An author has to have a website, right? Would anybody seriously argue with this self-evident proposition? Well, yeah, I guess I will.
I love writing. I even enjoy editing. These are not the only activities I enjoy; composing music and playing the piano are very rewarding too. But as frustrating as it can be to write fiction, I have to acknowledge that I often find it a meaningful or at least gratifying activity.
Naturally, what one writes, one hopes others will enjoy reading. Emily Dickinson wrote poems and then put them in a shoebox on a shelf, but she was rather unusual.
The book publishing industry has changed quite a bit in the past 50 years, and not, I think, for the better. There was a time when publishers would buy and publish books because they were good books! Today we’re in a rather different business climate. There’s a glut of unpublished fiction, much of it dreadful, fighting its way upstream to the New York spawning grounds, so literary agents are able to be very, very choosy about what clients they take on. Also, the big publishers are more dominated by corporate thinking than they once were. An acquisitions editor faced with a hundred manuscripts is going to offer a contract for the one or two items that look to be the most profitable. Literary quality matters less than it once did.
That’s not to say that literary quality was ever a guarantee of business success. Walt Whitman self-published. Virginia Woolf was published by her husband. I’m not proposing to compare myself to Whitman or Woolf. I’m just ruminating on the paraphernalia of success.
I have a very nice historical mystery novel on my hard drive. It’s called While Caesar Sang of Hercules. I think people might enjoy reading it. But I also think it’s not at all likely that I would be able to interest an agent in pitching it to publishers. For one thing, it’s a bit on the long side (152,000 words). Beyond that, an agent would want to paint the publisher a picture of how successful the thing is likely to be. “Good” doesn’t matter. “Successful” matters.
An essential part of the mechanism of success is the author’s website. There’s a lot more to it than that; a website by itself means very little; but the agent and publisher will want to check out the site before they take your novel seriously, because the website shows that you’re serious about your career.
The publisher will also want to hear about an author who is eager to do a book tour (not that anybody is touring this month, except virtually). An author who is young and good-looking in a photogenic sort of way is a big plus, both because the author’s face is part of his or her “brand” (admit it: you would recognize Stephen King if you saw him at Starbuck’s) and because when the author is young, the publisher can look forward to or at least fantasize about the author’s successful career writing one sequel after another. In addition, an author who belongs to an identifiable high-profile demographic is going to be looked on favorably. A lot of agents these days love to announce on their web pages that they’re looking for #ownvoices books. If you’re LGBTQ-whatever, out of the closet, and writing about the issues facing your fellow whatevers, you have a high-profile demographic.
I don’t have any of that. I’m old, I’m not good-looking, I’m not interested in doing book tours, and my sexual and gender orientation is none of your business. I don’t even want a career as a successful writer. I just want to write.
So what good would it do me to have a spiffy website?
I spent several hours today having a look at how to do my own web design using WordPress and a thing called Elementor. (As a result, my actual website, which is NOT the blog you’re reading, is now a disastrous mess. But does that matter?) I’m comfortable learning new software, or at least I always have been, but the complexities of Elementor and Divi are probably more than I want to grapple with in my declining years. It’s just not fun. And why would I want to spend weeks doing something that’s not fun?
The alternative is, I could shell out a few thousand bucks and get somebody to build a website for me. But that doesn’t make sense either. What would be the point of spending the money? If somebody else did the site, would it cost me even more to have them update it with new pages from time to time? Probably. How would I be able to judge whether a developer was competent before I PayPalled them a pile of money? And would a nice-looking website even make a detectable difference? Would it entice an agent to take on a book that they would otherwise reject? Probably not.
Sometimes I’m too cynical for my own good, but right now I feel like just making my books available as free PDF downloads. I don’t see a downside, and there’s a plus: If anybody wants to read them, the books will be readily available. My last check from Amazon for my 4-volume fantasy epic was about $3, so it’s not as if I’d be hurting my financial prospects.
Hell, I don’t even have to commission cover art. A proofreader, yeah, I can pay a proofreader. And I’m paying $20 a month for InDesign; doing PDFs in a word processor would not, I think, be a swell idea. So if I write one book a year, pay a proofreader $500, and keep up my InDesign subscription, I’m out $750 a year. How would I recoup that and also the cost of a website by uploading novels to Amazon for Kindle?
No, a website would only make sense if I already had a signed contract for the book. At best, it’s a chicken-or-egg problem — a Catch-22. If I were 31 instead of 71 I might feel differently, but geezers just want to have fun. That’s all we really want to do.