The Author Website: Not Just a Digital Business Card
by Chris Mandeville
An “official author website” is, like a business card, a tool for providing customers (readers) with information about you. But unlike a business card, your website gives a sense of who you are and what your books are about, which helps you engage with readers.
Having a website is pretty much a necessity if you’re a published writer or soon-to-be. It’s not enough to have a Facebook author page, a spot on your publisher’s website, or an author page on Amazon or Goodreads. A professional author should have his or her own site because it’s an important tool in our writer’s toolbox. Plus it’s part of what legitimizes us as authors in the eyes of the public. So whether you have your own site already or are getting ready to create one, it’s a good idea to take stock of what a “good” author website should include, and how you can use it to engage with readers.
To some degree, a “good” website is in the eye of the beholder. But there are some things you can do to present your best front to readers and meet their expectations about content.
When a reader views your website, they evaluate it—and by extension, you and your books—on both a conscious and subconscious level. On a conscious level, it’s mostly about content. Do you have what they came looking for? And is it easy to find?
A reader (or potential reader) may visit your site for a number of reasons:
- to learn more about you (bio, photo, personal info)
- to learn where they can see you (events and appearances)
- to learn about a book they’re interested in
- to learn about other books/projects (like when the next book in a series is due)
- to read additional material (deleted scenes, short stories, articles)
- to participate in a deal, promotion, or contest
- to learn if you have a fan club or street team they can be part of
- to ask a question or leave a comment
- to post a review
- to learn what you like to read and which authors you admire
- to connect with you on a deeper level, like learning what inspired you for a particular story, what your writing process is like, where and how often you write, what you’re currently writing
- to buy a book (include your Kobo links!)
Here’s an example of site content from one of my favorite authors, Jeffery Deaver:
You can see from Deaver’s menu that he highlights his writing projects, which is perfect for an author website. He includes information about himself and his upcoming events, as well as “news” and “extras.” Again, perfect—these topics are in line with what visitors will be looking for. In addition, you’ll see he has several ways for visitors to connect with him: Twitter, Facebook, and email. This is important because a modern author website is not a one-way street of information flowing from you to the reader. Readers want to engage with you, so be sure to give them an avenue to interact.
Selecting content for your site can be overwhelming—there’s so much you could include! But the point isn’t to provide every bit of content you can think of. Like Deaver, keep it simple and make it easy to find the basic information a reader would want. For those “extras,” give a glimpse of who you are as a person and as a writer. Bonus content can be based on areas of interest that occur in your stories. For example, if stamp collecting is integral to your story, an area on your site dedicated to stamp collecting would be great. If your antagonist is a crazy cat lady, include info about cats. If your protagonist is a chef, post recipes.
Don’t forget the photos!
Whatever you decide for your content, don’t neglect to add visual interest. Photographs, book covers, and other images break up the monotony of words and give dimension to both your site and the “you” you’re portraying. A photo of you signing a book, engaging with fans, posing with a celebrity, or participating in a fun activity opens a window into part of your life and allows visitors to find common ground with you. The more they feel a connection to you, the more likely they are to engage further and perhaps become a reader, or even a fan.
Check your site’s “M-PACT”
The mnemonic “M-PACT” stands for:
T: To the point
Let’s look at each of these in the context of author websites.
What message do you want your website to send?
As with your bio and photo, “message” refers to how you want the viewer to feel, and what message you want them to take away. For example, if you write ghost stories, you may want to give your site a spooky vibe, implying that you write spooky tales.
If you write across multiple genres and your site represents all of them, this can be a bit more challenging, but it’s not impossible. Try to find a commonality or a theme. Using myself as an example, I write both science fiction and nonfiction for writers. The common ground between the two is that my writing style is fun and playful, even in my post-apocalyptic story. To demonstrate “fun and playful” I turned to my love of dogs and involvement with service dogs, and sprinkled my website with information and photos relating to dogs. I think it works, but you be the judge: www.chrismandeville.com.
You want your site to look like it was designed and produced mindfully and professionally.
