How to build an author website (without screaming)
I wrote an email before this one – reread it – didn’t like – and scrapped it. So here instead is a workhorse of an email. A sixteen-hand carthorse with shaggy fetlocks and a willingness to pull heavy farm implements in the rain.
Because we’ve just relaunched our own website, the theme of this email is what your author site needs to do – and the most practical way to do it.
Rule the first: get a site.
If you’re even half-serious about making a living from writing, then you need a site. No real author-led marketing can happen without it.
Rule the second: Build like you mean it
Everyone knows what to expect from the domain name of an author site. You either want to be harrybingham.com (or.co.uk, or whatever) or – if you share a name with someone more famous than you – something like jamesdeanauthor.com.
Don’t go for something funky like crazypinkrabbits.com, no matter how appealing that is to you. Your most basic bit of branding simply needs to identify your site as the thing that readers are looking for when they search. That means either just yourname.com or yournameauthor.com. Save the jokes for your author bio.
Equally, although you can get free hosting if you choose a site like yourname.wordpress.com, you should spend the (fairly small) additional cost in direct hosting – that means cutting out the “.wordpress” part of that domain address.
Rule the third: Simplify yourself
Yes, I know. You are a complex human creature with thoughts and opinions on the poetry of Robert Frost, how to bake sourdough, the state of coffee farmers in Nicaragua, bluegrass music, eighteenth century epistolatory novels, and women’s soccer.
But shut up about it.
Your website is not a platform for you. It is a platform for your books.
If you want to discuss all the poetry/sourdough/soccer stuff, then feel free to do so – but somewhere different. Your author website is a marketing asset. Keep it that way.
Rule the fourth: Use the right tools
These days, you need to WordPress. There are simple drag-and-drop website builders out there, but they will all limit you in the longer run if you seek to develop your site. WordPress is insanely powerful with a tool for every need you could possibly have. So use it.
WordPress comes with a million different themes on offer. (The website theme is the bit of code that acts as the chassis for everything else.) Don’t get bogged down in trying to choose and don’t let your web designer just pick something he or she is familiar with. The best theme for your site is Parallax for Writers by GoCreate. When you buy the theme (for $600), you’ll get most of your site set up for free. More info here.
Rule the fifth: if in doubt, pay someone
Ten years ago, I didn’t have a website. I didn’t quite see the point.
Then I got a contract for my work in America. I flew out to New York to meet the team. And someone said, “Oh, you need a website.” So I built one. In an afternoon. And quite a pretty site it was too.
The whole thing cost me a few bucks a month.
But it was still limited. When I redeveloped the site, I wanted a few add-ons that I couldn’t get from my simple site. So I paid someone about a grand, because I didn’t want the hassle of doing the work myself. On the one hand, that’s quite a lot of money. On the other hand, no serious author is without a properly designed and properly functioning website, so it’s money you need to spend.
The short message is that you either need to do the work yourself, or pay someone. You can’t just avoid the issue.
Rule the sixth: brand for the future
A lot of authors, seeing their first ever book cover, decide to place the cover art at the centre of their entire site design.
And then – the paperback looks different from the hardback.
Your US cover looks different from your UK cover.
Your second book uses different colour and cover art.
Your fancily designed website soon loses touch with the books that readers are actually looking at.
The answer to this conundrum is simply to make sure that your website embodies your brand, not your book. So if you’re writing cosy crime, your site will feature quilts and grannies and cats and the like. If you’re writing second world war historical fiction, you’ll have soldiers and tanks and planes of the right vintage. If you’re writing gritty police procedural, you’ll use monochromes and cityscapes with splashes of bright acid colour.
Do that, and your site art won’t need to change every time you change a cover.
Now all of this sounds like – and is – sensible advice, but I’ve so far skirted the issue of what a website is actually for. And you need to understand this, because most authors – and most publishers – get it wrong. So listen carefully as I tell you:
The Golden Rule
The purpose of your website is to collect email addresses.
That’s it. The core purpose.
Yes, you may also achieve other things. (Provide a way for your readers to contact you. Provide a way for media opportunities to reach you. Provide a bio for those interested. Provide a longer guide to your books than Amazon offers. And so on.)
But all those things are ancillary. The thing that actually matters is that your website is a stellar way to collect the email addresses of the people who land there. That way, you can communicate directly with them whenever you want.
As it happens, I’m doing a (member-only) webinar on mailing lists tonight. If you can listen along then do. If not, then catch up on replay.
But, long story short, mailing lists are the most powerful tool any author possesses. They have driven my own self-pub career. My own trad career. And they drive Jericho Writers too.
My author website picks up email addresses from about two thirds of the people who land on it. If I hadn’t made that email collection central to the design, my conversion rate would be far lower – perhaps in the low sing digits – and my author career would have been far different.
I won’t talk long here about how to optimise for email collection, but I will say that you need a proper landing page (ie: one stripped of all normal navigation tools). Therte’s a bit more on this in the PSes if you want to know more.
That is all from me.
This carthorse of an email intends to plod steadily towards a barn full of hay, a bucket of warm water, a groom with a curry comb, and heaps of fresh straw.
If you've got questions about websites, then ask away in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. Oh yes, and if you can, hop onto the mailing list webinar this evening. The topic is a very important one.