Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Your author blog or website

This one comes from the FAQ file. People often ask me whether I looked at author websites and blogs when making acquisitions decisions. I did. I still do that sometimes with prospective clients to get a feel for where they are in their careers. And that's really the point, isn't it? You use your author site to lure people in, and I look at it to see how you've baited the hook. So here, I'm going to relate some of the specific questions I've been asked over the years about how (not whether) I look at author sites.

Do you have preferences for colors, images, layouts, and the like?

I interpret this type of question as a plea for guidance on style choices. Will particular style choices -- an orange background versus a green background, two columns versus three, etc. -- impact the way people view the site? The answer is both yes and no. If the layout and graphics appear professional and communicate a brand or type, that was a point in favor.

It sometimes happened that the blog or website would look sort of patched-together and sloppy, like something straight of of 1996 DIY-pagemaking, complete with sparkly Myspace-style graphics. This always baffled me because it's so easy, in this day of templates and pre-fab graphics, to make it look good with little effort and expense. For the record, I'm not talking about particular color preferences or other visual aspects that would appeal to me on a personal level. I'm talking about things that looked like errors on the page, like text that scrolls on top of graphics (when the graphics should scroll with the text instead of remaining static). (By the way, yes, I did once reject an author after seeing her very awkward website. I was on the fence about the submission and might have rejected it anyway, but the website was what tilted me toward a no.)

With that said, it's important to keep in mind that people do respond negatively to things like music that plays in the background. Certain colors, like orange, are more likely to draw strong love it/hate it responses. Certainly, it helps to pay attention to that sort of thing, but don't get crazy with it. I once knew a woman who spent months -- literally, months -- researching color preferences and color therapy and searching for particular graphics for her website. When the website finally launched, the internal links didn't work properly. Her time would have been better spent learning html than learning the demographic breakdowns of responses to an orange-red versus a blue-red. Keep your eye on the prize! The goal is to create a working site which will appeal to readers of your type of story.

What if there's a typo?

I'll let you in on a little secret. Editors live in a land of typos, missing commas, wordy clauses, and other niggling errors. Obviously, we want everything to arrive on our desks in perfect condition. But we don't anticipate that happening. So make your text as clean as possible, and make it internally consistent on style and usage points, and don't stress too much about debatable points. Chances are, no matter what you do, we'll edit it in our heads as we read it anyway. That's just what we do. It's not you. It's us.

But if the text is flat, poorly written, or otherwise a poor representative of someone's writing skills, that's a point against. But this can go beyond the basic typo/crappy writing thing. Think of it this way. You're a writer. Your blog or website should showcase your writing skills. I once saw a website where all the content was aggregated blog posts from other sites, quotes, and the like. The content was selected well and presented well, and the writer had obviously spent some careful thought on what to include and how to include it. However, it was still a point against, because my first thought was, "This one can't even write her own web page." This is not the impression you want to make, is it? That said, a few judicious quotes or other outside references can add personality to a page. Just remember that the overall goal is to communicate something about you, the writer. (For the record, I've never rejected someone for having occasional minor errors in the website or manuscript. But I have rejected writers whose blogs were just plain bad throughout.)

Do you need your own domain name? What if you just use a freebie platform?

There might be a split of opinion here. On the one hand, who cares what shows up in the address bar? That's not really important. As long as people can find your page, they probably won't care if the words wordpress or blogger show up in the address. On the other hand, it's probably a good idea to grab domain names so that you can't be prevented from using them later, should you want them. I can't make a website under my own name because other people own those domains. This is not something that puts joy in my heart.

When we set up this blog four years ago, we chose blogger because it was free and easy to use. I had been using it myself for a few years at that point for a couple of other projects, and I knew Alicia would be able to pick it up quickly. In any case, I'm not going to fault an author for using a free platform when we made the same choice here. (I have never rejected an author because of their url, but I have gotten some giggles out of the strange email addresses people choose.)

How important is the bio/background/bookshelf stuff?

Pretty important, actually. When I go to an author's page, other than the general impression made by design and content, I was looking for specific things.
  • Had the author published? If so, where? When? How many books?
There are two basic reasons to look for this information. The first is so we can see sales history (such as Bookscan data, when available), and the second is so we can see what kind of work and work process might be familiar to you. Some houses are known for building strong authors. Harlequin, for example -- it's always a pleasure to work with authors who have experience there because they have a great professionalism about the process. Something about the culture there promotes this attitude, so I always viewed Harlequin experience positively.

  • Is there a platform?
This is really not as important for fiction authors, but it doesn't hurt. Platform can give the sales department a way of positioning your book. "This forensic analyst has written a crime thriller." That sort of thing. Platform is a point in favor, but it's not strictly necessary. Your website itself might even be your platform, depending on what we see happening there.

  • Do I think I might like working with this person?
This is the subjective factor, and there's not much you can do about it except try to come across like a basically decent person on your website. Whether your vibe is fun and playful or serious and scholarly is not as important as whether you seem like someone who will make the process pleasant. Or at least avoid making it unpleasant.



Dana Elmendorf said...

It's so funny how us writers tend to overanalyze things. THen I read this and remind myself, it's common sense what my author site should look like. It should reflect who I am on a professional level.

Wes said...

You guys are two for two today. You're going to need to expand your "Top Ten Blog Posts" to twelve.

Edittorrent said...

That's exactly it, Dana. I think the general uncertainty of this business can sometimes lead to people getting wrapped up in the details they can control. But I promise you, I never went to an author website and measured the width of the sidebars. If it looked right for this author and this type of writing, then that was enough to satisfy me.


Arloa Hart said...

Is this ever timely for me! My husband is working on a website/blog for me this week. Solid, solid advice -- thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! As an unpublished fiction writer who started blogging only six months ago this has helped me put things in perspective!

Matthew Wright said...

My publishers, Random House, nudged me into expanding my social networking a while back, on top of a bespoke website I'd had professionally built. The key to it is professionalism - and ensuring, through proper design, content, and conduct, that this is conveyed to a reader.

The reality for me - and I've been working in the business for years -is that 'writing' actually demands and requires a much wider range of skills than simply being a 'good writer', especially in today's tightening commercial environment. Marketing savvy, packaging and an awareness of the changing needs of the audience all have key places.

Thanks again for such an interesting post!

Matthew Wright

Anonymous said...

I started my blog because I read somewhere that when an agent is following up an interesting query they check that author's blog. I was looking for an agent, so I started a blog. Two months later I had an agent.

Unknown said...

Thanks! This is useful. (I keep resolving to make myself a proper website, SOMEDAY...)

Anonymous said...

Perfect timing! I'm in the process of planning a major makeover of my blog, and I find myself obsessing over things that really won't have much impact on the reader. I'm not published yet, so the specific goal of my blog/site is to get my name out there and have the plans and connections in place when it's time to start promoting my books. Getting hung up on the insignificant is easy. Thanks for helping me re-focus on the big picture.