Welcome Steve Bennett, the founder of AuthorBytes, a Web and multimedia development firm specializing in sites for authors and publishers. Visit AuthorBytes online , view samples of work, or contact Steve at info@authorbytes.com.

What’s on Your Website? That depends. . .

by Steve Bennett

“What should I put on my Website?” “ Is a trailer a good investment?” “Should I podcast?” “How about a discussion board?”

These are the kinds of questions authors typically ask us when we begin the Website design and development process. And, while we’ve created more than 200 author sites and have gained insight about what works and what doesn’t, we always answer the usual questions the same way: “That depends . . . ” Sure, we quickly arrive at specific answers for individual clients. But until we learn about the author and his or her work, the demographics of the author’s audience, the budget for the project, and the author’s goals, it’s hard to offer hard-and-fast answers. One size does not fit all, although general principles do apply -- most of the time. Let’s take a closer look at some of the common questions.

Begin with the Basics

“What are the basic pages I should have on my Website?” That depends, in part, on the genre, the specifics of your book, the image you’re trying to project, and the audience you want to reach. In general, though, your site should have enough compelling content to woo the visitor into buying the book or learning more. At a minimum, you should have:

· An overview of the book and some insight into why your wrote it

· Excerpts

· Praise

· Your bio and photo

· A Q&A that gives people an idea of how you work

· News (links to interviews and media appearances)

· Events

· Media—materials for the press, such as your media kit and photos.

· Mailing list sign up

· Contact information

If you have special interests, you might want to add a page or two devoted to them. This provides a means for you to connect with people who share those interests. (E.g., if horseback riding is a major passion when you’re not writing, you might devote a small section of the site to your equestrian pursuits). The key concept is this: go beyond the jacket copy and show the world who you are, so visitors meet the person behind the monitor. Remember, YOU are ultimately the brand. And your site can move beyond the constraints of your book to represent your brand in whatever ways can best help you achieve your goals.

Moving onto Multimedia

“Should my site have multimedia features?” That depends . . . on whether you’ve gotten your basic site in order and whether the multimedia elements truly add to the user’s experience. Multimedia offerings can raise your site to new heights and take visitors on an exciting adventure . . . or they can just fall flat. What makes multimedia an asset for your site? Three words: motivation, content, and quality.

Motivation. If you’re using multimedia features to compensate for the fact that your basic site is lacking -- because of skimpy or non-inviting content, poor design, or poor graphics -- forget it. Bells and whistles won’t keep visitors around for very long if the basic site can’t stand on its own merit.

Given the staggering amount of text, audio, and video options on the Web, people will quickly click elsewhere if you bore them or waste their time. Heed the Golden Rule of the Net: provide content to others that you would want to read, view, or hear yourself -- spare them the eye candy and the fluff. Your motivation in offering value adds such as podcasts, trailers, and interactive features (e.g. quizzes, surveys, and games ) should be to entertain and inform -- to make it worthwhile for visitors to give you a few moments of their time.

Content. If a podcast consists of your reading an excerpt, save your breath (unless you’re incredibly famous or your voice is irresistibly riveting or charming). Rather, use the opportunity to deliver a commentary on the story behind your book, insights into where you get your ideas from, your opinion about a news happening, etc. Or you might consider reading an original short story that people can only hear by visiting your site (for a good example, see Jodi Picoult’s “Weights and Measures” .

The need for quality content is even greater when you include a trailer on your site. With so many choices on YouTube and other video sharing services, a visual recap of the plot won’t hold people’s attention for long. Create a sense of drama and hint at the burning issues in the title you’re promoting. Make a credible promise about the payoff for buying the book. In short, the trailer should show and sell.

Quality. While you’re providing exciting and valuable content, make sure that the quality is top tier. With a podcast, that’s fairly easy. Ideally, you’ll record in a professional studio so you can leave the sound quality to audio experts while you focus on turning in a great performance. If a studio is out of the question, or you’ll be podcasting frequently, get yourself some good recording gear. (The Edirol R09HR is one of our favorite digital recorders.) Find a quiet room and experiment with recording levels. And most importantly, write scripts that you can rehearse; ad-libbing often sounds as though you lack control and direction and it makes for tedious audio editing tasks (or an extremely bored audience). Don’t insult your listeners with low quality, off-the-cuff productions, or they won’t be listeners for long.

With a book trailer, providing a high quality production is more complicated unless you, or somebody close to you, has video production skills. If you don’t have the ability to artistically meld text, audio, images and stock footage into a trailer, hire a professional to create a trailer for you -- there are lots of firms and freelancers who specialize in creating trailers ranging from simple slide shows to Hollywood-like productions. You want to create something that people will share and talk about, something that goes “viral” across the Net and helps galvanize a community around your work. Which brings us to the next question -- providing a means for fans to connect.

Discuss Amongst Yourselves...

“Should I build community through a discussion board?” That depends . . . on traffic to your site and the amount of time you’re willing to devote to the board’s maintenance. Threaded discussion boards can be a great laboratory for you, a place where you can test new ideas in real time and get a sense of what excites people most about your work. And they can be terrific community-building tools. For examples of robust discussion boards, check out the forums on Chris Bohjalian's site and Jacquelyn Mitchard's site .

Despite the benefits of discussion boards, we generally discourage launching them early in the game. Aside from the chunk of time you'll have to spend clearing out spam and porn -- discussion boards are magnets for all manner of unwanted content -- there's the chicken-and-egg problem. Nobody will post unless other people have posted. And the longer the board is empty, the less people will want to fill it up. If you’re getting enough site traffic and you direct people to the board, you may eventually build up a group of fans who want to talk to each other in a structured forum. In the interim, consider assessing your potential community before launching a dedicated board on your site. Put up a guestbook and invite (moderated) comments. Beyond your site, use outside resources to gauge response. Put up a Facebook page (or become active on the one you already have), and reach out through Twitter. If you’re not getting a response from visitors to your site’s guestbook, or from Facebook friends or Twitter followers, chances are that people won’t invest time in your discussion boards, either. Which takes us to the final point.

Bring Them On

“I’ve built a great site with quality content. What do I do next? ” There is no “that depends” for this question. The answer is simple. Promote. Promote. And continue to promote. If you don’t have a blog, start one (ideally, the blog will be integrated into your site rather than part of a hosted blog service). Issue intelligent Tweets on a regular basis. Participate in Facebook groups in your areas of interest. Take advantage of bylined article submission opportunities. Submit your news release to online press release banks (the backlinks will help with search engine optimization.)

The list could go on. But it all starts with a solid site that leaves no doubt in a visitor’s mind: you’re an author worth visiting online . . . and reading in print.

Thanks to Emilie Richards for inviting Steve to blog with us.