If You Build It, They Won't Come

This article originally appeared on the Publishing Trends website in December of 2008.

To be on the Web or not to be on the Web—sorry, technophobic authors, that’s no longer the question. Rather, what should be on your website and how can you draw traffic to it? There’s no universal key to success. But with help from a recent groundbreaking report and four web designers who specialize in author sites, we’ve come up with some guidelines.

The Codex Group is described by its President, Peter Hildick-Smith, as a “pollster for publishers.” Last summer, Codex undertook a massive author website impact study that surveyed nearly 21,000 book shoppers. Its objective was to understand the relative effectiveness of author sites among shoppers and to determine the elements that will keep them coming back to the site. We spoke with Hildick-Smith and four book-loving Web marketers and designers—John Burke, Vice President of FSB Associates; Carol Fitzgerald, Founder and President of the Book Report Network; Jason Chin; and Jefferson Rabb (who also consulted on the Codex study, along with Columbia University’s Charlotte Blumenfeld)—to find out what makes an author site not only good-looking, but also successful.

“From an author’s perspective, if you are going to invest the time and energy in writing and getting a book published, it’s a big drawback if you can’t then be found online,” says Burke. Furthermore, the Codex report found that visiting an author’s website is the leading way that book readers support and get to know their favorite authors better. And this is true regardless of age. While those under 35 visited websites more often than those over 35, over-35-year-olds still used author websites as their main method of learning about the author. “This isn’t a generational thing,” says Hildick-Smith. Fans are also much more likely to visit the author’s website than the author’s page on the publisher’s website.

The survey found that 7.5% of book shoppers had visited their favorite author’s website in the past week. As a point of comparison, 7% had visited the Wall Street Journal’s site.

And any remaining skeptics out there, take note: Website visits translate directly to the number of books bought. Book shoppers who had visited an author website in the past week bought 38% more books, from a wider range of retailers, than those who had not visited an author site. “Is putting up a website going to make a book a bestseller? No,” says Chin. “Is the website going to help the author build an audience? I believe it can. What you don’t want is for someone to hear about your book, search for it with Google, and find nothing. That’s a potential lost sale.”

Web presence is especially essential in today’s economy. “Websites have become even more important as people are not in stores discovering books,” Fitzgerald says. “We need to get them jazzed about a title and their favorite author and give them reason not just to buy the book, but also to have a relationship with the author and his or her work so they become evangelists for them with fellow readers. These next months, author websites and communications with readers are going to be critical for engendering excitement in readers online, since something as crucial as in-store browsing is not happening.”

The point, of course, is not just to get readers to visit an author site once, but to keep them coming back. How do you make a website sticky?“The saying ‘build it and they will come,’ well, they won’t,” says Burke. He and the other designers we spoke with agreed that flashy design is not a key to success, and the Codex Group research bears that out, with Stephenie Meyer’s website as a case in point. It receives more traffic than any other fiction author site, yet its design is extremely basic, “probably a generic template where you plug in your header graphic,” says Hildick-Smith. “She may only be paying $15 a month for this site on some server system. It’s not elaborately designed at all. But she’s got a daily blog, and more than any other site in our study, she has links to fan sites. Fan site links appear to contribute to loyal audience traffic.”

Read the rest of the article at Publishing Trends.