Thoughts on Websites: Agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock

Johnson-Blalock HeadshotToday we’re thrilled to welcome Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, an agent with Liza Dawson Associates, as the first in our new series on talking with publishing industry professionals about websites and marketing.

As you will see, Jennifer has some great thoughts about websites for authors, both pre-and post-publishing!

Q. When do agents view an author’s website? Upon receiving a query, requesting material, or at the offer stage?

J J-B: The timing is different depending on category for me. With nonfiction, I might look when I get a query, and I’ll definitely look when considering the material. Platform matters a great deal with nonfiction, and I want to make sure an author has an established online presence.

With fiction, I’ll Google an author before setting up a time for the offer call, but it’s really more out of curiosity than anything else. I’m not necessarily expecting to see certain things in terms of an online presence, but I do want to know what’s out there.

Q. Many writers — agented and unagented — are very active on Twitter. What information are you hoping to get from an author website, and how is that different from a social media presence?

J J-B: I think of an author website as just a very basic landing page. People need to learn a bit about you, what your books are and how to buy them, and how to get in touch with you (so for agented authors, this would include your agent’s name and a link to her site) and find you on various social media platforms. It can be pretty simple when you’re first getting started–I think my client Kristin Rockaway has a good example of a clean, informative website.

A website is somewhat permanent (you can change things, but you don’t want to do so every day), while Twitter is somewhat ephemeral (people screenshot, so don’t say terrible things, but otherwise it’s there and gone). What this means to me is that you can have a little fun with Twitter, let some more of your personality out. It’s interactive, and people want to engage with a real, multidimensional person, not a book promotion robot. My website for instance, has basic, professional information about who I am, who my clients are, how to submit projects to me, and how to contact me. On Twitter, I definitely talk about work and my clients, but I also talk about The Bachelorette and bad dates and good food and all sorts of amusing life things.

Q. How much does branding, design, and presentation help when you are considering a new client?

J J-B: It’s a bonus factor. If I fall in love with the book, I’ll represent it, regardless of whether an author has a strong brand, but it makes me more enthusiastic and confident about an author when she has a well designed site. It indicates a certain savviness and a readiness to promote your work. My client Rebecca Barrow just designed this site as she prepares for her book launch next summer. I think the design really reflects her personality, and I would have been thrilled to see it if she had it up when querying.

Q. Does having a blog matter or is this really just personal preference about keeping one?

J J-B: To a certain extent, it’s personal preference. When you’re in the pre-agent writing stage, a blog can be a great way to start to build a platform, particularly if you can provide helpful writing advice, interviews with people in the industry, etc. It does take up a lot of time, though, and I think it’s better not to have a blog rather than have one you post on a couple times a year.

Once you have a publishing deal, though, you’ll want some way to communicate with your readers, and having a blog on your site is a good way to do so. If you update it less frequently, you can call it “News,” and just use it to keep track of your book’s progress. A periodic newsletter is also a good idea once you’ve started to develop a platform. I love Emery Lord’s monthly newsletter, for instance, which she distributes with TinyLetter.

Q. How does a website with poor design or questionable content reflect on an author when agents research potential clients? What should an author NOT put up on their website?

J J-B: It’s definitely a negative factor–whether it would prevent me from signing an author depends on how bad the content is. If it’s just a matter of poor design, I might bring it up when we talked and see if they were open to hiring a web designer. If the content is offensive, that would keep me from signing the writer.

As I mentioned above, your website really just needs to have basic information–where an author might get into more trouble is with a blog. Generally speaking, I think it’s best not to alienate people with your content and to keep it high level and professional. Think of it as a website for a business; it’s not the place to share personal details. That being said, though, your website should reflect the content of your work because that’s the foundation of your brand. So if you write books on feminism, for instance, your website is likely to have content that would make some conservative people angry–that’s okay.

Q. Is it better for writers to have a domain name (www.bigauthor.com) or a free blog (bigauthor.blogspot.com)?

J J-B: I think in 2016, everyone should have their own domain name. Buy it now before someone else does. I’ve been sitting on mine for a few years now until I had something I wanted to do with it. If you can’t afford it yet (it’s about $10-20 a year), a free site is fine, but you should absolutely have a domain name once you sell a book.

Q. Do you recommend setting up a website ahead of querying agents? If not, then before announcing a pub deal?

J J-B: It’s never too early to start building your brand and finding your audience. Think of it this way: If I Google you before deciding to offer representation, your website is something out there over which you have complete control. Having a website gives you the power to create a positive impression. So I recommend creating a site as early as possible, but I don’t think it’s imperative until after you have a book deal.

Q. Post-sale, what should author websites have? How long in advance of the publication date should authors begin to establish their brand?

J J-B: About 6-8 months before publication (rough estimate–varies depending on the publisher), your website will start to play a much bigger role. That’s when you’ll have a cover to show, galleys will be going out soon, preorders will start to become available. You should keep your website updated with all of this information.

As your career grows, so will your website. Eventually you may have links to interviews and reviews, a list of tour dates, FAQs, and so on. Basically, you want to collect all the useful and positive information out there about you and your books and put it into a well designed package so that a reader can come to your site and learn everything there is to know.

Thanks so much, Jennifer! If you have questions, please feel free to leave a comment and we’ll answer it! Meanwhile, if you don’t have a website and are ready for one, take a look at our work and shoot us an email!

About Jennifer: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: www.jjohnsonblalock.com.

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