What Makes a Great Author Website?

September 19, 2009 by Thad McIlroy

A colleague of mine who is a noted Canadian historian, and a prolific writer, asked today what makes a great web site for an author. So I began an exploration:

Most publisher websites for authors are pathetic, placeholders with short bios and links to books. A case in point is Canada’s “most venerable” old publisher, McClelland & Stewart. I wrote:
M&S is pointless:
http://www.mcclelland.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=31934

With their partners in crime (Random House, Doubleday, etc.) they have created BookLounge.ca, which makes the first mistake of forcing you to register (I never did succeed in completing my registration).

I try without success to find any content from M.G. Vassanji (who was well-featured on M&S). Odd.

So I check out my old friend, Lucinda Vardey, and find that her listing is no better than if it appeared on the M&S site:
http://www.booklounge.ca/author/results.pperl?authorid=31912

Then I turn my search to well-known (i.e. bestselling) historians:

Niall Ferguson has what I would call an “adequate” website.

http://www.niallferguson.com/site/FERG/Templates/Home.aspx?pageid=1

There’s some substance to it, but many flaws. He doesn’t offer a blog per se, but rather a blog-like “thing” labeled “journalism”. The entries are often short and blog-like…it appears they were published elsewhere, but we can’t find out where.

There’s a listing of the two spring courses he taught at Harvard, but no listing of what he’s teaching this fall.

There are three videos offered with no indication of their content or length or why we might want to watch them.

You can sign up for a newsletter, but have no method to view a sample and no idea how frequently it might arrive.

NONE of his publications has a live link (including his books), so you have to expend extra effort to find out more about them.

Well, enough of Prof. Ferguson

* As an aside, I do not like E.L. Doctorow’s site: http://www.eldoctorow.com/ for essentially the same reasons. There’s a professional design and lots of content, but none of it is particularly engaging.

Jared Diamond does not appear to have a website.

Gary Wills does not appear to have an independent website

Bob Woodward has a surprisingly uninteresting website: http://bobwoodward.com/

Thomas L. Friedman, has a pretty good site because it’s packed with relevant, current stuff. There’s no interaction, per se, other than the usual “subscribe to my newsletter”.

But, for example, on the page for his latest book: http://www.thomaslfriedman.com/bookshelf/hot-flat-and-crowded-2
…you can download a sample, hear an audio preview and download a discussion guide. These are useful and show some generosity and thoughtfulness on the part of the author (or his publisher or publicists or whatever). Foolishly he offers no blog nor a way to contact him directly (although if you go to his page on the New York Times you can contact him directly there).

You’ll see he’s now on LinkedIn, which is the best professional social networking site (as vs. the child’s FaceBook). I recommend LinkedIn — basic membership is free. Plaxois roughly 65% as good as LinkedIn and also free for basic service.

Malcolm Gladwell has a very simple site: http://www.gladwell.com/index.html

There’s always something to be said for simplicity. He also offers a genuine direct way to email him and a COMPLETE and accessible archive of all his great articles from the New Yorker. He’s generous with his excerpts from each book, and has a good Q&A for each. The blog is badly out of date. Not bad overall.

Back to the Yankees:

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s site rates about 5 out of 10. http://www.doriskearnsgoodwin.com/

The good is the personal stuff in the right-hand column on the home page. Also there’s a way to email her directly. The material available on her books is pathetic.

So here’s a Geist author with a beautifully-designed site:
http://www.sheilaheti.net/

Would this be “the right site” for you? Probably not. By the nature of your profession, more formal approaches are called for. But that doesn’t mean your site shouldn’t be fun also.

To me the keys to a great author web site are:

  1. The short answer is ENGAGEMENT: your site should make the reader feel that they’ve been inited into your living room for a chat.
  2. The same keys as apply to all great web sites: good design, clear navigation, lack of clutter, etc.
  3. A distinct personality to the site, which, god-willing, mirrors the personality of the author.
  4. More good stuff stuffed into the site than a child could pray for on Christmas.
  5. Backgrounders, audio-podcasts, videos from YouTube, discussion points. etc.
  6. Your blog should be hosted on you key site: your author site. Comments must be allowed, but moderated. The blog MUST be current.
  7. Generous links to other material you’ve produced that’s available online.
  8. Generous (AND APPROPRIATE) links to colleagues and other sites of interest. In return, they should agree to offer a link to your site.
  9. A direct way to email the author.
  10. Do not favor a single online bookseller as a source to get obtain books. Let you reader decide.
  11. Free previews of work-in-progress
  12. Friendly personal info on you and your family and friends with lots of cute photos.
  13. A “Resources” section for those who want to explore BEYOND your work.
  14. You must establish your authority. This can be done in subtle ways (which I think comes naturally to good authors), but also requires a link to “Reviews,” and wherever possible links to live online reviews.

