Tuesday, 05 January 2010 10:00 Written by Josh Spero
Your browser could search a long time for philiproth.com. There are some writers, it is plain, who are not the web type. I find it hard to envision a site garnished with a picture of a smiling – scowling – Roth standing outside his Connecticut farmhouse, beckoning web traffic to read his latest blog post (“My new year’s resolutions”) or even providing a biography beyond the terse notes on his flyleaves. An author who is reclusive in life is unlikely to be prodigious online. You would not define these solely as “literary” writers, but the high priests of prose style are not often found in the world of LOL.
There are, of course, others who embrace the web, and for a variety of reasons: some enjoy the contact it gives them with their readers, others can have an online catalogue raisonné, and for all of them it is a good way of selling books.
armisteadmaupin.com, for the author of the Tales of the City novels, is as quirky and personal as his fans would expect; indeed, it is administered by Rick Miller, asked by Maupin after he saw his fan-blog. As well as brief notes on all his books and other projects all his books and other projects, the site hosts Maupin’s occasional writings, personal photographs and an innovative guide to the San Francisco he evoked in the Tales books.
Thanks to this customised Google Map, many places featured in the books are clickable at pinpoint, with quotations from the novels and current or archival photographs; fans can use this as a tour guide when they visit San Francisco. The internet is, in fact, the perfect location for fiction and fact to coincide: digital can often make "real" the literary.
The site rewards the deep and intense personal connection his fans often feel with him. This connection is not one way, either: when I got in touch with his webmaster to ask why Maupin had wanted a new website, I got a response from the author too: “I wanted a more comprehensive website because I needed a way to put all my lore in one basket, so to speak. I’ve included some old pieces that show my activist roots and other odds and ends that might be of interest to readers, especially the younger ones who – age-wise at least – are as far removed from me as I once was from P G Wodehouse.”
There is also a more serious purpose to Maupin’s site – and to his Facebook fan page too, which Maupin keenly watches: “Writing is such a grimly solitary profession that there's comfort to be found in discovering fans outside of an autograph line or a public reading. There are some cheap thrills to be had, too. For instance, I've never actually met Diane Keaton, but I love knowing she enjoys my work. Somehow that makes it easier to face the blank page every day.”
This type of website – which is not a blank behemoth of publisher-induced text but responsive, engaging and author-driven – is much more likely to use whatever the internet can offer: Twitter, blogs, embedded video.
This is true even post mortem: simongray.org.uk, which relaunched last October, just over a year after the author’s death in August 2008, is not just a reference point but keeps Gray’s memory alive with regular Tweets and fresh blogs. (His former editor Ian Jack has contributed a scabrous post on the farrago of book awards.) Gray was himself keen on a website as far back as 2001: “I’m thinking of starting my own web site. I must find out what a web site is exactly.”
Anthony Wilks, one of the site’s two editors, says: “The initial concern was simply that there had to be some presence for him on the internet, if nothing else just to be an archive for the many strands of his work.” But “archive” need not just mean what has passed: “It will be a living, accumulating archive, with unique contributions from people who worked with him. It will be a kind of ongoing documentary about Simon.”
Since Gray worked in many media – theatre, diaries, novels, television, film, radio – the internet is again the perfect destination to unite these. There is YouTube footage of some of his television shows, available in the video gallery, and when radio plays are rebroadcast, the BBC’s iPlayer can be linked to.
However, rights are often a problem, as is the BBC’s deletion of much of its early material. For what exists but has been unreleased, however, the site, Wilks says, can act as a “useful lobbying tool”. For example, “There is a final play, Hullaballo, which hasn’t been performed, and we would love to put together a recording of a read-through or basic performance for the site to generate interest in the work.”
Writers who work across genres in this way can benefit enormously from the possibilities of a website, according to Guy Courtney, director of Pedalo, a digital design agency which has worked with authors including Ian Rankin and Jeanette Winterson: “Most of the writers we work with are polymaths and a site can effortlessly cross-promote aligned projects such as novels, television, film, photography, art, news, journalism and similar.” It also allows independence: “A website is a great way for a writer to put across their message about their work rather than the publisher’s message.”
Those who can be “branded” by their publishers inevitably have the slickest, sexiest websites, although they tend to fall into clichés such as letting readers pick a book from a virtual shelf. danbrown.com is afflicted by this cliché, although one might reflect that this is not wholly inappropriate.
Otherwise, Brown’s site has had time and money spent on it: it lets the visitor play games based around his books (having not read The Lost Symbol, I got nowhere with that one) and there are plenty of resources for those who want to explore the cultural background to the myths he makes.
A site is also a very good way of making what’s old new again, certainly bringing it to new audiences but also just bringing it back to light. The Orwell Trust is republishing, 70 years to the day, his private writings in a blog, and there is even someone unofficially incarnating him on Twitter, which fascinating act of mimesis has also been undertaken for Dr Johnson, who regularly defines the words of the modern world.
There are plenty of entirely competent, uninspiring sites, such as joannatrollope.com, and even some which could charitably be said to appear “homemade” (such as ruthpadel.com), but what they lack more than élan or technology is personality.
This is becoming the exception rather than the rule, Guy Courtney says, “An increasing number” of Pedalo’s authors do want to get involved. (Their new site, Discover Writers, has tips for how writers can do this.) “The development of a community around a site is the key to success as it helps build traffic, so if a writer who we are building a site with is happy to contribute in some way then all the better. That contribution can take a number of forms: some of our clients run blogs or forums, some send out regular email shots to subscribers to their mailing list and some just update the news section of their site.
“Ensuring that the user has a reason to return is vital, be that a regular monthly column or a competition (win a signed book), list of appearances, a forum to discuss the books or simply some background on the writer that is not available on any other sites. All these things work well. A successful site is one where the content changes regularly and is unique.”
For some authors, the internet is a darned distraction, and dabbling in it only takes them away from their mission. Why get involved in e-chit-chat or the Twitterverse when all you have to say is in your books?
But many authors are keen to connect with their readers, to see how their work is received. For these, a website is vital, and the key to a successful website, to building new and reinforcing old relationships with readers, is engagement: those that repay the loyalty of their readers with the personal touch will last long after the latest reprint has hit the shelves.