The Shatzkin Files

No author website rules of the road in publishing contracts is a big fail for the industry

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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.

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  • Barry Eisler

    Those crazy tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorists, with their whacky, evidence-free suspicions that there could actually be — gasp — *collusion* in legacy publishing! Where do they get these nutty notions?


    • It’s just ignorance of how things really happen. Usually motivated and fueled by pre-conceived notions.

      • Barry Eisler

        Really? The DOJ and 16 state attorneys general were just… ignorant? Motivated by nothing but preconceived notions? Nothing more to it, no basis in fact, nothing to see here folks, move along, or else you must be a conspiracy theorist?

        I guess maybe. But here’s something else that might be going on…

        “Denial is simply refusing to acknowledge that an event has occurred. The person affected simply acts as if nothing has happened, behaving in ways that others may see as bizarre.

        “In its full form, it is totally subconscious, and sufferers may be as mystified by the behavior of people around them as those people are by the behavior of the sufferers. It may also have a significant conscious element, where the sufferer is simply ‘turning a blind eye’ to an uncomfortable situation.”

      • I think you’re going to find those “findings” diluted over time. Attys general can fail to understand things too.

  • An author’s website–or web presence, if there’s no hub–gives me an indication of the person’s professionalism. It’s not cost-effective for an agent to teach a writer how to put together and maintain an effective website, but I do it anyway. I feel strongly that the author should own and control his or her website. I go as far as discouraging my clients from having complex websites designed for their use, unless they’re absolutely sure they will be able to make frequent changes without the assistance of a designer. A site with stale content is a waste.

    It would be lovely if publishers helped their authors to improve their websites, but consider the unintended consequences: publishers would necessarily devote more money, time, and energy to the authors who had not put any effort of their own into establishing their web presence prior to doing business with them. In effect, the least entrepreneurial, least technically skilled, and most recalcitrant authors would be “rewarded” with more assistance, funding, and attention. Ultimately, that’s a disincentive for the authors who work ceaselessly to assist their publishers by building their online presence over many years. Doesn’t the entrepreneurial author get shortchanged in the sort of “no child left behind” scenario you’ve described?

    OK, we all know it’s not that simple. A bestselling author who is valuable or a celebrity who is sought after naturally will command more of a publisher’s resources. That’s rational. A new writer with a collaborative nature who is willing to put in all the effort a publisher requests naturally will receive commensurate attention. A novice writer who turns out to be a prima donna probably will make the publisher’s staff avoidant.

    To be perfectly honest, coaching authors to establish or improve their websites is a lot of work, and I’m never completely satisfied with the results, because I have a hypercritical eye. I can understand why a publisher might consider it wise to own and control an author’s website if the publisher explicitly is paying for its development and maintenance. After all, publishers are accustomed to having editorial and design control over the books in which they’ve invested. Throwing money at the problem of author websites doesn’t seem like the optimal solution, with the notable exception of bestselling authors’ websites. I’d suggest, instead, that if an author has invested in a web presence that meets a publisher’s standards, then the advance against royalties and the publisher’s commitment of resources for marketing the author’s book should adequately reflect that value. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say.

    I’ve learned, and I think publishers have learned, that a writer with a well-developed, appealing web presence simply is a better investment risk, if only because it’s so much easier to see who they are as people, what kind of self-promotion they’re capable of, and what they might be like to work with BEFORE entering into any business agreements with them. This shifts the responsibility for the author website in the other direction, toward the author, but there’s still plenty of room for publishers to improve and expand the websites they design for individual books, which can include as much information about the author as they and book buyers desire.

    • Yes, Robin, it’s a really complicated question. I think that’s one of the reasons that 20 years after the start of the web the industry has no policies in place yet. Clearly, different approaches are needed for authors who can contribute a lot of content or contacts or visibility as opposed to those who either can’t or won’t. I really don’t want to write the post to come about what publishers should do about this right now (it needs a lot more thought) but I think establishing a minimum baseline requirement that they can supply if necessary (a LOT of useful things can be done without uniquely brilliant design OR a continuous flow of content) and getting author and publisher on the same page to the extent possible about recruiting email names and using them productively would be places to start where nobody seems to have yet gone.

      Amazon at least has an answer here: the Amazon Author Page. Every author should fill theirs out. (I haven’t, but that’s partly because I don’t want my primary online identity to be as an author; what I have written books about have nothing to do with how I make a living.) But Amazon’s answer is also what’s best for Amazon. So filling it out from an author perspective is “necessary, but not sufficient”.

