In 2013, I observed a conversation on Twitter where a publisher said they didn’t believe in author websites “for a lot of authors”—that social was a better place for authors to spend time from a marketing perspective.
It bothered me, and I ended up writing a blog post about it, exploring why a publisher might think this—rightly or wrongly.
Since then, I’ve taught countless conference sessions and webinars about author platform development, content strategy, marketing and promotion, and long-term best business practices. Hands down, the No. 1 thing I’m questioned about is social media—by the unpublished writers, advanced writers, and well-established career authors. I don’t mind fielding such questions, but I find social media the most difficult topic to teach effectively, and I’ll have a separate post about that tomorrow.
On the flip side, I rarely field questions about author websites, aside from technical ones about what service to use or other fiddly details related to domains, hosting, and WordPress sites. I believe this happens for a few reasons: Website design and development is a more technical area, plus few authors actively engage on their site with readers. It can be something of a “set it and forget it” thing. Who’s really looking at an author website that much anyway, especially one without a blog or active updates?
Meanwhile, everyone you know is likely on Facebook—it has 2 billion users and it’s the No. 1 app in the world. Many visit daily (hourly!).
Yet social media is ephemeral, volatile, and out of your control. The content is visible now, buried tomorrow. Your account could be shut down. You could be limited in who you reach over time. You might have to pay money to get the same level of engagement as a few months or a few years ago. It’s not so great at organic discoverability, meaning it’s hard to get seen by an entirely new audience who doesn’t know you … unless you run ads or you can motivate your friends and followers to share and repost things (make things “go viral” as we once used to say).
But yes, social media is still where most readers spend considerable time, even though it tends to inspire love-hate feelings and remains a primary area of complaint and unhappiness in some people’s lives. But it’s necessary, right?
I may be in the tiny minority of people who happen to think social media isn’t 100% critical for an author’s online presence. Yes, it makes things much more difficult if you refuse to use it, and I don’t like it when writers spurn it out of some kind of literary peacocking—believing that it’s “beneath” them to market themselves on social media.
But effective marketing and promotion (and platform building) does exist beyond and separate from social media. These days, I get more noticeable results from my website and blogging efforts, email newsletters, and in-person networking than I do from social media. Not that I want to give up social media—quite the contrary—but I could walk away from Facebook and still earn a living. Not so with my website—it’s absolutely fundamental.
So I want to make a case for why investing more time in an author website—focusing more on this aspect of your platform, branding, and overall messaging—could have a lasting impact on your brand and reach.
Being more discoverable through search
Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook: these four companies are sometimes referred to as the “four horsemen,” companies that have near total dominion over our digital lives and incomparable, data-driven insights into our behavior. I’m willing to bet that every reader of this blog has a relationship with at least one, if not all, of these companies.
Of these four, authors are well aware of the power of Amazon and Facebook in book marketing and sales. Apple may be an interesting player in the future, but I’m setting them aside for this post. Google is the one that authors tend to ignore or discount, but shouldn’t.
Google controls the search market, as well as a significant portion of the digital advertising market; in terms of its dominance of the latter, it’s rivaled only by Facebook. (Together, the two are considered a “duopoly” in digital advertising.)
If some part of your site or blog ranks well in Google, it can equate to a living, assuming you know how to monetize traffic or have something to sell. This is why so many businesses pay money for search engine optimization; even minor increases in ranking can hugely increase product visibility and a customer base.
Imagine if you write Navy Seal romances, and Google connects your name to the genre. Here’s what the results look like (today, at least):
See those covers—and see it dominated by one author? Suzanne Brockmann benefits greatly from Google identifying her with this set of keywords. How or why did this happen? It’s likely a combination of things, such as keywords and metadata associated with her books at Amazon, Google, Goodreads, and her website. All together, Google has received a strong signal that ties together “Navy Seal romance” and Brockmann’s books and her author name.
Indie author Derek Murphy has discussed such optimization; in his case, he’s trying to rank for something like “mermaid romance.” Currently, his book is third in search results for that keyword phrase.
