Weaving the Tangled Web

Zoë Sharp

These days, every writer needs a website.

True or false? 


True – but why?

And, more importantly, what?

It’s been mentioned quite a bit by my fellow ‘Rati that writing is no longer simply about writing the books, and hasn’t been for some years. In fact, there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether writers should also be their own publishers and cover designers, but I won’t go into that one again. It’s been covered far better than I could in Allison’s recent post.

But even if you don’t go down the eBook route, there’s a whole load of other stuff that goes along with being a writer and occasionally swamps the creative process altogether. Websites, although creative in their own right – and certainly a creative outlet – can be one of them. Websites are a vital but time-consuming (and possibly hideously expensive) part of the job, but if all you’re providing is information on yourself and your work, how do you know it’s the right info, presented in the best possible way?

The reason for this post is because my website is due for revamp. In fact, it’s probably overdue for revamp, but there never seems to be the time to devote to pulling the whole thing down and rebuilding it from scratch. I’ve been trawling the web quite a bit recently looking for good and bad examples of web design, purely from a visitor’s point of view. I won’t name the guilty parties, because this website has already done it for me.

Just as you can learn a lot about writing from reading bad books as well as brilliant ones, you can learn a fair bit about web design from looking at appalling websites. Good design looks effortless but is incredibly difficult to do well.

 But design is one thing.

Content is another.

A writer’s website, after all, should be more about the content than anything else.

Shouldn’t it?

What makes you seek out a writer’s site?

Personally, I don’t put ‘crime fiction authors’ into Google and see what comes up. I usually search on a title or a specific author’s name. Why? Because I’ve heard them mentioned somewhere like here, or recommended, or there’s been a lot of hoo-hah for some reason. I always click on what looks like their official site – I’d rather go straight to the horse’s mouth than a publisher’s author page or similar. Don’t know why – just personal preference, I guess.

But, what do I look for when I get there?

If they’ve written a number of books, I want the right order for the series. I want publication dates for the next book. An opening chapter and/or an excerpt is always good. The publisher and ISBN can be useful for ordering. Tour dates are a plus.

But that’s just me.

What I’d like your help with, is what do YOU want from an author’s website? What are examples of good sites you’ve visited, and why? What DON’T you like about either writer’s sites, or other websites you’ve been on, for whatever reason?

I remember visiting a Thai restaurant site in a town where I was going to do an evening speaking engagement. I went to the site both to get the address, so I could be sure we could find the right place, and make sure we had time to be in and out before I had to be at the gig.

The only thing not on the website was the restaurant’s opening hours. Doh!

Anyway, let me know your thoughts, ‘Rati!

This week’s Word of the Week is toxicophobia, a morbid fear of poisoning. And, along with this – but perhaps more worrying – we get toxicomania, which means a morbid craving for poisons. Doesn’t say why, though…

50 thoughts on “Weaving the Tangled Web

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Each month I look for websites for each author who has a new book out (for my newsletter). So that's anywhere from 50 to 100 authors each month. The spectrum of good to bad is amazing.
    Rati's own JT Ellison has one of the best sites out there.

    As a reader, and the info I look for for the newsletter, here's the list:
    1. Content is current. OMG, the out-of-date-ness of some sites is appalling.
    2. An excerpt of each of your books (especially the newest) (before it comes out — helps your pre-sales!). Imagine that you're in a bookstore browsing the books … don't you open the book and want to sample?
    3. Contact info is nice. I undertand authors prefer privacy don't want to be overwhelmed but it is a nice thing. Email, please, I don't need the litany of Twitter, and the social networks. 🙂
    Bios are optional. But if you have pseudonyms, we'd like to know because if we like your writing, we'll probably follow.

    What I don't care about on a website:
    1. Book tour info.
    2. Your political/religous leanings.
    3. Bells and whistles and being over-busy. Too much information.

    That you have a website at all is fantastic. There are still some authors who don't (and for some reason usually associated with Severn House Publisher or Poisoned Pen Press). I don't know how that works for them in this digital age and net-savvy readers.

