If you plan to pursue writing as a professional, long-term career, I recommend starting and maintaining an author website even if you’re unpublished. Your website serves as an online home and hub for everything that you do, whether in real life or in the digital realm. You fully own and control it, tell your own story, and connect directly with the media, readers or influencers. It’s hard to overstate its importance over the long term. Consider it the cost of doing business in the digital era, a necessary business card and networking tool. In some cases, it can also be a creative outlet and community area, especially for writers who blog. (To be clear, having an author website does not mean blogging or require blogging. But if you’re interested, here’s my guide to blogging.)
Your first attempts at creating an author website probably aren’t going to be that great, and that’s okay. Plus, it’s unlikely you’ll get much traffic. Instead, the point is to practice your skills at expressing who you are, and what you do, in a public space. Over time, your ability to do this will improve, assuming you tend to your website periodically and don’t abandon it. (And why would you, if you’re still writing and publishing?)
If you start the website development process early, before you really “need” a site (before people seek it out), you can enjoy a gentler learning curve, as well as the power of incremental progress. You don’t have to launch and perfect everything at once. Start small, and build your skills and presence over time. You want something doable and sustainable—and sustainability is key.
What do you say on your website if you’re an unpublished author?
For very new writers, a website might consist of only one or two pages, mainly focused on your bio and portfolio of work, if any. Consider the following elements.
- About page. Write a bio of about 200-300 words if you don’t have one already. (Here’s how to write a good bio.) If you have a decent or professional head shot, add it to the page.
- Contact page. Make it clear how you can be reached. This can be combined with the about page if you prefer.
- A page detailing any work that’s been made public. Mention any magazines, blogs, or websites you’ve contributed to. Link to specific work you’ve written if it’s available online. If the list here becomes long, group your writings by genre, and use reverse chronology. Very prolific writers might consider creating a separate page for each genre, series, or type of work. For example, a multi-genre writer might have separate pages labeled “Poetry”, “Fiction” and “Personal Essay.”
- Links to your social media profiles. If you’re active elsewhere and invite interaction, make it clear either with social media buttons in the header, footer, or sidebar—or by using widgets and badges that reflect your activity.
- Email newsletter signup. Consider having an email newsletter to keep your fledgling readership updated on news and publications. Learn more about email newsletters for writers.
Home pages typically include the following elements.
- A site header with your name and possibly a line describing what you write. Commercial authors often include their headshot in the header or somewhere on the homepage, to make the site feel more welcoming. However, some authors find this too self-absorbed. Do what feels comfortable.
- Some unpublished writers, if their site is only one or two pages, will put their full bio on the homepage. However, it’s best practice to limit how much information you put about yourself on the homepage, and save the full story for those who are really interested (and end up clicking on your “About” page). Homepage messages should be reader-focused and help visitors understand what sets your work apart.
- Social proof. We’re all very susceptible to signaling that says, “This person is liked and trusted by others.” Some writers include logos of the publications they’ve contributed to or mention grants or awards received. Others mention offline/online communities they belong to.
Website and homepage design is incredibly subjective, but the most important criterion is that the type of writer you are—and the work you produce—should be recognizable quickly. You don’t want visitors guessing; you have about three seconds to convey a message. Some writers are able to get away with a fair amount of intrigue or cleverness, but try to be honest about whether you’re actually intriguing people or frustrating them.
Make the homepage navigation or menu system plain and clear—which usually means having an obvious path for people to find out more information about who you are (“About”), how to contact you (“Contact”), and what you’ve written (“Books” or “Publications”).
You might not have the resources to do it right away, but in the long run, it’s helpful to hire a designer to create a custom header for your site, or a custom look that fits your personality and work. If you’re using WordPress or a blog-centric system, be careful that your homepage doesn’t automatically default to showing blog posts—especially if you’re not going to blog!
Should you mention unpublished books?
Some writers are tempted to discuss and post their submissions materials at their site, such as a query, synopsis, book proposal, and/or excerpts. While this isn’t wrong, it’s unlikely to accomplish anything. If you’re actively querying agents/editors, they look at your website to assess whether you’ll be a decent and professional person to work with. If they want your submissions materials, they will ask for them directly. Or, if an agent/editor stumbles on your site for some reason—due to seeing you on social media or reading your material somewhere—they are very accustomed to proactively reaching out to ask about any books you’re working on. If you put too much information at your site, it could in fact dissuade an agent/editor from contacting you if it’s poor quality or doesn’t put your best foot forward. So, if you do post your submissions materials, do it with exceptional forethought.
All that said, it doesn’t hurt to put somewhere on your website a line or two about any unpublished projects you’re currently working on or shopping around. By a line or two, I mean less than 50 words.
Should you use WordPress, SquareSpace, or something else?
I generally recommend writers use WordPress (WordPress.com to start) because even though it can be a more complex and intimidating tool, it’s free and has so far stood the test of time. (WordPress has been kicking around for more than a decade, is open source, and underpins about 20-25% of today’s websites.) SquareSpace can be easier to use for those with few tech skills, but it comes with a monthly cost that may not be justifiable early in your career. Here’s a post that looks at the pros and cons of each.
The good and bad news is that 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. It’s better to get your site established 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.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.