You can strengthen your signaling to Google through your author website, blog, social media accounts (particularly Goodreads), and Amazon book description by being consistent in the keywords you use to describe your work. Help connect the dots for Google about who you are and what you write so that it can send the right prospects to you. These are often going to be new readers—readers you didn’t have to advertise or beg for.
What would happen if you not only built a site that strongly associated your author name with your category, genre, or work’s themes, but you also posted content on those themes? Large publishers have spent considerable time and energy in the last few years building out such sites and content. For example, if you try running a search for “Navy Seal romances,” you’ll find a publishers’ website in the results (Heroes & Heartbreakers), featuring a blog post that rounds up titles from Macmillan authors with Navy Seal characters.
Offering the media (and influencers) the official story on you and your work
Anyone who wants to formally review your work, interview you, report on what you’re doing—or just find out more about you—is most likely to Google you and look for your official website. The more professional their purpose, the less likely they are to seek you out on social media. This is especially true for librarians, educators, booksellers, and journalists. You do not want to make these people guess at your official bio or how to contact you. Nor should they have to scroll through dozens of Facebook or Twitter posts to identify your latest book or when it released.
If your website makes a bad impression, these people may decide against coverage or offering you an opportunity. Or they may hesitate because you simply don’t look like you’re serious. (I judge people on their website all the time; I know I shouldn’t for all things in life, but I do. And it affects whom I choose to do business with.)
Here’s a short list of people who ended up at my website, read my bio, and contacted me with an opportunity: the National Endowment for the Arts, National Public Radio, reporters for The New York Times, the National Press Club, the Virginia Quarterly Review (who later hired me full time), and of course nearly every writing conference that’s ever asked me to speak. It’s true that some of these organizations may have first heard about me on social media. But my website builds confidence and gives them a specific way to reach out.
Securing high-quality email newsletter subscribers
About 99% of all my email subscribers are website visitors, which is common with nonfiction authors or those who blog.
Novelists may find that most subscribers come from giveaways, contests, social media, or other opportunities not related to the author website. Still, any reader who ends up at your website, and then subscribes to your newsletter, is likely to be among your most high-quality fans, especially if you didn’t have to bribe them to join.
Also, at your website you’re better able to run A/B tests on email sign-up forms or pop-ups, and see what marketing copy or what combination of copy/image/giveaway results in the highest rate of sign ups. You can use this knowledge in other places and contexts.
Understanding what social media use is effective
If you don’t have Google Analytics installed on your website (to analyze your site traffic), that’s your homework today. Do it. It’s free. And even if you can’t interpret the data, eventually one day, when you can, you’ll be glad you installed it long ago. That’s because Google Analytics can’t see into your past traffic; it can only count forward from the day it’s installed.
Analytics will show you how social media affects your site traffic, and what sites are most effective at sending you readers, and which readers are your most valuable (e.g., those who sign up for your email newsletter or spend the most time reading your site). Analytics can help identify what works or not (such as guest posts, social media campaigns, collaborative efforts, and more).
Monetizing the audience you have
Hard selling on social media (“buy my book!”) isn’t effective if done frequently. If you want to ask people daily to be a patron, support your crowdfunding project, enroll in your online course, buy your book, etc, people may soon tune you out or unfollow entirely. I rarely use Facebook or Twitter to ask for a sale; instead, I save that for my website or email newsletter where people are highly engaged and interested. (On social media, however, I will share useful content or a blog post, which may lead people to my website, and then there’s a related upsell or something for sale.)
So what’s more important: your website or social media?
For me, it’s obviously my website, but that’s partly because this blog is important to my platform. Thankfully, you don’t (or shouldn’t) have to choose between having an author website or participating on social media. Nurture both. Choose to make your website a proud and strong showcase for your work and what you want to be known for, and don’t expect social media to always be the hub for all your branding or reader discovery. You’ll be stronger if you have a multi-faceted approach, especially if and when social media fails you.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.