      • The authors themselves will need to tell you what makes them more or less likely to fill out and maintain online profiles on sites like Amazon/Goodreads/Shelfari, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, LibraryThing, Reddit, LinkedIn, et al. I suspect for most of them it boils down to ease of use and peer acceptance, rather than ROI and audience location, even though they know better. Furthermore, if they’re already using a certain online network for personal reasons, it’s easier to persuade them to adapt to using it for professional purposes. The Amazon Author Page is more difficult for me to push. It doesn’t seem to be a favorite item on authors’ to-do list, but I agree that it deserves more attention.

      • I just learn the importance of things one piece at a time from Pete. But I can tell you for sure that the Amazon author page ranks HIGH in importance: Google uses it. The Google Plus profile also is important for Google to know as much about the author as possible. But the main job is to do real research into the audiences and make sure you are optimized for the high-intent searches for which you CAN score high. Getting optimized for searches of your name or your book title is not the place to pay attention. It ought to happen naturally and there are far more important terms to worry about. I actually think some publishers have found our work useful because when we *show *authors how many search visitors they could be getting, and which ones they are, they tend to be persuaded. The “foundation-building” stuff, like Amazon author pages and Google Plus, really needs to be seen as “absolutely necessary even if not in and of themselves sufficient”. Publishers should be making that clear. They should actually be making some of it a requirement.

      • I spent the last year upgrading from a basic Author’s Guild website to a more sophisticated SquareSpace format. This has opened new possibilities for me as an author who includes photography and music as part of her creative mix. I’m moving my social media involvement to Pinterest and Linked In, where I have options to create evergreen content in addition to two blogs on my own website. instead of pouring time into social media that contributes to a flow of material that just disappears downstream. I just learned how to create and add audio for a 21 day free meditation series that rewards those signing up for my email list. All of this has taken a tremendous amount of work both learning and implementing, from adding the elements of Squarespace to setting up a MailChimp account. And I’m just getting started, as I develop further audio materials for YouTube, SoundCloud, and iTunes that will promote my work and help me build my email list. I love it, but I have had to spend my time building the foundation for my platform instead of writing the next book or creating a new audio product. Amazon author page, Smashwords author page (I’m a hybrid author who self publishes and is traditionally published), Goodreads profile, Facebook, LinkedIn, and now Pinterest (which is fun for me, so I have gone overboard on Pinterest boards) plus needing to add Google Plus to the mix, plus creating fresh content for the website (photos and quotes are quick content, and visual images are great for discoverability, too), and learning some SEO basics (with the help of a wonderful marketing consultant) make for a very full plate. I’m so excited about all the possibilities, but I need to clone myself to do it all. I have done my share of filling in forms for websites that will link to my website, for SEO purposes (I just spent time filling in an account to reply to your blog, since I’m wary of funneling too much through Facebook). I agree that authors need to own their websites, especially with increasingly sophisticated tools available. But I also understand their reluctance, because it is a different kind of creative energy than writing a book. Other social media rent space, and it is increasingly clear that authors can build a long term relationship with readers, and a data base for direct marketing. I think the recommendation for advances reflecting the value of a platform already created are a better way for publishers to go. An author may self publish or work with more than one publisher, so it doesn’t seem to be worthwhile for a publisher to do more than create ways for authors to integrate their efforts with publisher efforts. This will be an increasingly collaborative game in the coming years. Your columns have been very helpful in the last few years as I have watched the publishing paradigm shift. I think this one is one of the most helpful yet. NOTE: Apologies for the big photo of me–that was not intended, and I can’t figure out a way to remove it. One of the perils we do-it-yourself non-techie authors run into when we are learning how to respond online. If you know how to remove it, please do. Thank you for your patience.

      • Candy, what it is really important is that you are building equity. As your mailing lists grow, so will your sales. You are making yourself more valuable to publishers and also making yourself able to be independent of them. Not every author would have the energy and aptitude to do everything you talk about but I really believe those of you who do will have very large and reliable businesses (audiences) forever.

      • That’s my goal. I have also signed up for Mike Hyatt’s Platform University. Coaching and mentors can make such a big difference.

      • Norm

        Hi Candy,
        You are also making yourself more valuable to librarians who need book and author information in order to recommend books, especially to patrons who won’t wait for the library to get the book but want it NOW and so buy it based on the recommendation of a librarian who got that information from your website.
        So now I will go review your webpage and see to whom I can recommend your books.
        Normalene Zeeman
        Prescott Public Library

      • I LOVE it when things like this happen on my blog!

