How Should Authors Promote Themselves Online?

As the director of an organisation for writers I was curious about the announcement of Random House’s new Web toolkit to assist RH authors to set up and maintain their own Web pages. reports:

… the toolkit allows authors to customise their pages with a choice of backgrounds, fonts and colours. Authors can then select different types of content to add to their pages, such as profile or biography information, links to favourite sites, audio and video clips, book reviews, bibliographies, photo galleries, blogs and newsletters.

The web pages will be hosted on a community-based website called AuthorsPlace and once authors have created their web pages they can choose whether to interact with other authors on the site, or whether to use their pages as a standalone website.

There’s a couple of things worth discussing here. Firstly, a system that allows users to set up their own page and add content such as audio, video, images, etc. sounds awfully like a blog platform. If the goal is to put this power in the hands of your authors, why bother to build your own, possibly expensive, proprietary Web architecture instead of educating your authors to use WordPress, Movable Type or Blogger for themselves?

The obvious answer would be to control the platform. No matter how much customisation users can achieve with colours, fonts, images, etc., the pages will ultimately be constrained by the limitations of the platform. This could have both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, if Random House wants to drive attention to their authors’ Web sites they only have to concentrate on doing it for the one online community instead of dividing their efforts among titles or writers. If Random House gets good at SEO this could be a powerful benefit to RH authors. On the minus side, it would presumably be very costly to keep a platform like that up to date with relevant features. Why bother to invest in the software development cycle when other companies are doing it as their core business and a lot faster? Some, like The Lazarus Corporation, are even offering artist-tailored solutions free and open source.

Secondly, I’m interested in the idea of the AuthorsPlace, because alongside Authonomy, this is another example of a community where writers talk to other writers. I question the value of this to Random House and to its authors, at least in terms of book sales. Obviously there are a lot of benefits to writers who can be supported by professional communities of interest. But I think publishers’ efforts are best spent on assisting authors to connect with readers. That’s a much harder task. It means you have to understand and be good at search. You have to to stick with the conversation long after the book is launched. You have to be open about, and even encourage, sharing and spreadability of digital content, even when that content is the book. (See what Paulo Coelho thinks about that.)

Finally, all this raises the much broader question of how authors should be promoted online for best outcomes. I’m a firm believer that nobody can do this better than the author themselves, but what is the role of the publisher in online promotion of their authors and titles? How long can they realistically commit resources and energy to any one particular title or writer? Who controls the message? Given that, as Mac suggested in this post earlier this week, the shift is towards two-way conversation, it would seem that the best results will be achieved by authors who are genuinely prepared to put in the time to engage in that conversation.

What do you think authors should do to promote themselves online? How much should publishers get involved?

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