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