Posted On May 20, 2010 by Print This Post

Do I Really Need a Website?

Good morning and welcome to the first installment of our series on bulding a web presence. Are you an unpubbed writer wondering what the heck to put on a website?  If so, sit back and relax because Jeannie Ruesch of Will Design for Chocolate is here to help.

Welcome Jeannie! 

Websites 101:  What does the Aspiring Author Need?

Of everything in your branding arsenal, your website is the one that gets the most attention.  As a business, a website offers a public face, a representative that connects and engages customers.  For an author, whether published or aspiring, those customers range from readers to agents to editors to other writers. 

 Today’s post is going to center on the website for the aspiring author (the unpublished writer working his or her way to publication.)  The Unpublished Writer’s Website is a topic of controversy, apparently.  As I did a little snooping around the web, I uncovered very different opinions.  Some highly recommend having one, others tell you to focus only on your writing and forget about a website for now.  And other opinions weigh somewhere in between.  The truth? 

 They are all correct. 

 Do You Need One?

 Deciding if you need a website at this stage depends on two things:  where you are in your career and what your goal in having a website is.

 If you have not finished and polished and perfected at least one book, your focus is better spent on writing.  A website is not something you need at this point and in fact, it could possibly hurt you down the road.  If you create a site too early in the game, it might not reflect you or your writing in the best light.  The best thing you could do at this stage of your career is focus on becoming the best writer you can be.

 But let’s say you have a finished, edited book.  It’s so polished, it shines and you’re ready to submit to agents and editors.  Is it time for a website now?  

 The answer depends on you.

 First, you need to ask what your goals are.  Why do you want one?  

  • Are you looking for an agent and/or editor?  
  • Are you looking to network with other writers and authors?
  • Are you looking to start building a platform or online presence for yourself?
  • Are you looking for that perception of “Serious Writer” within yourself or from others?  

 If your sole reason is getting an editor or agent, stop worrying.   You don’t need to have a website to get the agent you want.  A reputable agent or editor will take you and your book on because they love your work.  Not having a website isn’t going to change their mind about requesting to see a full or offering representation.   

 But it’s very possible that agents will look at one if it exists.  When I talked to one of my clients, Kathleen Bittner Roth, about why she chose to have a website at this stage of her career, she told me, “All you have to do is read a few agent blogs and you’ll get the picture in a hurry—if they are interested in you, they will check you out. I am a firm believer that when you want something, you must act “as if” from the beginning.”

 And that thought is echoed in some of the agent comments I’ve read. On the Pubrants blog, Kristin Nelson discussed a conversation she had with an editor about whether they visit unpublished author websites: “For both of us, the answer was ‘yes.’ When reviewing sample pages where we like the writing, we’ll often give the writer website a glance and see what’s there. I don’t bother if the sample pages haven’t caught my interest.”

So while it’s not necessary to have a website to gain the interest of an agent, be aware that they will look.  If you’re going to have one, make sure it is the best it can be.  That doesn’t have to mean professionally designed, but it does need to be professional, with good, informative content.

Who Is Your Target Audience?

You’ve heard the saying “Content is king.”   In order to make your content relevant, however, you need to understand who you are marketing to.  If your reasons for wanting a website span the four questions then your target audience breaks down into two main focus groups:   

Agents/Editors

  • Other Writers & Publishing World Contacts: 

Most people visit websites with a “what’s in this for me?” mentality.  This mentality is a staple in the Features vs. Benefits aspect of marketing.  For every feature a product offers, it’s the benefit to a customer that sells it.  For example:  McDonald’s advertises a playground for kids and a happy meal with healthy options like apples and milk. Those are features of the store.  The benefit is a quick, cost-effective meal that provides good nourishment and safe entertainment to keep kids occupied.

The benefits sell to parents because it meets two of their most important needs: good food and an entertained child in a safe environment.

When you are considering what to include on a website, you need to think about what your audience needs:

If agents and editors are viewing your website, they are already interested in your work.  They are looking to see what else you offer and a little more about you.  Your website, for this audience, serves as an online resume.  Ultimately, they want confirmation of what they already think (which often means not having something on your site that proves that opinion wrong).  

Other writers and authors are looking for someone to connect with.  They are also looking to network and learn more about you.  They are visiting because they’ve already begun to form an opinion about you and they want to connect further.  

When it comes to your website, you are leading out of the gate – they already want more or they wouldn’t be there in the first place.  Now is the time to show off your best side. 

What to Put on Your Website

The most basic element for a good website is function.  At its core focus, a website is a tool to inspire a specific action on the part of the viewer.  If you’re published, that action is easy: you want the visitor to click and buy your book. 

