Has social media made author websites obsolete?

An author website is still far more essential than Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, says Simon Appleby. This piece originally appears on the Bookseller’s Futurebook website.

It seems remarkable to me, in 2017, to even be discussing whether an author should have a website, but a quick Google search reveals ample evidence that it’s a commonly discussed topic. And the consensus is by no means clearly in favour of websites as essential. “Go where the audience is”, some sages will tell you, meaning Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest.

I’m here to tell you that this is bunk. Websites are in no way old hat. You may not need a fax machine in the 21st century, and you can certainly manage without a photocopier – but a website should still be as important to a writer as their laptop, notebook and thesaurus (print or digital).

Why? It’s helpful to take a step back and try and look at things from a broader perspective. The Internet is a technological marvel which has changed the world immeasurably in a tiny amount of time. There are people entering the world of work now who can’t remember the time before the Internet revolutionised the way we communicate, buy, sell, live and love. But many of us do remember. We remember the pain of long-distance communication; the dependence on analogue methods of information retrieval. Surely very few of us who remember those days would be keen to return to them permanently.

And when those of us who remember the before-times think about the killer apps which made us realise the power and possibility of this new and mysterious technology, I bet you my old 33.6 k modem that they were email and the World Wide Web. Email is the ravening beast which destroys our productivity – it’s fashionable to hate it, but not to ignore it. Yet the World Wide Web – somehow an information network containing over 6 billion websites, built from nothing in a little over 20 years? That’s passé?

To paraphrase the patron saint of geeks, Douglas Adams, the Web is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. Perhaps its very size has made it unfashionable or daunting. After all, a website owner is in competition with loads of other website owners to get users’ attention. But considering that a good reason not to take part at all seems a bit short-sighted to me.

The web naysayers would have authors (and presumably other organisations and individuals) retreat to the walled bear-pits, sorry, gardens that are the social networks. While these have their place (and I’m as easily distracted by Facebook as the next guy), they also have considerable downsides – trolls lurking under bridges, and shiny baubles to amuse you when you should be doing something productive.

More to the point, you’re giving your personal, private information to a giant corporation which only values you as a way of generating data it can use to sell advertising, bolster its bottom line and grow its share price.

By using a social media platform, it’s as if you are playing a made-up sport where the governing body (which happens to be owned by a billionaire) invented the game and the rules only a few years ago. Those rules can change without consultation or prior warning. The authorities also lend you the kit, rent you the pitch and offer you the chance to sponsor the shirts (all for a reasonable fee of course). How generous of them! How open-hearted!

By comparison, the Web is like a proper sport, such as football or cricket, that’s been around for ages. Yes, there is a top tier of players, with fan clubs, floodlights, stadia and TV deals. But the spirit of the game belongs to all the players, not just the elites, and as long as it exists, it’s open to all, from ‘jumpers for goalposts’ amateurs all the way up to the big leagues. The rules of such sports may have evolved over time, but the way the game is played is recognisably the same, and if the governing body goes bust – so what? People will still play the game, and love it.

It’s arguably easier than ever to set up a web presence very quickly, with a small amount of technical skill and little or no money spent. Free blogging and DIY web platforms? Check. Free stock images? You got it. Take it from someone who’s been doing this a long time – entry-level platforms are easier than ever to use, and well within the compass of even the most technophobic of writers.

Of course, I would say all this wouldn’t I? Well, yes, it’s true – I design websites for a living, and I’m hardly going to talk down my own livelihood. But authors should not dismiss the web as being somehow less convenient, less popular or less valuable than social media platforms. Unlike those platforms, we can be pretty sure the web will be around for a long time to come.

Image source: WWW image

My Digital Life: Dr Barbara Oakley

Welcome to the third post of our new series, in which we ask our author clients to answer three questions about how they use digital marketing in their careers, and how it affects their writing.

