The Publishers Weekly newsletter on Monday quoted some study findings with the headline "One Fifth of Readers Visit Publisher or Author Websites." The small print showed that this was reader-side survey, and didn't associate the visits with buying behavior. The Spier advertising agency survey found "18% of readers have been to a publisher's Web site, while 23% of readers polled have visited an author's site." Hooray for authors, though I suspect the results are skewed by reader perceptions and memories. Many may believe they've visited an author website just because they are always looking things up on the web and seem to recall looking for their favorite author at one time, but it doesn't mean they actually got to the author's website, or would know if they ended up at a tribute site rather than one owned by the author.
The story motivated me to look at my year-to-date Amazon Associate stats, which showed that this website has generated a little under 1900 sales so far in 2006, of which about two thirds are books I've written or published. The highest sell-through efficiency varies between about 5% and 15%, depending on the title and the type of linking used, but buyer behavior studies suggest that the final sales attributable to the site would be appreciably higher. Most buyers, even on the Internet, tend to like shopping around, maybe check their local store pricing, sleep on it, so by the time they buy the books somewhere, the tracking is lost. My unsupported rule of thumb based on the sales trajectories of my books in their early days when they had no benefits from Amazon placements was that for every Associates sale my site records, it creates another sale through another Amazon session or a different retail source. In addition, the site generates direct sales, though I've intentionally structured pricing to encourage customers to buy through Amazon or retailers instead.
Since I don't advertise my website anywhere, the out-of-pocket expense for maintaining it is the $10/month hosting fee. The time expense of maintaining the site is what I'm doing now, writing. Websites are very much like real estate in that they can go to ruin over time if you don't keep up with repairs and improvements. I'd rather invest my time and effort into my own website then spend it competing for attention elsewhere on the web, but it's not necessarily the most efficient approach to selling the maximum number of books. If your main focus is selling books today, you're best bet is to take advantage of the publicity tools Amazon allows authors to use, everything from Listmania and Wikis to AmazonConnect. Aside from two Listmania lists I did year ago out of curiosity to see how they work, I've stayed away from these Amazon promotion vehicles, so at least I can provide some friends with a baseline for comparing approaches:-)
There are other benefits to concentrating on your own website rather than looking for publicity elsewhere. One mixed blessing is that a website gives you a higher profile outside of the bookstores, proving people find your site authoritative enough to link to you. Every couple months I'll hear from mainstream media looking for answers about the publishing industry, which is both fun and frustrating. It's fun to be consulted as an expert by somebody from the Wall Street Journal or the Associated Press, but some of the journalists who contact me are literally so in the dark about the stories they are trying to write that they don't know what questions to ask. It's a funny thing about publishing journalism, it's just not an active enough beat to have provided a living for any full time columnists, so the journalists who contact me about self publishing, industry book sales, POD or e-books, have usually been assigned by a desk editor to "get the story" when none of them even know what the story is.
I used to perk up and do a lot of extra leg work for journalists who contacted me, now I measure my response by how much homework they've done. And, while I certainly advocate getting kids experience in the workforce as interns, I find that being interviewed by an intern brings with it a high likelihood of being misquoted. Finally, journalists often bring agendas or preconceptions to the table, meaning they may only be looking for a supporting quote or agreement on background. As I mentioned in a correspondence with a writer last night, I'm just not interested in being "The POD Guru" for the next X years. I put it in quotes because the main turn-off for me is correspondence with people who haven't done their homework, and want me to walk them through a process that I've written over 100,000 words about in this blog alone. I'm always happy to offer constructive help where I can, and I learn tremendously from some of the questions and reports of different experiences that writers and publishers send me.
The bottom line is that my website is working even better than I'd hoped when I first started writing about websites for authors back in the mid-1990's, and it's also become a valuable asset in my business, probably worth more at auction than my titles themselves. But as magnet for drawing interesting correspondence about publishing, it casts the net a little too wide. When I get an e-mail these days loaded with Publishing 101 questions, I tend to give pretty short answers and recommend they read Dan Poynter's book, Self Publishing, in it's 15th edition. While I've never read the book myself, I'm told it offers a nice counterweight to the approach I advocate on my website, and it should scare off the authors who want to start a publishing company without spending any money.