As an unpublished writer, the action you are hoping to inspire is a little more vague: you are trying to instill a perception, an impression of you that stays when the visitor leaves your site. If you read last month’s post on brand, you’ll remember this phrase: Your Brand is Your Promise.  It is also their Perception.

It’s an important element of brand that is often overlooked.  A brand is not only set in your efforts, it is set in someone else’s opinion about what you’ve offered.  This extends to your website – the final judge is the person viewing.   Everything you include, from the design to the content, can help steer their perception of you.

Design

On the Pubrants blog (http://pubrants.blogspot.com/2008/03/talking-websites.html ), Kristin Nelson says, “Don’t have a website/blog unless it can be a professional one. The homemade sites look it and just make me cringe. It won’t keep me from asking for your full (or if I like the novel, offering representation) but it’s not putting your best foot forward and that’s never a benefit.”

I’m going to qualify Ms. Nelson’s statement (and hope she doesn’t mind).  When she says professional, I don’t believe she means it has to be designed by a professional.  It has to be professional. 

What does that mean?  To me, the best litmus test you can give your website design is whether or not you would print it out and hand it to that agent or editor in person as a representation of you.  Would you be confident that you’ve handed them something that will steer their perception of you in a positive light?

When asked why she chose to have her site professionally made, aspiring author Kathleen Bittner Roth told me, “My response goes right back to acting “as if”. I have been a successful, self-made business woman and I learned way back that putting anything other than your best foot forward is going to cost you in the end. So, for me, a professionally designed website is cost effective in the long run and a wise business decision. Every writer has a dream of who he or she is (not wants to be, but is)  and I believe a person’s website is the perfect opportunity to present a visual representation of this dream—a good website is a multi-layered symbol of what and who you are as a writer.”

Kathleen touches on one element that can be vitally important in connecting with other writers or showing a good side to an agent or editor.  Sometimes, having a website changes your perception, and that cannot be undervalued.  You are your best advocate, so if having a website gives you more confidence and belief in your abilities, it’s worth it. 

If a professionally designed website isn’t in your current budget, there are a number of templates and easy-to-create options out there that will give you a functioning, professional and simple website.  Keep it simple if you’re building it yourself.  If you want to leave it to the pros, visit other writer and author websites and look for the ones you like.  There will usually be a designer’s link somewhere on the site, and you can see their portfolio and style and pricing.  I recommend researching at least a few before deciding.  

Focus & Content

The other aspect is the focus of your site and what content to include.  This brings up the question about blogs: should you have one?

If building a platform and networking with other writers and authors is part of your focus, then a blog is a great opportunity to do just that.  One example of a successful, well-focused blog is The Lovestruck Novice (http://thelovestrucknovice.blogspot.com/), started by aspiring author Sarah Simas.  When I asked her why she decided to start the blog, she told me, “I wanted to create a site other aspiring authors could swing by and get in the mix with published authors. In the interest of making the blog unique, I decided I’d “grill” my author guests with questions on writing and the publishing industry in a fun, high energy, and entertaining way.”

Her blog is a mix of her own entertaining posts on her writing and life, interviews with authors and with other “novices” to watch.   Focus and content wise, Sarah has done a wonderful job of creating an environment for her audience and establishing her own personality.  Building a platform was a part of her goals, and she’s doing just that.  

However, a blog like Sarah’s takes a lot of work.  She posts three days a week and spends from 3 ½ hours up each week writing, posting and promoting.  Making a successful blog takes time and effort.  This type of commitment may not be what you’re looking for at this point, in which case a blog is probably not what you want on your site.

So sans blog, what other options do you have for content?

There is a world of options when it comes to relevant content to put on your website.  Remember the audience and their goals:  form an impression and connect with you.

Start with the basics:

About You – Your site should include a few paragraphs about you, how you started writing, and what you write.  If you include a photo on this page, it should be a professional, nice one.  Again, professional doesn’t imply you paid to have it taken. It means you look professional in it.

Work/Books/WIPs –Your website should give a snapshot of what you’re working on.  Include working titles, genre, word count.  Whether or not you include blurbs and summaries of your WIPs is up to your comfort zone (and for a look at both sides of this, see this post (http://jeannieruesch.com/wordpress/?p=2940).  List content finals or wins.  List any articles you’ve published or other related work.

Contact Information – Be sure that there is an easy way to contact you on your site.  Include an email address or a contact form.  And if you’re active on social networks, include links to those as well – and include them prominently.  These are actionable links by your visitors and ways you can connect more personally with them.  Make it easy for someone to find you.