      • Thank you so much! My ebooks are available through Library Direct and other distributors via Smashwords. When I create POD editions I’ll be making sure there is full distribution to make it easy for libraries. I am so grateful for libraries and librarians. A piece of heaven on earth since I was a child. Book heaven!

  • Smart Debut Author

    Watching Mike give Big Publishers technology advice is like watching a Dodo bird advising the dinosaurs on surviving in the modern world. It’s cute but kind of touching, too, like seeing a beaming kid explaining his third grade math lesson to his dog.

    If you ever need any tips on building a real author web presence, just ask a successful indie…

  • I’m an author of fiction with my own author website. (I happen to have a couple of largeish, but only semi-related business websites too, but I keep those largely distinct.)

    On the SEO issue, this really only affects authors of non-fiction. If you write “How to Maintain your Motorbke” then SEO matters, because bumping your motorbike maintainance site up the rankings will generate meaningful, relevant traffic. If (like mine) your upcoming title is a crime-thriller called “This Thing of Darkness” then there is no meaningful high-purchase-intent traffic which you can capture via SEO. To the extent that traffic exists, Amazon will find & deal with it perfectly well.


    I say again, MAILING LISTS! It’s just extraordinary that regular print publishers don’t routinely have a note in the back of the book from the author that says “Hey, if you liked this, sign up to my mailing list [here/via my website] and I’ll drop you a line whenever I’ve got a book coming out.” (Obviously the ebook would just have a clickable link)

    Every single study of these things tells us that mailing lists convert way better than FB or Twitter – so you’d probably prefer one properly sourced email address to 50 Twitter followers. But publishers don’t do it. Why not? It’s leaving easy, easy money on the table. Sure, some technophobe no-website authors would be hard to manage . . . but I’m emphatically not in that category and I still had to push to make things happen.

  • EricWelch

    Interesting post. I wonder if there is any empirical data there that shows whether an author website has any effect on sales. As a reader who buys many books I remain I remain skeptical. (I realize I may be an anomaly, hence the interest in empirical data.) I can’t remember the last time I even looked for an author’s website, let alone bought a book because of an author’s presence on the web. As you aptly note below, the Amazon author’s page (not to mention the Goodreads author’s page) which are very useful for listing series order and other titles of an author, is another story.

    • Pete has tons of that empirical evidence from his Random House experience. I have personally seen author websites be optimized so that they appear for frequently-searched terms with very “high intent” (to buy). If you tend to shop knowing what you’re looking for (“the next John Grisham”) this will be of less value to you. If you tend to look for something more general (“a thriller set in London”) then the kid of SEO we talk about here is going to affect what you see and consider.

      • EricWelch

        Interesting. Thanks!

  • Smart Debut Author

    There’s a reason Mike’s making such a mountain out of a molehill here — he sees an opportunity to exploit the gullibility and tech-naivete of the bigger publishers to make some money.

    He and his SEO buddy Pete McCarthy plan to spend the next five years charging dumber publishers $15,000 a pop to build them 2005-era websites that he can hire an intern to build for $400.

    Snake oil at its finest.

    It’s sorta like watching a digger wasp lay eggs inside a black widow spider: grotesque to see, but deliciously ironic at the same time.

  • Pat McNees

    I do have Google Analytics on my three Authors Guild websites–provided through the AG (comes with the account). It does not, so far, apply to blog posts; I think they are working on adding it (or some other system) for blogs. I was totally surprised at what parts of my website were popular or ignored.

  • Bob Erickson

    I am a total newbie into the publishing world with my first novel and the one thing I have determined so far is that everything is a bottleneck. You can’t get an agent or a publisher to look at you unless you bring an audience with you that they can build-on (and make money off of from the get go). So you go indie and start building from scratch, one reader at a time. By the time I build a big enough audience to be noticed by the big boys, you better damn well better believe that I will treasure and protect my core audience whether it is through a website or any other social media because it will be the only honest link between us. Everything will just be marketing copy.

    • I agree that building your audience counts for a lot but it isn’t everything. With most agents, the writing is still primary.

      • Bob Erickson

        I would agree that it is primary but only if they actually read what is offered them.

      • Good point. I have the elevated expectations of somebody who knows many of them personally.

      • Bob Erickson

        And I have the less elevated level of having been ignored by many…so far.

      • Persistence eventually wins.

      • Bob Erickson

        That made sense when I was thirty or forty; I am now pushing 70. Playing the game for five years doesn’t make sense any more. I make a move now or…

      • Every good practice, like saving money, eating well, or getting exercise, is more beneficial the earlier you start it.