This week: Dr Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University. Her research involves bioengineering with an emphasis on neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Barbara teaches two massive open online courses (MOOCs), “Learning How to Learn” (the world’s most popular course) and “Mindshift” (based on her latest book of the same title), alongside legendary neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski. She has received many awards for her teaching, including the American Society of Engineering Education’s Chester F. Carlson Award for technical innovation in education and the National Science Foundation New Century Scholar Award.


What do you is think the most effective thing you’ve done in the digital world?

The most effective thing I’ve done is a massive open online course called “Learning How to Learn,” through Coursera – University of California, San Diego.  We’ve had nearly 2 million enrolled students. A big part of the success of this course is that I used attention-grabbing techniques, humor, and solid science, to convey the key ideas.  A good explanation of how to create an online video course can be found in week 4 of my course “Mindshift” (it’s free). The courses have served to help introduce people to my books.

How do you feel about the way digital technology has made it easier for writers to connect with their readers?

The fact that so many people know about my work, and reach out to me, means that I’m constantly kept informed of the latest trends in what’s going on that’s related to my writing.  It’s not that I can respond to everyone. But the interaction I do have with my readers and viewers helps keep me sharp and helps me know what people are most interested in.

What’s the single best piece of advice you can give to other writers about the best use of digital marketing?

I’ve found that emails to those who have enrolled in my courses are the most effective means of outreach.  I send an email out each Friday to roughly 1.1 million students.  This weekly email builds a solid sense of community around my writing and my courses.


Visit Barbara’s website at barbaraoakley.com

My Digital Life: Peter Fisk

Welcome to the second post of our new series, in which we ask our lovely author clients to answer three questions about how they use digital marketing in their careers, and how it affects their writing.

This week: Peter Fisk. Peter is a global business thought leader on growth and innovation, customers and marketing. He is a bestselling author, expert consultant and keynote speaker, helping business leaders to develop innovative strategies for business and brands. Having trained as a nuclear physicist he went on to work with brands from Coca Cola to RedBull, Virgin to Vodafone, is a professor at IE Business School, runs his own innovation company, GeniusWorks, and features on the Thinkers 50 radar of best business thinkers.


What do you is think the most effective thing you’ve done in the digital world?

I wanted to write a book that was much more – had more reach, more longevity and more value than 300 pages of paper. “Gamechangers” was based on my curiosity of how companies win in the digital world, and 100 interviews with the most disruptive innovators across the world, in every region and every sector. How do they embrace the new technologies, the new markets, the new issues as businesses? What I got was a deep and constantly evolving insight into the fast-changing digital world. A web-based platform that combined blogs and videos, case studies and competitions, events and toolkits was the springboard from which I was able to launch the book. It enabled me to meet people more globally and actively than any publisher could, and to build an ongoing conversation with participants that embraced events, workshops and awards. The book is now physical and digital, more of a branded community, and has evolved significantly since its launch, with continual updates and new directions. Like the companies that it was originally inspired by, and continues to track – Airbnb to Buzzfeed, Coursera to Dalian Wanda – it has found a space to add real value in today’s hybrid and connected world.

How do you feel about the way digital technology has made it easier for writers to connect with their readers?

The ability to customise and collaborate, to build a conversation and ultimately a community is not new. But fundamentally different in the book publishing world. 4 years ago, I was invited to host the Future Book Forum, now held annually in Munich, and the biggest innovation workshop of publishers and printers in the world. Last year we had over 400 book people together, sharing their best ideas about how to take the industry forwards. As an author, I have learnt to think much more like a brand, to see the book as a mere catalyst, and to see the business model as much more significant that advances (no longer), royalties (trivial sums) and rights (still good money). The best crowdfunded books clearly show what audiences will pay for, with some Kickstarter stars generating over $1 million as they offer custom books to limited edition ego-books, dinner conversations with authors or corporate events. Similarly, linking to brand or corporate partners – aligning a fashion bio with a retail store, a sports handbook with a bestselling magazine – transforms the potential to promote the book (or range of products) to audiences, sometimes far in advance, generating advanced sales and reduced risk. The best form of course is co-created books, custom content that is more authentic and interesting, and word of mouth recommendation.

