Chip MacGregor

October 19, 2008

Writers and Websites


I've received a number of questions about websites and e-books recently…

Ellen has a very thoughtful question: "I've become a smarter book-buyer because of the economy. I'm more likely to read three chapters in the cafe at Borders before letting go of my money. If the writing isn't good, I don't buy the book. If the writing is great, I'll buy it no matter what it costs. But that raises a question — could Kindle increase sales by eliminating our ability to loan out our precious books? And won't Kindles and Sony e-readers affect the used book market?"

For those unfamiliar, the Kindle is Amazon's latest attempt to control the world. It's a small electronic book that uses cell-phone technology to download book texts, and it's great (except it doesn't do graphics). The Sony e-reader is a bit less expensive and bit sturdier, though I'll admit I like using the Kindle more. Ellen's question is one publishers have been rolling around — there's no forwarding from one e-reader to another, so will these tools keep readers from passing along books to friends? That could cut down on the readership of a book. But at the same time, if an enthusiastic reader tells all her friends to read the latest Paul Coelho novel, could they all purchase and download it, thereby increasing sales? 

Both are good thoughts. And to this point, nobody knows what will happen. However, I used Brazilian author Paulo Coelho as a specific example because of his recent discussion at the Frankfurt Book Fair last week. Mr. Coelho takes the approach that getting his words out there in electronic form will bring him new readers, and that will lead to more people buying books. So he gets his words out there in the ethernet, and gives them away quite a bit, and he believes that is what has led to his worldwide success. "The more you give, the more you gain," he told everyone at the opening event of the Fair. It's an interesting approach — and it has certainly worked for Coelho, who has now sold over 100 million books.

Jim has a question about author websites: "Because of the e-world in which we live, an author having a website is like having a phone or a television. But how we present ourselves on our sites is the key. I'm an abstract artist as well as a writer, and I'm wondering if it's best to have a different site to promote my art, or to promote both on the same site. Are people put off by sites that are too busy or that offer too much?"

I agree — an author should have a website, since it offers the opportunity to connect the writer to the world at large. In my view, having a professional website is probably one of the essential ingredients of contemporary marketing. And that means thinking through who you are as a writer, what your voice is, who your audience is, and how you want to communicate with them. Surely a romance writer needs a completely different look and feel to the site of a mystery writer. There is often a "sameness" among writers' sites, and I think that's why so many websites aren't as effective as they could be. Just as your unique writing voice makes you stand out in store shelves, a unique site voice/look/approach can make you stand out on the web. 

For that reason, I would say it's tough to combine a "book" site with an "art" site. Those are two different audiences, looking for two completely different results. (When you're looking for a book, do you stop in an art gallery?) Better to link the two together in some way, so that those readers interested in the author's artwork could also go check the other site. 

Lindy asks, "What are the most important elements a new author should have on a website? What makes an author website successful?"

There are doubtless a hundred answers to that question, Lindy, but I'll take a stab… 
1. It must reflect YOU. Your site must reveal your voice, your strengths, your uniqueness. 
2. It must be attractive — which doesn't mean "pretty," but that it attracts potential readers.
3. It must be easy to load — nobody wants to sit and wait while your fancy graphics roll around and try to line up. 
4. It must sell you. A site is a sales tool.
5. It must offer good and complete information, answering the viewer's questions about you and your work. (Not only is it a sales tool, it's an informational tool.)

Pierce wants to know, "What role do business cards, letterhead, and envelopes play in helping brand an author? It seems to me people not only judge a book by its cover, but judge newer authors by their online and printed materials. An attractive, professional, and consistent look can make a lasting, positive impression. Do you agree?"

I do agree. In fact, I'd offer the same advice as that of the web questions. Your stationery and business cards should reflect who you are and what you do. Business people recognize the difference between a professional and an amateur, and that is often reflected in the way we approach them. 

A Human Resource officer once said to me, "People perform at the level at which they are recruited." So if you walk up to someone in the hallway and say, "Hey, help me with something," you can expect them to treat it as a simple request, and they'll offer a few minutes to assist you. But nobody recruits a company president with such an informal request. If there's a big job to do, you do your homework, make your lists, and approach them after much preparation.

It's the same in pitching a book. If you hand an editor a crumpled-up manuscript at a conference, it's going to get treated as though it's a casual request. If you have your agent talk with the editor, then send them something professional, it'll get treated with the respect it deserves. Remember when your grandma told you that "you never get a second chance to make a first impression"? Well, that rule applies to editors and manuscripts. If you're an author, invest in some professional tools like business cards and stationery. Don't jump at the cheapest thing — get some help and get it done right. I've heard plenty of people in this business complain about the cheap stuff they've seen. I've never heard anyone complain about the well-done, professional stuff. 

Got a question about writing or publishing? Let me hear it. 

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