10 Tips for Becoming a More Effective Author Online

This article first appeared on HuffingtonPost.com as part of an interview titled "Does An Author Really Need a Website?"


No. 1: Think Like An Author

One of the things that authors (unlike other mere mortals) do is organize their thoughts and ideas. You don't just sit down and write a book from page 1 to 300; you do a lot of thinking, researching, and planning. Tip #1 is to approach your web project in the same spirit. Put on your author hat and make notes and an outline. Start with several general questions that will help inform the overall organization of your website or blog:

 * Who am I as an author? If you were writing the opening graf of a newspaper profile of yourself, what would you consider the ideal description of your work?  Where would you place the greatest emphasis? Where the least?

* And then: What do my readers want? What sort of questions do they ask you when you make public appearances? What do they say when they write letters or emails to you?

* And: What do I want my readers to know about me that they may not currently know? This is your chance to write the Ur Q&A. Consider it a work-in-progress: post it, then keep adding to it as time goes by and your writing and career develop.

No. 2: Make a Content Plan, Part 1: Static Elements

Make a list of static elements that you want to include on your website: content that doesn't get constantly updated or newly created like entries in a blog. First focus on things that you already have or would be easy to create: sample chapter(s); biography; reviews; Q&A; etc. Then start another list: stuff you'd love to add in the future (The Author Online contains an exhaustive list of features that readers say they like on author websites). Then go back and prioritize your master list and arrange the items into broad categories that could serve as the navigation on your site: Books (do you subdivide Fiction & Non-Fiction?), Bio, Journalism, About, etc. These are the categories that make sense to you, based on the work you did in Tip No. 1.

No. 3: Make a Content Plan, Part 2: New Elements 

Consider where your new content will come from. Do you want to blog? (Do you have time to blog? Will you run out of steam after 3 months?) Will you write occasional articles/essays to post on your site? Will you share early chapters with your fans? Invite them to vote on jacket art from your publisher? Will you constantly post new links to bloggers, videos, new studies/research in your field, etc.? 

No. 4: Be Smart Today and Plan to Grow in the Future

Websites evolve. The best thing you can do is be smart and focused at the beginning, and assume that you'll grow your online presence with time and valuable feedback from fans, traffic data, and other sources. So if you're just starting out be honest with yourself about how much time you can devote to your site; be ambitious but also realistic about your plan for adding new content. Focus on quality of content not quantity, and always circle back to the questions you asked yourself in No. 1: what do your readers want? What do you want them to know about you? Then think about what's the best way to deliver that on your site and map out a plan for the coming months. And be sure to keep a handy list of "Future Features" and ideas for new content. Tip 4a: Set up a Dropbox account and keep your list in the cloud so you can always access and update it. This is particularly handy if you travel a lot, and you can install Dropbox on any mobile device. (See here for more about how Dropbox works. While you're there, check out Evernote, another great app that helps you keep track of stuff you find online.) 

No. 5: Build a Mailing List

Even if you don't intend to send out an email newsletter create a sign-up form and place it conspicuously on every page of your website or blog. Do this on Day 1. You may not see a reason to have an e-letter today, but in a year or so you may. People come to your website because they like your work or they're interested in your subject; give them a simple way to stay in touch. An author's email list has tremendous value, and it will grow over time. Start now. 

No. 6: Use an ESP

Use a professional email service provider (ESP) like MailChimp or Constant Contact. Some of these services are free until your list reaches a certain size (like MailChimp) and there are many benefits: they provide simple templates for creating professional-looking emails; easy opt-out links for your subscribers; and vast riches of analytic data about who opened your emails, what they clicked on, how many times they forwarded it, where they live, etc. From that data you will learn to do things better and more effectively in the future.

No. 7: Be Creative About Your Newsletter Signup

You don't go on the radio and simply say "buy my book, it's a great read." You say: "buy my book because I describe all the best tools and strategies for killing a zombie and tell you how to prepare yourself in both an urban and a rural setting." So in your newsletter signup offer some specifics about what your emails will deliver. For a very good example of a smart newsletter sign-up see the form that SocialMediaExaminer.com uses. They promise a value-add (a free video tutorial on using Twitter), and the text has a real voice. Another example of a creative newsletter signup is the blog CrazySexyLife.com. The first signup box I saw there (in 2009) had three separate options: daily, weekly and monthly, so the reader could choose how much of author Kris Carr's stuff she really wanted. Recently Carr updated her newsletter signup and it's still great, but very different and now she also offers a free piece of content for folks who sign up. You'll find screenshots of all these examples at TheAuthorOnline.com/newsletter

 No. 8: Use Google Analytics 

Set up your Google Analytics account on Day 1 and get addicted. As you gain traffic you will find this a terrific editorial tool because you'll know what your readers are looking for, what they actually spend time reading, where they come from (country, state, city), and much more valuable data. Nothing will teach you more about how you're doing online than Google Analytics, and it's free. Don't forget: launch it on Day 1. 

No. 9: Visit Your Own Site Regularly

Go to your website at least once every few weeks and test your links (they have an uncanny way of breaking for no apparent reason). While you're there, chances are that something will strike you: "gee, I could do this better," or "that featured article is feeling a bit long in the tooth, it's time to replace it with something else." Be objective, be critical, be creative. Test new things and check the results in Google Analytics. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

No. 10: Have Fun, Be Empowered

Websites are stressful – everybody knows that. But remember all those times you had a great idea for your publicist and it just never got off the ground? Well, guess what: with your own website you can do a whole lot on your own. And once you start understanding how to use it well, and you get in the groove (and you build up your mailing list, social networking fan base, RSS subscribers….) you'll be able to reach your readers directly whenever, however, you want. And you can invite them to provide their feedback, both publicly (through blog comments, message boards, and of course in social networking environments) or you can keep things quiet and just enable people to email you via the site. You can start small and grow. Most of all, can you can do it yourself. Visit TheAuthorOnline.com for a rich (and constantly updated) list of resources, sample author and book-specific websites, online tools, articles, links, and more. Please email me and tell me what you think I can do better, or simply alert me to your web project. I'm interested, and many others are too.  Most of all, have fun.

Good luck with your project!


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