Saturday 4 April 2015

"I've been looking at your website..."

Do authors need websites? It's a question often asked. The answer, predictably, is 'it depends', though I'd tend toward 'Yes'. New authors are sometimes told by their publishers to get a website. Personally, I think this is a bit presumptuous. If a publisher wants you to have a website, they should pay for one. If they are going to give you a small advance, they can't then demand you spend it on promotion, which is their job. But see my later point about why it's better to have your own website than a page on your publisher's website.

Let's start at the beginning. Not all writers write the same kinds of things. I'm on the committee of the Educational Writers Group (EWG) of the Society of Authors and when I asked a group of educational writers a few months ago how many had a website, only half did. I was stunned. When I've asked that of a group of children's writers, they all - or pretty much all - have websites. The EWG people tend to fall into three groups (though I'm trying to extend it!)  - they either write in the English-as-a-foreign/second-language market (EFL or ESL), or they write test/exam papers and textbooks, or they write children's non-fiction (of any type) and schools fiction (reading schemes and so on). The first two don't generally have a website. They work for the same publishers again and again, their readers don't know their names, and they don't see a need for a website. I'd argue that there could still be a benefit, but if they are getting enough work, then why bother?

On the other hand, there are many writers who do/should have a website. Probably most. Why? What's the point? This is where it all depends. Ask yourself the following questions and answer honestly.

1. How many books have you published?
  • zero
  • one or two
  • several
  • many
If you haven't published any books, what are you going to put on your website? Think carefully about that. A website needs content.You can talk about yourself and the book(s) you are writing, and what drew you to those topics/stories, but don't assume an air of authority about publishing and writing (though you can about an area of specialist knowledge) and don't say anything that you won't want future readers, editors, agents, teachers, librarians or parents to read. In particular, never ever slag off publishers or agents who have rejected you.

One or two books published and you're off to a good start. You can talk about those. You can talk about how you got to be a writer, what else you do, whether you do events (though frankly I'm not a fan of talking as though you're an old hand when you've published one book - but it's up to you). You can talk about your life and your next book, but be wary of saying too much if the book is not finished (and accepted).

Several is the best position to be in. You have books you can talk about, but not so many your website loses all sense of shape because there are too many. You can probably pick out some key themes or series or topics. You should be able to make a nice website out of this, with plenty of emphasis on the books and only as much extra material (about events, school visits, yourself, other interests) as you want to include - you won't be scratching around for stuff to fill the pages.

Many is not as tricky as too few, but it has its own problems. Your website is in danger of being obese and sluggardly. Do you really want to list and describe every book? Even those that have been out of print for years? Who's going to read that? If you are going to include them all, you need to develop a clear structure so that people can find what they want, and get an overview of your work - two different things. Look at the structure of publishers' catalogues. They don't give loads of detail about every book on the backlist. It might be time to let some go. There are books of mine I have mentally pulped. They get a mention, at best, but no big shout.

2. Who will look for you online?
Be brutally honest. No one? Your ex and your neighbours? Schools? Publishers and agents? Your readers? Readers' parents? People who thought you were someone else? People who have just met you or are going to meet you (at a meeting/conference/date)? Other writers?

This is a really important question as it should determine what you put on your website and how you present it (which is not really covered in this post, but I might write about it later).

You really don't need to cater to your ex and your neighbours. They might look and they might not - who cares? Except they will care if you slag them off - 'The evil car-park attendant in this story is modelled on my next-door neighbour.' Don't.

Schools (ie teachers, librarians) will look if you do school visits, or if they think you might do school visits. They might look if they are using some of your books and want to see what else you have written. They might look to see if there is any extra material they could use, such as worksheets to support your books, or ideas for activities they could do using them.

Publishers and agents will quite likely look if you submit to them (and your stuff is any good; they won't look if they have no intention of following up). It will give them an idea of what you are like, whether you behave professionally, and what else you have published. For this reason, a prominent page of your website might not be the place to foreground the problems in your life. Harsh but true - unless it is relevant to the subject of your books. If you are writing about depression/cancer/caring for an aged relative, it's good material for your website. If not, it might lead a publisher to wonder whether you will be able to meet deadlines. Your call - but bear it in mind.

