Adventures in Self-Publishing: Establishing a Web Presence (Part II)

Public Domain, courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife/WikiMedia CommonsIn the last post, we talked about the different types of Web sites you can create or take advantage of.  In this entry, we’ll talk about actually creating the Web-based pages you’ll need to sell your self-published book, leaving to a later date how to create and manage more social-media oriented pages such as Twitter and Facebook. 

Setting up the pages discussed below is well within the abilities of most authors, even if you don’t consider yourself to be very tech-savvy.  But as a client of mine often observes in similar settings, “Says easy, does hard.” That’s particularly true when it comes to Web-based promotion, because you should not – must not – assume that if you simply build it, that they will come.

In fact, unless you constantly add content to the sites and pages you create and do the other things it takes to drive traffic to them, no one will even know they are there. If you’re not willing to take the time to do that, there’s no point in spending a lot of effort on your Web pages in the first place. Or for writing a book for sale, either.

I’ll use another quote to introduce the second thing to keep in mind, this time a catch line popularized by the legendary Magellan Fund manager Peter Lynch. He may have been talking about investments, but the same advice also applies to Web pages: know what you own, and why you own it.  In other words, unless you understand how and why a given Web presence will fit into your overall strategic plan, you won’t know what to do to make it pay off.

The third major lesson to absorb (sorry – no quote this time) is that while creating many types of  Web presence by yourself can be free, that doesn’t mean that doing a good job of it isn’t important. And even though the tools that have been made available to showcase your book at the obvious sites (e.g., Amazon) are designed to be easy to use, they aren’t always completely intuitive, or that each site doesn’t have its own frustrating quirks and surprising limitations. So if you’re serious about promoting your book, either set the time aside to do a decent job of setting things up, or consider getting someone else to help you, even if you have to pay for the assistance.

The first two lessons above are closely related, and are best illustrated by some frequently heard advice that you should think twice before following. That advice is, “You’ve got to have a Web site for your book.”

That’s very good advice at a high level, because it’s not likely that anyone is going to buy your book on line (and they’ll be much less likely to buy it elsewhere, as well) if there isn’t an easy to find site where they can see the cover, find out what the book is all about, read an excerpt, find out whether people like it, see who wrote it, learn how much it costs, and how to get a copy.

If all of that has a strangely familiar ring to it, it should, because you’re used to finding all of that information every time you look for a book at Amazon. Amazon is also the first place that the majority of all readers are likely to go to find (even a self-published) book. Each such potential purchaser will already be comfortable with the way your book’s information will be organized and presented, and they probably have their purchasing information already logged into Amazon’s system, so the likelihood of a visitor making an impulse purchase of your book is as likely to happen at Amazon as it’s possible to make it (think about it: would Jeff Bezos have it any other way)?

In fact, if you had to choose between having your own Web site just for your book and having an Amazon page, there would be absolutely no question which one to choose.

Which brings me to my first formal recommendation:

1.  Before setting anything else up on line, maximize the quality and scope of your listing at Amazon

For starters, that means being sure that your book has found its way on to Amazon at all. It’s easy to sign up at Amazon’s Author Central site, and that’s what you’ll want to do, so that you can manage your book’s listing.  Amazon’s software should automatically find and list your book shortly after your POD publisher submits it, and of course if you used CreateSpace it should be even more automatic. If for some reason your book doesn’t show up when you expect it to, your publisher should be able to help you out.

But that’s just the starting point. Once you’re logged in, you’ll want to take advantage of every tool that Amazon provides for building out your page, such as adding your book’s cover image (no, that doesn’t happen automatically), enabling the “Look Inside” permission (allowing excerpts to be read), adding at least the blurb from your book cover, and including something about yourself (the Author!) as well.  Instructions covering much of this can be found at the Author Central section of the Amazon site, and as you might expect, there are many books (often free) that can walk you through the steps as well. 

My page is pretty thoroughly built out, and you can find it here. If you start in the upper left, you’ll see that I’ve uploaded the cover art, and also given permission to allow readers to sample what’s inside – an invaluable tool for letting people decide whether they like your style, and (in the case of a non-fiction book), whether you cover the topics that they are interested in. If you’ve never tried that feature before, try it now on my book, and while you’re at it, imagine you’re looking at the first page of your book on line instead.  Is your text catchy enough to close a sale? If not, you’ll want to rewrite it – as many times as necessary, since no pages of your book will be as important as those in the beginning.

Under the book description, you’ll see that I’ve pasted in the same text that’s on the back of my book. If you’re only publishing an eBook, you should consider whether following the same stylistic and length conventions that are used for book covers, since readers are used to making a preliminary evaluation of a book from text presented in this way. Not surprisingly, I used the “about the author” text from my book as well, and the same advice applies.  For more about how to write your book and author text, see this earlier post on cover design.

Excuse me for a moment now while we break for a brief commercial message:

Have you been finding “Adventures in Self-Publishing” useful?  If so, why not spring for a mere $2.99 NOW to encourage the author to continue writing it? That’s less than the proverbial cup of Starbucks coffee, and hey, the reviewers all say it’s a great read!

