The relaunch of JKRowling.com last month sparked worldwide interest and was trending on Twitter within minutes of her announcement to followers that it was live.
It uses the latest web technology, including HTML5 and CSS 3, and features an interactive timeline that can be filtered to focus on her biography, Harry Potter or her forthcoming book, The Casual Vacancy. JKRowling.com is a far cry from the sparse selection of blogs and basic pages that would have passed for an author website 10 or so years ago, and a quantum leap from the days when a carefully worded bio on the inside of a book jacket was the only information that a reader could glean about an author.
As the best-known author in the world, creating a site to act as a hub for all things Rowling presents some fairly unique challenges. First, there is the fact that it must have the capacity to manage the exceedingly high traffic generated by her considerable fanbase. As this fanbase also happens to span a wide spectrum both in terms of location and user habits, the site has to be viewable across multiple platforms (e.g. iPad touchscreen and a bespoke mobile site), with all of the content available in six languages: English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and Japanese.
But why do authors need websites, especially in the age of social media? What purpose do they serve, and what do readers expect from them?
The answer to these questions varies according to the author and their following, but the most obvious purpose is to be a one stop shop for info about the author, and to house their portfolio of past, present and forthcoming work in one place. Another and potentially more important aim, is to act as the face of the author and their ‘brand’ to the world. The author URL thus becomes a digital business card, a small addition to every twitter profile, article or interview that says “find out more about me”.
As both a book and a web geek, I would say that a good author website is supplemented by Facebook and Twitter rather than replaced by them. These platforms offer writers the chance to interact directly with their fans, and raise awareness of their work, but by their very nature Facebook and Twitter are a catalogue of the comments, perceptions, thoughts and opinions of others, rather than the message that the writer themselves wants to communicate.
In this age of self-branding, a dedicated website allows writers to craft the experience for visitors, presenting themselves and their work as they see fit. If regularly updated and created with a view to good SEO, then this official website should be one of the top results in google, which allows the author to decide what information is highlighted to those that are interested in their work. They can flag events, provide links to buy existing work and crucially, start the marketing process for a book before it’s even finished.
Other benefits include the ability to build up a personal subscriber list of people that actively want to be kept up to date, a community that have bought into the author’s work, and can be used to float story ideas, get feedback (publicly or privately), test book jackets, launch discussions, and highlight current projects and events.
The least that a reader will expect when visiting an author’s website are details of the full range of their work, ideally with jackets and links to buy. An About Me section which tells them a little bit more about the person behind the books, a contact form/email address, links to the author’s social media channels.
Additional content and creative touches depend on the author. Writers come in many guises, from the types that scribble away in private, those that blog prolifically about their field of expertise, and those that offer readers a window into their daily lives with regular diary entries. As a reader, my favourite author websites are the ones that are a reflection of the author’s personality, Amy Krause Rosenthal’s being a perfect example. It’s light, fun, floaty and completely in line with the image that I have of her as a writer. It also manages to feel personal and engaging, something which Patrick Neate has nailed also. The site of writer, performer and filmmaker Miranda July combines information on her various endeavours with snippets of video, images and commentary, while Chuck Palahniuk offers a cult fan experience rich in content and news.
It is difficult to tell whether visitors to author sites are interested in the person or the book. These websites blur the line between the brand, the product and the individual, and that is what makes them so interesting. Established and new writers alike, are increasingly adopting an approach which sees them using social media channels and official websites in tandem to offer a cohesive online presence.