  2. Terry Odell

    Normally, if I'm looking for a book, I'm looking for the author. I like to see easy clicks to book, ordered by pub date, with writing samples because that's probably 80% of what I use to make a decision. Buy links are great, but nowadays with all the various places to buy, I understand it can be a daunting task to link to every single purchase venue, especially for digital books.

    Some kind of contact information is helpful. I also enjoy some extras–on my website I offer extra reads, a behind the scenes section, and what I'm working on. However, I need a re-vamp. I started my website with a contract on one electronic short story, and although I keep content current, it could use an overhaul, so I'm interested in what others say.


  3. Kagey

    I liked everything Zoe said about what a website should have.

    In Contrast to PK, I actually do look for Book Tour info. Are you ever coming my way? Are you on a panel at a con I'm headed to soon? It can be buried on a subpage, because I know not everyone needs that info…

    I also like a way to contact or send a message.

    I also like the order of series (amazing how hard that is to figure out sometimes), and excerpts are huge. I can't tell you how many times I've ordered a book because I read the first chapter or two somewhere.

    If you're a children's or YA author, it needs to have some bells and whistles: printable coloring pages, a teacher's guide, something take-away.

  4. Alafair Burke

    I want to know a little more about the writer than a book jacket would tell me. "Extras" relating to the books, whether back story, photos, trivia contests, etc. are nice bonuses.

  5. Louise Ure

    I'm with PK about the currency of the information. It's just sad to see one of those sites that still references tour date information from two years ago.

  6. susan d

    Pretty much what's been said.

    I go to a new-to-me author's website to find out about them and their books. And whether I might like them. And which to read first.

    I go to a known author's website to see what's coming next, and when.

    And if I'm lining up authors for a mystery conference (as I was last year) I need all of the above, plus contact information. I couldn't believe how difficult it was to find out about some of the potential participants. Too many had no website and others were blatantly out of date ("X's next book, Death at the YYZ, is due out in early 2007")

    Essentially, reader-friendly information, letting me know they want me to find their books and read them.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PK

    Thanks for the comprehensive info. I particularly noted that you have a specialised interest – looking for new books for your newsletter. I should have asked WHY people go to an author's website, as in, for what purpose other than as a reader or another author. Gathering PR/media info is a good sub category, and it's very useful to see what you need or don't need for that purpose.

    I thoroughly agree with you about the politics/religious leanings, by the way!

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Terry

    I like excerpts, too, because however interesting the premise of a book, I have to be hooked by the writer's voice or it will sit on the TBR pile gathering dust ad infinitum.

    I'd like to expand the Behind The Scenes-type section for each book on my site, explaining a little bit about how the story came about. I've always liked sleeve notes on music albums that go into this kind of thing. Why not for a novel?

  9. toni mcgee causey

    Great suggestions above, Zoë. One thing I'd add would be links to, or reprints of, interviews the author has done. This has been immeasurably helpful whenever I've gone to look through an author's website because I wanted to feature them here and interview them myself. I don't like repeating questions the author has already answered elsewhere, and if I must cover the same topic, it's nice to try to put a different spin on the question and dig up something original.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kagey

    I hadn't thought about the interactive element of a YA author site, but I can see the reasoning – and the benefits. I don't think my books quite fall into that category, though! Perhaps a step-by-step about how to strip and reassemble a SIG might be more in keeping with Charlie's ethos?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    I like the idea of bonus features, like on a movie DVD. In fact, I've occasionally even bought a DVD twice if it comes out with better extras on it. (Sad, I know…)

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Susan

    The media-friendly side of an author's website is too often neglected. I've had to do that in the past, when I was CWA press officer, and trying to put together author info for awards shortlist announcements. It was a nightmare. Even simple things like having a quote-friendly author biog (150 words or less) in third person rather than first, so it can be lifted and used as is.

