Note from Jane: Next week on Feb. 26, I’m teaching an online class on author websites. This post was originally published in 2015; it has recently been updated and expanded.
I strongly advocate all authors start and maintain a website as part of their long-term marketing efforts and ongoing platform development. But it’s an intimidating project because so few authors have been in a position to create, manage, or oversee websites. Where do you even begin?
With this guide, I hope to answer all the most frequently asked questions and make the process a manageable one.
First, decide on your website building tools and what services you’ll use (either free or paid).
When you choose your tools, consider these three factors.
- Cost. Unpublished authors or those not earning much money should probably start with the free options.
- Ease of use. Less tech savvy people appreciate platforms that take the guesswork out of website design and building. Unfortunately, the easy-to-use platforms often have drawbacks or eventually cost you money and frustration.
- Portability and longevity. Not all platforms will stand the test of time, which is especially true of proprietary systems. (Remember Geocities? Or Apple iWeb?) Open-source platforms tend to benefit you over the long term because you’re not locked into any one service provider or hosting company. But they may be more difficult for you to learn.
My quick recommendations
- If you want a free option that has already stood the test of time, try WordPress.com to start. It’s open source and powers about 1 in 5 websites in the world. It’s not going anywhere. Later on, if you need more features, you can upgrade your WordPress.com account to a paid plan, or easily move to self-hosting. I comment more on the self-hosting question here.
- If you want an option that’s easier to learn or use—and you have the money to spend—try SquareSpace. However, it’s hard to transition away from SquareSpace; it’s a proprietary system.
- A new open-source platform that may be easy for you to learn is Ghost. It will cost you a monthly fee unless you’re advanced enough to set it up on your own host/server.
- I’m not a fan of Weebly or Wix because they are proprietary systems where you ultimately have to pay to get full website functionality. If you’re going to pay for a proprietary platform, I’d learn toward SquareSpace instead. I think it’ll be around longer.
I admit to favoring WordPress—I’ve used it for site building since 2006. My 15 years of experience has made me very comfortable using it, but I am not a coder. I have never taken a coding class, and my coding knowledge primarily involves basic HTML and CSS, all self-taught.
I recognize that few authors are as comfortable as I am when it comes to WordPress. Still, I think it can be a very cost-effective option that becomes more powerful for your online presence, over time, if you’re willing to commit to learning 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).
Carefully research and select a website theme or design template.
Whether you’re using WordPress or not, one of the keys to a good experience is your choice of theme. Think of a theme or design template as a skin for your website. It dictates the aesthetics—the colors, the layout, the fonts, the styles, and more. Some themes (especially WordPress themes) come with some rather incredible customizations and additional functionality, whereas very simple themes might have little or no additional functionality at all. This is why your choice is so important—it affects your overall site design but also some of your capabilities to customize your website or push it further without knowing code.
Important factors in choosing a WordPress theme
WordPress themes can be created by anyone, anywhere and made available with very little testing. Always check the ratings and reviews for each theme at WordPress, as well as if it has been recently updated or developed. You can also see how many people have downloaded the theme—and popularity works in your favor. The more people who use it, the more likely the bugs have been worked out. Fewer conflicts will exist with other third-party stuff you might use. It’s also helpful if the theme has a support community where you can ask questions. Very new themes should generally be avoided by beginners unless it’s from a developer who has many other respected themes.
For WordPress.com users, you’ll be limited in your choice of theme—for good reason. You’ll be presented with well-tested and robust themes that are free or premium (premium themes cost you money).
If you’re running a self-hosted WordPress site, then you can choose any theme you’re able to find in the WordPress universe, which can sometimes be paralyzing. I recommend researching as many author websites as you can, and when you find one you like, look for information about what theme they’re using. You can tell by looking at the source code. (In Chrome, go to View > Developer > View Source.) Look for the URL that indicates the theme name. For example, here’s a snippet of the source code for Bella Andre’s site:
This tells us that the WordPress theme is Divi.
Collect the following assets for your author 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. Optional but encouraged: a first-person bio that’s much longer.
- 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, you’ll want to link to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. Consider adding Apple, Google Play, and Kobo as well. Get links for print, ebook, audiobook, large-print, and foreign language editions.
- 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, Instagram, Pinterest, 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.
Create the critical informational pages for your author 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. 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. If appropriate, add your agent or publicist’s contact info as well—or anyone who might handle communication or requests on your behalf.
Craft your homepage.
What appears on your homepage will be highly dependent (at least at first) on the template or theme that you choose. A simple homepage design will have the following elements:
- A clear identity or header. This boils down to 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. Ideally the visuals tie into the work you publish (e.g., book cover designs, themes in your work, any official branding you use). Multi-genre authors, or authors who have multiple types of audiences, usually face difficult choices about what to prioritize and what messaging to use. Your homepage will typically be more effective if you focus on appealing to the audience that you want to grow or if you focus on the type of work that you want to be known for. Other types of work may have to take a backseat, at least as far as the homepage is concerned.
