Authors of their own fortune

After Stephen King’s online experiments, Joel Rickett asks if publishers should fear author Websites

From The Bookseller (UK), May 4, 2001

One year ago, many would have thought Mark Hogarth was set to make a fortune. As Stephen King’s experiment in online publishing, Riding The Bullet, grabbed headlines across the world, the Cambridge academic spotted a potential way to make easy money by registering famous authors as Internet domain names, which could then be sold back to the authors, their agents or publishers. Soon he had registered 130 names, before approaching a number of agents with a view to selling back their clients’ names for substantial sums.

Not surprisingly, agents and their authors were less than impressed. Jeanette Winterson felt so aggrieved that she pursued the case to the World Intellectual Property Organisation in Geneva. By May 2000 she had won a groundbreaking ruling that equated a domain name to a trade mark in which the author has unregistered rights.

Other authors followed. In March this year, the Society of Authors spent heavily to take similar action on behalf of Julian Barnes, Antony Beevor, Louis de Bernieres and Margaret Drabble. Again, they won their claim, and it is now hoped that all the domain names will be handed over.

But what can these authors do with their domain names? While Stephen King’s forays into e-publishing were over-hyped, the schadenfreude at his withdrawal from publishing more on the site was equally misleading. Riding the Bullet attracted 400,000 downloads, while the first installment of The Plant found 150,000 readers, and healthy profits. King was by no means alone in attempting to broker a closer, more active partnership with his readers. The US author Warren Adler, who has written 24 titles including the novel filmed as “The War of the Roses,” believes that the Internet and digital technology offer “the greatest opportunity authors ever had in the history of books.”

He has spent $40,000 (£27,800) to secure e-book rights to all his work, the print rights to out-of-print titles, and to develop a slick Website. He aims to sell single print copies, audio-books, and e-books. He has not abandoned the traditional channels – his new book Mourning Glory is published by Kensington in August. But for this book the site is an aggressive marketing tool: users can read a synopsis, the full first chapter, and preorder the book online.

While few authors have the desire or the means to undertake such an experiment, many relish the close contact with readers generated through their own sites.

Jeanette Winterson has one of the most impressive sites for a UK author, with excerpts and commentary on all of her titles. The site carries a monthly column, and features such as an animated Flash movie offer a distinctive experience. was designed by Pedalo, which has built sites for authors including Alain de Botton and poet David Hartnett for prices ranging from £1,000 to £7,000. “Authors have niche, fanatical audiences that crave more information,” says co-founder Tom Porter. “They have a unique relationship with their readers. And the readers in turn want to feel that the site is being run by ‘their’ authors.”

Writers, he argues, have a “ready made brand” with which to market themselves online. “The majority of Internet companies fail because of the cost of advertising – but authors just need to put domain names in books, and the job is done.”

Diana Kimptom, co-founder of the Word Pool, which links to and builds children’s authors’ Websites, says that many users arrive at the Word Pool site after entering an author’s name in a search engine. She argues that non-fiction authors can use their sites to establish themselves as experts within a field. “If somebody is looking for information on elephants and they find your site is great on elephants, then they’ll be more likely to buy your book.”

Author sites can also grow backlist sales by introducing new readers to old titles. Mr. Porter says: “If people came to Jeanette Winterson’s writing through The PowerBook (Cape), that book may sit alone in a bookshop. On the site it sits next to all the backlist.” Revenue, earned as a commission on sales made at Amazon, is small but growing.

Most UK publishers have been slow to react to the marketing potential of author’s own Internet sites. There are exceptions: Harper-Collins’ recently relaunched has 1,500 author homepages. HC’s manager of online services Suzy de Silva says that the pages, which include biographies, author events and interviews, can coexist with authors’ own sites: “Where authors have no Web presence we will provide them with one, and we will also work with them to develop their own Web presences.”

But Mr. Porter argues that a publisher putting its “press pack online” will never satisfy readers. “Publishers should not be scared. The Stephen King model has not even been considered by most of the authors we deal with. The real work is in the books – they just want to display it in another medium.”