantly updated) list of resources, sample author and book-specific websites, online tools, articles, links, and more. Please email me and tell me what you think I can do better, or simply alert me to your web project. I’m interested, and many others are too. Most of all, have fun.
Good luck with your project!