An author website is absolutely essential in this age of e-books and publisher downsizing. To paraphrase Rochelle Carter of Ellechor Publishing in an interview I did with her a couple months ago, an author’s chances of landing a publishing deal are 100% better if that author has an online presence and a demonstrated social media following.
With that in mind, I will be using this blog to post regular critiques of author and publisher websites I admire. I’ll start off with one of my favorites. Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn is an invaluable resource for writers. Not only does she offer great advice for building an author platform, but it wouldn’t hurt a lot of writers to emulate some of the things she does with her personal author website at joannapenn.com.
What you’ll find is a very simple, straightforward design with a lot of white space that proves it’s not necessary to throw in a bunch of bells and whistles to have an effective author website. The soft, unobtrusive gray/black/white color scheme helps her book cover for Pentecost jump off the page. My eye immediately went to the cover rather than the large header, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The whole point after all is to sell books.
The website is built on WordPress, which I use when I build sites for my clients at Bulls-Eye. If you’re not familiar with how WordPress works, I can tell you that it’s extremely easy to update, which is essential for an author site. Writers make a living by building content. Joanna does this regularly with her blog, and the great content she produces not only helps her build a following (27,826 followers on Twitter as of today), but it also helps with the almighty Google. Search engines love fresh content.
I also stress to my clients that they have a strong call-to-action preferably located to the right side of the website just below the header. (This is based on eye-tracking data for websites). Joanna does just that with her simple newsletter sign-up form. And by simple I mean that she asks only for the subscriber’s e-mail address.
Now you might be thinking that her call-to-action should be focused on purchasing her books…not true. Though her books are for sale further down the right sidebar, my feeling is that an author platform should primarily be a vehicle for building fans. You want to engage the people who already know about you, who have read your book(s) and hunger for more. If these fans feel that they’re getting backstage access to their favorite author with a newsletter, sneak peaks, and (as Joanna does wonderfully) photos, what are they likely to do next? Tell their friends.
Sure, there’s room for improvement with Joanna’s site. I like that she has included a “Topics” menu in the sidebar, but I would make this a bit more visible so visitors can get a quick sense of what she writes about and what she has to offer on her site. Perhaps make it a secondary menu just below the header. This is also a great opportunity to create categories from strong keywords that will improve the site’s search engine visibility.
And while we’re talking about SEO, I noticed that her two book covers seem to lack alternative text. Search engines love this bit of HTML in the sites they scan, and you can quickly add pertinent keywords to this “alt” text in WordPress when you upload each image. Don’t neglect it!
I’d also shorten the amount of text, or web copy, on the home page. Content that runs well below the fold (meaning that the visitor needs to scroll down) weighs down a home page. It should serve as a front door to the site and invite people in. You only have a short amount of time to capture the attention of your website visitors. If they’re spending their time slogging through your reviews, you’re diverting them from what they really should be doing on the site…learning about you and engaging with you. (I would move the review quotes either to a separate page or use one of WordPress’s many testimonial plugins to display them in rotation on the sidebar.)
And from a copywriter’s standpoint, I’d like to see a stronger headline. By headline, I’m referring to her comparison of herself to James Rollins, Dan Brown, etc. I’d like to hear what you think about this, but when I see an indie author refer to other published, bestselling writers in hopes of drawing in their readers, I cringe a bit. Sure, some agents love to hawk books that fit in neat little boxes, but as a reader I’m always on the prowl for something new and fresh. Plus, if you’re like me and don’t think much of Dan Brown’s writing ability, you might be hesitant to give Pentecost a try.
Instead, I’d recommend using that invaluable headline space to grab a reader’s attention with something that distinguishes you from the competition. You can still mention your genre, but catch our eye with a brief taste of why you’re a writer I should spend time and money on. In Joanna’s case, I think she could bump her fifth paragraph to the top. Her description of Pentecost here is what caught my eye and made me interested in reading her book:
“Forged in the fire and blood of martyrs, the Pentecost stones have been handed down through generations of Keepers who kept their power and locations secret.
Finally, I noticed that her home page has a comments section at the bottom. My first inclination would be to disable comments on all pages but the blog. But for authors, I’m not so sure. If you’re seeking publication, your main selling point with a website and an online presence is the response you’re getting from fans and readers. Displaying the comments on the home page requires careful moderation (which WordPress will help you with), but it also shows that people other than reviewers are enthusiastic about her work. Good reviews can be finagled, but the comments from your average reader seem much more authentic.
And Joanna clearly enjoys a good relationship with her readers thanks not only to the quality of her books, but also to the quality of the free online content she offers her fans. As I mentioned above, if you’re looking for a model for a great author platform, Joanna Penn’s websites are the perfect places to start.
So are you struggling with your own author website? Have you done your competitor research and found any standouts in your genre? Is a website worth an unpublished author’s time? Please share your thoughts below!