Your existing readers might look at your website. Someone who has seen one of your books and wondered about buying it, or has had a book recommended to them, might take a look. Readers and potential readers want different things. See below.

Readers' parents and other gatekeepers might look from a potential-reader or reader point of view, or they might be checking that you are not an obviously evil influence. Still, if they want to decide you are an evil influence, they will do so regardless of what is on your website. (This is from a review of one of my books on Barnes and Noble: "One quick look at the authors' [sic] website and you will know exactly the type of values, and her MISSION to "educate" children." - I'm an evil influence, you know. But my website doesn't mention a MISSION or use the word "educate".)

People who thought you were someone else will probably be disappointed, but if your website is super-exciting, they might stay. But probably not. They're busy people. Unless, of course, your name is Kitten Video.

People who have just met you will look out of curiosity, and the kind of curiosity will depend on who they are and where you met. If they are a publisher/agent they fall into a category above. If they are someone you met at dinner, or a  party, or on a train, they will probably just want to see what sort of books you write. Someone who is expecting to meet you at a meeting or conference might want to be prepared (to introduce your talk, for instance) or want to look as though they are familiar with your books. If you are going on a date with them - well, this is one of the problems of a public profile. They are going to know a lot more about you than you know about them. The best solution is only to go on dates with people who are equally famous. And make sure you have read their website, too.

Other writers will be curious and look you up to see what you do. They might buy your books - writers buy or borrow a lot of books (well, good writers do). If you have helpful information for other writers, put it in one place so that it doesn't put off people who aren't writers. One nice thing you can do is put links to the website of other writers whose books might appeal to your readers - it will please readers and writers (but possibly not your publishers). That depends on whether you think of other writers as competition. I tend to think that people will buy more books if they find more books they like, not that they will buy one book instead of another, unless they are very obviously in direct competition - two books that are about the top ten biggest whales, for example.

3. Why will people look at your website?
Just as important as who will look is why they are looking. It is quite possibly not why you hope/think they are looking (on which, see below).

They might want to:
  • find out a particular piece of information, such as whether you do school visits or live in Bristol
  • find out what kind of books you have written
  • buy a book you have written
  • look for other books, if they have read and enjoyed one
  • find out how to get in touch with you
  • find out more about you generally.
It is pretty obvious that you should make it easy for people to find what they want. Otherwise they will be frustrated, and having a website will have done you more harm than good. Put yourself in the shoes of each potential visitor. A school will want to know what type of events you do and how much you charge. An existing reader will want to know more about the book they have read and see what else you have written. A potential reader will want information about your books, but without spoilers. A publisher or agent will want an overview of your professional path and aims, as well as a good idea of the type of books you have published (and who for). Publishers and schools might want to get in touch with you. (An email contact form is the best way to handle this.)

4. Why do you want people to look at your website?
Think about your aims. Why are you going to the trouble of making a website? It can be any or all of the following, or something else. The important thing is to determine what you want from the website. Getting it is another matter, but at least make it possible for your website to do what you want. You could very broadly divide the intentions of a writer's website as selfish or generous. Do you want something from other people (book sales, school visits)? Or do you want to give to other people (information, entertainment, freebies)? It can do both, but most have a bias one way or the other.

Many writers hope a website will sell books. That's probably what their publishers hope, too. If you are self-published, this will be an important part of what your website is for, and that's really outside my realm of expertise, so go and ask someone else for advice. If your books are published by mainstream publishers, you might:
  • sell books directly through your website
  • link to your publisher's website
  • link to a bookseller, such as the ubiquitous Amazon or a real-world chain (such as Waterstone's) or a network of independents
  • not link at all. 
You might think the last is stupid, but it's what I've chosen. I reckon people know how to order a book online, and I can't be bothered with creating all the links. If you have published fewer books, your enthusiasm for making links might be undulled. Good for you.

