There are all sorts of…

There are all sorts of places telling you how to make a good website. But what goes into a good writer's website? There's a discussion about it in one of my mailing lists, and I found myself writing a long screed. Here 'tis -- please, let me know what you think. Stuff I should cut? Stuff to add? I'm thinking of doing a major site redesign over the holidays (along with finishing the first draft of the YA novel and moving back to Chicago, yes, it is to laugh :-), so input now would be helpful!

What makes a site attractive to readers is actual entertaining content, and what keeps them coming back is content that changes regularly (better, frequently -- ideally, daily). If you want to create a site that's actually going to help draw new readers to your work, you need to give them something worth coming to see.

If you don't provide regularly-changing content, what you have is what we call a 'static' site -- it works fine as an informational page, sort of like an encyclopedia article about you and your work, and is certainly better than nothing. But that's all it is -- it's essentially your 'home address' on the internet.

Think of it as the difference between two different kinds of homes. One is a quiet home on a tree-lined street, with nice architecture, pretty to drive by and enjoy, in a respectful fashion. Maybe even open to the public for tours, on the first Saturday of the month, when the owner isn't in residence. But the other is an open house with great food, free-flowing liquor, and a constant party going on. There are tons of fun people stopping by, and your favorite writer is actually in residence and wanting to talk to you! Which would your readers rather come to?


Actual Stuff for Site, in Addition to Blog/Forum

1. Ways to personalize you, as much as you're comfortable with. Readers want to get to know you, to feel a human connection to an author whose work they love (or want to love).

  • a friendly, approachable bio, ideally that showcases some of your personality
  • photos of you, your family, your writing space, your cat
  • audio recordings of you; a podcast of you talking about almost anything would be good, or a recording of you reading one of your poems if you write poetry -- anything that will let them hear your voice
  • video of you, if you're so inclined -- although, please, present it in a non-intrusive manner.

2. Info on your work

  • a concise and clear bibliography, updated in a timely manner, so that your site becomes *the* place to go to find out what's happening with you and your work (or where a reader can find that rare, out-of-print, but marvellous first novel of yours)
  • travel/tour dates, what cons you'll be attending, readings you're giving, etc.
  • pretty book covers, including those cool foreign covers
  • FAQ, if you need one -- a list of Frequently Asked Questions and their answers -- on mine, for example, I talk about the pluses and minuses of getting an MFA and/or Ph.D. in creative writing; I also tell people how I got my agent, and why my experience won't help them get theirs, but how they *should* go about it.
  • online interviews, either copied over and hosted on your site or linked to
  • any audio interviews that are available online, or that you can get permission to put up yourself
  • book reviews, if you want (you could just excerpt the good parts, or you could throw up the whole thing and let it speak for itself)

3. Actual writing, etc.

  • free samples! As much as you're comfortable with. This could be: poems, short stories, excerpts from novels, entire novels for download -- whatever you want to use for advertising. Remember, the first taste is free...
  • extra material: if you have an extra little scene, for example, that never quite fit into a book but is part of a universe that your readers love, you can throw it up there, just like the DVD extras for a movie -- scraps, bits and bobs, that sort of thing. If, for example, Ellen Kushner wanted to write occasional letters or diary entries from Alec and Richard (of _Swordspoint_), I would *haunt* her site, waiting for the next one to show up so I could eagerly devour it.
  • text for sale -- if you have a short story that you own reprint rights to, for example, and you don't want to just give it away for free, you could put it up (with some tech help), in downloadable form after readers PayPal you something (complicated to set up) -- or, easier, you could just treat it as shareware
  • ask for a donation after they read if they like it; it's easy to set that up with PayPal. I've done that, and picked up a bit of money that way.
  • other stuff you want to sell -- I don't consider myself an artist, but I do make little art collages and take photos and make handmade books, and sometimes I sell them on my site. Readers like having something you touched with your own two hands.

Okay, how'd I do?

3 thoughts on “There are all sorts of…”

  1. What you are saying hits the nail on the head and is something that I had certainly suspected all along. Many authors tend to complain that their websites hardly receive hits but that’s because they’re seldom updated and I realised long ago that a site being stationary has only itself to blame. That the wheels had to constantly keep turning to attract readers. A blog attached to a site or regular contests and the like are excellent remedies.

