A few months back, HarperCollins launched its “Author Assistant” project (example here. In a nutshell (meaning, yes, I’m going to get into more detail in a few paragraphs), the service allows HC authors to easily build dynamic web presences with a smattering of Web 2.0 features that allow for community building.
Authors must be active participants in marketing themselves and their work.
HarperCollins is, justifiably, proud of this service. The in-house initiative provides basic content management to notoriously non-technical authors. If you’ve mastered shopping at Amazon, you can work with Author Assistant. I think this is really great for authors.
While there are some authors out there with either the money or technical skills necessary to build a decent website, the truth of the matter is that there are far more really bad author websites than there are good. Authors get that websites are important (or, rather, most authors get this…there are quite a few who have chosen to ignore this Internet thing entirely), but the web is far more than throwing up bad HTML and hoping for the best. Sure, tools like WordPress make content management easy and Google-friendly, but, hard as it is to believe, there are many people out there who aren’t aware that blogging software does more than blogs.
I’ve had a few conversations with Carolyn Pittis, the Senior Vice-President of Marketing at HarperCollins, and she has maintained a constant theme: “let your publisher do what your publisher does best”. In this case, the publisher has strong marketing know-how, infrastructure, and tools. And while Author Assistant might not be the choice of all HC authors, it’s a fantastic way for authors to build a strong presence.
As Pittis noted when we talked specifically about Author Assistant, the HC tool does not limit an author’s online abilities. Authors can continue to maintain their own websites, MySpace pages, Facebook pages, blogs, mailing lists, wiki entries, Flickr accounts, Second Life avatars, snail mail postcards, online calendars, Squidoo, Twitter, email, and all of the other promotional tools that are de rigueur for today’s author. And while Pittis promotes in-house marketing power, the truth of the matter is that publishers simply don’t have the staff and budgets to market each and every book published.
Authors must be active participants in marketing themselves and their work.
Why am I hot on Author Assistant? As noted, it’s easy to use. I cannot overemphasize how important easy content management is. If updating your website is a chore, requires the intervention of a third party, or installation of FTP software, then chances of regular updates diminish. Nothing — nothing! — is worse than an out-of-date website.
Hmm, that’s not true. Really bad music that plays automatically is worse, but only marginally.
For those authors who so choose, they can purchase their own domains (note to authors: purchase your own domain right now, even if you think you won’t need it for some time. You’ll thank me for this lecture when you don’t have to pay a speculator for the privilege of buying your name) and point them to the HC site. For those authors who already have their own websites, the HC pages serve as ways to reach a different audience. Smart authors are already using their existing resources to up the popularity of their HC author pages, thereby pushing their names to the HC home page.
This is good because, oh yeah, publishers release a lot of books in a year, and home page real estate is prime. While it’s arguable that the general public associates books, authors, and publishers in any sort of logical way, publisher websites generate a good amount of traffic. Leveraging a publisher’s website is a good way for authors to increase exposure to an audience who might not otherwise find them.
In the comments section of Joe Wikert’s Why Does Seth Godin Hate Author Assistant?, a response to Seth Godin’s Who is Philip Roth?, Godin notes that one of his major objections to Author Assistant relates to ownership of content. He cites the example of authors writing for multiple houses or leaving one publisher for another. It’s a valid question, but misses the entire point of what is happening with Author Assistant.
Nothing about this service prohibits authors from maintaining their own web presence. There is no requirement that authors create “unique” content for the HC website. Authors are free link to third party sites. Yes, the publisher does review content before it goes live, but that’s to be expected. The official HarperCollins website is a very different animal than, oh, MySpace. I maintain control over what is published here, it makes sense to me.
Absolutely, this benefits the publisher. But there are also author benefits. As much as many of us want to believe that authors can jump into the DIY ethos of the Internet, many authors simply do not possess the right skill set to be their best online advocates. I believe, wholeheartedly, that it is essential for authors to educate themselves about online promotion (and I believe that publicity departments of publishers should be teaching effective marketing to their authors), but it’s a lot to learn, a lot to do.
Running an effective online marketing campaign can be a full-time job. Running an effective online marketing campaign can take an author away from what he or she does best. Leveraging existing resources is critical. It’s arguable that services like Twitter are effective promotional tools, but Godin cites Twitter as a positive use of time and energy. Why not add a presence on your publisher’s website to regular online promotional activity?
Not to mention that the templates and features offered by HC lead to pretty nice looking pages. I’m sorry, but if authors seriously believe that some of the horror stories they’re creating on MySpace are creating positive reader impressions, they are grossly mistaken. There’s a lot to be said for restrained, tasteful design. A lot.
In addition to providing a high degree of flexibility to authors who use Author Assistant, HC is also offering basic social networking capabilities. Pittis, who has been holding the idea of Author Assistant for a long time, waiting until “the market reached the right point”, points to the “Author Connections” feature as a first step. Building on the “friends” concepts of other social networking sites, authors can associate themselves with like-minded or favorite authors.
HC has also built some back-end author/publisher management tools to assist authors as their publication date moves closer. Being a bit of a web geek, I can see how this module alone can really streamline book-related interactions between the two parties.
Other publishers offer author promotion on their websites but with varying degrees of success (one major publisher, touting author blogs, made the egregious error of listing all authors, leading to the unfortunate experience of letting users click through to “no content here” pages — makes both the publisher and author look bad). Pittis is “glad that we got the chance to be first” when it comes to an integrated, robust system. Given the strong base developed by HC, it might, in my rarely humble opinion, make sense for other publishers to license the technology as a starting point rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
I was excited about Author Assistant when I first heard about it, I was even more excited when I had the chance to see how it all comes together, and I’m still excited. I often point to the lameness of traditional publishers when it comes to online activities. Author Assistant is one of the most positive, forward-thinking initiatives I’ve seen in a long time.
Man, that makes me happy.