And make your site personal by adding other content:

With a focus on your writing, you could embellish your sites with facts, tidbits or interesting stories.

  • Include fun research facts you’ve discovered.  Chances are if you found it different or interesting, someone else will too.  
  • Make playlists of songs that inspired you while writing or that match the tone and emotion of your stories, like you’ll find on Adrienne’s site (http://adriennegiordano.com/bookshelf/). 
  • Pick out elements that are highlighted in your book – recipes, pets, causes, an historical era, whatever you can pull from your site, and build a page or section of your site around that.    

And before you say, “I don’t know what would be interesting enough…”—think again.  Yes, you do.  Do you write sassy, strong heroines?  Make a section of your site about strong women you admire. Do you write alpha males? Focus a section of your site on alpha males in the world – perhaps with a focus on the careers of your characters.  Dig into your stories and find what makes them unique, find what inspires you within them and build that into your website.  It offers even more compelling ways to connect with you as a writer.

And don’t underestimate connecting as a person.  Even two people who have nothing in common can talk for hours about a favorite TV show or movie.  Put some personal touches on the site:

  • Try a list of your favorite things: books, music, television shows, and movies.  When considering “favorites” to include, look for things that connect people, rather than separate them.  Unless it’s part of your platform, staying away from politics and religion is always a good idea.
  • Include links.  It’s wonderful for both networking with others and your search engine results.  Offering a links page to helpful resources, other authors, chapters, research sites, or whatever else you want to focus on offers a chance for those websites to link back.    
  • Do you have a hobby or additional job that would provide useful information to other writers? By all means, create a page to share your expertise and knowledge

Ultimately, think outside of the box.  Kathleen Bittner Roth did that by adding an “Unbook trailer” to her site (http://kathleenbittnerroth.com/).  Without a book or need for a book trailer, she found a unique and entertaining way to add content to her site.

To summarize, for the unpublished author, your website is a place to build a bridge between you and your target audience.  For agents and editors, it means presenting yourself professionally.  For other writers and connections within the publishing world, it means offering a common ground.  If you keep that in mind, you can’t go wrong.

 ***

RU Crew, here’s your chance to ask a web designer about building a website or blog.  Go to it!

Special thanks to Jeannie for being here.  Jeannie will be back with another post on June 17, so mark your calendars. Join us tomorrow when Red Sage Managing Editor Theresa Stevens joins us for Ask an Editor. 

Jeannie’s Bio: It was a Saturday afternoon when Jeannie Ruesch gave up her illustrious, hours-long ambition of becoming a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader (after seeing the made for TV movie).  That day, she sat to write her very first story and when she was finished, she knew that pen ..or rather, pencil and collegiate-lined paper was the path for her.  She was six.  She finished her first two books in 7th grade—handwritten on 150 legal size pages and complete with hearts dotting the I’s, of course.

As an adult, however, she discovered the need to…well, pay for things.  In her words, she “paid a lot of money to go to school, get a degree and go beg for work.”  She began her career in marketing and design and continues to this day, with her graphic design and marketing business, Will Design for Chocolate.  She considers herself fortunate that her passion of writing and her other love go hand in hand so nicely.

 In 2008, she sold her first completed novel (as an adult and written on a computer this time) to The Wild Rose Press– a historical romance that has been a labor of love from the start.  “It’s been through four or five revisions, including one complete scrap-it-and-start-over, and has been a wonderful tool for learning how to be a better writer.”

She is also the creator of the WIP Notebook, a writer’s tool to help stay organized while you write.

Now with a few more tools in her author’s tool belt, her first published book, and a drawer full of emergency chocolate, she has a lot more stories to tell.  She lives in Northern California with her husband (who is likely tired of having his brain picked on the ‘male perspective’), their son and her brother, who she thanks every day (since he cooks and she hates to.)

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25 Responses to “Do I Really Need a Website?”

  1. Hi Jeannie,

    Thanks for the great post about web sites. It’s always a pleasure to have you here.

    What’s your opinion about having a picture of the author on the Home page? I heard somewhere that readers love to see their favorite author right away and that we shouldn’t “hide” the picture on the About page.

    Thank, Tracey

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | May 20, 2010, 5:16 am
    • Hey there! Honestly, when it comes to a photo, I really think it depends on your comfort level as well as your career level. (And, truth be told, the degree of professionalism of the photo itself.)

      When you get around to the “hear readers love this” or that, remember that first and foremost WE are readers. So what does seeing an author’s photo on their website mean to you?

