Annik LaFarge answers some of the key questions authors have when contemplating awebsite, whether they’re building a new one or updating a current site.
What's the first thing you focus on when you begin a discussion with an author about a website?
It was interesting to me, when I looked back and reflected on this a year after I began building websites, that there's really no difference between the initial publishing conversation one has with an author and the discussion about a website. The questions and issues are very similar: they have to do with the work itself – how do you present it in the most compelling way to a reader; what aspects do you highlight; who's the audience? how can we reach and appeal to the many different kinds of readers who might come to this book or author? what additional materials can we create that will reward a reader's interest and perhaps encourage him to look deeper into an author's backlist. And so on. Authors online have to think in much the same way as authors off-line.
What makes a successful author website?
There are as many different kinds of author websites as there are books and authors, which is part of the reason I love this work: there's so much variety. I think the two most important elements of a website are new material and flexibility. The first element is evident to the visitor and the second is not. Regarding new material: a main part of the conversations I have with authors focuses on the question of how often they'll add new content to their sites. The thing I urge them to do is make a plan, and think about how, on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, they will add new content. Blogging is the easiest way to do this, but it's important to have a plan for that too: what are you going to blog about? how are you going to keep it interesting and fresh? do you want and need images, and if so what kind, where will they come from, and what will be the workflow for obtaining them. So we make a plan for that, just as we would if we were planning the timeline of a publishing campaign.
Some authors can't or won't add a lot of new content and that's fine; we plan for that, and we don't make a promise to the visitor that there will be a great deal of new material awaiting her on her next visit. We then work to make what we have as strong, interesting, engaging, and varied as possible, and we develop some materials specifically for the website, the kinds of things I talk about in the "Make A Content List" section of The Author Online.
And "flexibility": what's that about?
Flexibility is a totally back-end kind of thing that the visitor never sees but it has a huge impact on his experience of a website that he returns to frequently. There's a common problem that I hear about all the time – not just from authors but from virtually anyone who has ever started a website. They say: "I hired someone to build a website for me and it was great at first but now I can't do anything to change or update it, and the person I hired has lost interest in me. I'm totally stuck." A successful singer told me this recently; she hired a web designer to create a personal website for her and she can't do a thing on it. An 80-year old family friend complained about the same thing to me at a dinner party: she hired a kid (the son of a friend...) to build a website that was dedicated to the roots of her family history. Then the kid disappeared into the ether, without creating a way for my friend to update and add to the site herself. The problem: they have no flexibility.
There's been a sea change in website building over the past few years that grew out of open source movements like Wordpress and Drupal, which led to the creation of easy-to-use "content management systems" (CMS) that enable anyone to quickly post new material (text, images and video) to a website. There are many good commercial outfits that sell website-building software and provide, as part of it, a CMS that's as intuitive and easy to use as Microsoft word. (In the book I write about several of these including Sandvox and Squarespace.)
If it's easy for you to update the content on your website you're going to do it, and you're most likely going to get addicted to it because it enables you to be more engaged with your readers. It's also a creative act: it allows you to instantly convey your ideas through words and images, and to establish a narrative, if you want to, that unfolds in short bites. There are many things a writer (or any creative person) can do with a website, but she can't do anything if she doesn't have a good CMS to work in. So that's an essential element to success on the web, and the good news is that today there are many great options available, some for free, some not.
Speaking of creativity: do you feel that building websites is, in itself, a creative act?
I do, and that's probably what has kept me going because building websites for clients can be extremely taxing – there are zillions of details to manage, things to explain, content to massage and edit so everything works as planned, and so on. At its heart the process of conceiving a website is about self-expression. Who are you, and how are you going to articulate that in this very particular environment, the world online. So many things come into play, from design to content. It's a dynamic medium and very different from a static page in a book, but still, the engine that drives it is the sensibility of the person who creates it. I've always loved that work; it's what preoccupied me when I started out in the book business as a young publicist, and it continued through all the work I did, as an editor and a publisher. It's how, as Mick Jagger might say, I "get my ya-yas out."
