The Dilemma of the Author Website

Building an author platform continues to be a key challenge for people who want to get their work out to a wider audience. One piece in the ongoing task of becoming better known is an author website.

Ken wrote this to me in response to a recent post on Andy Unedited:

One thing that is clear is that I need to make an author website and build a following. One puzzle here is what to put on a home page when you don’t have a relevant book cover to put on the home page. While I find it puzzling, I’ve been told that readers, even those reading non-fiction books, want to be entertained more than they want information. That suggests a home page graphic that is entertaining, even if it has nothing to do with the subject of my writing or my site. Is that an accurate characterization of nonfiction Christian readers?

We have all become very attuned to how things look. Our design sensitivities have been heightened in recent decades. Apple has probably had as much to do with this as anything with the beautiful minimalism that distinguishes its products. So, yes, a blog or website has to have a certain level of sophistication and eye appeal. But it doesn’t have to be expensive or over the top.

Bad or clunky design can distract from your content. Simple and clean is the name of the design game today. Complication is not necessary. That can make it look like you are trying too hard. Design can be beautiful in and of itself, but design should also smooth the way to your content rather than detract from it.

Content is still king, however. People won’t come back to your blog or website if they don’t find what they need or what they enjoy. To entertain doesn’t mean you have to be sitcom humorous or Masterpiece Theater dramatic. Rather be true to yourself while giving readers helpful and interesting content that is appropriately entertaining for your audience and for what you have to say.

One of the best ways we can be sure our audience sticks with us is by working hard at our craft of writing. Watch out for clichés. Use interesting images and metaphors. Have a mix of short and long sentences. Be clear and be thought provoking.

What elements can an author website include? Kimberley Grabas offers some helpful ideas. Here are a few:

An “About Me” section. Something that tells us not only your biography. But give more than just a resume. Make it human—where you grew up, your interests, and more.

A blog. A web page can’t be static. New content needs to be included on a regular basis.

What you’ve written. Generally I don’t think it is necessary to have a website devoted to one book. Include information on all your writings, whether in books, blogs, magazines or elsewhere. Provide links where that is possible to purchase or read them.

Resources. Include links to the content areas you are most interested in that could be of value to your readers.

Travel, speaking, news. Show upcoming dates and places you will be presenting or teaching, whether in person or virtually. You can also post upcoming or recent interviews, publications, awards, and the like.

Sign up. Give people an opportunity to sign up for email notices, newsletters, etc.

Social media page. Note the links where people can find you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or the like.

Testimonials. Include comments from people who endorse what you’ve had to say and the value you have provided.

Remember: Readers don’t want to be pandered to or patronized. Respect your audience. But also realize they are distracted by hundreds of demands on their attention. Get to the point in an attracting way.

photo credit: Pixabay Free-Photos (macbook)

I Is an Other (5): Metaphors at Work

In business, psychology, science and politics, successful metaphors should be as common as one-liners at a comedy convention, as numerous as drunks at a tailgate party, as bountiful as bribes in Chicago politics.

In advertising, GEICO, the insurance company, has successfully grabbed attention with its use of metaphor (or it’s close cousin, the analogy) in its “Happier Than” campaign.
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Shatzkin’s Bad News, Good News

Someone recently asked me a helpful diagnostic question for those in leadership, a question that helps you get at the big picture. “What causes you to lose sleep at night?” Certainly for me the Great Recession and the sea changes it may be bringing in book publishing have been right at the top of the list for me.
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Are Book Lovers Killing Books?

Is the rise of reselling books on the internet destroying publishing? Book lover David Steitfeld thinks it might be.

The explosion of people selling used, nearly new and rare books online means readers can save money if they are willing to wait a while for a new book to make its way to these re-sellers. And it’s not just Amazon. There are over 20,000 such booksellers around.
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Who Needs Publishers?

What do publishers really have to offer authors? Can’t someone self-publish easily through Lulu or XLibris? Can’t they sell their books on Retail stores are in decline, so who needs publishers to get their books on the shelves?

