With the current incarnation of my blog approaching its first big birthday, I recently took a survey of my readership to better understand who’s following me, how I’ve been doing, and what folks expect of me, now that I’m a minor quasi-celebrity with two (soon three) books under my belt, more than a hundred blog posts to my credit, and an upcoming course in creative writing in the offing.
Overwhelmingly, you, my Dear Readers, are interested in more creative writing and platform-building advice.
Ask and ye shall receive. Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most important elements of platform-building: creating an author website.
Your Author Website
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” — Oscar Wilde
These days, an author really must have an author website in order to achieve competitive sales. Your site is your primary soap-box: you can advertise to the world who you are and offer information about your books and where to buy them. You can also update people on your book signing events, special offers and discounts on your books, forthcoming titles, and everything else potential readers need to know about you and your work.
Your website should be fun, informative, and easy to browse. You needn’t necessarily become a blogger (as I have), but updating the content on your author site regularly is a good way to build name and brand recognition, optimize your search engine rankings, and attract new readers.
Also, because your website is likely to be John Q. Public’s first view of you and your work, it’s important to make it look professional. You want readers to know that your work is worth the investment of their time and attention, and the best way to do that is to invest your own time and attention in putting the best possible face on your work.
A website is your most valuable promotional tool. Arguably, it’s the only thing you should do to promote yourself. You can do Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and print advertising and a whole list of other promotional tools, but you should get yourself a website if you have the means. It’s your public face and the primary means for managing your growing fan-base. Print literature (brochures, flyers, bookmarks, rack-cards, banners, posters, etc) quickly become out-dated, but your website is fluid and dynamic.
More importantly, your website supports your entire backlist. Readers of your most recent book can pop onto your website and easily see what else you’ve written and whether or not they’d be interested. It also supports your frontlist marketing efforts. Bestseller lists measure how quickly you’ve made sales. With a website of your own, you can build a reader list and then tell those fans to go out and buy your new book.
Putting money into your website doesn’t mean you have to go out and find the world’s best (and most expensive) web-designer. But if you do decide to build your own website, you should take the time to learn the basic concepts of web page flow and design. You’ll also need to buy your own domain name. While there are many “We-Host-It” style platforms out there (wordpress.com, weebly.com, etc) that can let you quickly and easily bootstrap your way to a fair-to-middling website within a day, they also come with their fair share of limitations, the most significant being freedom.
When you rent a home, you can’t just knock down walls, renovate kitchens, and refinish basements without getting permission from the owner. Similarly, many We-Host-It platforms come with restrictions. WordPress, for example, reserves the right to post advertising on your blog posts. You have no say in what they post, and you don’t see a nickle of that ad revenue. At the same time, they prevent you from selling your own advertising space, monitor (and sometimes block) affiliate marketing links in your content, and so on. While they have good reasons for these policies, the net effect is that it limits your freedom to monetize your content as effectively as you could otherwise.
I’ve worked in digital publishing most of my adult life, from the primordial days of “Books-on-CD-ROM” right up to the present day. I’ve managed websites that publish millions of articles in thousands of journals every year, and seen websites grow from one page to a million pages. One thing I’ve discovered through all this is that as your pages—and your books—proliferate, your best bet is to hire a website company to design and manage the technical aspects of your site.
A single graphic designer might do a whiz-bang job of creating a wonderful, innovative web design, but will he or she update it? Maybe yes, maybe no. Even if yes, if your designer is very good at what they do, they may not be able to do updates on your schedule. And if something goes wrong with your site at 11:55pm on the night before your next big book launch, will they be available to troubleshoot it?
But a good website company will have provisions in their standard contract for updates, support, and service. They’ll create clean, crisp designs with easily navigable pages featuring lots of interesting, new content.
Keep It Fresh
This last point is crucial. Websites need material about yourself, your books, and the world you’ve created. And that material has to be constantly refreshed. The key is to lure readers into returning to your website over and over. You want curious readers to be intrigued by your website and return to it, allowing you to market your current—as well as your future—books to them.
Different authors have different preferences. Some post newsletters on relevant historical events. Some only post content related to their books. Personally, I like to give back what I’ve learned about writing and publishing to other authors, to help smooth their way in the world, and I try to use examples from my own books to illustrate my advice.
For example, for random Netizens that stumble across mdellert.com, my landing page highlights whichever book is currently on my frontlist (at the time of this writing, that’s The Romance of Eowain). As each new book approaches publication, I add a special page dedicated to that title, and make sure that page is featured in the navigation tools. I add each new book into my own bookshop and make special editions available, such as signed paperback copies, or special free bonus content. As my site continues to grow, I’ll soon be adding special Reader’s Pages that are only available to readers who are signed up for my mailing list. These will offer free short stories, “extra” book chapters, and mysteries that can only be solved out of clues found in my books.
A top-flight website can cost thousands of dollars to design and run, and with that level of website, you’ll also get invaluable marketing expertise from your design company. Arguably, it’s worth the investment.
But you can put up a website for considerably less. Soup-to-nuts, my expenses for designing, building, and running this self-hosted Adventure in Indie Publishing comes to less than $100 per year (not counting my time). Wherever possible, I use freely available tools and templates, and I work hard to use those tools as effectively as possible to present as polished an appearance as I can. With a little time, effort, education, and initiative, there’s no reason you can’t do it too.
What special challenges do you face in building your own author website? Let me know in the comments.