I have in the past week been making moves towards putting this website on a more professional footing. That means finding someone who knows their DNS from their elbow to run the thing for me, and also finding someone to make this piece of the Internet look great.
Because, for the first time in my life, I’m having to learn how to market myself.
Except, of course, that isn’t true at all – we all market ourselves, every single day, and the Internet’s only made that a more day-to-day activity. Twitter, LinkedIn, blogging – though not really Facebook, interestingly – are all marketing platforms we exploit every day to seek others’ attention, to varying ends: a job; a date; a retweet; a Like. What I mean is this is the first time I’ve had to think about marketing myself in order to get someone to pay for something I’ve done.
But the time for that is getting nearer and nearer. The planned release date for The English Monster in the UK is March 2012 (later in the U.S., but not too much later), and I want a website live well before that in order to….
Well, in order to what? And here’s the first question you need to answer as a writer. What’s your website actually for? You’d be amazed how many people who pay for websites don’t know why they need them. Here’s a little video I always quote at this stage:
So, why as a writer do I want to be on the Internet? To sell more books, obviously – that’s Job One. But something else as well, which if we were sitting around a funky-shaped table in an agency boardroom I’d call Brand Development. Because a good website is like any other kind of publicity material – it can make you look cooler and more interesting than you are, meaning people will want to buy your books and even, perhaps, publish them, or it can make you look blander and less interesting than you are and make people think that your book sounds interesting buy, by God, if it’s as dull as your website I’ll go and spend my time elsewhere, thanks very much.
First things first. What are the functional things this website has to do? Well, the Internet loves lists. So here’s a list of Things A Writer’s Website Should Do:
- capture search traffic efficiently: make sure you’re the first result on Google for your name, and make sure there’s something good on your website so people aren’t disappointed when they click on that first link
- tell people quickly and efficiently who you are and what you do: don’t be coy and don’t be oblique. People are too busy to work out your clever signals and arch signposts
- get people who don’t know that much about you straight to the good stuff: the Books
- look after your fans: if people want to know more about you, give them stuff to wallow in
- project your image: make yourself look cool, clever, interesting, exciting, serious, funny, whatever
- promote ancillary marketing activity: news feeds about appearances, signings, online stunts
- remember your global audience: if your book’s coming out in more than one territory, don’t just put up the English-language blurb from your home country presentation. Have something for other territories, too (and, maybe, even in different languages). Remember, the Internet has no respect for political borders
- don’t get in people’s way: your website is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Don’t turn it into some immersive interactive experience which isn’t quite a game and isn’t quite a website. Someone will become annoyed if you do (this is perhaps a taste thing, but I think it’s true. What’s the point in being “playful” for the sake of being playful? Be smart and slick, by all means. But an “interactive” website will never have enough on it for your true fans, and will be annoying to newbies)
- always remember the rest of the Internet: your website is only a cog in a vast interactive wheel. Don’t forget Twitter, Facebook, your publisher’s website, other authors. Don’t ever be an island; always be a hub
- don’t be an elegant morgue: be adding to it all the time. This is why blogging is important for a writer.
There are probably lots of other rules, but there’s a law of diminishing returns here. And the first four points are the most important, in order. If your site doesn’t attract search engine attention, it’s pointless. If it doesn’t tell people what you do, it’s stupid. If it doesn’t get people to the good stuff, it’s incompetent. And if it doesn’t look after your fans, it’s contemptuous.
So, those are the functional items. But as ever, there’s more to it than that. There’s an undiscovered country of wonder and imagination. Call it “brand” or “image” or “personality” or whatever. And it’s in the combination of this magical stardusty stuff with the functional elements of a site where true design skill lies. Get the balance wrong in either direction and you can end up looking banal or pretentious in your own chosen way.
I’ve been looking at a lot of writer websites over the last few days, and some of them do some of these things and some of them do others, but I’m astonished how few do everything and do it well. Scoring people out of 10, I gave almost everyone marks lower than six. With two exceptions (and, health warning, I didn’t look at every writer’s website, because I’ve got other things to do. But I looked at around 50 of the things):
Camilla Läckberg: beautiful site, no? Well, it helps to be a beautiful person, but use what you have. I like this because it’s super-stylish and, while the navigation is a bit tricksy, it doesn’t get in the way. And remember what I said about global audiences? Well, you’d expect a Scandinavian to be good at this, and she is; check out the dropdown on the Books pages.
Jo Nesbø: he might mind me saying so, but Jo isn’t blessed with quite the visual appeal of Camilla (notice I’m being rather free with the first names here, and while I might like to make out that Camilla, Jo and I often nip out for a Daim bar and a hotdog, the truth is they don’t know me). But he makes up for it with an in-your-face aesthetic and a clear navigation which says, right from the off, who this man is and what he does. The site’s easy to use, and beautiful. Just like Camilla’s.
What do these sites tell us? They show the way because they’re both useful and beautiful. Functional but attractive. Simple but classic. Scandinavian not baroque. So I’m just emailing the designer and saying “make me one like that.” It’s not rocket science. But then it is magic.
OTHER THOUGHTS THAT OCCURRED AFTER FIRST WRITING
On Twitter, @marc_cart made the point that “a good site also suggests other good stuff.” Which I partly agree with. I think the essence of a good site is to share, and that means sharing links and maybe reviews of other works (as I do on here occasionally). But one needs to be both selfish (this is, after all, all about Me) and mindful of visitors’ intentions. One has to assume, I think, that people want to find out about you and that’s why they visit, and part of finding out about you is finding out what you like. And also being generous with links and attention is just about being a nice person. But don’t overdo it.