Now that just about every writer has a Web site, blog and/or MySpace, Facebook and GoodReads pages, are they finding the effort of keeping up with it all worthwhile? Do authors even need a Web presence? And if so, is it worth the $3,000 to $35,000 fee that professional Web site creators/marketers charge? “Yes,” said Steve Bennett, who has written more than 50 books and is president of AuthorBytes, which builds and markets author Web sites. “A Web site is your locus in space. It's not that people can't get basic author information on Amazon. But they're looking for extras. The Web has changed the way we learn about products and services; it's hard to imagine succeeding without it.”
There's little question about the value of author Web sites for Carol Fitzgerald, founder and president of the Book Report Network, either. As she sees it, having a Web presence gives writers a chance to extend the conversation with their readers. When her company signs an author, she reads their books to make sure that the site her company creates captures the same attitude and tone, beginning with the welcome letter on the home page. Fitzgerald is less concerned about authors having a message board or book trailer than with providing a go-to place for fans. “If you're going to get a book review over the Web,” she said, “you want to be sure to have a Web site to send people to, not just the publisher's site.” She does have one caveat, though: don't overdo the Flash. “If I'm waiting for a site to load, it ought to be pretty good,” said Fitzgerald. “Like it ought to clean the floor.”
In the absence of clear proof that an expensive, Flash-driven site makes any difference when it comes to sales, some authors, even well-known ones, are opting for a bare-bones Web presence. Susan Cheever, who was given her first Web site 15 years ago, chose a no-frills, DIY Authors Guild site, where writers pay up to $9 a month for Web hosting. She said that she would upgrade if there were any way to prove that sites sell books. In addition to saving money, the Authors Guild arrangement allows Cheever to update her site (www.susancheever.com) directly, unlike many Web services. Not that she changes it often—her most recent book, Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction, is still listed on her home page as due out in the beginning of October. Nor is there a blog. Still, for her the site does what she wants: it enabled this reporter to track her down at Yaddo, and she uses it to sign up speaking engagements.
Despite Cheever's decision not to blog, both Bennett and Fitzgerald argue that a blog is the easiest way to keep sites fresh. And there's no reason the blog has to be only about the book; at least that's James Frey's approach at BigJimIndustries.com. On his blog, he collects funny news items, videos he likes and stray Web commentary.
But it's not just bestselling writers who use the Web to keep their names out in the blogosphere. Relatively unknown authors, especially nonfiction writers, have found the Web to be an effective tool for generating interest in their work. Months before her combination travelogue/humor book Queen of the Road came out in June, Doreen Orion used her advance from Broadway to hire AuthorBytes to create QueenoftheRoadtheBook.com. Her objective, she said, was to have a site that would give people a sense of her book without reading it. She chose to have every Web page look like a postcard sent from a different destination, with a stamp of her wearing a tiara. Although Orion estimates that she spent eight hours a day for six months before her book came out working on the site and posting YouTube videos, she said the money and time were well spent. She credits the site with getting her a speaking engagement at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, Calif., as well as making her book a reading group selection. She viewed her advance as “my book's money. If you don't have a really good Web site, you're hampering yourself.” Clearly something's working. Queen of the Road is in its sixth printing and has close to 38,000 copies in print.
Meg Cabot has a similar approach to Orion's and has used her advances to create a Web presence from the start of her career. But with a heavy writing schedule—three hardcovers and one paperback original due out in the first five months of 2009—she prefers to have someone else manage MegCabot.com, as well as her Facebook and MySpace pages. “I'd rather be writing,” she said. However, she still finds time to blog and act in videos for YouTube. However, even she questions an author Web site's sales potential. “I have no proof whatsoever it sells books,” she said. “But it lets people know when stuff is coming out, and every time I update the blog, I can see people coming back.” And she can also monitor the message board, where she looks for cultural references, like what bands are hot. As a children's author, Cabot does face one problem that most adult authors don't have to worry about: keeping kids under the age of 13 from participating on her message board. In addition to registering those who want to use the message board and posting a list of rules, she has worked out an arrangement with Scholastic to keep younger readers off her site.
Unlike Cabot, some writers find having a blog and Web site energizing. “I find myself writing more now that I blog. I know I read more, too,” says E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. He posts many of his new poems on his E-Notes blog (www.eethelbertmiller1.blogspot.com), which he started in 2004, and invites guest bloggers to contribute as well. And he uses another site, eethelbertmiller.com, to promote his work. Not only can visitors read selections from his upcoming poetry collection, On Saturdays, I Santana with You (Curbstone), they can also download files of him reading from it as well as from his new memoir, The Fifth Inning (PM/Busboys & Poets). PM marketing head Craig O'Hara credits the site with early orders from individuals for the book.
For journalist Chris Bohjalian, blogging is the easy part of maintaining an online presence. He reruns his weekly column from the Burlington Free Press. Still, it can be time-consuming to respond to every guest book entry on his site (www.chrisbohjalian.com), to monitor the message board and to keep up with online requests from reading groups to set up speakerphone chats.
“It's my way of supporting readers in the digital ages, when most people are downloading pictures on Facebook. It all goes back to that notion that an author is no longer a disembodied face on the back of a book jacket. I have an interaction with my readers I never imagined I'd have,” said Bohjalian, who fosters that interaction with a specially designated reading group area on his site, where he posts backstories, discussion guides, book trailers and podcasts.
While the jury is still out on whether author Web sites sell books, the social networking value is clear. So is it worth it? As Bennett noted, “A Web site enables you to connect with people you never would have connected with before. How do you put a price on that?”