I strongly advocate all authors start and maintain a website as part of their long-term marketing efforts and ongoing platform development. But one of the first questions raised when you get started is: What exactly goes on your author site—especially if you’re so far unpublished?
Before I answer that question in detail, I’ll set a few ground rules:
- Use WordPress. It’s a robust system with good search engine optimization right out of the box. Because it now powers 20% of the world’s websites, it’s easier to find help and ready-to-go functionality when you need it. I’ve been using it since 2006 and have been able to improve my site over many years, without ever having to start over from scratch with a new platform—because WordPress has never gone out of date or folded up shop. Too many people use WordPress for it to fail or disappear, and the core system is open source and free. (Note: Try not to confuse using WordPress.com with using WordPress the content management system or technology. A customized version of Wordpress underpins many sites you frequent—including The New York Times, The New Yorker, TechCrunch, CNN, etc. Anyone can use WordPress; it does not require using or having a WordPress.com account.) If you simply can’t stand WordPress, SquareSpace is a decent alternative if you can afford it.
- Buy your own domain. The domain is the URL where your site lives, and it should be based on the name you publish under, not your book title. Your author name is your brand that will span decades and every single book you publish. If you can’t get yourname.com, then try for yournameauthor.com, yournamebooks.com, or yournamewriter.com. If that fails, consider something other than .com (like .net or .me).
- Self-hosting is best for long-term efforts, or use free WordPress.com hosting to start easy. I comment more on the self-hosting question here. Self-hosting gives you far more functionality, control and ownership over your site. Serious career authors self-host, while new authors or unpublished authors may want to ease into site building and management by using a free account at WordPress.com.
- Social media doesn’t replace having an author website. It seems crazy I have to say it, but I do. In the past, some publishers have told authors that Facebook pages can replace author websites. Even though I think most publishers are no longer saying this (fingers crossed), it’s hard to put to rest this terrible advice. For background, see my post Why Don’t Publishers Believe in Author Websites?
OK, so let’s assume you have a fresh, blank slate with WordPress and you’re ready to start building your author website from scratch.
1. Collect the following assets for your website.
- Your professional bio. If you don’t already have one, write a 100-300 word professional bio in third person that would be appropriate if used to introduce you at a reading or event.
- Book cover images. For every book you’ve published, obtain the highest resolution image you can find. While you’ll be using lower resolution images for most of your site (to ensure fast loading time), it’s helpful to make the high resolution version available for download or as part of a media/press kit.
- Brief descriptions of each book. Your book’s Amazon page probably has a brief description of your book that you can start with. If not, develop a 25-100 word description.
- Long descriptions of each book. This would be the back cover copy or flap copy for your book. It’s probably around 200-300 words, or the full-length Amazon description.
- Links to all major online retailers where your book can be purchased. At minimum, consider linking to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. Consider adding Apple, Google Play, and Kobo as well.
- Contact information for your agent or publicist, if you have them. Or whomever else fields requests on your behalf.
- Links to your public social media profiles. If you have an official Facebook author page, or accounts with Twitter, Google Plus, Goodreads, etc., collect all of the direct links. Don’t bother with accounts where you’re not open to being friended/followed by the general public.
- Your best blurbs or reviews. Collect any praise that appeared on the front or back cover of your book, or official (positive) reviews your book received from the media.
2. Create key informational pages for your website.
We’ll get to the homepage next, but aside from the homepage, you’ll want the following:
- About page. Add your professional bio. Also include a professional headshot if you have one; if not, a casual shot will do fine. Your about page can have several sections if you like—mine does.
- A page dedicated to each of your book titles (or all titles). Always show the cover image, but keep the resolution low (e.g., less than 500 pixels across) for basic display on your site. If you like, make the high-resolution version available for download or as part of a media kit. Add a brief description of your book; layer in blurbs, quotes, or praise that help indicate it’s a great book; and add buy buttons leading to all the major retailers. If you want, add the long description, too, and/or include a link to an excerpt—usually the introduction or chapter one. If there are any ancillary materials related to your book (book club guides, FAQs, etc), make sure those are readily available and linked to from the book page.
- A page dedicated to each book series (if applicable). Make it easy for readers to see the order of books in the series and figure out which ones they’ve read. Plain chronological order (the order of release) typically works best.