- The cover of your most recent book (or even all your books). Visitors should see or be introduced to your most recent book (or the book most important to you) on the homepage, without having to scroll or click around to find it. Ideally, visitors can click straight to their favored retail site to make a purchase. Alain de Botton’s homepage manages to encompass the author’s many different books and interests at a glance. Andrew Shaffer puts several book covers on the homepage. However, don’t assume people will scroll down a long homepage. Make sure you have a “Books” tab in your menu/navigation so people can quickly jump to or scan all your titles without scrolling.
- Links to social media sites where you’re active. If you have an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere, include clear icons somewhere in the header, footer, or sidebar of the page where they can be found quickly. It’s OK to link to just one site if that’s the place where you prefer readers engage with you. Avoid linking to social media sites where you have an account, but don’t engage or actively post.
- An email newsletter signup. The most important part of your sign-up is the language you use when asking people to subscribe. Avoid a generic call to action, such as “Sign up for my free email newsletter.” Instead, craft the copy in such a way that no other author could use the same language. Make it unique to you and what you send. See James Clear’s site for an example of how to do this in an elegant manner.
- 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 seven books on culture, leadership and how ideas work. You can 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.
Make the 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”).
If you blog
Some authors who blog will put their blog front and center on their homepage—or it will end up there by default! This can be a mistake unless your blog is current, popular, and compelling. For most authors I work with, it’s far better to have links to their most recent blog posts apparent on the homepage, and use the homepage to more prominently focus on books. If you decide to have your blog take up most of your homepage, I recommend that you not show the full text of each post. Instead, show an image + excerpt and make people click through to read, so you have room to feature a range of latest posts (without making people scroll forever).
If needed, to change your homepage settings on WordPress (to avoid it showing a default archive of blog posts), go to Appearance > Customize > Homepage Settings.
Customize and personalize your site.
You might not have the resources to do this right away, but 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.
Continue improving your site over time.
Nearly all website building systems make it 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. Instead of dedicated pages to your published books, you might have a page devoted to projects in progress, or you could list 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.
- To add e-commerce functionality to your site, you won’t be able to remain on free website plans. If you plan to accept payments directly through your site (known as e-commerce functionality), that’s when you should consider investing in an upgraded WordPress.com account or a self-hosted website. (SquareSpace sites have e-commerce functionality baked right in.) WooCommerce is a WordPress plugin-in that facilitates e-commerce on your site. As for me, I use Gravity Forms + Stripe because my needs are very simple. Keep in mind that, if you do accept payments directly, you need a secure site. Check with your site hosting company about how to do this.
- Cheap hosting is OK for low-traffic sites, but outages may be common, and support not so supportive. Years ago, I started out my website on a very cheap hosting plan from GoDaddy. It worked fine and did the job for less than $100/year, but eventually I bought a better hosting plan from SiteGround with additional functionality, such as site staging (so you can easily build a site without it being live), automated nightly backups, and improved caching to improve my site speed. I now pay $1500/year, a cost that’s mostly determined by my site traffic. With cheap (or cheaper) hosting, you might not find your site uptime as reliable, and the support might be lacking. With managed hosting plans—which tend to emphasize their service and support for site owners who aren’t techies or experienced web developers—the added expense can be worth it for peace of mind. WPEngine is a good example of WordPress managed hosting.
- WordPress users: only use plugins that you really need. Plugins are bits of functionality that you add to your site. They may be extremely simple, such as a widget that shows the most popular blog posts at your site, or they can be very complex, such as message boards and forum systems—or WooCommerce, which adds e-commerce functionality. Whatever functionality you’d like to add to your site, you can bet there’s a plugin that does it—probably a dozen plugins! And therein lies the challenge. It’s up to you to figure out which one might look best or work best on your site. Plugins may or may not work well with your theme, or they may cause your other plugins to be disrupted. You rarely know what the outcome will be until you try. That’s why it’s important to research your plugins just as you do your themes. Especially if you’re a beginner to site building, choose plugins that are popular and regularly updated, and preferably offer some form of support.
- If you’re self-hosting your site, install Google Analytics and use Google Search Console. Google Analytics tracks and reports your website traffic. The tool is free and only requires that you have a Google account in order to get started. It’s best to install it from the very beginning even if you don’t see a need for it; Google Analytics starts tracking on the day it’s installed and can’t be applied retroactively. Most authors, once they’re a couple years in, want and can benefit from the data that Google Analytics offers. Something not done as often, but that’s also valuable, is registering/claiming your site through Google Search Console. You can connect Google Search Console and Google Analytics for improved reporting. While Google Search Console is more advanced than what most authors will be able to understand, it still offers functionality you’ll want over the long term. In the short term, use it to send you alerts when Google has problems properly indexing/accessing your site for search purposes.
- If you encounter roadblocks or problems, Google it first. This is my No. 1 secret web development tip. I solve about 90% of my website problems or frustrations by searching for error codes, error phrases, or simplistic explanations of the problem I’m having, along with the keyword “WordPress.” More often than not, I find someone else who has encountered the same problem and solved it. If that doesn’t work, I resort to the support community provided by my WordPress theme developer.
For more on author websites
- Self-Hosting Your Author Website: How and Why to Do It
- 10 Ways to Build Long-Lasting Traffic to Your Site or Blog
- Your Homepage Is Not As Important As You Think
Note from Jane: Next week on Feb. 26, I’m teaching an online class on author websites.