When it comes to establishing your author website, one of the more confusing topics is self-hosting: what it means, why it’s advantageous, and when you should do it.
What Is Self-Hosting?
Sometimes it’s easiest to describe what self-hosting is not. If your website has “wordpress.com” or “blogspot.com” (or the name of another service you use) in the URL, then you are not self-hosted. Rather, you are operating your site on a domain you don’t really own that could be taken down tomorrow. You have very little control over what happens to your site in the long term, or how the site works, or what happens to it in the future. The functionality you get is limited, and the rules of that functionality can change at any moment.
Even if your site does not have “wordpress.com” (or similar) in the URL, that doesn’t mean you’re self-hosted. It’s often possible to use a custom domain, or one that you’ve bought. This is called a “Domain Mapping Upgrade” at WordPress.com and costs a small fee. Blogger also allows you to use your own domain and doesn’t charge.
For the purposes of this post, self-hosting is when you have access to all of your website files and the servers where those files are stored (that is, where they are hosted). You own those files and have the freedom to change them. You get to decide exactly how your site is built, from the ground up.
You might consider self-hosting as analogous to home ownership. When you own your home, you are responsible for upkeep, the utilities, the taxes, and the insurance. You have more freedom to customize your home and the property, but you also have the burden of responsibility when something goes wrong. When you rent and something goes wrong, it’s someone else’s problem—but you’re also restricted as to what you can do as a renter, and you ultimately don’t own the structure, though you may own the contents.
What Are the Advantages of Self-Hosting?
The biggest advantages for authors include the ability to:
- Implement a fully customized design—where you get to decide all the fonts, colors, page templates, headers, footers, column widths, stylesheets, etc.
- Add plugins or tools to improve or extend your site’s functionality, often at little or no cost to you. Some plugins are very lightweight and simple, and do things like add a notification bar or sharing buttons to your site. Others are very high-powered and complex, such as membership, online education, and e-commerce plug-ins.
- Add Google Analytics and gain access to Google Search Console to understand your website traffic and organic search traffic—and therefore understand more about your audience.
- Better monetize your site and activity, since you’ll have 100% freedom to host advertising, add e-commerce tools (so people can buy off your site), and add specialized landing or splash pages for books or products.
- Better integrate email newsletter sign-up tools and have full control and access to your readers via email.
What Are the Disadvantages of Self-Hosting?
With great power comes great responsibility. You’ll have to start thinking about:
- Site security. Have you taken necessary precautions to protect your site from attack? Here are 5 steps that cover the bases, doable by anyone.
- Site backups. You’re now responsible for site backups, which you’ll need if your site should ever suffer from a bad update, a crash, or hackers. Some hosts offer backup services for an additional cost, or as part of your hosting package.
- Site management. When your site goes down, it will become your problem to solve. When there’s a bug or error, you have to troubleshoot or hire someone to help. Some of these disadvantages can be overcome by selecting a hosting service appropriate for your needs and skill level. (More on this later.)
When Should You Use or Switch to Self-Hosting?
First, I should acknowledge you’ll find more than a few prominent authors who (1) do not even have a website and (2) are not self-hosted. However, I don’t think they’re offering a best practice that everyone should follow. The truth is the large majority of successful authors do have a self-hosted website.
Here’s when I think the self-hosting switch is merited:
- If you’re actively publishing and marketing books to a paying readership, and you want writing to be your primary source of income
- If you sign a contract for your first book with a traditional book publisher (and it’s not the only book you plan to write)
- If you need or want to know “what works” in terms of your marketing energy and investment
- You’re already feeling the limitations of wordpress.com/blogspot.com
Here’s when it may not be merited:
- You’re unpublished
- You’re “hands off” with your marketing; reader engagement happens if it happens
- You’d rely on social media or third-party sites for reader engagement (which means you accept the risks of using a third party)
- Writing isn’t your primary focus and/or making money from writing-related activities isn’t your focus
- You have a website that’s not self-hosted, and you’ve never run up against any marketing, promotion, or reader outreach limitations
So What’s the Process and Cost to Self-Host?
It’s fairly straight forward.
- If you don’t have a domain name picked out or purchased, you’ll need to know this before beginning the process. (For example, my domain name is janefriedman.com.)
- Select a host for your site. I recommend selecting a host that has one-click installation of WordPress. I use SiteGround.
- If you have an existing site or blog, you’ll need to export your content, assuming that’s possible (for Blogger and WordPress, this is simple), then import that content into your new self-hosted WordPress site.
Hosts vary tremendously in cost and features, but for an average low-traffic site (fewer than 1,000 visits per day), you should be able to secure basic hosting for less than $100/year.
Alternatives to Self-Hosting
If you’re nervous about self-hosting, but are still looking for the advantages, then consider what’s called “managed hosting.” This is where you select a host that helps ensure your site is secure, performs routine backups, and offers a higher level of hands-on support than a basic hosting service. One example is WPEngine.
You can also consider upgrade packages through WordPress.com. Upgrading can give you increased ability to customize your site and access to a support team. At the most premium level, you can even add plug-ins and Google Analytics.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. 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 professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.