What follows is an extract from our book What Sells Books, by Randy Stapilus.
Let’s get mechanics out of the way first, then get into why you need this thing, what to put there, and specifically what to use it for.
The options out there are many. If you want to engage experts to do it all for you, you can find them locally and nationally, and the cost can range from a few bucks to sky’s the limit. (The latter really isn’t ever necessary, though.) If you want to spent no money at all on your website, you can do that, or very nearly, if you’re a do-it-youselfer.
Some general observations and guidelines . . .
You can get a “site” for free – zero money spent – at places like Blogger (formerly independent, now a Google subsidiary), and WordPress (still independent), which both develops website and blogging software and also hosts a place online where people can set up websites for free.1 On a basic level, either can do nearly all of what you need done on the web, and they’ll give you a web address. You can set up a blog, organize book ordering (through shopping carts and such), customize the look, add pictures and audio and video and much more. Blogger is simpler to set up, but it has fewer options in design and functionality. WordPress is more work (not much more), but you can do more on it. You can even set up a bunch of free web sites if you want to. Or, you can use both WordPress and Blogger if you see a reason to. (I don’t.)
It should be said: Many authors have used these two hosts for their blogs, and quite a few are well-crafted and useful for marketing purposes. Doing it this way isn’t a bad idea, and if you’re strapped for bucks, it may be a good choice for you.
There’s a reason I used the word “site” in quote marks in that last paragraph: You get something that mostly looks like a site, but isn’t completely. You don’t control it, and you don’t have any rights to the name on it. You get to choose your location’s specific name, as long as no one else has claimed it, but it could be taken away, and it can’t be transferred to another location away from Blogger or WordPress. (Or one of the several other realistic options out there.) Your location on the web will be within the overall Blogger or WordPress “domain,” and its address will look something like this: imanauthor.blogspot.com or imanauthor.wordpress.com.
The address you really want is imanauthor.com.
See how much simpler and more memorable that is? Not only that, you control it and have the rights to it, and no one else can use it. That kind of “top level” site is what we’re accustomed to seeing on the web for people and organizations that want to be taken seriously. Amazon.com. Microsoft.com. On and on. Those two-part site names, a specific name like Amazon and a suffix like .com, are called “domains”.
You too, can get a domain, or more than one if you like. You have to register it, and (usually) pay an annual fee. The fees (for what is essentially an identical service) vary, but you shouldn’t pay more than $15 or so a year, and a little searching will turn up deals better than that. Both WordPress and Blogger will work with you to set up a domain like this that goes directly to the free web site you have posted there, though the domain registration isn’t free. (WordPress will handle it internally; Blogger refers you to external providers.)
This too will work. But your best option, which doesn’t cost you much more than this, is to get your website independently hosted. That means it’s run on a massive computer, backed up so it won’t be lost, and you can do almost anything (legal) you might realistically want to do with a website, almost anything the biggest of the big guys could do.
Service from the web hosting companies (that’s what they’re called) doesn’t have to cost much. For most of the last decade I’ve used a company called GreenGeeks (chosen largely because they promised to migrate my site seamlessly from another host, for free, which they did), which has provided good service, lets me do everything I’ve wanted to try, hosted multiple domains and even thrown in free domain registration. Their current packages, which include probably everything you’d need, start at $3.96 a month. There are lots of other comparably good web hosts out there too, with good reputations and service and low costs. Bluehost, immense in size and one of the most popular, recently offered a $3.49 monthly starting price, as did GoDaddy.com. HostGator.com offered a $3.47 monthly plan, and JustHost is at $2.50. The list goes on. Most would probably do the job for you perfectly well; check to see what each promises in customer support if you need it. The core service they provide is this: Space (on the better operators space is nearly unlimited) on a computer that is connected to, and has a numerical address on, the Internet. Once you’ve made the deal with them and your domain name has been registered and the switch has been flipped, wait a few hours and the whole world will be able to get to imanauthor.com. Generally they will back up your site as well, so you won’t lose everything in case of a computer glitch (which can happen in the best of shops).