    Also from this perspective, NOT having a website where the pages are made up of JPEGs, so it's impossible to lift any of the text, because it's actually just a picture of some text. That's really infuriating…

  13. Zoë Sharp

    By the way, folks, just because someone's already mentioned something they like/dislike about writers' websites, please feel free to mention it again. I'm trying to build a concensus here ;-]

  14. Allison Brennan

    GREAT post Zoe! And my friend Sylvia Day just blogged about what she learned from beta testers on Monday at Murder She Writes–you should check it out before you redesign.

    Book list (and the order!!!) is crucial. Excerpts are important, but not too long. Ease of navigation and consistency of pages (i.e. if the "buy" link is on the left–keep it on the left for every book.) And most important: the upcoming release.

    For me, I go to an author's website for two reasons. 1) Find out when the next book is coming out and 2) backlist. I also like reading the bios, but that's apparently not a big thing for general readers. I also read acknowledgments in books. I wonder if general readers do, too! LOL.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Thanks for the tip – I'll check out Sylvia's post.

    All useful advice. And I read the acknowledgements in books, too. I think it's more an author thing!

  16. Dudley Forster

    If an author is new to me the first thing I do is go to their website to check the order of any series. I’m OCD about reading books in order. The next thing I look at is the author’s bio. I like to know a little about the author. One thing that is very important is if they write under a pseudonym (BTW I would love to see a Rati write a blog about the use of pseudonyms). I just found out that James Rollins is a pseudonym (he says his real name is unpronounceable) and that he writes Sci-fi under another name and I'll now be looking for those books,. I also like to read excerpts of books and have links to any blogs or other writing they would like to share. For example, a link on Toni’s site lead me her blog, “Dear God… (the stick turned blue)” which had me on the verge of tears.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dudley

    Interesting that a couple of people have mentioned the pseudonym thing. I've photographed under other names (long story, don't ask) but so far not written fiction that way.

    Excerpts always seems to be popular. Are you for or against having the opening chapter though? I've had people say in the past that they don't like reading the opening chapter on an author's website, because then when they pick the book up for real in a bookstore, they can't work out easily if it's one they've read or not?

    And that post of Toni's was an absolute classic, wasn't it?

  18. debbie

    Ease of navigation is crucial to me. Consistant page to page, menus that aren't repeated so many times or different menus scattered throughout the page that leave you wondering if there's more or that you've missed something.

    I'm usually there because I'm a fan, I want to read an excerpt, find out what kind of novels the author writes, and I want to feel connected…not a name on a cover but a person.

    To that end, I like 'about me info.' that is more than clinical. You know…have a not so friendly pet rat, how the author got pub'd initially… or things that intrigue me…can't stand geospheres. You're left wanting to know more and when you stumble upon the info. you have an ah ha moment and maybe a laugh.

    In terms of organization, I don't like constantly heading back to the home page to navigate, and if there is a series of info., I like to have the choice to either link to something specific, or read it all. I like menus within menus, but I like things very neat, classified, organized. For me it's a time saver. Helps tailor the website to the needs of the user. PK can look for what she needs in terms of her newsletter, a fan can find signings and cons, and there's less wading through the minutia. A person is more likely to stay if the site isn't frustrating.

    Oh, and no sound. Can't use my adaptive software overtop of music etc. There isn't, as of yet, a way to increase my application readers volume and leave the webmusic, sound effects in the background. I second the images comment. Embed a caption, it's not just helpful to a blind person. Take for example, an author standing by an editor, another famous author, might be lost on someone who just doesn't know what they are looking at. And if the book excerpt is a photo of text, I personally can't access it. My application reader draws a red box around it and says, 'image'. Not so helpful…but that's more my issue.

    Contact info., only if there is the potential for a response. Same goes for the feed. If a person posts a comment, they probably want to connect

    One last thought…after a revamp, how about a contest. Ask for visitors feedback if the volume of visitors is high enough to get a reasonable number of critiques, perhaps with a few specific questions to help.
    Intriguing post. 🙂

  19. lil Gluckstern

    Like the others, I do like websites that tell you more about the author, maybe an interview talking about the genesis of a character, or a particular plot. I love pictures of the locale of a novel-Natasha Cooper has a great group of "Trisha's London." I am mostly an armchair traveler, and these photos are a real treat. I am spoiled and like updated sites, even though I know it's a lot of work. There is a lot to writing and selling a book, which is already daunting to me.