      To me as a reader, I generally start looking for a photo on a website if there is a photo of the author on book cover itself. But that’s generally, because by that point, the author has become an integral part of his or her brand. Think Nora Roberts. Think Danielle Steel. The back cover of their books IS their photo, and that’s because “Everyone reads Danielle Steel” is her brand. So in a subtle way, I’m looking to connect that specific brand with this website, and seeing her photo again does that for me.

      You have to ask yourself a few questions:
      ~ Are you comfortable having your photo on the front page?
      ~Is it a good representation of you (conveys the emotional brand connection you want — professional, fun-loving, whatever that emotion is.)
      ~ Does it further your brand in a reader’s mind?

      Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | May 20, 2010, 12:18 pm
  2. Hi, Jeannie –

    Sorry I wasn’t around for your last post. Lots of travel this spring!

    This is such an amazingly helpful resource, and I wish you’d written this before I created my webite :). That being said, I spent a great deal of time cruising other authors’ sites trying to get a feel for the layout and content I wanted.

    Assuming an unpublished author doesn’t have a blog (or perhaps has a group blog on another site, like RU), how often do you recommend she update content on her website–once a month? More? Less?

    Thanks so much, Jeannie!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 20, 2010, 5:49 am
    • The absolute best thing a writer – at any stage – can do before diving into a website is research. Visit a ton of writer’s websites, published and unpublished. Make lists of the things you like, visually and content-wise. Make a list of the things you do NOT like.

      When I build a website for a client, I ask them to provide me with 3 references of each — 3 sites they like, 3 they don’t. And I would say that 90% of the time, those 6 references tell me a tremendous amount about what appeals to them. Arrangements of graphics, clean lines versus curves, etc… you may not even be aware that your choices have similar aspects.

      As for content on a static website, I would say at least once a month. And whatever you can promise to your visitors, make that clear. On your updates section, list the month you are updating. Your visitors will begin to learn that updates happen once a month and know when to come back. If you update every week, list the date — again, setting expectations. When you meet those expectations, it becomes a part of your brand.

      In regards to what to PUT in an update, one of my clients, Angela Johnson (http://www.angelajohnsonauthor.com), puts on her news page the progress of her books with her publishers each month… when she gets edits, etc. I’ve never seen it done before on a website, and I find myself fascinated by reading the progress. 🙂

      I do caution, for unpublished writers, it’s probably not the best idea to catalog each and every rejection you’ve received on your site. Because remember that there will come a day when an agent WILL be interested and will visit your site to learn more. Is that what you want them to read about?

      Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | May 20, 2010, 12:25 pm
  3. Morning Jeannie!

    What a great post – tons of great information in there! I agree totally about your website being an impression of you. That’s a great way to put it.

    What I run into is nobody is sure WHAT to put on it, so thanks for your great list of content!

    Thanks again for posting!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 20, 2010, 9:09 am
    • Hey Carrie! It’s tough to know what to put on a website, because especially for unpublished writers, you almost feel like you don’t offer much of interest. But you couldn’t be more wrong. Remember your audience at this stage of the game includes other writers…and we find everything fascinating. Think of things you know about that you could help other writers research. Do you play an instrument? Have you auditioned for American Idol? Have you run a marathon? Do you participate in charities?

      Your visitor is looking for a way to connect. We all have plenty to offer that creates a bridge to another person.

      Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | May 20, 2010, 12:29 pm
  4. When you sent the mock-up of my website to me, I about fell over—you nailed my dream on the first try! Despite my lengthy list of knowing what I wanted to convey, I could not have put my dream together on my own. I knew that. Oh, and how many corrections did we have before my website went public—only a few minor tweaks on the color? Remarkable.

    I had the dream, Jeannie. You, the professional designer, brought it into the light.

    Kathleen Bittner Roth

    Posted by Kathleen Bittner Roth | May 20, 2010, 9:36 am
    • Kathleen, you make me feel brilliant! LOL Seriously, thank you so much. And your research helped make it easy — you knew what you wanted and you described it very well. It’s my job to listen.

      And I LOVE your unbook trailer….one of the most original content choices I’ve seen to date.

      Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | May 20, 2010, 12:31 pm
  5. Thanks for a great post, Jeannie. Now I may have to tweak my site a bit. 😉

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | May 20, 2010, 10:01 am
  6. Good morning Jeannie,

    You’ve given us tons of information. And it’s not just useful to unpublished writers but to ALL writers in general. My websites are due for a face lift and you’ve given me great ideas on what to include. Thank you.

    Dyanne

    Posted by Dyanne Davis | May 20, 2010, 10:08 am
    • Hi Dyanne! Great to see you here.

      The next posts will target at the newly published/contracted author and the established published author, so stay tuned for next month.

