Sunday, December 13, 2015

Author Websites: what would you like them to say?

This blog was supposed to go up last Sunday – December 6th. That it didn’t was down to some bloke called Desmond, who walloped the northwest of the UK. He huffed and puffed and blew down if not my house, then at least my local electricity substation. Flooding, power cuts and much chaos ensued. More about that at a later date.

Last time, I wrote a blog about author photos, and what they say – or don’t say – about the author involved. I think I’ve now got something sorted that says what I want it to about me and the kind of books I write. But more about that at a later date, too.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on upgrading my website to a WordPress site, which is currently a work-in-progress. Getting a new look and feel is high on my list, as is making it easier for me to add to in the future, rather than having to rely on an expert. This is a bigger problem than it sounds when you consider that I approach anything computer-related with all the self-confidence of a novice bomb-disposal officer …

Just about every author has a website these days, although a few still rely on author pages provided by their publisher. You may think they’re missing out, but in reality, what does an author website do?

It provides information about the author and their books, of course. It usually has extracts of the books for the visitor to browse, or links to online sites such as Amazon, where there’s a Look Inside feature. The books will probably have reviews and blurb quotes to show what the pros think. There could be a News and Events page, to announce where the author is next appearing or the fact they’ve sold their latest epic to Hollywood. There might be a press kit of photos for journalists to download and a brief and witty biog that might have some small basis in fact. Many authors also have a blog. Some of them even contribute to it more than once every few months.

Does that about cover the basics? If the author is more au fait with technology there are often video interviews too – featuring him or her either interviewing someone else, or being interviewed. There might be a new release or special offer mentioned somewhere prominent, and a sign-up page for an e-newsletter.

The site may rank highly on the search engines when that author’s name is fed into Google or the like. It may be packed with entertaining information and reflect that author’s personality and style. But, when it gets right down to it, other than vanity, what is the real purpose of an author’s website?

It’s there to sell books.

Not in a ram-it-down-your-throat crude and obvious kind of way, but that’s the bottom line. It’s exactly the same reason authors go to events like Bouchercon, or appear at their local library. We may or may not enjoy the process, but we hope to gain readers and, ultimately, to sell books.

Bottom line: If nobody buys our books, we don’t get paid. If we don’t get paid, we can’t write.

So, the most highly stylised and polished website, if all it does is tell you how wonderful the author is and has their attractive face splurged across the homepage, is useless if it doesn’t make it equally attractive for the visitor to take some kind of action while they’re on that page.

What kind of action? Well, the first one could well be subscribing to a newsletter list, perhaps by taking advantage of some kind of incentive special offer. The second is following the link to a bookstore and buying a copy, or deciding to turn up at an event and maybe buy a copy there, or checking out one of the author’s books from their local library.

If your website gains you a new reader, one who has stumbled on the site by chance and has never heard of the author before, that’s a huge success. If the website enthuses an existing reader to pick up a copy of the author’s latest offering, then ditto. Or if the visitor happens to be involved with a library or bookstore, and their visit leads to an invitation to appear, guest blog or be interviewed, success again.

So, how does someone stumble on your website if they’re not looking for you by name? That all depends on what they are searching for. Are your books similar to someone else’s – someone who sells far more than you? In that case, should you be trying to ensure that your website comes up on the first search-engine page for that author so you can tempt them in? Making sure your keywords correctly reflect the fact that your books are in a series rather than standalones, for instance, or that they feature a strong female main protagonist. Or they’re set in a particular field, location or sphere. All these things may help you lasso a new reader who happens to be passing by.

So, what I want to know is, what do YOU want to see on an author’s website?

What’s the most important feature for you of the first page you land on?

For a series, do you want a précis of the characters’ stories so far?

Do you want:

·    to read an opening chapter, or an excerpt from later in the story?

·  competitions and chances to win prizes related either to
the books or to books in general?

·  opportunity to read advance copies of the next book?

·  special offers, e-boxed sets and two-for-one deals?

·  bonus features like snippets behind the writing?

· insights into the writing process?

Any advice or suggestions welcome! Also, if you can cite any examples of websites you think are particularly interesting from a design and use point of view, please let me know.

This week’s Word of the Week is anthropodermic bibliopegy, which means the covering of books in human skin. One of the few surviving examples in the UK is held by the Bristol Record Office. It was made from the skin of John Horwood, who was hanged at Bristol Gaol for murdering Eliza Balsum. Another is of the Red Barn murder of Maria Marten by William Corder in Suffolk in 1827.


