Today’s writers are expected to be both entrepreneurs and marketers, yet many academic programs, writing workshops, and craft books only scrape the surface of this complex world.
How, then, does a professional writer learn the skills beyond craft that are necessary to thrive in the current literary landscape?
Usually, we learn by observing, by doing, by reading. By trial and error.
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The author website is one of those areas in which many of us could use some TLC.
I straddle two worlds: I’m a writer and literary magazine publisher with a background in ecommerce and content marketing. It’s perhaps because of this perspective I’ve discovered the dire need for many writers to pay more attention to their web presence.
Over the past few years, as social platforms exploded in popularity, I’ve overheard and read online conversations in which people say authors no longer need websites.
I argue, strongly, that is not the case.
Authors who choose not to create an online space they can completely control are missing an ideal opportunity to promote themselves and connect with their audience.
Authors who have created a website but haven’t touched it in years also are hurting their brand because a website can’t merely exist in cyberspace – it needs to be current in information and best practices.
Why an author website matters
Whether you’re applying for a job, pitching a freelance article, or querying an agent, the person on the receiving end of your information will likely look you up online.
Or perhaps someone read one of your articles, essays, or books – or heard you speak at a conference or read a media interview in which you were featured – and then wanted to learn more about you and your work.
One of the most effective ways to improve your chances of showing up on the top position, or at least somewhere on first page of the search results when someone searches for your name, is to have a website.
Sabrina Clark, director of marketing at Brand Yourself, a company that offers tools for online branding and monitoring, agrees.
“When people want to find information about a prominent figure, such as an author, they are going to look for [that person’s] website,” she says.
Eric Smith, an agent with P.S. Literary, explains that “buy-in” is the most important reason to have an author website, and that starts with being found.
“A potential reader can Google you, find your site, and learn about you, the author. Your current book. Your previous book. Your short stories and essays. They’ll check out those other works. They’ll follow you on social media,” he says. “All kinds of fun stuff can happen, and that’s delightful.”
Search engine algorithms are complex and ever-changing, so no one can ever be guaranteed a top position, but there are certainly elements of your website that will help improve your search ranking, such as quality of on-page content, frequency of updates (blog posts, for example), website structure/coding, load time, and proper metadata.
Clark suggests writing your bio in the third person. “This indicates to Google that the website is about you,” she says, adding that a custom domain – not a free one, such as YourName.BlogSpot.com or YourName.Wordpress.org – is important for recognition and ranking.
Bottom line: When you own your search results, you own your brand.
A hub of activity
A website should serve as the foundation for your brand. Clark says that an author website can serve as the authoritative link to all other web-based properties about you, and you can also use social media to send people to your website for more information – they work hand-in-hand.
In fact, being active on other platforms helps increase your search engine ranking and overall visibility online, but a website is one of the only properties we can fully control.
I once heard at a web conference that we “rent” social media, but we “own” our permanent web presence. There’s no personal visual branding opportunities on social media, save for a custom profile or header image.
On a personal website, however, you control the look and feel. Your personality can shine through with the color palette, layout and vibe – and that helps the notion of buy-in Smith mentioned.
“The buy-in happens with the media. With librarians. With booksellers. They look you up. They see what kind of author you are. Maybe you blog. Maybe you come off as a delightful person they want to have in their story or library, or interview for their website, magazine,” he says.
“[A] publisher is likely mostly concerned with selling your book. You should be concerned with selling yourself as an author. A website helps with that in a big way.”
The key to keeping your online home up to date with minimal effort is to understand how different content types can work together.
Evergreen content – static pages:
Evergreen content includes static pages, such as About, Bio, Contact, Awards, etc. You’ll no doubt have updates to your bio or your list of published works, but the pages themselves do not change.
Another way to look at evergreen content is how you write it: A dated blog post is expected to be timely, but a static page should have timeless information. An example:
Dated content: Last year, Margaret Petty won the All-Star Writer Award, and she’s looking forward to teaching at several writing conferences this summer.
Evergreen content (better): Margaret Petty won the 2015 All-Star Writer Award, and in the summer of 2016, she taught at various writing conferences.
Do you see how the latter example would be relevant whether I visit the page today or six years from now? Don’t let static content get stale.
Timely content – communicating new information:
Search engines reward websites that are updated frequently, so a blog element to your website is important. Blogging once a week or so not only encourages you to keep writing new things, but it also improves your ability to be found online. When your site goes stagnant, your rankings could drop.
Smith agrees wholeheartedly that blogging should be part of content strategy.
“[Updating regularly] shows that you are active and busy. If you’re one of those writers who make the excuse, ‘Oh, that takes away from my writing,’ then I’ve got nothing left to say to you. Sorry!” he says, adding that a bio, book details, social links, and event listings are also must-haves.
You can update your website without even logging into your content management system. Link your Twitter or Instagram feed to your homepage, add a Flickr album to your footer, embed your YouTube playlist – the ideas are only as endless as the social platforms on which you’re active.
When you update these outlets, your website will update, too – with the right plug-ins and set-up, of course.
These feeds add some visuals and movement to your website while providing valuable information about what you’re up to.