- Contact form. Unless you’re super famous and trying to avoid new opportunities, make it clear how you can be contacted. I recommend a contact form, which is easy to add if you use WordPress. If appropriate, add your agent or publicist’s contact info as well—or anyone who might handle communication or requests on your behalf.
- Links to your social media profiles. If you’re active elsewhere (e.g., Twitter, Facebook), make it clear either with social media buttons in the header, footer, or sidebar—or by using widgets and badges that reflect your activity. As an example, my social media buttons are in the footer.
- Email newsletter signup. Every author should have an email newsletter to keep readers updated on new releases and events. Many authors put the signup very prominently in the middle of their homepage. I use a pop-up.
Pay special attention to areas of your site where consistent elements appear on every single page, such as your header, footer, and sidebar areas. These are typically where you want critical information or calls to action.
3. Craft your homepage.
If you’re using WordPress, be careful that your homepage doesn’t automatically default to showing blog posts—especially if you’re not going to blog! (For instructions on how to have a static homepage when using WordPress, visit my post here.)
What appears on your homepage will be highly dependent (at least at first) on the WordPress theme that you choose. A simple homepage design will have the following elements:
- A header with your name, tagline (“New York Times bestselling thriller novelist”), and possibly a headshot. This header will likely appear on every page of your site, depending on your theme.
- The cover of your most recent book (or even all your books). Alain de Botton’s homepage manages to encompass the author’s many different books and interests at a glance. Andrew Shaffer also puts all of his covers on the homepage.
- A call to action if you don’t have a book to sell, such as an email newsletter signup. See Barbara Freethy’s site for an example of an email signup on the homepage.
- Social proof. This can be as simple as a brief quote from a brilliant book review. Or let’s say one of your books was an Oprah selection—that would go front and center. Some authors just stick with “New York Times bestseller” (assuming it’s true).
- (Optional) A super brief description of who you are. Here’s the description on author Scott Berkun’s site: “Scott Berkun is the bestselling author of six books on many fascinating subjects. Please hire him to speak, ask him a question or follow him on email, Twitter and Facebook.”
Homepage design tends to be very subjective. The most important thing is that the type of author you are—and the type of work you produce—be recognizable quickly. You don’t want visitors guessing at who you are; you have about 3 to 7 seconds to convey a message before they leave. So don’t get too clever or cutesy with how you state your identity. I offer more specific advice about homepages here.
Make the homepage navigation or menu system absolutely clear—which usually means having a clear path for people to find out more information about who you are (“About”), how to contact you (“Contact”), and what books you’ve authored (“Books”).
4. Customize and personalize your site.
You might not have the resources to do this right away, but in the long run, it’s helpful to hire a designer to create a custom header image, or otherwise create a custom look that fits your personality and books.
This post by Simone Collins offers insight into what this means and what you should consider to transform your cookie-cutter Wordpress template into something uniquely your own.
5. Continue improving your site over time.
The great thing about WordPress? It’s easy to update your site as you have new ideas or new ways of communicating what you do. Don’t expect to get it perfect the first time; expect that you’ll improve the site incrementally the longer you live with it. You’ll visit other authors’ sites and begin to pick up on subtle details you never noticed before; you’ll want to incorporate their bag of tricks into your own site.
For instance, many authors incorporate “social proof” into their header images—you see the logos of major media outlets that have featured their work. You might not really take notice of this until you have your own site, and realize you want to reflect the same kind of “social proof” that your work has earned.
This is so important I’ll state it again: improve incrementally. Your website is never finished. It is always a work in progress. You’ll improve it, tweak it, experiment with it, and hopefully take pride in how it showcases your work.
If you’re unpublished
All the same principles apply, except you might have a more stripped down version of your site than outlined here. You might not have dedicated pages to your published books, but perhaps you’ll have a page devoted to projects in progress, or shorter works that have appeared online or in print. It’s better to get your site started now, while you’re unpublished, so you own your domain early on, learn how to use the tools, and begin the journey of expressing who you are within digital media environments.
For more on author websites
- Self-Hosting Your Author Website: How and Why to Do It
- 3 Ways to Improve Your Author Website Today
- Do You Need to Rethink Your Website’s Key Elements?
- 10 Ways to Build Long-Lasting Traffic to Your Site or Blog
- Is Your Author Website Doing Its Job? 6 Things to Check
For more on website design
- Your Homepage Is Not As Important As You Think
- How to Hire the Right Website Designer
- 3 Ways to Improve Your Website Design