    In any case, I’ll keep coming to the party, Mary Anne. 🙂

  2. Good stuff. Some thoughts/notes:

    I would start with a brief section on motivation. What’s the goal, for a writer, in having a website, and who’s the intended audience?

    For example, is the point to provide a way for readers who already know about the author to find out more (that is, to have a site that comes up when readers do a web search for the author), or is the point to provide a way for readers who don’t know about the author to get interested in reading the author’s work (that is, to be an interesting-enough web personality that readers start to wonder what your other writing is like)?

    I think your assumption in the opening section is that the latter is better; I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. If the goal is to get readers to keep coming back to your site, then sure, frequently updated content is a must; but I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a good goal for all writers. Though certainly if readers come back to your site regularly, that makes it easier for you to tell them your latest publishing news.

    I think this is particularly worth discussing in your document because blogging takes up a lot of time, and writers often enjoy talking about writing more than doing it; some established professional writers have started to blog and then realized that it’s taking time away from their writing. There are obviously plenty of good reasons to do it anyway; I’m just saying I think there’s more of a tradeoff than your draft here is acknowledging.

    And really, I think it’s worth having a section about blogging, even if it just points to some other site for more info. Lots of the writers who’d read this document don’t have blogs and aren’t sure what goes into one. Many writers who do have blogs use them solely to post promotional material, which is only useful if you already have a readership. And so on.

    Note, too, that most people’s blogs are hosted at some site other than their home site. The blog can have a link to the home site, but the frequently updated content itself most often appears on LJ or Blogger or any of the other hosted services. (Though sometimes the service allows you to set the URL in such a way that it looks like the blog is on your own site.) So the home site itself is generally pretty static in that case.

    Relatedly, these days it might be a good idea to include a section on places like MySpace and Facebook; a lot of people are likely to have pages on those sites even if they don’t have a website.

    Another possible section might be how to put up a website, which again could just be a pointer to another document, especially because such a section could be really big if you try to go into much detail. But I imagine a fair number of writers would read your document here and say “Cool! I want to put up a website! But how do I do it?”

    One other thing that may or may not be worth mentioning: On a mailing list recently, someone posted a note recommending that new authors always post their fiction for free on their websites, on the grounds that that’s the best way to build readership. I pointed out that that really only works if you already have an established web presence and an audience for same. Nobody is going to stop by the site of a new author they haven’t heard of for the primary purpose of reading their fiction. …I guess there’s also a question (related to some of what I wrote above) of whether your document here is intended primarily for (a) unpublished authors, (b) authors who’ve been published a little, or (c) authors who’ve been published a lot (or some combination); might be worth making explicitly clear toward the beginning who is and isn’t your target audience for this document.

    …One last thing: I would say that it’s worth explicitly mentioning that any material the author posts online may be harder to subsequently sell to a professional market. A lot of authors don’t know that, and they post their stories or novels online first and then try to sell them. That can work very well in some contexts (like for a writer who has a very popular and highly regarded blog, and thus a built-in audience), but isn’t a good general strategy if the writer wants to pursue traditional publishing routes. (If they don’t, then this paragraph is irrelevant to them.)

    Scalzi has a good entry somewhere about his publishing history and why it worked for him but might not be a good idea for most beginning writers, but I don’t have the URL handy, and that may be a little far afield from what you’re doing here anyway. But if you want it and can’t easily find it, lemme know.

    Okay, enough — gotta run. Good document, and I’m glad you’re writing it.

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Jed, I think you misunderstood me — I wasn’t really planning on writing this up as a comprehensive sort of thing. For one thing, it all changes too fast for me to try to keep up with it. It was more a question of whether I recommended anything dumb that people thought I should not recommend, or if I’d forgotten anything important that people thought should be added in these comments. But that was as far as I planned to go with this.

    You, of course, should feel free to take what I’ve done, with your comments, and make a lovely comprehensive document out of it, which I’m sure a lot of people would find very helpful. In your copious free time. If you do do it, I’d be happy to host a copy at the SLF.

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