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.
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Today’s post is going to center on the website for the aspiring author (the unpublished writer working his or her way to publication.) The Unpublished Writer’s Website is a topic of controversy, apparently.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:
- 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.
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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