Clay Shirky asked these sorts of questions in Publishers Weekly a couple of months ago. He thought publishers were especially well suited to

1. help a book focus a conversation about important topics
2. create social capital by making something that becomes more valuable as others consume it
3. do these two things on a large scale for the long term

Shirky was amazed to hear publishers talk about abandoning these functions in favor of finding authors who already have a “platform.” If an author can already market directly to a group of potential readers, why does he or she need a publisher?

The answer, Shirky thinks, is by publishers making sure they matter to and are trusted by readers. As every publisher knows, however, readers almost never know–much less trust or distrust–publishers. Who publishes Toni Morrison or Thomas Friedman? Readers don’t know. The only people likely to know are publishers themselves.

Shirky’s three functions are good and valuable for publishers to focus on. But I don’t see how looking for authors with platform negates them. The reality is that substantial decline in retail bookstore sales minimizes a traditional channel for publishers. In a bygone era retailers (who might have known publishers) also handsold books to customers. Retailers used to be the fulcrum between publishers and customers, and that fulcrum has shifted to the author. And as I’ve said here before, authors without platform rarely do well.

What do publishers offer, then, with self-publishers offering so much and retailers offering less? Years or decades of experience in knowing how people read, how ideas are absorbed, how story and content flow most effectively, powerfully and beautifully. (In short, editors.)

What do publishers offer? Years or decades of experience in knowing what books people buy, how they hear of them, where they buy them, how they buy them, why they buy them and how much they’ll pay for them. (In short, marketers.)

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about the contributions of professional book designers, print buyers, rights managers and others. (In short, more.)

Is the publishing world changing? You bet. Do publishers always know best how to deal with that? Not at all. If authors want to publish without editorial or marketing expertise, they can. Many do; some succeed, many don’t. But if authors want such help, they can find it at a publishing house.

The Crystal Ball

When anybody talks about the future of publishing, the impact of the digital world is always front and center. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It is having and will have a massive impact. Tom Woll acknowledges as much in the conclusion to his book Publishing for Profit, as well. But what is really interesting, I think, are his predictions for brick and mortar stores, which many prognosticators ignore.

Eventually, he says, superstores will find that stocking a wide array of inventory that doesn’t sell won’t make economic sense–and therefore having 50,000-square-foot stores won’t make sense either. In a few years’ time the superstore strategy will revert to the mall chain strategy.

When that happens, surprise! The independents will return to the scene. Those, he believes, will tend to be more focused on certain genres like history or mystery or travel.

Is his crystal ball clear or cloudy? I’d be interested in what you think.

Small Returns Are Beautiful

Publishers like to complain about returns, but few seem to do anything about them. How do I know? Return rates keep climbing, costing the publishing industry over $7 billion a year.

Why do books come back to publishers from stores, distributors and wholesalers? The reasons are many. Tom Woll offers a dozen in Publishing for Profit. What I find fascinating, however, is that he lays responsibility for ten of the twelve reasons right at the feet of publishers. Only two of Woll’s reasons have anything to do with those who return the books–and even with those two, publishers bear some responsibility.

Most publishers, I would guess, would assign responsibility for returns primarily to others, not to themselves. So where does Woll see publishers creating the returns problem? Among other things,

* Large advances–if they are excessive and therefore require larger sales (and therefore larger print runs) to make the project work financially, books come back.

* Overpricing–this tends to be more true of publishers tied to conglomerates that are margin driven.

* Lack of promotional and marketing support–often only the highest-profile books get backing. Many others are expected to sell on their own. Often they don’t.

* Reprinting too soon and too many–a book that is selling well can generate automatic reorders that may not be justified.

Don’t accounts bear some responsibility? Yes, if they succumb to excessive publisher enthusiasm and overbuy. Yes, if they pay for new books with returns of old ones instead of money. But you can see that publishers bear some responsibility even in these dynamics as well.

Is there a silver bullet for the returns problem? No. It takes discipline and hard work to solve. But the returns on that investment are well worth it.

What Does That Amazon Sales Rank Mean, Anyway?

One of the most convenient “real time” views of how a book is doing is to check out Amazon’s sales rank. It’s simple (the lower the number, the better the sales), it’s convenient (just a click away), and it’s empirical (gotta love those numbers). Alas, as Aaron Hierholzer says, “the Amazon sales rank is a fickle mistress.”
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