No author website rules of the road in publishing contracts is a big fail for the industry
The topic of author websites and what the relationship between publishers and authors around them should be is a big “fail” for the publishing industry at the moment. Nobody seems to have thought this through. Publisher policies are all over the lot, even within houses, and that demonstrates that agents haven’t figured out what policies and publisher support an author should require. When they do, there will be much greater uniformity across publishers. (Note to conspiracy theorists about often-alleged Big Five “collusion”: that’s how it actually happens. They’re bullied into it by agents or accounts.)
Although we have been thinking about this for a while, it has been hammered home to us, once again, by events in our own shop this past week. On one hand, we have supplied an agent who asked for one with a proposal to build a website for a key author. The agent is talking to the publishers on both sides of the Atlantic (different divisions of the same big house), trying to get some financial support from them for what the author wants to build and own. Each of the two imprints is lobbying to build the site themselves. We’re not privy to the details of that conversation, so we’re not sure exactly why they want to build it themselves or what other considerations — like domain name ownership, list ownership and management, outbound links, and day-to-day attention to the site — might be motivating the publisher side of this conversation (in addition, we’d assume, to legitimate concerns about the quality of the site and its SEO).
Last week we did a seminar at another house. As we usually do in those sessions, we gave the house the benefit of some of our research into digital footprints for some of their own books and authors. What we found, as usual, is that the author website deficiencies were handicapping their sales and discovery efforts, sometimes by their total absence. That is, on occasion we found no author website at all.
As far as we know, there is no clear policy in either of these big houses concerning author websites. The decisions around how much to help or intervene or invest are, like so many decisions in publishing, left to each imprint to negotiate with each agent for each author. In yet another big house where we have had live meetings and this question came up, it was clear that the marketers understood the author-owned website SEO issues much better than the editors did, and everybody was hamstrung by the editors’ widely varied ability and willingness to engage with their authors or their agents on this subject.
From where we sit, not having contractual policy around a host of questions that involve an author’s web presence is as big an omission as it would be not to have clearly-defined subsidiary rights splits. In fact, we’d argue that, for most authors, the commercial value of the assets around the web presence are more valuable than subsidiary rights are! No publisher or agent would accept a contract that didn’t cover subsidiary rights. It is a sign that the industry is not keeping up with the new realities that the website policy is so far from being worked out.
This is a big challenge on both sides: for agents and for big houses. Most agents don’t operate at a scale that would enable them to gather the expertise and the knowledge to set their authors up properly or to inform what the demands on the houses should be. But the biggest publishers have a hard challenge too. They’ve all structured themselves around clear delineations between what’s big, requires scale, and should be handled centrally (warehousing, sales, IT) and what’s small, requires an intimate relationship with the author, and should be handled in decentralized imprints (title acquisitions, creative decisions, individual title marketing and publicity). This is a really tricky balance to strike from an organizational perspective. It is reflected in job descriptions and in each staff member’s bonus structure. That is, it is really complicated stuff to mess with and requires attention from the very top of enormous businesses to affect and change.
And because there really is no “house policy” on these things anywhere, any agent except the very biggest would get nowhere trying to handle these issues within a contract.
This is a problem that can’t possibly be solved in a big house without CEO-level involvement because it cuts across too many lines: central and imprint, marketing and editorial, author and agent relationships and contractual terms.
There should be no doubt about the critical importance of an author’s web site (and no, a page on the publisher site isn’t an adequate substitute). The author site serves three absolutely essential purposes that will not be adequately addressed without one.
1. It gives an author the capability to make it crystal clear to Google and other search engines precisely who the author is. All SEO efforts are hobbled without it. An author’s website is a central hub of data (a Pete McCarthy point: “data” isn’t always about numbers, in SEO “data” is often words) about the author, to which both fans and search engines can go for authoritative information.
2. It gives the author an extensible platform from which to engage more deeply with fans, some of whom are megaphones and media from whom the benefits of deeper engagement are substantial. An author can use it to gather email signups and really only with a site can an author reliably and systematically build and own direct relationships.
3. It gives a logical place for anybody writing about the author to link. That’s why author websites often score so high in search. (Inbound links are SEO gold.) And if an author doesn’t have a website, the next logical place to link might be the Amazon author page, or the Amazon product page (the book). The next choice would be a primary social presence, like Twitter or LinkedIn.
This last point is not registering in many places. At one big house, we know that their policy is to avoid linking to Amazon if they can; they’d rather link to B&N. But they also don’t highly value author websites, and they certainly don’t routinely make sure they exist. The omission of author sites means they’re creating links to Amazon, whether they like it or see it that way, or not. The contradiction is apparently not evident.
Let’s kill the thought once and for all that it doesn’t matter whether an author has a website. We’d maintain that if it’s worth the investment to print the books, it’s worth the investment to have a website. Yes, you can do all sorts of useful things in social media, but the website is the only platform the author can own. Everything else is a rental, and the landlord can change the rules about what you can or can’t do at any time. We note that indie author expert Jane Friedman agrees and is helping guide authors to set up their own sites.
There is one more over-arching truth publishers and agents need to understand. And this one goes to the “what’s big and what’s small” paradigm around which big houses organize themselves.
Superior website management, particularly of SEO, is supported and enabled by knowledge of a lot of author websites. In fact, Logical Marketing partner Pete McCarthy has been noodling the process for a publisher-operated Google Analytics capability across multiple author sites that would, if implemented, apply learnings that would improve the performance of all of them. This is a Logical Marketing project still in its conceptual stages, but what we envision is that authors would get great benefits from allowing the publisher to put Google Analytics (or something else to serve that purpose) on the author site around the publication of a book or longer because they’d get better insight than they could get running it on their own. Publishers can help authors do this better than they could do it alone. To date, they don’t (that we know of), but they can and they should.
If you accept it as a fact that there should be at least a rudimentary website for just about every author, a little thought makes it clear that there is a lot a publisher and author should negotiate agreement on as part of their contractual arrangement.
At the very least, this includes site ownership, design, ongoing maintenance (including content creation), and to what extent it promotes author activity not related to the house (which could be other books). The site will gather email addresses; how can the publisher and author work collaboratively to get the most value from them? (Now, there is a question that has hardly been explored!) The site could well earn affiliate income from sales made through referral links to retailers; is that divided in any way?
The site ownership should logically be with the author, but ownership usually goes to whoever makes the necessary cash investments. That’s the tricky bit our agent client is dealing with right now. The agent wants the author client to own the site but also wants some financial support from the publishers. The publishers apparently are willing to pay for it, but they also apparently want to own it.
The design of the site touches three things: tech competence, SEO competence, and aesthetics. The house should be able to provide important expertise around tech and SEO, but the author will frequently want a voice in the aesthetics. And despite scale advantages that provide a real edge, no house we know of has clearly established that they can provide the tech to make something solid and extensible, or that they have the chops to really deliver the SEO.
The ongoing maintenance of the site opens up a number of questions, particularly around content creation. And content creation questions go beyond the site. Is the author, or the author’s staff, able to write the blog posts for the site, the Facebook posts, and the Tweets (let alone create what is needed if Instagram or Pinterest is being employed)? Or should the publisher or a freelancer be providing that help?
And how does that help, beyond the design and creation of the site, get paid for? It could be any combination of author pays, publisher pays, or publisher advances and recoups.
It is my plan in a subsequent post to lay out a scenario or two for a sensible House Position on these questions. It is my hope, but one not supported by any evidence I have in hand, that the Big Five houses and the biggest literary agents are already working on this problem.