      • Hey Mike, that’s tough on us oldies! And many (like myself) have swung around writing full time only when they were finally free to do so (i.e. having retired from a demanding career) – but we’ve been writing all along (I certainly have, since I was 15). It really IS a matter of agents and editors not looking at our writing, it IS a matter of being ignored. Good book discovery tools do not exist as of now, and you know that’s the basic problem, not just for newbies, but for the whole industry!

        This said, I totally support your post: it’s important to highlight this omission in contracts.

      • Claude, I have to believe that with your connections, if you wanted to and pushed for it, you could network your way to a competent agent who would take you on. And self-publishing success may ultimate lead there too. Lest there be any misunderstanding, I’m not saying you shouldn’t start doing new things when you’re senior. I’m senior!

      • Bob Erickson

        Then by all means, let us silence our experienced lips and listen only to those who have yet to understand life.

      • That’s hardly the advice I’d offer. Or was offering!

  • And what about those authors who already have a site/blog before being signed on with a publisher? Jane Friedman would be the first to recommend having a web presence well before an author seeks an agent/publishing deal. Just now noticing that Bob Erickson has made a similar point, but I’ll make it again anyway!

    • Let’s be clear: I am *not *advocating that publishers “own” authors’ sites. What I’m advocating is that publishers insist that authors *have *good and competently-SEO’d sites and make them one if they don’t. If an author already has one, the publisher should provide expertise to assure that the SEO is up to snuff. We have a ways to go before that will happen. Like publishers need to develop the expertise to do that. Most don’t have it.

      • Excellent clarification. Many thanks

  • John Andrews

    I can see every reason for authors to own websites and no reason for publishers to own authorrs’ websites. Learning how to make an SEO friendly website is not a challenge for authors who put their minds to the job.

    • John, unless you know more than 99 percent of the authors and publishing marketers I know, that last statement is uninformed BS. SEO is complicated and requires research that most people have no clue how to do. I am NOT talking about making your site score high for a search of your own name. THAT is not complicated.

      The point to this piece, which perhaps got lost in the detail, is that it IS necessary for an author to have an optimized site for the book’s marketing not to be handicapped. A publisher must take the steps to define what that is and assure themselves that it will be there. If the author has it, great. If the author doesn’t, the publisher needs to make sure they do. That involves investments of cash and effort that somebody, author or agent or publisher, has to make. Commercial arrangements fall out of that. “Ownership” of the site is one component of that potential negotiation.
      Didactic statements about what should apply in all circumstances have no useful place in this very complicated discussion.

      • John Andrews

        There are four points here, which were not covered in my short comment. First, creating a website has become very easy. Second, on-site optimisation has also become easy – you certainly have to know how to do it but is not difficult. Third, off-site optimisation is difficult, complicated and necessitates on-going attention, particularly to social media. It is like rearing a child: you can get other people to do it, and you certainly need their advice, but you are best doing it yourself and you are more likely to do it well if you have skin in the game. Nor do you want anyone else to own your flesh and blood.

      • Wonderful, John. Except there are a lot of authors who don’t have sites. You can hector and lecture and blow the house down, bur they don’t have sites. And lots of authors don’t have optimized sites. Shoulda doesn’t cut it. Easy doesn’t matter. If you’re a publisher, you could scold them or you could help them or do it for them. Everything you say can be true but it doesn’t actually contradict anything I said. There is *nothing *in my writing or thinking that says a publisher should *insist *they build or own a site for an author who has competently taken care of the challenge him or herself. I think you should confine your argument to points of actual disagreement rather than inventing a straw man to beat up, which is what you’ve done here. And that’s quite aside from your oversimplification about “on-site optimization”. Experience has shown us that a lot of people who *think *they know what they’re doing around that don’t know as much as they need to. And if you think it is so easy-peasy, I have a feeling that might include you.

      • John Andrews

        Sorry Mike: I should have made it clear that I agree with your points and was adding a few of my own. I think it is much better for authors to own author websites than for publishers to own them. Publishers should certainly help, encourage and support their production but few of them have the necessary expertise. I think it much more likely that specialist firms will be able to do the job.

      • Publishers might engage those 3rd party specialists. Exactly what entity employs the staff that does the work is really a secondary consideration. What I’m trying to drive home is that websites are a necessary component of an author’s digital presence, a certain minimum standard of competence is required, and publishers need to assure themselves and their authors that the standard is being met.

      • John Andrews

        I agree, 100% .

  • Anthony Pero

    A reasonable negotiating tactic for publishers would seem to be tying advance payouts with standardized (per house) online benchmarks, like they do with deliverables now. If the author’s web presence already meets the house’s standards, then that percentage of the advance gets paid on signing.