  1. Zoe, I feel guilty about how much I ignore my website. I think it is beautiful, and it is up to date. The woman who maintains it is quick, creative, and does not gouge on pricing. I get messages over it. It's the first thing on the search list if you google me. But I don't think about it for weeks on end. Somehow I feel it's wrong of me to just let it sit there waiting for somebody to show up. And I have no idea if it has ever convinced anyone to buy a book. :-[

    1. Hi Annamaria
      It is indeed a beautiful website -- very atmospheric. What else do you feel you *ought* to be doing in order to make your site work harder for you?

  2. I'd like to see excerpts from the work in progress. A teaser of sorts. Then background on what you're struggling with in the current book. Let us into the author's den to have a look over your shoulder.

    Hugh Howey is a great example. His site is basically a writer's journal online (or was last time I checked, I'm not into dystopian so I haven't kept up). I keep a journal but it's not online. I don't know why.

    I'm planning a major overhaul of my Wordpress site in January. You've given me a good deal to think about. Thank you!

    Peace, Seeley

    1. Hi Seeley
      Thanks for your input. I agree about the excerpts. I'm thinking of doing that in the blog that will be incorporated into my new site. I checked out Hugh Howey's website -- and instantly went into deep envy of his brand new catamaran! But the site almost seems more focused on his forthcoming sailing adventures than they do on his books.

      Looking forward to seeing what you do with your site!

  3. It's important for the first page to CONVEY the fact that this is the author's home page, and have clear links to other important stuff on the site, which should include a COMPLETE, organized, bibliography (JUST one or more ordered lists, you can explain about each individual book later or elsewhere), whatever general information you, the author, wish to share with your readers about yourself, and the main page should also feature your LATEST work rather prominently. You can go into as much detail as you want about each book or each series, but don't try to combine that with the bibliography, as there's nothing I hate worse than going to an author's website to figure out what books they've written and in what order, and have to go through pages and pages of pictures and descriptions while taking notes on paper. Well, maybe I hate more when Jeff makes fun of me, but not much.

    "For a series, do you want a précis of the characters’ stories so far?"

    Not really. If I'm interested in an author's work, I want to read them for myself, and usually in sequential order, and why would I want any kind of synopsis or such? That's what reading the book is for. :-)

    "Do you want to read an opening chapter, or an excerpt from later in the story?"

    Usually not. I can always read a sample on Amazon if I'm waffling. But it wouldn't hurt, I suppose, as (wrong as they might be) others' opinions might differ from mine. Again, organization is of prime importance, so that folks can find what they WANT and don't have to wade through stuff they DON'T want.

    "Do you want competitions and chances to win prizes related either to the books or to books in general?"

    Not really, but maybe I'm anti-social...

    "Do you want opportunity to read advance copies of the next book?"

    Not usually, except under special circumstances. But again, I may be weird, but I'm not sure. Ask Jeff.

    "Do you want special offers, e-boxed sets and two-for-one deals?"

    Who wouldn't turn them down if they saved some money, but then why would you give money away? I doubt many people will come to your site hoping for a deal. They'll usually come because they're already interested. Beware of downgrading the value of your products.

    "Do you want bonus features like snippets behind the writing?"

    That can be interesting and enjoyable, but will it help sell more of your books? I'd say unlikely, unless it was part of a regular blog that brings people back to your site and keeps them interested in your works. And then it would have to be a very regular blog, I think, at LEAST once a month if not once a week. But that's writing you're giving away and that's taking time away from your work you hope to sell, so you should be very convinced it WILL help sell more books. Remember: you're not an author, you're a business person. Yes, you write because you like it, but you WANT to sell books, right? EVERYTHING you do should have that as the second thing in your thoughts. (The first thing should be that everything you write should be fun, interesting, and exciting to you, or else why are you writing it???)

    "Do you want insights into the writing process?"

    Well, *I* enjoy those things, but they don't cause me to buy more books. If you want to do that, fine, but you'd best think of it as charity work.

    And that's my 7 cents worth. Just don't skin me and do anything weird. But I understand Jeff's available...

    1. Hi EvKa
      What a wonderful, very detailed reply. Thank you SO much for taking such time and trouble. It is hugely appreciated.

      To answer your points in order:

      I’ve been working a good deal to get the home page right for the new site before it goes live. The right info, in the right order.

