What is a website good for? I don’t ask that as a rhetorical question. A website, we all “know,” is something every business — and every author aspiring to sell books — absolutely has to have. But before anyone throws up a website, it’s worth asking what exactly that website should be accomplishing.

Many author websites (those that aren’t blogs), look more like book jackets than businesses. Is that a good thing? Honestly, I don’t know, but I wonder. A book jacket’s job (as discussed in a previous post) is to get a potential reader to touch the book — either in a physical store or by clicking on the image in an Internet bookstore. Is that the job, too, of an author website? I’m inclined to say that it is, but I’m not sure. After all, once someone hits your website, it’s all you. The visitor isn’t on Amazon, where books from every competitor share the screen.

And what of the publisher website? In the budget for Verbitrage, website development is a separate line item, but it really belongs under marketing, and marketing is a process that should lead to a sale, right? Typically, small publisher websites have tried to close that sale earlier than big publisher websites, perhaps because they felt like they had less to lose by appearing to compete with their bookstore customers. In contrast, for years most big publisher websites didn’t concentrate on providing an immediate “buy” opportunity to visitors. That was someone else’s job — somewhere down the trade channel. But sometime recently, this attitude changed. On most major publisher sites today, that “buy” button is just a click away.

But, let’s face it, most people don’t go to a publisher website in order to shop. If they’re looking to buy, they’ll go to a bookseller. Therefore, it seems to me, the publisher site needs to accomplish something more. This is the challenge I considered when trying to figure out what Verbitrage’s (and Primacy’s) web presence should look like.

A further challenge, of course, is that, while the Verbitrage proposition is that I can publish as well as a major house would, it is patently obvious that I am not Random House. I have very little brand equity, no relevant track record to speak of, and, so far, only one product to sell. So with the Verbitrage website (and associated author pages) I needed to achieve both publisher pages that confer credibility and writer pages that enable visitors to get to know the authors. My main goal, of course, is to sell books, but I’m agnostic about how I sell them. While I make more money selling direct to the consumer, there are plenty of good reasons (which I’ll cover in another post) for selling through trade channels.

At its heart, it seems to me, publisher and/or author websites are electronic brochures, which is to say, a kind of calling card. It has been noted that — with all the books being published, all the “noise” out there — the key challenge for publishers is how to get buyers to discover your book. While that fact can’t be disputed, I think publishers face yet another hurdle, one that has existed as long as book publishing itself. This hurdle is best illustrated with a brief anecdote.

My father was a big reader. He read broadly and he read fast, so he was always up to date with current bestsellers and the works of his favorite authors, but he was also always looking for a next book to read. One day we were sitting in the den reading when he uttered a few choice words and flung his half-read book in the direction of the trash can, missing. He walked over, picked it up and directed it with more emphasis into the bull’s eye.

What was the problem? He explained that the book (I wish I could remember the title) had broken its compact with this reader. It had started out in one direction and taken such an absurd, implausible turn halfway through that this man who revered books — who stowed his favorites, like all good readers do, proudly on a prominent shelf — became so angry that he couldn’t wait to throw this one in the trash.

Most readers have done something like that once in a while, as most moviegoers occasionally walk out of a movie in the middle. The problem is that hating a movie enough to walk out sacrifices an investment of an hour or so. To get halfway through a big, meaty novel and then give up might involve ten- or twentyfold greater waste of time.

Therefore, the enduring challenge of bookselling is earning a reader’s trust before he or she agrees to invest that time. (One way to explain this phenomenon is thus: most people read what someone else tells them to read. That may be the subject of another post.) So, if the website of a new publishing enterprise pitching a new author is a kind of calling card, its first obligation is to establish trust.

That was my intention with the Verbitrage website, anyway. I wanted to establish credibility without appearing to need it too much. (Begging is never a successful business strategy!) In addition, of course, if I succeeded in that I wanted to close some sales on Primacy.

It’s too soon to measure how well any of this worked, of course. The website has only been live for a couple of weeks, and I haven’t been doing much yet to drive traffic there. One might say we’re in the “soft launch” stage. Here’s what the Home Page looks like:

Verbitrage Home Page

The main elements are:

  • Selling proposition. In my case it’s letting people know that — unlike many start-up publishers today — we haven’t abandoned offset printed books or the trade. Therefore, I emphasize “all suitable formats” and “wherever books are sold.” Furthermore, the selling proposition communicates the wide availability of our books while also letting customers know that there is one key advantage to paying full price and buying direct from the publisher: signed and numbered bookplates, unique to Primacy and the Verbitrage website. (Note: some of this selling proposition is below the “fold.” Click on the image to see the entire website.)
  • Connections. There are opportunities to subscribe to the newsletter or to connect through social networks Twitter or Facebook. While I have my doubts about these forums (yet another subject for another post), they’ve become an essential element of any marketing plan.
  • Blurbocracy. As a means of further reader interaction, the “Blurbocracy” provides an opportunity for any reader — not just other authors — to voice their opinion on the book. This is another step down the road of trust because it provides the opportunity for peer-to-peer referral.
  • Contest. This is my stab at “permission marketing,” an attempt to gather email addresses for my newsletter in exchange for the opportunity to win a prize.
  • Buy Now. Nearly every page of the website provides an opportunity for visitors to purchase Primacy, our first product. When a visitor feels comfortable taking that action, I want execution to be one click away.
  • Authors. The Authors link takes visitors to the individual author pages, which provide an opportunity to learn more about specific books.
  • About. The Home Page and the Author pages do not discuss the business model, because I think most visitors are looking for a way to fill their leisure time, not worrying about how I make money. Yet there are some people (journalists and reviewers, for example) who might be searching for a deeper sense of credibility. For these people, the About page briefly explains the business model in the form of a Q&A and shows off my Board of Advisors, really accomplished people willing to associate their names (and their reputations) with the enterprise.

None of this, of course, will prevent a reader from throwing Primacy into the trash at the halfway point. It’s the author’s job to deliver on that score. But, with luck, these elements will help customers conclude that Verbitrage books will be worth their investment of time and money.

Last Week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 10: A Picture of 100,000 Words

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 12: The Distraction of Shiny Objects

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Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

8 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 11: A Good Website is Hard to Find”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Fishman,

    Have you always been this organized?
    I am impressed with this series for what it teaches us.
    I wish I had your organizational skills, or could learn them.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Funny, I don’t consider myself that organized. I’m just doing what I have to do…putting one foot in front of the other.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Fishman,

    You put one foot in front of the other enough times to run a marathon!
    Kudos.

  3. Jessica Blau says:

    I wish a website weren’t necessary–I hate dealing with computers!

    Alas, your advice all sounds good to me.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Look at it this way: Having a website beats crying, “Check it out!” to strangers and waving flyers in their faces on street corners. Though, as a promotional device, they may both do the same amount of good, for all I know. And, come to think of it, the flyers are a helluva lot cheaper.

  4. Looks like you are taking the right steps unlike me.

    My attempt at self publishing ended with me hunched in a dark dirty alley enticing a petite female Asian rocker playing her guitar next door to ‘come over, I wanna talk to you, it’s okay, come over here. It’s okay, come over here.’ while waving a five dollars bill at her at my first book signing. (She frantically shook her head and stepped further out into the street while playing.)

  5. […] week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 11: A Good Website is Hard to […]

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