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31/03/08

Why Agents Need Good Websites

Do agents need (good) web sites? It depends who you ask. Some agents don’t have web sites at all – and, alarmingly, some agents I’ve spoken to continue to take a fairly dim view of the web as a whole, almost considering it beneath or outside their areas of responsibility.

None (that I know of, and on the strength of their sites) goes anywhere towards embracing how and why they could be using the web to do their jobs better, or easier….

This attitude – at a time when the book trade finally seems to be close to coming round to the idea that technology could be a good thing – seems a little short-sighted. As more and more trade is done online, search (and, of course, what is found) will become equally vital. Surely an agent’s priority should be in managing their clients’ representation in all media – and being in control of the #1 result page in Google would be one of my targets.

It’s all good that there is lots of debate being reported about piracy, future models, and other “big” issues. But the failure (to the best of my knowledge) of the industry to make any real progress on the ground, such as to define even what a fair royalty on a digitally sold book should be, doesn’t bode well for the actual, day-to-day implementation of “digital issues”. If they don’t hurry up and sort out digital rights, then there is a real danger of the digital book going the way of the song.

I’d love to see an example of an agency – small or large, old or new – doing a really good job online, and would welcome some examples. In the meantime, here’s a few thoughts about why agencies should use the web better.

  • Representation
  • At my previous, and long-since-dead employer, Screenbase Media, I produced the site for David Higham Literary Agency. This was perhaps 2002, 2003.

    Soon after launch, we noticed some pretty high traffic for the site, most of it drawn from Google. At one point, for example, a search for “Food + Italy” brought back Claudia Roden’s page on DHA at #1. (”The Food Of Italy” was her featured title at the time.)

    The site has slipped down Google a bit since then, But if you take any of their clients at random (and there is a little widget on the site that will do this for you), a high percentage of them will have their page on the DHA site rank on the first page of Google results.

    Now, without getting into the whys and wherefores of search engine optimisation (other than to say, hand-writing good, rich information on a regular basis really helps) – surely one of the most persuasive ways of showing an author whom you represent that you are looking out for their best interests – is to come #1 on a web search for their name?

  • Obscurity
  • Authors and their works need to be found. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the recent example of PFD’s Caroline Michel deciding that the agency will handle print on demand sales for backlist titles that have fallen out of print.

    This is, from some views, a genius decision; it simultaneously tells authors that their best interests will be looked after by the people who should be looking after them (i.e. agents); it also provides ammunition (in the form of sales figures) for agents when trying to sell publishers the rights for the titles that are out of print. And, of course, it provides a direct, unmediated revenue stream for agent and author. (It also suggests a future where agents bypass publishers through very similar means, but that’s not for here or today.)

    But – the success of this initiative does depend on (1) an audience existing for the work in the first place and (2) the audience finding the titles in the available outlets. Which, in my book, means either handing the whole lot over to Amazon, (assuming PFD is happy to step to the Booksurge beat) or PFD doing some very competent and successful marketing of its clients and their books.

    This second would be my personal ambition, and it looks as if PFD is about to launch a new website – so all eyes on that.

    As far as well-known / established backlist classics are concerned, PFD can focus on generating good organic search to their site when it offers the POD sales; but for new / as-yet unpublished titles it will require some more creative (and pro-active work), which I for one will be intrigued to see. (An aside: I had a very brief meeting with Caroline Michel about creative POD ideas when she was at HarperCollins a few years ago: more on that another day…)

    Whatever happens, one thing is sure – they’re going to need to have some pretty awesome SEO gong fu to make a success of this.

  • Marketing
  • Authors move publisher from time to time. So what happens when one publisher has developed a web site for the author – and collected a large number of reader email addresses – and the author moves on? Who owns the data? What happens to the fans? Who owns the site?

    This rather pertinent question was put to me by a very smart agent (whose agency, it has to be said, doesn’t believe in any of the above). If I were feeling unkind, I’d say that it’s kind of moot, seeing as most publishers (1) don’t create good web sites for authors and (2) don’t collect email addresses or (3) if they do, they don’t use them. But it’s still worth asking.

    In my book, the smart thing to do (and which would be inline with the above) would be for an agency to take active responsibility for the author’s online presence, either bringing traffic into a sub-section of their own site, or to a dedicated site for the author. They should then either give willing authors the keys to the engine – allowing them to update the site as they want – or do the updating themselves in house.

    I hope I haven’t been unfair to any agents who might read this – and welcome any comments or responses to the above.

    (Incidentally, the genesis for this post was a lunch I had with David Miller of RCW about a month back; David’s views – “Lazy” literary agents must educate themselves about new media as a matter of urgency” have today been published by the Bookseller. He’s just emailed me to tell me that RCW have updated their website.)

    Posted by Peter Collingridge in Publishing, Web.

    Apt’s links for March 25th through March 27th // Apt’s links for March 28th through April 2nd

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