There is another advantage to having your own domain and web host: You can run your e-mail out of there. That means instead of using a generic email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, you can promote yourself as email@example.com. It’s still another opportunity to promote yourself as a professional and your business as a business; it looks like you’re here to stay and suggests that you have been here a while, even if you haven’t. Most newer webhosting packages include the capability for nearly unlimited numbers of e-mail addresses, so you also can direct buyers or others to firstname.lastname@example.org, or other specific addresses.
And you can set up addresses with autoresponders: Someone sends you an e-mail to that address, and a designated (automated) response goes back to them. This turns out to be a highly useful feature.
Okay, you have a site name and a place to bring web surfers. Now you need to load something there other than a blank screen. (Or an error number, like 404 Not Found,8 which is what surfers would actually see.)
Years ago, I learned how to write basic html code – the coding web browsers read when they pull up a website. I still find it useful, and any time you put in learning some of the basics would be well spent. But you don’t need to do any of that; setting up your website is much simpler, a matter of pushing a few buttons.
Any of the reputable web host companies will include among their services an easy installation of software called a content management system (CMS), which includes among other assets a blog. Many CMS providers are out there, and your web host will probably give you a bunch of options. Unless you have a strong reason to do otherwise (such as a good volunteer who’s expert in a specific system and will run your site for you), choose the most recent version of WordPress.
I have some bias here. I’ve been a happy WordPress user for about a dozen years. But it’s also by far the biggest and most-used software for building websites, because it can be customized in almost endless ways and it’s easy to use, and because there’s an enormous number of people in its community who can be called on to answer questions. People who want to get into the machinery of it and make it do exactly what they want, can; those who want a simple turnkey website can get that too. An enormous number of book industry people use it, including the excellent BookWorks group.
Installing the software involves filling out a short form with names and passwords, and then entering “submit.” It’s intuitive.
Your biggest configuration of a WordPress website, once installed, is in choosing a “theme,” which gives you a look and design, and some of the functionality, for your site. When WordPress is first installed, it defaults to one of its basic themes, but you can choose from many others – thousands of options. (That’s why WordPress sites almost all look very different from each other.) Many are available for free through the WordPress.org site or other providers. Some others, specialized and more sophisticated with stunning capability, are sold by designers, most of whom charge less than $50 or so for them.
You’ll find lots of theories on which designs work best and which don’t. As this is written, the prevailing view – and it may be correct – leans toward placing all the key information on one “home” page, which becomes a longish page readers have to scroll down. One advantage is that readers won’t click hyperlinks and hop away from your main page, but rather spend more time on it. Many recent author pages designed by professionals are set up this way. In another few years another design theory may take over.
Be sure your website is “mobile responsive” – or, in web development speak, simply “responsive.” This means it will pull up and display well on mobile phones, tablets and other devices, as well as on desktop or notebook computers. That’s a good idea generally, but Google has given it an extra push, saying that “non-responsive” websites will be downgraded in search lists. Early in 2015 I junked a web theme I’d used on my site for years and replaced it with another which, unlike the old one, is fully responsive. Fortunately, the fix for this isn’t especially difficult. Responsiveness can be controlled within your website’s theme, and most newer themes have been specifically designed to be responsive. Look for that word in the description of any theme you’re thinking of installing.
Once your site is up and theme installed, go to the site’s dashboard (using a username and password you set when launching the CMS/blog software), and you can begin writing. On WordPress, you write “posts” – which are updates on a blog (you can talk about what you did today, for example) – and “pages”, which are standing features (such as a personal bio).
If all this sounds like just too much, though in practice it’s actually simpler than it sounds, there are plenty of options. Lots of people will be happy to put together a website for you, of course for a fee. That’s okay. Make sure of three things: First, that you have total control of the site when you’ve paid for it, second, that you’ve been given ample instruction on running it, and third, that you’re not paying too much.
An option: Bestseller (www.bestsellerwebsites.com), which specializes in developing web sites for authors. In return for a startup fee of $25, it promises an interview and, based on that, will design a draft of the site. If you like it, the firm goes ahead and designs the whole thing for a set fee. (How much that is, I don’t know.) Haven’t tried it, but someone really in need of a website and at sea on how to otherwise proceed might want to check it out.
So your website is up.
At this stage, write a little – a personal bio and a start on occasional posting. Don’t worry about posting a mass of content just yet.
But you ought to go ahead and start a blog.