  20. Dana King

    You and I look for the same things. Links (or the actual piece) to other writings and interviews are also nice. George Pelecanos has reviews and opinion pieces he's written on his site, and it provides a nice insight into how he thinks, which i like to know about writers.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Debbie

    Thank you – that's extremely useful and detailed info. I must confess that sound is not something that occurs to me in a website, because I always have my computer sound muted when I'm using it, but I can imagine it would get very irritating very quickly. I do notice lack of captioning in pictures that just say 'image' when you hover over them, or even book cover pix that give the wrong title when hovered over.

    I do try and answer all email I receive, but if I'm wrestling with a book it's sometimes not immediate, I have to confess … ;-[

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lil

    Photo galleries is another good point, thank you!

    I know what you mean about the time involved – I always seem to be up against a deadline of one sort or another. And it's no good complaining that there aren't enough hours in the day, because then somebody just gives me the smart-alec response, "Well, Einstein managed…"

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Just as a quirky thought, your comment about reading writers' opinions reminds me of a T-shirt I saw at the Bike Show last week:

    "Everybody is entitled to my opinion"

    Not sure I'd inflict that on people ;-]

  24. KDJames

    Zoë, I asked similar questions last fall when I switched to WordPress for my blog. I got some really terrific feedback that might interest you, though it repeats some of what has been said here. Just skip the post and go to the comments:


    I rarely visit an author's website. Not sure why not. (Though there are several author blogs in my RSS feed.) But I do sometimes look at an author's page on Amazon and it is incredibly frustrating when I find a new-to-me writer who has a series of books and the author page over there doesn't list them in order. Pub dates don't always help, esp if someone is putting a backlist into ebooks. And no, I don't feel like tracking down their website in the vague hope it might contain a listing. Yes, I'm lazy. So if any of you have an Amazon page, that's something to consider.

    Also, I wanted to tell you I've finally started reading FIRST DROP and I LOVE it! And I LOVE Charlie Fox! But I knew I would. I was going to wait to read them until after I'd finished this draft of my ms, but your books have been sitting piled up on my coffee table, taunting me. I have so little willpower when it comes to books. 😉

    Good luck with the revamp of your site!

  25. Toby Neal

    I'm not published yet but "building buzz" networking, and all that blah blah for my Hawaii-based mystery series. I try to have interesting, funny blog entries that will tell readers something about my writing, perspective on life, and tidbits/local color about life in Hawaii.

    Personally I'm sick of the how-to-write blogs by authors unless its someone with a sense of humor willing to reveal themselves.
    I try to be someone like that on my site becuase that's the kind of thing l like to read.
    As to "major names" its all been covered in your post. Seems like Major Names don't have to do as much actual blogging, though I'd be interested in their processes.

  26. JT Ellison

    Many thanks to PK for the lovely compliment about my site. Thanks!

    I think it's really, really important that the site is not flash. Yes, it looks cool. But it's just not necessary. It makes it impossible to access on any mobile apple product, which is a problem, considering how many people do have iPhones and iPads, makes it slow to load. The other thing I dislike is having to scroll through a tiny box of information rather than having it on the page directly.

    I'm always looking for ways to update my site, to find better, easier ways to link, etc. The same goes for Murderati, so if y'all have requests, let me know.

  27. Martha

    When I read a new-to-me author and fall in love I want more. I go to their website to discover what else they have written and prefer to see the order of publication. If they write in multiple genre that is helpful to know as are the pen names they use. If the author writes a blog it is good to have a link to that. Links to interviews are interesting too. Always I want to know when the next book is due out. As a number of authors I enjoy are not Americans I like to know when their book will be published here in the states.