Conversational and contact elements:
You want people to be able to reach you. Provide contact information or create a simple contact form (limit fields to name, email address, and comment); this is especially helpful if you’re using the website to find work.
Also, activate comments on your blog so that you can engage with your readers. The key here is to monitor for new activity; it’s useless to allow people to comment if you’re not going to respond, even if it’s a simple “Thanks for reading!” post.
Finally, if you’re linking off to your social media accounts, make sure you’re active there too: No one wants to be sent to a Twitter account you haven’t used in two years.
Smith, who is also an author, uses his website (and social media accounts) as a literary citizenship platform as often as he can.
“No one wants to hang out with the person who only talks about themselves. Dish often, talk about other people,” he says. “You’ll have more friends and followers that way.”
Remember: You will have new and repeat visitors. Make sure you’re considering both with quality evergreen content with information about you as well as fresh updates to keep loyal fans coming back.
Design matters, too
Some might say that an unattractive book cover can still be fantastically written (if only you’d just read it!), but many others won’t give it a chance if they’re turned away by the design. The same can be said about websites.
You might have great content, but you only have seconds to capture someone’s attention before they click away. If it’s too busy, too drab, too hard to read, too whatever-your-web-pet-peeve-is, they’re gone.
I’ve seen many online versions of literary magazines with websites designed to mimic print. When I worked in higher education, I witnessed many academics slapping up a PDF online instead of creating actual on-page content.
Neither of these is a best practice. People read differently on the screen.
Joel G. Goodman, principal of Bravery Media, an Austin-based design and web strategy agency, agrees.
“Folks who are used to thinking print-first a lot of times end up with tiny type on their websites. I see this with print designers moving to digital all the time. Larger font sizes are a lot easier to read on a screen than small ones, and since screens are a bit harsher on the eyes in general, it’s helpful to your readers if you think about their comfort,” he says.
Typography is an important element – consider a larger font, with more leading (the space between lines). White space is always good. And a visual hierarchy is also helpful to move the reader through a web page – headlines, sub headlines, body content and pull quotes (or other text features) help, and they should be consistent throughout the website.
Many design websites suggest that sans serif fonts (the ones without the “little feet”) are best for headlines and are easier to read online.
Colors and other visual elements are important to consider, too.
It’s easier than ever for people with little to no design or programming skills to build a website and make graphics, thanks to free or low-cost tools. But Goodman warns that with so many options available, it can be easy to go overboard on colors, fonts, and imagery.
“This is where print and digital design best practices overlap: your website is going to look better if you keep it simple,” he explains. “There are some old standard rules you can apply here pretty easily, like making sure your type color is readable against your background color, not using more than two different fonts, and making sure your colors don’t clash.”
It’s important to remember accessibility, too. Remember that people with vision impairments or limited mobility are part of your audience. For example, not everyone uses a mouse, and many people use screen readers. Your site should conform to W3C standards in how a website looks and functions.
Think across devices
Just as your readers interact with your work in different ways – a printed magazine or newspaper, a paper book, an e-reader, or through an app – people visit your site on different devices: desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones.
“A lot has changed in the ways people use the web,” explains Goodman, adding that it’s important to meet the audience where they are, which is often on a small screen. “If your website isn’t mobile-friendly . . . you’re putting a giant barrier to enjoyment in front of your audience, not to mention telling the search engines you just don’t care about your visitors.”
Goodman’s last point, with which Clark agrees, is in reference to search engines favoring sites that are designed for mobile. (In fact, if someone is Googling from a smartphone, the search results might likely contain only mobile-friendly sites.)
Mind your metrics
Install Google Analytics (it’s free). It’s important to understand how your website performs and how users are interacting with it in order to either keep up the good work or to make improvements as you go. Also, learning how people find your website will help you determine if paid or organic marketing and promotion efforts are effective.
Thanks to today’s tools and technology, most everyone is able to create and maintain their own websites – and, if not, there are plenty of designers within your budget range, many with experience in the publishing industry, who can help. No matter who makes them, though, we must think of websites as the cost-effective and valuable marketing tools that they are and treat them with as much care and respect as the work we produce. Perhaps Goodman says it best:
“The bottom line is to think about your readers. They’re the ones supporting you and your writing. If you make them feel cared for on your website, they’ll continue to support you,” he says. “Make your words easy for them to read and your website lovely enough for them to want to share it with their friends.”
- Own your URL and hosting (vs. a free, third-party host)
- Invest in a customizable template (or hire a designer)
- Mix evergreen and timely content (pages AND blog posts)
- Implement dynamic elements to keep content fresh
- Find compelling imagery to complement your words
- Include contact information (or method of contact, such as a simple form)
- Consider accessibility and search engine optimization
- Remember the medium: write for the web, not for the printed page
- Use analytics tools to measure your success or find ways to improve
Donna Talarico is a writer, speaker, and content and branding consultant, and the founder/publisher of Hippocampus Magazine. She’s had careers in marketing, communications, and editorial capacities in higher education, ecommerce, and radio. Talarico earned an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University and an MBA from Elizabethtown College. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
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