Writer and marketer Joanna Penn strongly endorses the value of blogging:10 “Starting a blog changed my life – seriously. It has freed my writing style up completely, and given me the confidence to get into fiction. Without the millions of words I’ve written on my blog, I would never have been able to write Desecration, my latest crime novel. Writing so much has enabled me to finally stop self-censoring. Blogging has also given me a community of writers worldwide, some of whom have become my best friends.”
The pillars of your website should be contact information (if you don’t want to provide an e-mail address, then include a message form), information about your books, biographical information and news and events about you and your books.
One article from USA Today suggests some of the possibilities: “Among the means publishers employ to keep readers reading: leaving their more compelling content on the site longer; creating clutter-free website designs to make it easier to find the best material; posting more quizzes; using prominent “embeds” of videos, links and tweets in stories; assigning longform articles; creating never-ending pages that just scroll on with more content loads; showcasing photo galleries that stay on one long page rather than flipped pages.”
One of the changes from a decade ago: Far more extensive use of high-speed broadband, which means pages with more detailed and complex content can load much faster.
Kate McMillan, a web designer for many books and authors for more than a decade, covered the subject effectively in a 2012 web article.12 She pointed out (as others have) that a website should be neutral enough in its approach that it can be used to promote more than one book, even if just one book is available at the moment from the author. But if more than one book or project is underway, don’t give in to the temptation to treat all the children equally: You need to focus on one.
You’ll need to promote yourself here too; part of the process of selling your book is in linking you with your reader, making a personal connection.
Blogging regularly, even frequently, is better than writing lengthy individual posts.
Be sure to link to all of your social media.
You might consider, as some marketing specialists advise, that much of the draw to the site is not the basic information about you and your book, but rather the extras, the stuff they can’t find anywhere else. (The AMC television channel likes to promote the website for their programs by touting all the additional material available on the website never shown on their channel.) Use your imagination. The more such extra or unique information you post, and the better you promote it, the more traffic your site is likely to get. You can use audio podcasts, YouTube video, slideshows, even quizzes and contests. As you post it, use your social media to let people know it’s there.
Some authors find inventive ways to use their websites as main drivers, not just for their books but also for their associated businesses.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglish, authors of The Emotion Thesaurus, a guide for writers,13 run a website (www.writershelpingwriter.net) that is a hub for specific types of writing assistance; it became a hub through their focusing on developing a large audience both through that site and through involvement on social networks and online writing forums.
“We rarely openly promote our book, in fact. Instead, what we have done is continually reinforce our brand, and this means putting the needs of our audience first,” they said in a Writer’s Digest article about their efforts. “We have also sought out other bestselling authors in our genre and traded links as ‘further reading’ in each others books, and have had good exposure from running giveaways through blogs and Goodreads.”
They report having sold 34,000 print and 28,000 e-books. Their advice: “Understand who your audience is, and what they are interested in.”
To get a sense of how websites can do good work for their authors see a 2013 article by Simon Appleby, director of digital agency Bookswarm. He has highlighted 10 author websites that “really do the business,” and all might be worth your attention. Among them:
E.L. James (www.eljamesauthor.com) “The Gallery section contains wine lists and play lists that collate all the gastronomic and cultural references of the books, which is a neat touch for fans who really want to immerse themselves in the author’s world, and the Fan Sites section offers a lovely acknowledgement of fan sites from around the world,” in Appleby’s view.
Gillian Flynn (www.gillian-flynn.com) Right there on the front page you’ll find almost everything you’d be looking for.
John le Carre (www.johnlecarre.com). “The design is really appropriate for the subject matter of the books: espionage, subterfuge and murky dealings. The way that Twitter is presented (tweets from le Carré’s feed are ‘transmitted’ and tweets from others are ‘intercepted’) is very clever and in keeping with the genre too,” Appleby wrote.
Note among other things how these authors all used their own names, their normally-used author names, for their domain: All are as easy to remember and find as possible. That’s true of most bestselling author sites, and lots of others as well.
These sites by bestselling authors are very much professionally produced, slick with cutting edge design.
But solid content can do that too. Canadian/Australian author Jeremy Bates offers on his website a free novella he’ll send to anyone who signs up for his newsletter; he said his mailing list has expanded by about 5,000 that way.