Web presence 101.2 – Your Website
In the first installment of this series, I talked about the importance of claiming your name online (before someone else does!). Once you have a domain name, you are probably going to want a website for it to point to – even before you have a book out, people such as agents may want to look for you online, and you want what they find to be interesting and professional!
Creating a website can seem daunting if you’re not technically proficient, but it needn’t be – and it needn’t cost a fortune, either. Sure, if you make money from your writing, you might want to invest some of that in a more original design (all tax-deductible!), but these days it’s not hard to put together an attractive site using standard tools and templates.
For a beginner, I would recommend using blogging software as the basis for your site. I will talk about blogging itself in the next post in this series, but modern blogging software can be used to run an entire website (like this one), not just a blog. Blogging software also comes with a user-friendly “control panel” that allows you to update your content without being reliant on a web developer.
You have two main choices, each of which has their pros and cons:
Free blog site
At the time of writing, the two main sites offering free blogging facilities are WordPress and Blogger (soon to be renamed Google Blogs). Both services come with a choice of free templates which you can further personalise with a header image, allowing you to set up a professional-looking website in a matter of minutes.
The disadvantage of such sites is that, being free, they are limited in the features they allow, and you are at the mercy of the blog site remaining in business and continuing to provide the features you want.
Blogger is the simpler of the two, allowing you to add up to ten normal web pages to your blog (e.g. About Me), and is therefore ideal if you are a total beginner. You can also customise your blog’s template, including using custom stylesheets – if you don’t know what that means, don’t try to use it or you may break your site!
WordPress is more flexible but also a bit more complex; some people find the WP dashboard a bit daunting at first! Unlike Blogger, however, you don’t have to include a blog on your site. Just ignore the “Posts” section on the dashboard, and instead create some normal webpages. Then under Settings -> Reading, set one of the pages as the home page for your site. This is the option I use for my Night’s Masque site, which is actually a separate WP “blog” (albeit hosted independently, as described below). You can do this and add a blog later, if you’re undecided about blogging – just switch the radio button back to “Your latest posts”.
The downside is that some customisations (e.g. tweaking the stylesheet) are only available as paid add-ons. In my opinion, if you are looking to customise your site more heavily than the free service allows, you are better off with an independent WordPress installation (see below).
More information (Wikipedia):
Paid web host
WordPress isn’t just a blogging site; it’s a free software package that you can download and install on any web server. So, for a few pounds/dollars/euros a month, you can have a WordPress site of your very own, with as many plugins and bells and whistles as you want, hosted on an independent web company’s servers. Some web hosts will install WordPress as part of your package; if not, find an internet-savvy friend who will install it for you (a bribe of pizza and beer never hurts!). N.B. if your chosen web host doesn’t offer WordPress, ask your techie friend to check what’s included before paying up, to make sure you get the features (e.g. at least one free database) needed by the WordPress software.
Once up and running, it’s as easy to use as the free version, except that you have a lot more control. I run this website on WordPress, hosted by United Hosting, with lots of extra plugins that allow me to write and send out newsletters, create an event calendar, embed my Twitter feed on a page, and much more. Being a pro, I’ve been able to heavily customise the standard template and integrate multiple blogs into one site, so don’t expect to produce something quite as complex as my website on your first attempt!
Note that there’s no downloadable equivalent for Blogger; there are other blogging programs you can install, such as Movable Type, but these are beyond the scope of this simple tutorial series. Google “cms blog software” for more information.
Apart from the blog itself, what else should you have on your website?
An author biography is the obvious first item; agents and readers will be coming to your site and want to know more about you. Note that this page isn’t meant to be a dry resumé, nor do you have to reveal personal information (home town, family details, etc) if you don’t want to. Instead, focus on the things about you that make you a unique writer: interesting and relevant hobbies, quirky trivia about yourself, that kind of thing. Give it your voice and personality! A good photo of yourself is a bonus – people want to know what you look like, and it comes in handy when you need to meet someone at a convention. I had mine done by a professional portrait photographer, as I needed a publicity photo for the press release about my contract, but any good quality picture (i.e. not a drunken party snapshot!) will be fine to begin with.
Obviously if you have books to sell, you will want to feature those – but on the other hand, many readers don’t like the hard sell. Make it easy for them to find and buy your work, but don’t shove it in their faces either. I put my book details on a separate page, with a (hopefully clear) link in the navigation bar.
A feedback/contact page is another essential, allowing visitors to get in touch – don’t openly post your email address, as it will just get harvested by spammers! With the rise of social media (and of course comment facilities on blogs), most people will use those channels to contact a writer rather than email, but I think it’s good to make some kind of direct contact available as well.
Readers of fantasy and science fiction love the genre because of the worlds described, so a bit of background information on your books can provide interesting content and avoid your site looking too spartan. You don’t have to go overboard and provide a “world encyclopaedia” (save that for a spinoff non-fiction book when you’re a huge success!) – a few tidbits are often enough.
Beyond that, it’s up to you what you put on there, but I think it’s best not to dilute your “brand” too much. For more about establishing your brand – and why you want to – see We Are Not Alone: A Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb. It’s a bit dated (the author still seems to think that MySpace is an important social network!) but the basic principles are sound.
What features do you like to see on an author’s website?
Other articles in this series:
- Claim your name
- Your website
- Introduction to social media
- Google alerts