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Commissioning an effective publisher website

Simon Appleby is the Managing Director of Bookswarm, the only digital agency in the UK dedicated to delivering projects for publishers, authors and others in the world of books.

I’ve been working on websites for publishers since 2007, and I’ve delivered projects for publishing houses large and small. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I can safely say that the most important decisions for publishers all need to be made long before any work is done on design or development.

Be clear about who it’s for

Commissioning a website often throws publishers in to a spin – who are they actually doing this for? Is it for their readership? Is it for the trade? Is it to make them look an appealing prospect to authors and agents deciding where to place a manuscript?

The answer affects every aspect of the site:

  • What content is included
  • How it’s organised and presented
  • What tone of voice is used to write the copy
  • Even what bibliographic data to include on the page.

Everybody must buy in

Once the course is set, every department must buy in to it. Want an Events section? Publicity need to be on board. Want to get authors to contribute additional content? Editorial have a key role to play. Want to sell books directly, or in partnership with online retailers? Sales need to be consulted to make sure it doesn’t affect their customer relationships.

We have seen many good ideas for content and functionality founder because not all parts of a publishing business were consulted. A website can’t just be something that sits with the Marketing Department.

Understand your data

Bibliographic data is the bedrock of most publisher websites, whether they’re catalogues or e-commerce enabled. Whether a site is being kept up to date using an ONIX feed, or manually maintained, it’s absolutely vital that the team commissioning the site, and the web agency, understand what data is and isn’t available, and how often it’s updated.

Simple things like knowing whether an author feed includes author photos, or how different editions of the same book are referenced, can make a huge difference to the user experience the designers can deliver.

Feeding the beast

Once a website goes live, it may seem like a ravenous beast, constantly needing to be fed with content. The resources available to create interesting and original content, keep event calendars up to date and manage your catalogue or shop effectively need to be taken in to account at the planning stage – good content doesn’t write itself (just ask the folks at BookMachine!).

The end is just the beginning

It’s a cliché that I have been trotting out for my entire career in digital media, but it happens to be true: launching a website is just the beginning of the journey. Once it’s live it needs to be kept fresh, and the design, content and functionality will probably evolve gradually over its lifespan (and we think most publishers would be looking to get at least three or four years from any new website). Publishers who down tools and move on to the next thing the moment a site goes live will not get a good return on the investment they have made.

Above all, be honest with yourselves about what you are setting out to do and the resources needed to run the project and maintain the website when launched. You will be glad that you were!

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