Okay, I’m back now. There are a few more bells and whistles that Amazon provides to authors, such as allowing you to link to a blog, but personally I think they are far less important, and less likely to be used by potential readers. On the other hand, providing the information and permissions discussed above is essential. A few other cautions and complaints also bear mention:

  • If you’re into Web design, you’ll be disappointed with what you have to work with. Amazon serves millions of pages a day, and is understandably concerned about maintenance, loading speeds, and hosting costs. The result is that you have almost no flexibility about how you can post, or even what font sizes you post it in. On the other hand, it’s free.
  • Amazon can be very frustrating to work with. Although, amazingly, you can get a near-instantaneous call back from a support person, that person will often not be able to do anything, or will say that they’ll put a work order in, which disappears into a void without anything being fixed. As an example, my eBook once disappeared for no apparent reason for two months, despite ongoing and constant efforts by me and by my publisher to get it restored. Talk about a negative impact on sales, let alone promotion.

OK, so now you’ve got your Amazon page set up.  Recommendation #2 comes next: 

2.  Be sure your book is properly displaying at the other major on line outlets

That means at least at Barnes & Noble and iTunes (and also at Google, in case its GooglePlay service starts to take off). Once again, you’ll need to do some things yourself, like uploading your cover art, and you can add some other basic information as well. The good news is that it takes just a few minutes to do this, since neither of these services allows you to add much anyway.

Of course, the sales channels just mentioned are only the most visible ones out there. Depending on your POD publisher and the automatic actions of the Web crawlers of other sites, you may be surprised how many other sites your book may pop up at as well, but you usually won’t be able to make any corrections or improvements at these purely automated sites, so let’s move on to the next category of web presence: community sites.

There are a host of sites that support, or are trying to attract, one flavor or another of a book community, and many of these sites provide a free, basic presence to an author. Most operate on a “freemium” model that provides a no-cost level of service, plus fee-based service(s) that will provide greater exposure to your book. In many cases, the price of these services is likely to exceed any economic returns that may follow, although it’s possible that launching a coordinated campaign across many sites at the same time might build some momentum that would pay off over time. In any event, the return on any paid service is likely to be insignificant without a lot of extra effort by you to maximize your visibility at the site in question (if you’re beginning to sense a theme here, you’re dead on target).

As of this writing, probably the best known book community site is GoodReads, although there are many others as well.  The GoodReads site allows users to discover books, review and discuss them, and recommend them to their friends, among other services.  Authors can post information about themselves and their book, start discussions, launch book promotions (e.g., allowing you to invite people to sign in to get a chance to win a copy of your book) and conduct other promotional activities (some free, some not).  As of July of last year, GoodReads had 20 million registered members. Not long afterward, Amazon announced that it had purchased the site for an undisclosed sum.

Which brings me to my next formal recommendation:

3.  Add your book to GoodReads

Why? Because it’s easy to do, the site is justifiably popular, and people will actually stumble upon your book there. After you get the hang of GoodReads, you can decide whether you have the time to consider any other community sites, but as of this writing, I don’t have one in my sights that seems worth the effort (if you know of one, by all means let everyone know by adding a comment below). 

And don’t forget the lesson that I led off with – just building something on the Web will never be sufficient to make them come.  You’ve got to keep rolling each rock up its own virtual hill if you expect your initial effort to pay off, so spend some time at the GoodReads site learning what it has to offer for authors, and then act accordingly (I’ll return to that subject in a later post).

Now that your formal on-line sales channels are in reasonably good shape and that you’ve dipped our toe into the community waters, let’s turn back to the stock advice that your book should have its very own Web site. You will have read this recommendation from just about every print on demand publisher because (spoiler alert), while a Web page is rarely if ever included in a POD basic plan, the great majority of POD publishers will include a custom website in one or more of their sales packages, with a simple site being included in their middle service offering (most have at least a bargain, middle, and high end package), and a more fully-featured site in their most expensive package.

It wasn’t until months after I launched my book that I bothered to set up a site, and then only for the experience of doing so (you can find my site here).  Guess what? Unless I’m doing something to drive traffic there, that site can go a week without getting a single visitor.  And why would it? The likelihood of a generic Google search pulling the usual self-published author’s book site out of the almost infinite number of pages on the Internet is vanishingly small, no matter how hard you work to optimize it. You can (and should) add sample chapters from your book as well, and I also recommend visiting the sites of other authors that have come up with creative ways to promote their books through their sites.
On the other hand, if are willing to spend the time adding content to your site to help support your book sales in addition to what Amazon is set up to host, then having a book site begins to have a purpose – assuming you’re also willing to put in the time to try to drive traffic to your site. Starting a blog at your site is perhaps the easiest place to start, and you can link your blog to your Amazon page, as well.

Which brings me to my fourth and final formal recommendation for today’s post:

4.  Don’t bother creating more than a free, minimal Web site for your book unless you have a plan for updating and driving traffic to it – and really commit to follow that plan

This isn’t to say that you can’t find some pretty nice book sites out there (there are lots, and many are well worth visiting), or that their owners might not have built up a community around them (often of other authors, however, rather than potential buyers). But if you cruise around, you’ll see that most are pretty dormant.  My personal belief is that the amount of time that most people would spend maintaining an active site would be better spent on other promotional activities.  Not because having a site might not be worth having, but because the owner doesn’t really know why they own it.

Tune in next week, when we’ll dive into the maelstrom of social media. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my book 😉

If you’re new to this series: You can find all of the earlier entries, covering topics such as choosing the self-publishing model that’s right for you, formatting and pricing your book, and much, more beginning here.

Follow me on Twitter @Adversego !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+’://’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);