Barnum in the Bones: Do Book and Author Websites Help Sell Books?

There was an interesting essay in Friday’s New York Times Online about the rise of (and perceived necessity of by both authors and publishers) promotional websites for books and authors.

Now, as an author who blogs (semi-) regularly to promote himself and his writing I’m not going to dispute the desire to have such websites. But what I did find really interesting about the essay were questions about just how effective such websites are in driving sales.

As the article points out, publishers have long hoped that a well-designed jacket or a good-looking author photo (it helps to have a good-looking author, which isn’t always possible…) would increase attention and sales by signaling that a book is a BIG DEAL. But in recent years, as publishing houses have encouraged writers to create a robust online presence, a new team of experts has emerged whose profession is to design book-specific websites and videos, with many authors willing to shell out big money for the privilege — between $3 500 to $35 000 per site, with writers paying from their own pockets about 85 percent of the time.


The example they give in the article is the website designed for The Da Vinci Code–a website that featured “eerie original music, crisp graphics, and intricate quizzes and ciphers, [looking] more like an up-market video game than an ad for a novel.”

But do book sites really help sell books? As in so much of publishing, no one quite knows. “People now latch on to a Web presence the way they once did with the book tour,” said Sloane Crosley, a publicist at Vintage/Anchor. “I don’t know how well the success of book Web sites can be tracked, but they do get thrown into that priceless bucket of buzz.”

A survey released last June by the Codex Group, a research firm that monitors trends in book buying, found that 8 percent of book shoppers had visited author Web sites in a given week. It didn’t, however, say how many clicked on the “buy the book” link.

Some authors try to ratchet up the wow factor by including a book video on their site. Modeled on movie trailers, these videos have become increasingly popular since 2006, with the advent of YouTube and MySpace.

For a really first-rate, well-produced book trailer, check out my friend and fellow WOTFian’s Jeff Carlson’s video promo for his books, Plague Year and Plague War. You can find links to it at Jeff’s website here (the hi-def version is stunning).

The book video business began back in 2002, when Sheila English, an unpublished romance novelist, trademarked the term Book Trailer and started her own company, Circle of Seven Productions. Her first clients were mostly science-fiction and romance novelists, but the invention of video-sharing sites brought interest from mainstream publishers. Three years ago, English’s company had 12 projects. In 2008, it had 140, including a trailer for Nic Sheff’s best-selling memoir, “Tweak,” featuring droning rock music, fragments of text, and images of body parts, but never a full face. “At the end you see a girl’s eyeball, dilating,” English said. “Anyone who has had the experience of tweaking will automatically recognize that image.”

(Blogger’s aside: do you really think that meth addicts are your major target demographic? Do you think they buy a lot of books, hmm?)

Back in 1996, Brad Meltzer built an author Web site for his first novel, “Tenth Justice,” including character interviews and the first chapter. His publisher thought he was nuts.

(Blogger’s aside #2: The New York Times says that Meltzer’s website was “arguably” the first author site but that’s just plain wrong. Robert J. Sawyer’s author website has been online since Wednesday, June 28, 1995–it’s older than! Check Rob’s post about this here. I agree with Rob: “Arguably” should not be used as a substitute for “I’m too lazy to check.” And they call the NYT the newspaper of record…)

“The publishing world is very resistant to change,” Meltzer said. “But there are always people — mostly the young and the hungry — who are trying new things. The days of just holing up and writing in solitude are gone. Today, you can’t be a successful writer without having a little Barnum in your bones.”

At the end of the article it states that J. Courtney Sullivan, the author of the piece, has her first novel, Commencement, being published in June. One wonders whether she will have a website herself…

– S.