    You could stage out the payouts as well. 2% when the site goes up, 2% when twitter is established (established could be defined as a certain number of followers, etc… obviously these numbers should be low).

    This would only cover the bare minimum. The house could employ an SEO specialist to analyze an author’s site with a metric score, and offer an additional bonus advance amount for meeting certain metrics, etc.

    The author should own the site, just like they own the book. The publisher shouldn’t be doing this work for them. Its better for the author’s career in the long run for them to own these properties. But these digital properties are arguably more important to the marketing of the book than anything the publisher does today (other than making the books widely available in the first place, of course). Since the publisher in the short term actually gains the most from these properties, its perfectly reasonable for them to financially incentivize authors to play ball, and to have standards from which to start (the same as they have editorial standards and quality standards regarding the author’s books int he first place).

    While the analogy isn’t completely apples to apples, this is all stuff that a major label does in the music industry. They connect artists with a lot of ancillary services, including web developers, stylists, etc. In many cases, they pay larger advances specifically to fund cost of these services… but the artist is paying for them, and the funds given to them are recoupable.

    The obvious challenge here is that hiring a company to develop a single, one-off website that hits all the requirements of good SEO and offers an SEO expert consultant to help the author develop the proper content to hit the right search terms will start at about $10,000 and go up from there. That’s more than a lot of authors get in a book advance in the first place. Its also what they live on. There is no way a publisher can insist that such a cost gets paid out of that advance. They’d need to be higher, and then tie the difference to benchmarks as I suggested above.

    • Anthony, your advice closely resembles things I’ve suggested in this space before. I agree with you on many of the particulars, including what it costs to get a properly SEO’d and flexible website. The first step, though, is the very big one that no publisher I know of has taken: *defining *what the author’s presence should be online. And the second step: providing an “audit” of how the author’s web presence stacks up is one I’ve also suggested, privately and publicly, and no house has yet done. Thanks very much for this summary. It definitely reinforces what I’ve been trying to get across.


      • Anthony Pero

        Thanks for reading my comment, I just found your blog today. I’m not an author, but I’m fascinated by the publishing industry in general, and the digital side of it in particular, and I’m a web developer and designer by trade.

        Its neither complicated nor expensive these days to make a website that looks reasonably good and is SEO “ready.” and Wix are SEO ready out of the box. But SEO ready is a far cry from being SEO “right” or even SEO “efficient.” If next week, Macmillan contacted me and wanted to hire me to build something for all of their writers, or all of their books, the lion’s share of my proposed budget would go to an SEO consulting agency, not to me. True SEO is an extremely specialized subset of services offered by development houses. The great big ones have inside talent… almost anyone else reputable hires an outside consultant. The thought that authors or publishing companies could do it themselves is laughable. The amount of revenue generating traffic that is wasted by almost every publisher and writer website I see is staggering.

        If I had a major book coming out, and a big marketing budget to use on it… I, even though I build and design websites professionally, and know quite a bit about SEO, would STILL consider hiring an SEO consultant a priority in the marketing budget over everything other than the cover design.

      • Thanks, Anthony. We’re your SEO agency for books. My partner, Peter McCarthy, has read every patent for search Google has ever filed. He is book publishing’s leading expert for this, hands down. Perhaps we should be figuring out ways to work together.

        Your comments made total sense to me. I think you’ll find a lot to agree with if you poke around the content on this blog.

      • Anthony Pero

        I’m definitely poking around 🙂 I hope its not all stuff I agree with though! I mostly read to have my presumptions challenged.

        If you ever need any design or development help, please feel free to contact me. My clients are mostly mom and pops and indie creatives at this time, but I’m pretty good at scaling up my game when called upon.

        If its not too presumptuous, here’s a little freebie design advice–when using a serif font, increasing the line-height makes paragraphs more legible. You currently have 16px font and 17px line-height on your blog. I generally shoot for a minimum of 1.5x line-height, sometimes as much as 1.7x depending on the weight of the font. With your font, I think you’d do better with around 24px. This is especially true with your hyperlinks. They tend to be long, and you include many in the same paragraph. The eye, while reading, tends to follow the red from one line to the next and skip what’s in between. The additional space in between lines would help minimize that.

        Hope that’s not too presumptuous! Web typography is an area where I fall into snobbery from time to time ;(

      • A site redesign is already anticipated and we’ll take this into account when we do it. Not presumptuous at all. Or, whether or not it is, appreciated!