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Total Website Strategy, Part 1: Promotion and Merchandising

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(SEE ALSO: Part 2)

Indie publishers who understand the need for a comprehensive marketing plan for each season and each year also understand that a significant, coordinated online presence is part of that plan.

Your publisher Website is the hub of your online presence, with the various social media channels—blog, Twitter stream, Facebook page(s), LinkedIn account, Google+ network, Pinterest page—radiating out from it like the spokes on a wheel. With your Website serving that important function in your marketing and sales funnel, you need to make sure you’re doing it right.

Doing it right starts with design, and the number one rule of good design says Form Follows Function. This triple-F rule means that you need to design your site’s format to fit the way you need it to function. And that should be dictated by who’s going to use the site, and for what.

Depending on the intended usage for your site, its functions may include:

  • branding and positioning to promote your publishing house
  • promoting your authors
  • merchandising your books and other products
  • courting the media
  • staying in touch with your customers
  • providing an ordering portal for your consumer, retail, and/or wholesale customers

What follows covers the first three of these functions. Next month’s “Total Website Strategy” article will cover the rest.

Branding. Working in a frontline marketing capacity, your site should establish your brand with strong visuals in your house colors, including a sharp, clean logo graphic, along with photos, other illustrations, videos, and copy.

Visuals should reflect your brand’s personality. Are you a serious, authoritative business or academic publisher? Then they should be relatively formal, buttoned-down, straightforward images that reflect a no-nonsense persona. Are you a children’s book publisher? Your imagery should reflect a more playful attitude with bright colors. And so on.

Copy is very important, of course. Your headlines have the hardest work to do, with just three seconds to grab someone’s interest before they click away. Try to keep main headlines to five to seven words—picture a billboard along the highway—and definitely don’t exceed ten.

  • Body copy should be as brief as possible, since we all know that Web surfers are anything but patient.
  • Don’t use run-on sentences. Offer one simple concept per sentence.
  • Use short, simple words when you can.
  • Include the keywords that your intended audience might use to search for you, your authors, their books and subject matter. This will improve your search rankings.
  • Include your tagline, the sentence or sentence fragment that tells what’s special about the value you’re providing.
  • Instead of listing items within conventional sentence structures, separate them into bullet points, like the ones you’re reading right now. This helps with copy scanning, which is what Web visitors do until they find whatever point they’re looking for. Then they’ll slow down for closer reading. Make that easy for them.

Positioning. Like your images, your copy should reflect your publishing house’s personality. How you say what you say matters as much as the points themselves. Again, pay attention to tone and decide whether to use language that’s more formal or more playful, erudite or folksy.

This is part of branding, which establishes you in the publishing marketplace, and also part of positioning, which establishes your place among your peers or competitors. Marketers refer to it as your place in the food chain of your industry.

That’s why your copy should be about the features and benefits you bring to your intended audience, rather than about you or your company. Somewhere in their minds, all prospective customers at your site are asking, “What’s in it for me?” The site needs to answer that question.

Promoting your authors. If the only work you publish is your own, then you can get away with an author site that simply provides pages for each of your books. But if you publish more than one author’s work, you need to seriously consider a multisite strategy.

Because your site is the hub of your Internet presence, its main function is marketing. And the first rule of effective marketing is: one message, targeted to one audience, in each chosen format. A Website is one format.

My company, Word Forge Books, publishes and promotes the work of 12 authors. Our contract has a clause that requires each author to develop and maintain a professional-quality author Website. We don’t tell authors exactly what they have to have on those sites, but we do give them a list of suggested content.

The contract gives us reasonable say about whether the author site content is professional in nature and appropriate to the author’s work, although of course we respect authors’ free speech rights and their personal wishes.

The contract also states that we will register the book’s title as its own Internet domain and be responsible for building a book-specific site, hosting it, and incurring all costs related to these activities. And the contract stipulates that we will link the book site to our publishing site, while the author is responsible for linking the author site back to that. This assures appropriate referral traffic along that circuit.

Could we require that the author build and manage the book site instead of us? Yes, but then we’d lose a lot of control of that site’s messaging, and after all, we’re ultimately responsible for what we publish. Plus we believe that requiring authors to maintain a book-specific site would place undue, and unfair, financial strain on them.

Merchandising your books and other products. Of course, we do expect our authors to promote their books on their author sites, and we expect each author site to feature at least a cover image (which we supply) with a brief description and a link to our corresponding book site or sell page. But we do the heavy lifting of offering complete descriptions, and whichever of the elements described below make sense for a particular title on its book site.

Building a separate, book-specific site for each title you publish requires careful planning so that your publisher site can easily accommodate all the information needed to promote each new title. Smooth navigation is critical since a site can become cumbersome very quickly, even if you publish only a few titles per year.

If you have many titles, having a separate site for each one could easily become too expensive and unwieldy. But no need to reinvent the wheel: Take a look at what some of the Big Five have done, and copy their approach. I assure you, they paid big bucks for structure and navigation that works seamlessly, so you don’t have to.

I think the RandomHouse.com approach is excellent for title-specific listings. Just enough information for each one, and it all fits handily into a clean, spare layout that’s easy to read and use. (Note: Although Random House and some other big players offer “Search Inside the Book” on their own sites, that’s pricey.)

The rest of us can consider hooking up through Perseus Book Group’s Constellation Digital Services (constellationdigital.com/index.php/digitaldiscovery-services). Disclaimer: I have not priced or tried these services.

Here is a list of elements you may decide make sense for presenting each title on your site. Of course you may opt to include many, many other elements, depending on your titles’ audiences. Fortunately, Websites are endlessly changeable, upgradeable, and updateable, so what you begin with doesn’t have to be what you end up with.

  • about the author (with link to author site if there is one)
  • plot synopsis (minus spoilers)
  • character information
  • video trailer
  • advance praise (prepublication)
  • blurbs/reviews (postpublication)
  • excerpt(s) so potential buyers can sample the merchandise; or you might include a link to Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” if you have a good relationship with that service
  • book club/reading group reader’s guide/discussion questions
  • media newsroom


  • as above, but with more in-depth topical information instead of information about characters
  • the table of contents and at least one page of the index along with any posted excerpt; these are crucial for nonfiction readers
  • subject-specific FAQs or quizzes links to related helpful sites
  • teaching unit/teacher’s guide (creating a teaching unit that meets state DOE standards is a wonderful way to help get a book used in schools as an adjunct text)

Book sites for fiction and nonfiction can also include:

  • the book’s backstory
  • an author audio and/or video interview about the book
  • a link to the author’s blog

These ideas certainly don’t exhaust the possibilities for content. For example, we added a Reader Comments page and an “I Was There” feature for a book about a severe weather event that many people still alive lived through. At 55flood.com, these elements add interactivity and draw visitors through referrals: “Oh, yeah! You lived through that . . . you need to go there and post your memory!” I know for a fact that some of those people who left an “I Was There” message stayed to buy a copy, because their names showed up on receipts from our eCommerce area.

So ask yourself this central question: What would I want to see here as a potential buyer of this book? What would I be looking for to learn more about this book and its subject?

Mary Shafer is an independent publisher, an award-winning author, and a marketing consultant with more than 20 years in the industry. Formerly president of the MidAtlantic Book Publishers Association, a regional IBPA affiliate, she provides guidance for authors considering self-publishing and for indie publishers seeking greater success. To learn more: IndieNavigator.com.

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