Some writers hope their website will sell them, either to schools or other organisations to do visits or events, or to publishers who might commission them. If your primary aim is to sell visits and events, they must be prominent, but remember that people only want you to appear because you are a writer, so it's important not to let that aspect slip out of view.

A website that gives might well attract more visits. If that is your intention, giving something - information, a good laugh, free stories or worksheets - might appeal to you. But make sure the material is good quality and - if it's downloadable - compatible with systems your visitors will have.

5. Why do you visit websites?
The visitors to your website will be human beings. You are a human being. Use that to your advantage to gain insight into your visitors. Think about what you want from a website and how your website might satsify those requirements in someone else. Do you ever go to a website thinking, 'I hope it will be full of shouty endorsements for a product and lots of chances to buy things'? Probably not, unless you are actually going to a retail site. Do you go to a website thinking, 'I hope it will be really hard to find what I'm looking for'? Unlikely, unless you are writing a guide to web development and need some examples of bad design.

Do you really have to?
No, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. You are not an employee. If you really don't want a website, don't have one. We are all allowed to make choices, even stupid choices. It's the prerogative of grown-ups. If your publisher is desperate for you to have a web presence, they will build you one, or put a page on their website. This, in their view, is better than nothing. But really think about it. If you have your own website, you are in control of how you are presented. Your publisher won't mention books you have written for other publishers, or anything you have self-published, and they probably won't mention school visits or how to contact you. You won't have the chance to build a web persona - all they want you to have is a profile. A profile is flat, it's a view from one side, it's an outline. You can have more than that. You can have a personality. If you want.

We're not finished with this yet. There will be more. But this is long enough for now...


  1. I'm a children's writer who once thought of having a regular web site, but you do have to keep them up to date and after the first few posts about your current books, what then? I find it easier to keep a blog, like this one. I do keep it pretty much up to date and when I've posted I tweet the update. You do need to have an online presence of your own, because trade publishers, as I learned the hard way, lose interest in you after your book is out. They go on to their next project. Education publishers, of course, don't need to send out your books for reviewing. They have a built-in market. I'd like to be getting some more work there, but most of them, these days, have stables of writers and don't want anyone else. Even one for which I wrote three books still selling well after several years, don't want me any more. So I have to do my own promotion to keep selling what's there.

    I do regret calling my blog by my name, which is hard to spell. But people find it somehow and I have a contact email on it.

    1. I agree about educational publishers, Sue - there is far less of a 'name game' in educational publishing, with less promotion, fewer reviews and so on.

      The blog/website distinction and choice is one I'll deal with later as it is an important issue. How often you need to update your website depends on its function. Mine doesn't have a news section and it doesn't have anything that needs (or gets!) updated except details of new books, but that's because of how it's targeted. I use my author FB page for updates on what I'm doing and so on. And even that I don't do frequently enough! It can easily become a treadmill.

  2. Maintain a website? It is hard enough to keep all those cat hairs in order on my blog! :)

  3. Thanks, Anne. I found this useful and thought-provoking - especially about the 'many books' problem. I've got all mine up at the moment (sorted into categories) because I find people do, in fact, comment on and ask for copies of really old books. And it's useful to have that information somewhere accessible, with links. But I've begun to feel that possibly the website (or at least its exterior pages) is not the best place for it. My main feeling about my website is that I want it to be clear and easy to use, so it's linear and has plenty of white space. But it's not very exciting and is definitely pitched mainly at adults. And it's not one that I can update myself - so Facebook is useful for current news.

  4. I love the FAQs you find on the websites of those who've just started out.

    Q: Where do you get your ideas from?
    A: I'm asked this all the time! I wish I knew. They come from anywhere and everywhere! It might be a song I've heard, a fascinating person I've met, a film I've watched, a random thought, a song I've heard, or a film I've watched. I'm always jotting down great new ideas for my next big project!