So there it is…one of several viewpoints about the ideal author’s online site. To overlook the effort is to overlook your career.

September 21 update. Forgot ito include:

15. Don’t be shy about using ALL of the social networking tools available to you, at the very least Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace…

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Comments

  • Wanna sell books? « Letters from Lordship

    Sep 21st, 2009 : 12:24 PM

    […] McIlroy recently posted “What Makes A Great Author Website” on his blog The Future of Publishing. It’s surprising how few people have managed to tap into […]

  • Vikram Narayan

    Sep 21st, 2009 : 11:49 PM

    Hi Thad,

    This is a terrific blog entry. I particularly liked Number 15 – Using social media tools like Twitter. Twitter in particular has been a phenomenal source of traffic for BookBuzzr.

    Cheers,

    Vikram

  • E. D. Johnson

    Sep 23rd, 2009 : 9:13 AM

    Thank you for the information, along with…valid examples for a sort of comparison. Makes me wonder how mine rates.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Sep 23rd, 2009 : 7:27 PM

    To E.D. Johnson:

    Your comment: “Makes me wonder how mine rates,” makes me wonder if I could come up with a relatively unbiased/non-subjective rating system that authors’ might use to evaluate their sites. An excellent idea!

    I’ve glanced at your site. A few comments:
    1. It’s visually intriguing…
    2. Yet when I try to let that visual intrigue move me furtter, I have great difficult figuring out exactly the point of the site, who you are, how to work with the site, etc.
    3. It’s great that you provide free content (it’s unclear from a cursory viewing whether this is the entire work-in-progress, although, as you have advertising and a donation request, I suspect it is). But I find the type far too small to comfortably read. If I put the “text size” setting in my browser to “largest” then all is well, but you might want to consider one of the widgets the newspapers often use that allows you to control text size on each page.

    So there are a few reactions. Thanks for writing.
    Thad

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    Sep 23rd, 2009 : 9:38 PM

    […] Thad McIlroy’s ‘what makes a great author wesbite?‘ Then there’s the Nick Cave’s of the world, producing iPhone app ebooks with […]

  • Frequency Design (Liam Fitzgerald)

    Sep 30th, 2009 : 3:07 AM

    Great article, Thad. I would agree very much with the 15 point list. But to that I would add one caveat – when creating social media profiles they should be used to drive traffic to your main site rather than the other way round.

    Publisher’s authors sites are designed to sell books whereas author sites are created to “sell” the author, his ideas and personality and create a fanbase.

  • claudia

    Sep 30th, 2009 : 1:21 PM

    Love the tone of your blog, and the pleasantly meandering clarity. Great resource. Thanks for the time and effort and generosity!
    Yeah, and Sheila Heti’s (http://www.sheilaheti.net/) site rocks.

  • Nettie Hartsock

    Oct 3rd, 2009 : 1:57 PM

    Some good points Thad!

    nettie

  • Brad Fitzgerald

    Feb 12th, 2010 : 10:42 AM

    Thad,

    Great article. Nice breakdown on some sites to begin with, but your list at the end is golden for any authors looking at their current or planned website.

    #6 is right on. Many authors (maybe even most?) seem to have a very basic 3-4 page site with a link to their blog that goes to a separate site! Ah, that should be an integral part of their overall website design and strategy.

    #10 I definitely agree that published authors have to have buy links to their books, and while they should offer more than one seller they have to be careful about inducing choice paralysis on their viewers. Maybe offer 3-4 choices.

    Thanks again for your superb list! I’m giving a workshop soon at a writer’s conference entitled “Blogs and Social Media: What Every Writer Should Know” and I’ll be letting them know about this great reference.