Interview on author web sites
I did a via-email interview today for the newsletter of the Canadian Authors Association on the topic of author web sites:
Robert J. Sawyer of Mississauga, Ontario, is one of only sixteen writers in history to win the science-fiction field's top two awards: the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the Year (which he won for The Terminal Experiment) and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year (which he won for Hominids). He gave the keynote address at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Authors Association, and wrote the article about science fiction for The Canadian Writer's Guide: Official Handbook of the Canadian Authors Association.
1. When do you think is a good time for a writer to create his or her web site?
You need a website a few months before your first book hits the stores. Prior to that, it doesn't really do any good -- no one is going to go looking for it. Yes, there are occasional stories of writers who have posted work on the web, and then found a traditional publisher via that route, but that is about as common as winning the lottery -- and, just as likely, a print publisher will say they don't want your book now that it's been given away on the web.
2. What features are necessary? What unnecessary features do you commonly see on other writers' web sites?
Most necessary of all: an easy, memorable URL. I have both sfwriter.com and robertjsawyer.com registered, with both pointing to the same website. When I started out, my website was at ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/sawyer -- and, quite rightly, no one went to see it; my buddy Kevin J. Anderson made his wordfire.com about that time, and I realized I needed something short and sweet, too. Don't use a name that's tied into your current book, though. My friend John E. Stith did that with neverend.com back when his current novel was Reunion on Neverend, but now that's hardly the book people think of when they think of him.
Unnecessary: a "welcome" page -- one of those silly "click here to enter" things; Flash animation or other visual distractions.
3. What three items are most important to place on a web site?
You need: a bio; a good, publication quality author photo (linked from a smaller thumbnail) -- see mine at sfwriter.com/photo.htm; sample chapters; the book cover; and an email link for yourself. Everything else is optional.
4. How has your site help your career and exposure?
It's been huge -- but, remember, I've had the site for over ten years now, and it's got over a million words of material on it. I sell thousands of dollars worth of copies of my own books through my website each year, have had speaking engagements and writing assignments worth tens of thousands of dollars come to me because of it, been quote in a page-one article in USA Today because of it (and been that newspaper's online edition's Writer of the Month because of it), and, of course, most important of all, attracted a lot of new readers.
5. What was the biggest hurdle in creating your site? in attraction visitors?
Creating the website: zero hurdles. It's easy, inexpensive, and anyone can do it.
To attract visitors you need to rank highly on Google. I wanted to make sure if anyone searched on either "Robert J. Sawyer" or "science fiction writer," they'd find me (it's searches on the latter that resulted in most of the good things I mentioned in the previous answer). Learn to use Meta tags (keywords embedded in the code for your web page), and make sure you frequently repeat the terms you want Google to rank you on. Look at my main page at sfwriter.com and count the times "science fiction writer" and "Robert J. Sawyer" appear; there are times when an easier flow for the text might have suggested me writing "SF writer" and just "Rob," but I don't do that -- I hammer the terms that I want Google to find. The only individual science-fiction writer who has a page rank higher than me on Google right now is Robert A. Heinlein, and I'll gladly take a back seat to him any day.
Also, put your website name everywhere: on your book's jacket, in your "about the author," on your letterhead, and on your business cards (you do have those, don't you? -- if not, get some; mine are from vistaprint.com, but, for God's sake, pay the few bucks for the ones without their advertising on the back; you're a professional, not a pauper).
6. If you could caution a writer who wants to build a web site against one thing, what would that be?
Falling into the "Field of Dreams" trap of thinking, "If I build it, they will come." No, they won't -- not unless you publicize the URL, design a page that Google will rank highly, and, ideally, offer a reason other than just promoting your book for people to come. By far the most popular things on my website, besides the information about my own books, are my columns on how to write: sfwriter.com/owindex.htm