Last month, Brandi Larsen, digital publishing director for the Berkley, New American Library, and Celebra imprints, hosted a webinar to help Penguin Random House authors understand how to evaluate and improve their websites. We talked to Brandi about what authors can learn from great author websites.
Brandi, in this age of social media, do you think that authors still need to have websites?
It’s important for authors to participate in the social media platforms where their audience is the most engaged. But I think a website is a great complement to those activities. As an author, it’s a golden opportunity to showcase who you are; your marketing team would call this your “author brand.” If you’re a NYT bestselling author, you need to communicate that with a really strong presence online.
What do you look for in a great author or book website?
The first thing that I look for is a site that is well organized and has a clear focus. For navigation, simple is best. Clean, crisp design is better than something overly cute—you never want to make your visitor work to figure out your site.
A good example is Mario Batali’s site, which won a Webby Award. As a top chef, Mario Batali obviously has a lot of different interests, of which his books are just a small part. The site does a great job of organizing all these elements into clearly defined sections. The big rectangular space on the homepage allows Mario to focus visitors on the particular piece of content he wants to show them at any point in time.
What about people with a simpler situation, say a website focusing on a single title? Can they also do a good job?
Absolutely. With the site for the book Let Me Off at the Top, which has a byline from Will Ferrell’s Anchorman character Ron Burgundy, the designers created a look and feel that is really consistent with the book. The content is also well filled out with an excerpt and photos. The site needs minimal upkeep and does exactly what it needs to do.
More people are looking at sites on their mobile phones. How is that changing design?
With 58 percent of the population now owning smartphones, more and more people are visiting websites from their phones. You need to know how your site looks on a smaller screen. If it’s hard to read, you’re turning people away. Most new websites are designed to be responsive, which means that images resize and the sites fold down in an attractive way when viewed from a phone, which I think is great. Two authors who do a good job with mobile are John Grisham and Joanna Barsh.
Do you have recommendations for authors who write under multiple identities? Are they better off having one site or several? How do they create a site that supports different pen names and genres?
I think the choice to have one site or several depends on the needs of the author. Two of the first questions I’d ask when determining whether to keep them separate or merge the web presences are: “Will you share content?” and “Does your audience overlap?” I think Candace Robb, who also writes as Emma Campion, does a nice job supporting both her identities with a single site.
Are there particular elements that author websites must include?
Retailer links to stores where visitors can buy your books are always great to have on your site. David Bell is an author who has put these links front and center.
Most authors are very good these days about including links to follow them on social media. But not all sites include social media share buttons that allow visitors to easily share individual pieces of content. Thomas Cahill’s site has share buttons on his pages for individual titles.
Finally, how do authors make sure their sites get found via search engines such as Google?
Having a clear search-engine strategy is important in making your site easy to find. We recommend that authors use targeted keywords in the site metadescription, in page names, and throughout the content on their site. Julie James is a good example here—she manages her site to perform well for the term “contemporary romance author,” a term calculated because that’s exactly how she wants to be found. This article gives more information on how to achieve good performance in search.
Any final thoughts?
Think of your website as the front door for your readers. Make it as welcoming as possible, and help your visitors transform from readers to fans.
Brandi Larsen is Digital Publishing Director for the Berkley, New American Library, and Celebra imprints.
Sophie McNeill is part of the Digital Marketing and Channel Development team.