  28. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    I like all of the things you mentioned plus book-tour info and, as Alafair, I like those extras having to do with the books, including back stories and photos. As Debbie, I don't like sound, except for interviews and author readings. I love the reading that Cornelia has on her site, and I have liked many of the video interviews that authors have on their sites. Finally, as JT points out– no flash. Too much movement and glitz, and I'm gone. OK, one more thing – no daily diaries – sound the same after a bit.

  29. Reine

    Oh, and I do read acknowledgements and bios– always. I read every word, unless I find the book boring or just don't like it. I forgot to mention the booklist, in order. That's usually what brings me to an author's website, along with something about the books. Currency and regular updating– very important!

  30. Grace

    Hi Zoe: I visit websites when someone mentions a mystery author I'm not acquainted with to find out more about their books, style, etc. and to my delight, I've been introduced to some fantastic new writers through this blog which I faithfully follow every day.

  31. Kaye Barley

    Hi Zoe –
    I wanted to hop in (late, again!) on this.
    Out of date info in the worst. Especially with tour information, especially when the year isn't listed. Yep – it happens. And I'm thinking "oh! I might be able to drive down to Asheville to see so & so!" Only it was two years ago they were there.
    I love an excerpt of the author's work. I need to hear the "voice" to know if it's writing I'm going to enjoy.
    And the titles of the books given in the proper order. Publication dates and titles are often different in the US than the UK and it can get confusing.
    LOVE to see photos and a bit of back story about the latest – that's always fun.
    And it will be fun to see what your new site looks like!

  32. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Debbie (sorry for the delay – decided to call it a night at 1am last night, when my internet connection kept dropping out)

    Thanks for the link!

  33. Zoë Sharp

    Hi KD

    Thanks for the link – all very useful stuff, and repeats are fine. Like I say, they build a concensus.

    Glad you're enjoying FIRST DROP. I've just sent pageproofs back for FIFTH VICTIM, and am planning the follow-up at the moment ;-]

  34. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toby

    Thanks for the info. Blogging is an interesting subject all by itself. I don't usually go too deeply into the how-to-write stuff here, mainly because Alex covers that kind of thing far better than I ever could ;-]

  35. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I'm right with you on the too-many-bells-and-whistles thing. Although we're on broadband, today it's connected at 544kbps, which is s-l-o-w by anybody's standards. Complicated sites just take so long to load I lose the will to live. And I agree that fiddly scroll buttons are a nuisance.

    I also agree with PK that your site is very cool!

  36. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Martha

    It's interesting how many people said they want to know about pen names, although usually writers adopt a pen name more for commercial purposes than anything else, it seems to me. I often find that if a writer does more than one series, I much prefer one to the other(s). I love Quintin Jardine's Bob Skinner books, but am not as keen on his Oz Blackstone series. And when I looked up Robert B Parker on Amazon recently, some of the most negative comments for his books were from people who'd bought a title thinking it was a Spenser book, only to find it was a standalone, rather than commenting on the book itself.

    Oh, and sometimes the exact publication date is as much of a mystery to the author as to anyone else …

  37. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    Thanks for the comments – I'm glad to find you read the acknowledgements, too! In my last few books it's been lovely to be able to mention the people who bid in charity auctions to be characters in the book, and name-check the charity involved.

    Some people, like Cornelia, do have a great voice for reading their own stuff, don't they? I love hearing Reed Farrell Coleman reading from his Moe Prager books out loud.

  38. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kaye (don't worry, I'm late, too!)

    Good point about the year on tour info. I've struggled to find current info sometimes on the web, too.

    Back story and photos are something I'm planning to increase on the books, as it seems to be of interest to a lot of visitors.

    Nice to hear from you, and thanks to everyone who stopped by to give me their thoughts.

  39. susan d

    Hi Zoë:
    just to add to above, about collecting info for Mystery Conference, or any PR reason: you're right, a brief cut-and-pastable bio is golden. As I was assembling information from a half a dozen sources for each writer, I was thrilled to hit Sean Chercover's website http://www.chercover.com/bio.php with a Long and Short version of his bio, ripe for the plucking.

Comments are closed.