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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Websites for writers


A lot of 21st century book buyers seldom or never enter a traditional bricks-and-mortar book store. As with sneakers and iPods and vacations, a growing portion of books are sold online.

This means that your book must be available at the big Internet booksellers, especially Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. Fortunately your book will be there and on dozens of other bookselling websites merely by having your books printed by Lightning Source. If you use BookSurge or CreateSpace your books have easy entry to their parent, Amazon.com, but may not be sold by Amazon’s competitors. If you use other printers or author services companies, you may have to do a little or a lot of work to get your books sold online.

The online booksellers will only give you a limited amount of space to tout your books, and a lot of people who might be potential customers but are not actually shopping for books won't see what you have to say.

It’s extremely important to have a website to provide more information about you and your book(s). It is neither difficult nor expensive, and if you don’t do it, you are missing a major opportunity to present information to potential readers and to interact with them.

I can remember when Fortune magazine told corporate America to assume that a website would cost half a million dollars to develop and take half a year. In Red Hot Internet Publicity, Peggy Sansevieri says that a typical website should cost between $2,000 and $6,000 to build. That number is ridiculous and may unnecessarily scare off a lot of writers who could benefit from having a website.

Today you can develop a website for nothing in less than an hour, and spend less than $10 per month with a “hosting” company to make the site available.

Most ISPs (Internet Service Providers) also host websites, often for free. Free hosting is also available from dozens of companies that are not ISPs. Be aware that some once-major free services such as AOL’s Hometown and Yahoo’s GeoCities have been shut down or soon will be. If you've been using them, it's time to find a new host.

Free websites are generally not a good idea because you’ll get a long, clumsy, amateur sounding URL (“uniform resource locator” or web address) like http://billsbook.743.akp.freehosting.com instead of www.billsbook.com.

You may want to do a website for a specific book title, or one that covers several books, or one for you as an author, or several websites. My sites include www.SilverSandsBooks.com and www.MichaelsWriting.com.

The more sites you have, the more likely it is that people will find you and the more opportunity you have to sell books. Your site or sites should have information that will be useful and interesting to potential readers, as well as to members of the media.

Many book websites include an “online press kit” that replaces the once common cardboard portfolio. At a minimum the kit (which is really a page or a section of a website) should include a news release (which used to be called a press release) about the book, plus photos of the cover and the author, and a brief author’s biography.

Some book websites actually sell books. Mine don’t. They have links to Amazon.com and BN.com for ordering my books. I want to write and promote books, not operate a warehouse and shipping department.

Obviously your website should inform the public what your book is about and try to convince people why it is vital that they buy it. The site is a good place to post reviews and comments from readers, reviewers and previewers, and to note any awards the book has won. You can also show your table of contents, and some sample chapters or excerpts to get people interested.

You don’t need any special talent, experience or training to put a website together. Most hosting companies offer adequate and attractive templates that you can use as-is or modify if you want to. They are WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) and allow you to get online in a few minutes — but you may spend the rest of your life updating, tweaking and fine-tuning.

If you have stronger creative impulses you can design a website from scratch using such software as Microsoft FrontPage (recently discontinued, but still useful), Adobe’s DreamWeaver, and Microsoft’s Expression Web 2.

Many companies offer inexpensive hosting. 1&1 Prices start at just $3.99 per month. GoDaddy will let you pay just $1.99 per month for the first three months, and then $4.99 per month (or less if you sign up for a year or more. I use NetworkSolutions, which has plans starting at $4.95 per month, and Yahoo ($6.47 per month for the first three months, and then $9.95.) Prices change frequently, so check.

There are books and businesses that specialize in SEO (search engine optimization), the process of getting a website into a high-up position in Google, Bing, Excite, Yahoo and lesser search engines. I won’t try to duplicate what the SEO experts want to charge you for, but I’ll gladly give you some tips based on personal experience.

People search for “key words” and it’s important that your book website include LOTS of relevant key words, used as often as possible, without seeming stupid. Keep in mind that many potential readers don’t know your book exists, but may simply be searching for information about buying or using a product. If you have a book about bicycles or amateur beer making, you want to attract people who are shopping for bikes or hops or need advice about fixing a flat or deciding on dry vs. liquid yeast. A key word may actually be a phrase, not just a single word. If you think that people with be searching for “dirt bike” or “comfort bike,” and those phrases are appropriate for your book, they belong in your website, too.

Google’s legendary algorithm that determines a website’s position has been subject to much speculation, and it’s as well protected as the formula for making Coca-Cola. One key ingredient in Google ranking is the number of “inbound links” to a website. Google assumes that the more sites that link to a particular site, the better that site is, and the higher it deserves to be in the Google list. Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. There are lots of schemes for getting other sites to link to you, but the best way is to simply have a good site with useful information presented in a pleasant way.

You should also create website awareness in any way you can. If you post a comment in an online forum, put your website address in it. If you’re listed in Linkdin or active in FaceBook and other social networks, promote your website there, too. Every email your send can list your site, and of course it belongs on you business cards and letterheads.

If you have multiple websites and blogs, each one should promote the others. You can also ask the operators of other compatible but not competitive websites to exchange links with you. To judge your progress, you can use websites such as www.WhoLinksToMe.com. These are the results for one of my better websites: Google PageRank: 4. Google Links: 54. Yahoo Links: 2,940. MSN Related: 309

Time online also affects your position in search engine results. Older sites tend to rank higher than newer ones. Even if your book won’t be out for a year, get a preview online right away. Encourage comments from site visitors. Their advice and questions may help you better target your book to the needs of potential customers. Track your website traffic (“hits”). If few people visit your site from the search engines, maybe you chose the wrong subject to write about. A lot of data is available to help you produce your book. Use it.

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