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Let’s Address a Common Misunderstanding About Author Websites

author websites

For nearly five years now, I’ve taught classes on how to build and optimize author websites. Every single class, here’s the most common question I receive:

Is it OK if I publish my book on my website?

This question gets expressed in a multitude of ways, such as:

My first answer is a very direct one: Sure, posting content you own at your website is OK. But why do it?

What are you trying to accomplish by putting it on your site and not publishing it through the biggest retailer of ebooks (Amazon)?

This question indicates a misunderstanding of what author websites are meant to accomplish—or at least the majority of them.

An author website is primarily a marketing tool, not a publishing and distribution tool.

The No. 1 reason to build an author website is to create a marketing and publicity hub for everything you do. It tells the story of you and your work. It’s a 24/7 business card that never stops working on your behalf. It offers official information about your books, offers a way for readers to stay in touch (such as through an email newsletter or links to social media), and provides a public face to the media and others who might wish to offer media coverage.

Some authors blog on their website, and in that case, yes, there’s a publishing function involved—but the blog is, at its heart, a marketing tool, part of your author platform and long-term business strategy.

There will always be success stories and inspiring case studies of authors who blogged their way to book deals, or who serialized their work on their own site, and somehow amassed a huge following. One such example is The Martian. But these are such outlying cases that they have no bearing on the fact that author websites aren’t ideal as a publishing and distribution platform for book-length work. They’re best at building your author brand and direct marketing to readers.

A much more effective way to build a readership is to publish and distribute your work where the readers are looking for their next best read—whether that’s Amazon, Wattpad, or some other platform for reading and writing where thousands of people gather. It’s quite difficult for fiction writers to turn their own site into a destination site—not impossible, but not within the existing skill set of most authors. 

For authors hoping to attract an editor or agent by posting work at their website: The odds are incredibly low that someone will stumble on your work and offer you representation or a book deal. You would have to be attracting attention in a major way elsewhere that drives significant traffic to your site.

A brief note about publication rights: From a rights perspective, I don’t think authors hurt their chances at a publishing deal by posting work on their website. Technically, yes, you are publishing it, but because so few people will likely read it or know it exists, it carries little import that you’ve put it out there. You can simply take it down if and when it becomes a concern or a publisher expresses interest. (However, I know literary/MFA markets are touchy about this, but they exist in a different publishing universe from the rest of us, and have a lot of “rules” that make no business sense.)

What about content theft when posting your work at your website? That would indicate there’s a market for your work. Congratulations! More seriously, though: I’ve professionally blogged since 2008, and published a book that consists of content appearing for free and online-only. I can tell you firsthand that the amount of trouble I have with content theft approaches zero. Motivation for piracy is linked to work with high commercial demand, like Harry Potter.

When writers ask me if it’s OK to publish their work at their website, it’s usually because they’re afraid of piracy, or of losing their rights or hurting their chances with a publisher. But they’re completely missing the larger question of: Who would care or find your work on your site in the first place?

If you have an author website, what has been its most valuable benefit? How do you use it to grow your business?

About Jane Friedman [1]

Jane Friedman [2] has more than 20 years in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She's the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet [3], the essential industry newsletter for authors. You can find out more about her consulting services and online classes at her website, JaneFriedman.com [2].