Following a recent twitter convo, it occurred to me that this is a question which comes up again and again, and about which I have strong views. So here they are, helpfully gathered into one place in the hope that one day they may be useful to someone. Maybe you!
First, know yourself. The best way to build an author website will depend, in large part, on who you are and what you want to do. If you have no interest in learning how to do it yourself, and have money to throw at it, then find yourself a good web designer and let them do the heavy lifting. I think it’s worth getting them to walk you through the basics of updating content so that you don’t have to shell out more $$ (and waste time) every time you have something you want to add or amend on the site.
If you don’t have the cash for a web designer, or if you want to be more hands on, then there are several good options. These divide into two main groups: those which are all-in-one hosting and design services, and those which involve paying for hosting separately. In the first group are services such as Wix and Weebly, which offer great tools for site-design and which will then host your finished website for you (at a price, of course). In the second group, you’re looking at hosting sites such as GoDaddy, Hostgator, and the one which I use, Hostpresto. Then you’ll build your website, probably using one of the content management systems such as Drupal, Joomla or WordPress.
WordPress? But I thought they were a blogging site? They are. And they aren’t. More later to explain that.
There is a third way if you are really strapped for cash and are prepared to live with limited functionality. Set up a free blog at somewhere like Blogger or WordPress.com. With canny choices about theme and presentation, you can make these work for you. I would strongly recommend paying for your own domain name, however, so that your url looks professional and so that you don’t have to update all your promo when you become a bestselling author and want to upgrade your site.
If you pick method one, then I don’t really need to tell you much else. Look around at great author websites you love and ask them who designed them. Talk to the designers and find out what they offer in terms of ongoing support and training you to use the site yourself. Be clear with them about the functionality your website needs (e.g. newsletter sign up, contact forms, blog, printable booklist) as well as the tone and style you’re aiming for. As far as possible the brand of your website should match your author brand. Do not, under ANY circumstances, let them install autoplay music or videos.
If you pick method two, you’ll still need to be clear about the functionality, tone and style of your website. Then you’ll need to work out how to achieve that. My experience is with WordPress. I’ve heard good things about Drupal and less good things about Joomla, but I haven’t used either. If you’ve ever blogged with WordPress.com you’ll find that the WordPress.org system you can install on your hosted website has a very similar backend. The main difference is that there are many more themes available to you, and that you can install a huge array of plugins which add all kinds of functionality to the website. I use a theme called Suffusion which has a LOT of customisation options, and I also work with the html and CSS coding. YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO THIS. There is no reason to get involved in coding unless you want to. Many themes have their own customisation editor which will let you upload background images, set fonts, colours and other styles. You’ll have a range of page styles to choose from – full width, sidebar, magazine layout and so on. You’ll want to make sure that you have your homepage as a static page, rather than a blog page, and you’ll want it to include links to the top-level pages on your site (Books, About Me, Blog, etc.) RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO ADD AUTOPLAY MUSIC OR VIDEO.
Here’s why option two works for me:
I can’t afford option one;
I like messing about with coding;
I like messing about with design;
I like having control of my content.
That last point is the main reason I am wary of services like Wix and Weebly. While they produce great-looking sites, and my be more intuitive to use than WordPress, all your content is locked in to their service. So if at some point in the future you choose to leave (say, they change their TOS, or start charging ridiculous prices), you won’t find it easy to export any of your posts or pages to use on a different provider. I’ve also seen some reports of Weebly sites being blocked by ISPs in some countries, though I don’t know if that’s still true.
What about option 3? It’s easy to set up and it’s very cheap. You’ll need to do some work to make your site appear professional. Make sure you’ve set up a static home page, for instance. And choose your theme carefully. I had a quick look through the free wordpress.com themes and would recommend Motif, Bushwick and Confit as being worth a look for author sites. Or you could pay a few dollars for a premium theme. Be careful, though. By the time you’ve paid for 2 or 3 upgrades (domain name, premium theme, no ads) you might well have spent as much as a year’s hosting and domain name would cost you elsewhere, but you won’t have anything like the flexibility and functionality that would give. A lot of what you see listed as WordPress (themes, plugins etc.) will ONLY work on self-hosted WordPress.org installs, and not on the free WordPress.com sites.
If you register your domain name, the good news is that you can always take it with you if you decide you want to switch to a different service. That is by far the most important thing to do, whatever method you pick.
So, here’s the bulleted list (not necessarily in order):
- Get your own domain name registered
- Have a static home page
- Choose a theme which is responsive (so it can be read on mobile devices)
- Make the style and tone of your website match your author brand for your books
- Think about accessibility for non-standard users (e.g. adding alt-text to images for visually impaired readers. I am bad at remembering to do this but I know I need to get better.)
- Make a list of the content and functionality your site needs. Spend time looking at and using other author sites. See what works and what quickly becomes irritating.
- You don’t have to have a blog, but if you do, I think it looks more professional to have it as part of your website rather than a link to blogger
- DO NOT HAVE AUTOPLAY MUSIC OR VIDEO. I may have mentioned that before but it bears repeating. There is literally nothing more likely to make me and many other readers reach for the back button in the browser.
Most of all, I think, you need to remember that the website is not for you. It is for your readers. So yes, it should reflect something of you and your books, but your customer should be your priority. Give them a good experience.