If You Build It, They Won’t Come: A Guide to Author Websites

By Laura Hazard Owen

To be on the Web or not to be on the Web—sorry, technophobic authors, that’s no longer the question. Rather, what should be on your website and how can you draw traffic to it? There’s no universal key to success. But with help from a recent groundbreaking report and four web designers who specialize in author sites, we’ve come up with some guidelines.

The Codex Group is described by its President, Peter Hildick-Smith, as a “pollster for publishers.” Last summer, Codex undertook a massive author website impact study that surveyed nearly 21,000 book shoppers. Its objective was to understand the relative effectiveness of author sites among shoppers and to determine the elements that will keep them coming back to the site. We spoke with Hildick-Smith and four book-loving Web marketers and designers—John Burke, Vice President of FSB Associates; Carol Fitzgerald, Founder and President of the Book Report Network; Jason Chin; and Jefferson Rabb (who also consulted on the Codex study, along with Columbia University’s Charlotte Blumenfeld)—to find out what makes an author site not only good-looking, but also successful.

“From an author’s perspective, if you are going to invest the time and energy in writing and getting a book published, it’s a big drawback if you can’t then be found online,” says Burke. Furthermore, the Codex report found that visiting an author’s website is the leading way that book readers support and get to know their favorite authors better. And this is true regardless of age. While those under 35 visited websites more often than those over 35, over-35-year-olds still used author websites as their main method of learning about the author. “This isn’t a generational thing,” says Hildick-Smith. Fans are also much more likely to visit the author’s website than the author’s page on the publisher’s website.

The survey found that 7.5% of book shoppers had visited their favorite author’s website in the past week. As a point of comparison, 7% had visited the Wall Street Journal’s site.

And any remaining skeptics out there, take note: Website visits translate directly to the number of books bought. Book shoppers who had visited an author website in the past week bought 38% more books, from a wider range of retailers, than those who had not visited an author site. “Is putting up a website going to make a book a bestseller? No,” says Chin. “Is the website going to help the author build an audience? I believe it can. What you don’t want is for someone to hear about your book, search for it with Google, and find nothing. That’s a potential lost sale.”

Web presence is especially essential in today’s economy. “Websites have become even more important as people are not in stores discovering books,” Fitzgerald says. “We need to get them jazzed about a title and their favorite author and give them reason not just to buy the book, but also to have a relationship with the author and his or her work so they become evangelists for them with fellow readers. These next months, author websites and communications with readers are going to be critical for engendering excitement in readers online, since something as crucial as in-store browsing is not happening.”

The point, of course, is not just to get readers to visit an author site once, but to keep them coming back. How do you make a website sticky?“The saying ‘build it and they will come,’ well, they won’t,” says Burke. He and the other designers we spoke with agreed that flashy design is not a key to success, and the Codex Group research bears that out, with Stephenie Meyer’s website as a case in point. It receives more traffic than any other fiction author site, yet its design is extremely basic, “probably a generic template where you plug in your header graphic,” says Hildick-Smith. “She may only be paying $15 a month for this site on some server system. It’s not elaborately designed at all. But she’s got a daily blog, and more than any other site in our study, she has links to fan sites. Fan site links appear to contribute to loyal audience traffic.”

“Something we’ve always stressed is original, unique content,” says Burke. “The first author site we did was the Sue Grafton site back in 1996. We loaded that up with content, not just info about all her books, but also features and materials that people can’t find anywhere else. Sue Grafton has pictures of her cats up there. You’d think that might be a little crazy, but people love them. You want to put up a lot of information that people can’t find at Amazon, or the publisher site, or any other site.”

“In the beginning, a website just needed basic information,” says Fitzgerald. “Now visiting a website needs to feel like an experience. We work more these days with authors on the voice, tone, and attitude of their sites. In fact, that is as important to me as design.”

“Whenever possible, I try to incorporate the author’s voice into the site,” says Rabb. “If the author is willing to write all of the copy for the site, suddenly the whole thing takes on a bit of their character, which can be great.”

Codex found that giving audiences the ability to engage with other readers is the factor that correlates most with high site engagement. Rabb supports this: “There’s a great deal of interest in using the web to create an active community of an author’s fans,” he says. “This allows the author to have a direct connection with their readers, which can be a very powerful thing. In many cases, [though], it doesn’t make sense to establish such a community from scratch when it can be done through Facebook or MySpace.”

“What I loathe is authors who need to have whatever the flavor of the month is, no matter whether it works for them or not,” says Fitzgerald. “Flavors of the month include trailers, videos, blogs, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. These are tools. You need to see if they work for an author before they are adapted for the site. We often suggest that authors try out things like blogging before they commit to doing them on their websites. For the record, former journalists typically are great bloggers. They are used to pushing a story out on a deadline and typically can write on command. We also remind authors that they need to be, um, writing their books besides communicating on the web with readers. Those who chitchat well and love the experience of being with their readers can lose sight of that.”

Codex found that the main thing respondents want on fiction authors’ sites is exclusive, unpublished writing, with 43% saying they’d return for it regularly. “Exclusive content appears to be a missed opportunity on almost all sites,” says Hildick-Smith, and women find it especially appealing. Visitors will also return to authors’ sites regularly for schedules of author tours, book signings, and area appearances (36%); lists of the author’s favorite writers and recommended books; “explainers,” or inside information about the book (36%, with men finding these especially appealing); downloadable extras like icons and sample chapters (33%); and weekly e-mail news bulletins with updates on tours, reviews, and books in progress (33%). And fans under the age of 35 are especially interested in contests, puzzles, and games, with prizes like autographed copies of books. “Give them something fun to come back for,” says Hildick-Smith. Younger fans are also more interested in knowing about their favorite authors’ book, music, and movie recommendations.

Just don’t get too personal. “With Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, you need to think about how much you want readers to know,” says Fitzgerald. “I sometimes think a tad more discretion might be helpful. I have seen authors write on each other’s Facebook walls, pages that are linked from their sites, without realizing fans and author competitors are reading their personal ramblings. You need to think about how much of your personal world is applicable to folks who know you as an author.”

But do naked author Facebook photos lead to increased sales? Well, that’s a question for another survey

__ publishing trends.

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