If your website doesn’t look professional, you don’t look professional. These days it’s easier than ever to build your own website, but if you choose this path don’t just slap it together. Consider hiring a web designer or consulting with someone experienced in the industry so you can learn the current trends. This is important because readers are likely, either consciously or subconsciously, to evaluate whether or not your site looks current.
For example, a current trend you may have noticed when browsing the web is the use of the “hero image.” This is a large graphic image at the top of the home page that takes up the full width of the page and extends down to cover a large portion of your screen—basically an oversized header. You can learn more about hero images here.
Bestselling author of the Divergent series, Veronica Roth has updated her site with a hero image:
However there are many popular authors who are still using the old-style basic info menu in a standard-sized header. Here’s an example from bestselling author Todd Fahnestock at www.toddfahnestock.com:
There’s nothing wrong with Fahnestock’s menu—it’s easy to navigate, clearly shows the author’s name and photo, and gives readers some good options to choose from. It’s just not the trendy style. A website with a dated look can connote that you yourself are not with the times, or worse, that you’ve been neglecting your site and the content is not current. Now that’s not true of Fahnestock—he’s prepping for the release of The Wishing World this month, which is apparent from the remainder of his website, but he was kind enough to allow me to use his site’s header as an example.
Now let’s look at content in the context of “professional.” When creating your site content, I suggest you approach it as you would any other writing job—as a professional—and follow the same practices:
- Research: look at other authors’ sites and evaluate them; read articles on the dos and don’ts of websites; ask other authors for advice.
- Brainstorm: put some thought into what you’re going to include; plan/outline your material; discuss it with others or let it simmer awhile—however you normally process your ideas.
- Critique: get feedback on the design, layout, navigation, visual impact, font, and content choices – make sure your site is achieving what you wish it to achieve.
- Edit: put your editorial eye to work (or hire an editor) to make sure your site is as cohesive and effective as it can be. Don’t forget to proofread!
- Apply beta readers: when your new or redesigned site is ready to go, have a few trusted folks “beta test” it before you reveal it to the public. This is key because if there are typos, formatting errors, broken links, and/or a navigation system that doesn’t work well, a visitor to your site may conclude that your books will not be up to professional standards either.
Your site should be appropriate for your audience and genre.
Think about who your readers are and what they expect from your books, and make sure your site content is appropriate for those readers. For example, an author of children’s books shouldn’t have swearing or “adult content” on his/her website. Likewise the author of cozy mysteries shouldn’t have gruesome autopsy photos. In addition to content, your site’s “look” should be appropriate for your subject matter. For example, if a horror writer’s website is full of flowers, rainbows, and puppies, that doesn’t jibe for readers on a subconscious level. Make sure the colors, ambiance, and general feel of your website are in line with the book(s) you write.
Your branding should be consistent within your site, as well as between your site and your other materials.
For your branding to be successful, it must be consistent so that it’s recognizable as “you” in any venue. Think about your favorite beverage brand. If they’re successful, it’s likely that their branding is consistent across all platforms (television, print, packaging, signage, etc.) so that it’s recognized wherever a customer comes across it. You want this for yourself as an author. Make your site internally consistent visually and thematically, as well as consistent with the other components of your branding: photo, bio, business cards, promotional materials, etc. You don’t want to send mixed messages!
T: To the point
“To the point” reminds us to edit.
Look at your website as objectively as possible, keeping in mind all of the above recommendations. Edit out anything that doesn’t inform, entertain, or engage readers, and hone the remaining material to what’s really special and true to you. Remember: you don’t need to include every bit of content you can think of! Also, don’t be a stranger to your own site. Keep your appearance calendar up-to-date, and post new information regularly. In addition I suggest that periodically you note what current website trends are and evaluate if your site could use some sprucing up. You don’t need to change your design every year, but when it becomes obvious your site is “dated” looking, consider giving it an overhaul.
Your website opens a small window into your life so that readers can peek in. While a “good” website is in the eye of the beholder, it is possible to ensure that your site provides useful and entertaining information for readers and encourages them to engage with you. Engaging with readers is what the modern author website is all about!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about her at chrismandeville.com