How important is traffic data to an author online?
Hugely important, and it always surprises me that publishers and authors aren't dancing in the streets about it. I started in the book business in 1982 and it wasn't until 2001, almost twenty years later, that Nielsen developed Bookscan, which tracks sales data from major retailers. This was revolutionary at the time because it meant that we had real sales data and could track the impact that a week's worth of publicity/media/advertising had on a book's sales. When Amazon first launched in 1995 everyone went gaga over their ranking system because finally you could see, in almost real-time, a book's movement as a result of media and word-of-mouth. But Bookscan's data is limited and is only available to deep-pocketed corporations who can afford it, and Amazon's ranking system is famously inexact.
But anyone with a website has access to a rich mine of data via Google Analytics and other sources. I dedicate a chapter in The Author Online to "The Joy of Data," and I can't overstate how useful this information can be. I use it every day for each of my clients to find out who is clicking on which links, reading which articles, interacting with which features, and so much more. I can tell who sends us traffic, and therefore judge the impact of an interview the author did or an article he published elsewhere. And it gives me editorial ideas for subjects the author should either cover or highlight on her site. You can measure the impact of so many things, whether they're editorial or media or advertising related. It's an invaluable tool and way more addictive than the Amazon bestseller list ever was.
And it must be especially important to authors who self-publish….
Yes, that's exactly right. I tell this story in the book about the self-published author who decides to load up her van with copies of her book and hit the road to do publicity and sign copies in bookstores. If that author has had a website for awhile and has been collecting visitor data she can see where she gets the most traffic from – not only from the states but the cities as well. (And for some cities even more granular data is available: in my home town, New York City, visitors are segmented by borough, so I can see how many came from Brooklyn or Queens.) That's very useful information if you're trying to decide what cities to visit or pitch for local media or do some targeted online ads.
Why did you self-publish The Author Online?
For two reasons: First, I've become fascinated with self-publishing over the past few years and I wanted to learn more about it. For me, the best way to learn about something is to actually do it, so I just took the plunge. The other reason I self-published is because at its heart this is a book about Doing it Yourself -- e.g. building your own website. There's a huge number of people who are self-publishing these days. Bowker reported that in 2009 there were more than 750,000 books issued by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers. A great many of those authors are going to need a website to support their work, and if they had the gumption and the spirit to publish their own book, then certainly they're capable of building their own website. So this book -- self-published itself -- is there to help them.
Did you build this website yourself?
I did, using Sandvox, a very easy-to-use software product that I talk about and recommend in the book. The wonderful designer I hired to do a book cover and the interior design of The Author Online created the banner at the top of each page. But I built the website myself, over the course of a lovely Spring weekend, and I had great fun doing it.
And it doesn't bother you that the design isn't awesome?
No, not at the moment. It's a tradeoff: I was able to build this site myself and focus completely on the content and, to some degree (the banner, adding some photos, noodling fonts and colors) the design. It's not going to win any design awards, but that's not my goal. In the book I argue the old cliche: Content Is King. My focus here was to create as much useful material as I could, and to present it in such a way that the visitor could easily find it. And, periodically, to stumble upon something unexpected and therefore experience a sense of happy surprise. If I need to in the future I can always hire a professional designer to work with me and make it awesome, and I may do that. But for now it works.
This book is called the "author" online; is it only of use to book writers, or would other kinds of people benefit from the advice?
The book is aimed at book authors because that's who I've spent my career working with, but several people -- including a well-known singer and a stage actress -- have told me that it's exactly the sort of advice that they needed as they were trying to figure out what to do online. And of course authors come from every imaginable field, from entertainment and business to sports and politics. Essentially we all face the same questions, no matter what kind of work we do: who do we want to be online? What sort of content will best represent us and our work? How should it be organized? How often must it be updated? What should be the overall "voice" of our website? How do we interact with visitors? How should we think about using, and integrating, social networking schemes with our website? And so on. I cover all those things in the book, and whether you're an author or a investment blogger the answers will help you make the right decisions for yourself.