      I think most writers hate talking about themselves… selling themselves. I know I do – and it’s never easy. But if you can look at the content on your site as a way to extend a handshake to someone, to build a connection, it can become easier.

      Especially when you remember, and I can’t say it enough, if someone is visiting your site, it’s because they WANT to connect with you. How they do that is up to you.

      Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | May 20, 2010, 12:35 pm
  7. What great timing! I’m one of those unpubbed with 3 ms in the bottom drawer and a fourth that I’m hoping is about to grow wings. I’m taking a great on-line course that has helped me set up my blog and now I’m working on a web-site so… all the information you’ve shared with us is relevant in a BIG way! THANK YOU. 😀

    Posted by kathy bremner | May 20, 2010, 11:15 am
  8. Thanks for sharing and especially the links to other authors sites. My website was just revamped. I love it. It took months, working with my web designer, looking at other published and unpublished writers sites and just thinking about what I wanted to represent my writing. I’m glad she was patient with me.
    I think content is extremely important and you’ve provided some new ideas for me.
    Thanks

    Posted by Yasmine Phoenix | May 20, 2010, 11:23 am
    • Hi Yasmine. You are welcome. Your site is terrific! (Not surprisingly – Swank Web Style (http://swankwebstyle.com/) does excellent work.) It’s very clean, easy to navigate and visually appealing. And the visual impact, in respect to your brand, is reinforced with your first paragraph:

      I author dark, urban paranormal stories with interracial and multi-cultural characters in Chicago. I chose the Phoenix as inspiration because to me she symbolizes beauty, life, and passion. My stories contain magic and are where good and evil can turn on a dime.

      Fantastic key words in that paragraph that speak immediately to your brand and help form an immediate perception: paranormal, dark, urban, interracial, multi-cultural, beauty, life, passion, magic, good, evil…

      You probably know all of this, but I’m dissecting your site to hopefully have some value to other readers.

      Oh yes, and I can’t bake either… On a point of content connection, this is in response to a blog post on Yasmine’s site. I had to smile at her post, because I hate to cook and I’m not a good baker… so I go back to the establishing a connection with another person. That gave me an immediate connection. 🙂

      You never know what someone will relate to, so don’t be afraid to offer parts of who you are.

      Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | May 20, 2010, 12:46 pm
      • Thank you for the compliment. I’m so glad you like my site. As a suggestion for unpublished writers, I first had to determine what it was I wrote. Dyanne was instrumental in the thought process. If certain words and the symbol caught your attention then Emily and I succeeded.
        As for baking, I promised my husband this year I’d learn to bake cupcakes from scratch. It was his idea. Thanks to the Food Network I now bake fresh cupcakes every other weekend. It relaxing for me after I’ve spent a week writing. This weekend it’s chocolate cupcakes with fresh strawberry filling. And the biggest shock of all — I don’t eat them.

        Posted by Yasmine Phoenix | May 20, 2010, 1:54 pm
        • Determining what you write is vital. NONE of this effort or this work means anything if you don’t understand your voice. What separates you from other aspiring authors (or published or contracted) is how you write… Why you write what you do, what it means to you, what you feel compelled to share with the world.

          And yes, you and Emily did a wonderful job on the site. It was obviously a perfect match… which is another thing with websites and designers. Research many before deciding on one — look at everything about the designer, their portfolio, their own site, their communication style. It’s sort of like agents choosing clients — it’s subjective and a unique decision. While I would hope anyone would check out my design offerings if they were in the market (and my Will Design For Chocolate website is in the midst of a major revamp so it hasn’t been updated much in the last months), it doesn’t guarantee that I’m going to be the designer who “speaks” to you. So give yourself time to find the designer who suits you best, the same way you search for the agent who is a good fit.

          Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | May 20, 2010, 3:43 pm
      • One more thing and then I’ll shut up and let you get on with your fab information. When I was going through how and what I wanted on my site, I dragged a fellow paranormal writer, Laurie along for the ride asking for input. I think it’s good to have someone give you an honest opinion before you go live on your site.

        Posted by Yasmine Phoenix | May 20, 2010, 2:27 pm
        • I wholeheartedly concur — getting another opinion is a very good step in finishing your site. I would caution about getting a TON of other opinions, because too many cooks…

          Also, when you grab someone else’s eye for an opinion, give them a chance to discover your site on their own before you tell them what to expect. You want to see if the average person will find what you want them to find within your design, within your words — much like I did with Yasmine’s site.

          And then tell them your goals and your vision for the emotional and visual impact of the site and have them look again.

          Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | May 20, 2010, 3:45 pm

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