What’s the single best piece of advice you can give to other writers about the best use of digital marketing?

Digital marketing is all about rethinking ideas and networks. Its not just a promotional tool, but a way to fundamentally reinvent your book and your business model. As an author your value is not in bashing out the 300 pages, it is in having the idea. The big idea (which is usually captured in the first chapter!), that then catalyses a conversation, gets people thinking and talking, participating and sharing. Yes they will buy a copy, but more importantly they will talk to others. More than that they will want to be part of it, either by contributing their own insights and opinions, or by embracing the ideas more deeply through workshops or other activities. This is where value is created and real money can be made. Books still matter, they are the thought starters, and sometimes the enduring manuals. But more importantly they are ideas that become brands that become platforms that become communities. As a result they create impact – an applied action, a collective movement, sometimes even a force for change. Publishers are the ones who need to wake up to this opportunity, to work with authors and technologists to explore these opportunities. Today’s best businesses are ideas and networks companies. They have a powerful, addictive, important idea that is then spread through networks. Forget the linear world of supply and distribution chains that end in singular transactions. Think instead in terms of networks that multiply – social networks that engage more people with more trust, publishing networks that take your content further and faster, and technology networks that enable people to participant and engage more deeply. We live in an incredible time of change – time for authors, books and publishers to catch up!


Visit Peter’s website at www.thegeniusworks.com

My Digital Life: Patrick Gale

Welcome to the first in a new series, in which we ask our lovely author clients to answer three questions about how they use digital marketing in their careers, and how it affects their writing.

Kicking us off is Patrick Gale. Patrick’s sixteenth novel, A Place Called Winter was a Radio 2 Book Club selection, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize and the Green Carnation Award and and is now being developed as a BBC serial. His two part film, Man in an Orange Shirt will be on BBC 2 this July along with a documentary about his work as part of the Gay Britannia season. He is a patron of the Charles Causley Trust and the Penzance LitFest, a director of Endelienta and artistic director of the North Cornwall Book Festival. He plays the cello and lives on the last farm in Cornwall.


What do you is think the most effective thing you’ve done in the digital world?

Around the time Bookswarm designed my website for me, I became far more relaxed about sharing my writing/talking/daily life with the online communities. This was just before a book tour for my novel, A Place Called Winter, and I really noticed the difference both in the size of audience my talks were attracting, in the speed and liveliness with which readers started responding to my work, and in the shelf-life of any articles I published. I handle it with care, as privacy is an issue, but I can’t now imagine returning to being a writer only present in the printed/published word.

How do you feel about the way digital technology has made it easier for writers to connect with their readers?

I’m sure it varies from writer to writer but my novels are intensely emotional and always used to generate a lot of mail. Now they generate a lot of tweets, Facebook comments and direct message. I love that immediacy. Readers now feel involved in the whole process – they get little hints of what I’m working on, sneak previews of the manuscript or design ideas for the book jacket – and I suspect that gives them a greater sense of ownership. Provided booksellers and festivals are also digitally connected, we can now work together to give book events free publicity they’d never get through conventional media. Twitter, especially , presents a great, buzzing hive of eager readers who are really generous at sharing information and recommendations. Far from killing off the book, as people initially feared it would, digital technology has sustained and enriched the entire publishing process. Sales seem to be as buoyant as ever and I regularly meet readers who are buying a novel of mine the second time, to get it signed, having already read it digitally.

What’s the single best piece of advice you can give to other writers about the best use of digital marketing?

Support other writers. I think readers get rapidly bored by talking billboards but they love to hear when a writer they like really rates some other writer they might not yet have discovered. We all enjoy the occasional crow, but boasting will never win the support that professional generosity does! And, speaking as the artistic director of one and the patron of a second, don’t forget to spread the word about the book festivals you visit; don’t assume they don’t need the extra oomph your support will give them online.


Visit Patrick’s website at galewarning.org