      I was planning on a full booklist, including ISBN numbers, for those who wish to track down copies of the books.

      Latest book, and upcoming books, will also be featured prominently.

      Currently, I have a ‘Meet Charlie Fox’ page, which gives you a rough overview of the way the series has gone so far, without – I hope – giving away any plot spoilers.

      Currently, I have both the opening chapter and an excerpt from later on in the book. I was planning on trimming this down to one or the other, unless I hear differently from visitors …

      What ‘special circumstances’ *would* tempt you to read an advance copy of the next book?

      Don’t worry, I’m not planning on devaluing my work :)

      My new on-site blog will allow me to categorise blog entries by subject, so that entries on writing or the latest blog could be found more easily. I’ll try not to indulge in so much it becomes charity work :)

      Thanks again for your thoughts. And I wouldn’t dream of skinning you …

      … especially when Jeff’s available.

    2. It sounds like you already have things well in control. :-)

      The 'special circumstances' that tempt me to read an ARC are pretty much limited to an author SENDING me one (either paper or e-book). But I don't generally seek them out, as I'm a patient fellow and am willing to wait for the official release, then buy a copy. Also, I don't seem to be a terribly good review writer, and that's really the purpose of ARCs, right? By that point it's too late for any feedback to the author, or correction of errors or typos, etc. I hate writing reviews for books that I feel I can't give "5 stars," because I know how hard authors work on their work (so to speak), and my tastes don't always match others' tastes (hard to believe, I know...), and I recognize that. It doesn't mean the book isn't great or wonderful, just not for me, and being a sensitive and empathetic person (don't listen to Jeff), I hate to be picky about someone else's efforts. And when I do feel like a 5-star review is warranted, I frequently can't think of much else to say besides, "WONDERFUL book, I loved it!" I'm an analytical fellow with most things, but for me, fiction reading uses the other side of my brain, I like to EXPERIENCE the book rather than pick it apart to figure out WHY I liked it. Droning, droning, droning... sorry.

    3. I gathered the 'analytical fellow' bit. Very useful info, so thank you very much indeed for all that. Yes, I agree, advance copies are usually sent out to try to encourage reviews to be posted on the day the book officially goes on sale. This does make a huge difference to its ranking on Amazon, for example. And I'm sure no author would mind a 5-star 'wonderful book!' review :))

  4. PS.

    Sometimes, giving away the first book of a series FOR A LIMITED TIME for free can spur sales of additional books in the series. But do NOT make the mistake of every few months giving away for free a different book in the series, or reducing the price of additional books in the series. Give away the FIRST book as many times and/or as often as you want. If people like it, they'll buy the others. If they're lukewarm, some will buy more and some won't. But if you give them all aways, even spread over a year or more, you're just losing sales on all the follow-on books.

    1. Yes, I agree, and I have been giving that very subject some consideration!

  5. Zoë, I look upon my website more as an enlarged business card...not in style or content but as a way of introducing people to me. However, as it seems to be putting me into the orbit of some strange folk, perhaps I should consider retooling.

    Speaking of strange, in answer to EvKa's "Jeff" moments, (1) He most definitely hates more, (2) It's weird he's not sure, and (3) Your word of the week strikes me as inspirational for a designer edition of the Portland Phone Book and as LV is taken, think EK.

    1. Hi Jeff
      It's certainly a very eye-catching site, and visitors know immediately where your books are set.

      What strange folk? I'm intrigued!

      As for EvKa's comments, you know the way he treats you is a sign of affection. In fact, in some cultures it's a proposal of marriage ...

    2. Thankfully, neither of us is into bestiality.

    3. And you know this for sure ...?

    4. The appropriate word in Greek is pronounced, "Nay."

    5. Pay no attention to Jeff, Zoë, he's just a baa-aa-aa-aa-d boy.

  6. I think communication with the author is a big reason for visits to websites. Thanks for these other ideas.

    1. Hi Sujata
      I think you're right, and I want to keep that communication with visitors to my site going.

  7. It's a great way to find an author and keep current on events, new books, contests, reviews etc. Also, what Jeff said about it being 'a business card'

    1. Thanks, Anon
      I do think a website has to convey the style, feel and genre in which an author works. There's no point in me going for a site design that's too pretty and floral, for example ...

  8. Zoe, I am printing this and keeping it for study. THANK YOU and thank you EvKa for your contributions.