What Makes a Great Author Website?

September 19, 2009

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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Giving Away Digital Books for Free

May 30, 2008

Credit where credit is due: I was first informed of this fascinating tale about the future of writing and book publishing from David Pogue’s always fun, provocative and illuminating weekly column in The New York Times. His May 22nd column provided his take on whether he should provide free downloads of his (many) books.

After a couple of bad experiences he’s now firmly against it, while admitting that “I realize that it puts me, rather awkwardly, on the same side of the piracy issue as the record companies and movie companies, who are suing teenagers for downloading songs, and of whom I’ve made endless fun.”

But a far more intriguing story is referenced in Pogue’s column: the story of author Steven Poole, who took a successful book, “Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames,” and posted it for download on his blog. The book was first published in 2000, to favorable reviews, and, according to Poole, continues to sell well. But last November, as a simple experiment, he offered Trigger Happy as a free download, under a Creatives Commons license, which meant, if not in legal terms, but in technical reality, “no strings attached.” He asked only that “if you like the book, you can leave a tip via PayPal,” and provided a link for PayPal donations. The total was a vanishingly minuscule fraction of what I earned from the book’s traditional publication.”

The results were, to say the least, disappointing from a financial perspective. As Poole reported in an April 2008 blog entry, “the proportion of [31,697] people who left a tip after downloading Trigger Happy was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%” and as he comments later in the responses to his entry, “the average donation was a (very reasonable) couple of bucks. What I found most important here are the nearly 230 comments found in both the original blog entry offering the book, and in its follow-up. A few of the comments are of course inane, but the sum of the comments (with a generous series of responses from Poole) amounts to the most fascinating discussion I’ve yet encountered on how writing and publishing are faring in the ongoing struggle to find an effective new business model that will encourage book-length publications (rather than articles and blogs) to flourish in the age of the Internet.

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