In one of the classes I teach at Southern New Hampshire University’s MFA program, we spend a good amount of time on platform. (Loosely defined, this is essentially a writer’s capability to sell books based on their own network. But that’s a topic for another column.) It’s a big, hairy beast that has many new writers both scratching their heads and feeling like they must get one without really understanding why. It’s just like that time you discovered that you could buy shoes made of eucalyptus fiber on the internet and suddenly decided you needed a pair. (This may or may not be a true story; I admit nothing.)
This is a huge topic, so this month we’ll be covering something that is a part of your platform, but a critical portion. And, in fact, it can help you to frame your platform overall: “It” is your author’s website.
First, let it be said that if you are thinking about writing a book, or if you are considering writing anything for publication, or if you have one or three publications under your belt, you should get a website. It is, at the very, very least, a handy place for you to go when you feel like you have accomplished nothing and need a boost, and now I have given away the first part of what your website should comprise, which is:
A list of your accomplishments. I do not mean you should put up an actual list. I mean you should try to make it look like a nice page, with links to work that you are proud of. You can also link to a downloadable PDF of your curriculum vitae – all the stuff you have ever published; all the appearances you have ever made; all of the literary-citizen-type things you have ever done. But this is a page you should be updating regularly with your clips. Yes, I am terrible at doing this myself. Whyever do you want to know? Tell you what. I’ll do it if you do it.
Second, your website should include a way for your fans, or your readers, to find you. What I mean by this is, make sure they know where you hang out. What social media are you using? Link to it, so your readers can interact with you and follow you and get to know you better. Writing can be a lonely thing. Making sure you have some kind of community around you means making sure you include your readers.
Third, your website should demonstrate, or reflect, what matters to you. For instance, I dabble in watercolors, and they bring me joy, so I made some illustrations for my website that make me smile whenever I look at them. (Also, the illustrations are of things I really like: beetles, succulents, and tea cups. This is just another way for people to get to know me.) I think I’d lump the bio, or the “About Me” page, into this category. It is – say it with me – another way for the reader to get to know you.
There are a few other things that some authors include on their website that you don’t necessarily have to include. Some folks say that blogging is dead, but I enjoy having a space to put some loose thoughts down. Some people include pop-ups for things like newsletter signups, and other people say pop-ups are a nuisance, and they wouldn’t use them if they were the last marketing tool on earth. Some people have an FAQ page. This is something I’m in the process of putting up on my website: I like reading them whenever I visit an author’s website, so I’ll do the same for my own readers. And, from the other side of the desk, this cuts down on your having to answer the same questions over and over again.
But I want to use the rest of our time together to point out something else about these three primary components of a website: They all tap into what it’s like to be a human being, generally, and more specifically, they address some of the specific emotions that come with being a writerly type of human being.
My insistence on making sure people can find you is about making sure you stay connected.
The list of accomplishments is all about making sure our egos don’t fall down and hurt themselves too much. I mentioned in a prior column that some of my friends keep what they call happy files nearby. Whenever something bad has happened, they open their happy file, which they have filled with nice things people have said about them or cards or letters that make them happy. Sometimes, as writers, when we feel like nothing is going right, we need our own happy file, and a list of the things we have written or published, or a list of ways we have contributed to the publishing world, can be a huge booster.
My insistence on making sure people can find you is about making sure you stay connected. No man is an island, blah blah blah, but more importantly, no writer should have to suffer the travesties of trying to get published by themselves. For real. Any rejection is better when you can moan about it to other people. Any days-long slog through finding just the right agent, just the right publication to query, is better when you have someone you can ask for recommendations. Any trial is a little less arduous when you know people have Gone Before. (And, oh, they have. Trust me.)
And finally, the thing about making sure your website reflects who you are? Well, that’s just to remind you of what your higher purpose is – of why you do this. You’re not a monolith as a writer. You do other things with your life. (Obviously, you can feel like writing books is your higher purpose, and when you get to the blockbuster stage of your writerly career, you should know that no website – and no author’s career – should be static; you can feel free to recast it later on depending on who you are. James Patterson’s website has nothing but books on it, but Stephen King’s has links to everything from his nonprofit work to musicians and illustrators he’s worked with. Maureen Johnson’s website has links to resources for teachers on it, and while Jennifer De Leon’s website is pretty book-dedicated, it has a flavor about it that’s pretty unique to her.)
What I’m getting at here is that the website is part of your platform, sure. But it is also a reflection of who you are as a person. A student of mine, Heather Miller, put it this way: “The website is where an author’s personal stories meet their manuscript’s content, and where readers enter these conversations.”
What a nice idea – that your website can be a place where your readers meet you.
—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.