Writing is a lonely business, which is why we budding authors tend to be a gregarious lot given half a chance – we love to meet up and share both our writing woes and our useful tips for making it in this tough world of 21st-century publishing. Conventions are a great way to do this, but there are only so many one can go to each year, so we also communicate a lot through social media.
Just as important as talking to one another, if not more so, is communicating with readers – but as new authors, how do we get our voices heard? When a bunch of us were invited onto Reddit last year for a very successful AMA (Ask Me Anything), we decided we didn’t want the fun to stop. So, we began exchanging emails, and what came out of that was a plan for a joint blog (and accompanying social media presence) where we could engage with fans in a bigger way than on our individual blogs.
And so without further ado, may I announce BookSworn! We’re doing a fantastic giveaway contest – 16 signed fantasy books! – to celebrate the launch, so do check the site out. You can also follow us on Twitter @BookSworn.
(The name is my fault, by the way. Two of our members, Mazarkis Williams and Douglas Hulick, have new books with the word “sworn” in the title – I thus suggested “Book Sworn” as a joke, and the name stuck. Sorry!)
So, you’ve put yourself out there online, with a website and social media – but that’s only half the story. If your self-promotion is successful, then other people are going to start talking about you online. Sometimes they’ll let you know, but often they won’t. That’s where Google Alerts comes in.
What kind of information will Alerts find for you? Basically, anything that you could find out by manually searching on, say, your author name and/or title. That includes:
<li>your social media profile pages</li>
<li>interviews and guest blog posts</li>
<li>online bookshop listings</li>
* unless your publisher has issued a DCMA take-down notice to the site – thankfully Google is now omitting these hits from its search results
Note that it only sends you newly-indexed results, so if you are already active online, it probably won’t return any results for those outlets. It’s mainly useful for catching the last three: reviews, shop listings and piracy listings.
<h2>Setting up your alerts</h2>
Google Alerts are something you can set up as part of your Google account, so if you don’t have one of those (via Gmail or Google+ or whatever), go forth and sort that out first. Done? OK, onwards…
The Alerts page is tucked away, so you’ll need to poke around to find it – at the time of writing, you’ll need to sign into Google and click on “More” in the black linkbar, and then on “Even More”. Scroll down that page to the header “Specialised Search” to find the section about Alerts. Click on the link and fill in the simple form, and you will receive emails whenever Google adds a new search result based on the terms you specified.
As for what terms to search for, your author name and book title are obviously a good start. If your name is common, or your title includes common words, you’ll probably get a lot of false positives, like you would if you did that search manually. If so, try out your search terms on Google itself until you get the kind of results you want. For example, the search “John Smith fantasy novel” will probably find a lot more results about you and your book than just “John Smith”.
Google Alerts won’t find everything, of course. It doesn’t index social media sites (apart from user profiles), so you can’t use it to find out if people are talking about you on Twitter or Facebook, but those sites have their own search mechanisms you can use if you’re really that paranoid! However if you are keen to keep tabs on your online presence, it’s a very useful tool.
This is the last of my posts in the Web Presence for Writers series – I hope you found it useful!
Pinterest in the new kid on the social media block that debuted in 2010. Taking a leaf out of Tumblr’s book, it’s a social media scrapbook, encouraging you to share pictures with your friends. Each image is called a “pin”, and you can organise them into “boards”, or categories. As with other social media, you can follow other people and they can follow you; images pinned by you and your followees appear on your homepage. You can then pin them to your own boards, so that your followers get to see them, or just comment or like them, as on Facebook.
At first, Pinterest was invitation-only—I picked up an invitation earlier this year through fellow author Jody Hedlund, whose blog I follow (somewhat erratically)—but it’s now open for everyone to sign up. So why would you want to? What use is a virtual pinboard to a writer? We deal in words, not pictures, right?
Well, they do say that a picture paints a thousand words, and visual material can really help to spark your imagination. Sure, you could spend hours on Google image search, but Pinterest feeds you a constant stream of material chosen by real people rather than a computer algorithm. I do find I have to be selective, though; some of the people I follow have quite a diversity of boards (image categories), and whilst I might be interested in some, others just clog my feed with irrelevance. Thankfully you can follow individual boards rather than a member’s whole collection.
This all sounds very jolly—and it is!—but there’s a catch. Whereas other social media revolve around words and informal images (e.g. photos of your cat that you took with your phone camera), Pinterest’s focus is on sharing professional-quality images. Most people cannot easily create this kind of content, which means that most members’ chosen images are predominantly or wholly created by other people. I think you can see where this is going…
What it boils down to is that it’s against Pinterest’s T&C to distribute images without permission from the copyright owner. Whilst I totally sympathise with artists whose work is being distributed for free, I don’t see how this can be squared with social media. The whole point of Pinterest is to share interesting images, and if you can’t rely on other users to obey the rules and only pin images they have the rights to (which you obviously can’t), that means you are breaking the rules unless you follow every image back to its source.
Personally I feel there’s a big moral difference between redistributing high-resolution artwork that’s intended for sale (especially if you remove any link or attribution) and linking to pictures that have been used for illustrative purposes only, but legally there is no difference at all. At any rate, I try to restrict myself to pinning book covers (which is generally considered fair use since you’re helping to promote the product), public domain artwork, and small photo-illustrations – and I always ensure I link back to the originating site.
Because of these problems, I find it difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pinterest. Yes, it’s fun to browse the beautiful images your friends have found online, and liking/commenting is harmless enough, but you’ll have to decide for yourself how comfortable you are with breaking the law…
Goodreads is an online reading community that’s grown rapidly in the past couple of years, easily outstripping LibraryThing and other rivals. You can use it to help manage your book collection, post reviews and ratings, and join in online bookclubs. And if you’re a writer, once you have a book out (whether self-published or through a conventional publishing house), you can upgrade your account to “Goodreads Author”, which makes it easier to find out what your readers think of your book!
As I don’t get a lot of time for reading these days, I don’t have much experience of the reading side of Goodreads. I’ve added a selection of books from my shelves, though it’s by no means comprehensive, and I use it to maintain my to-read list. If you do want to add books to Goodreads and have a smartphone, they do a great app that includes a barcode scanner—it only works with fairly recent books that have the long ISBN numbers, but it speeds up the process considerably.
Once you have an author account, you’ll get a dashboard that gives you easy access to all your books as well as a bunch of widgets to use on your website plus other promotional tools.
I’ve written elsewhere about why I read reviews, but whether or not you choose to read them I think Goodreads deserves a special caveat: do not trust the numbers! Because it’s a large busy site, they cache a lot of the statistics (total numbers of reviews and ratings, average ratings, etc) and you will soon discover that these numbers differ on different parts of your dashboard. At the time of writing, my dashboard says I have 77 text reviews but I can find only 75. Sometimes this is because people write comments in the ‘review’ field before they’ve finished and rated a book, and Goodreads doesn’t filter these out. And if a reader changes their mind about a rating, both values may be listed for a day or two. For the sake of your sanity, take the figures as a rough guide only!
Also, as with all reviews, don’t let the lower ratings get you down. You can’t please all the people even some of the time, and I’m sure you know of plenty of well-written and/or popular books that you didn’t enjoy, so cut your readers some slack. And sometimes those 1-star ratings are from people who haven’t even read your book—they may for example be attempting to “train” the suggestion algorithm by downgrading books that don’t look interesting. No fun for you, but luckily these people are in a minority.
Goodreads have created a range of buttons and widgets that you can incorporate into your own website, such as the “Read reviews on Goodreads” button that I use in my little promo box in the margin of my blog. I advise caution when it comes to the interactive widgets, however; Goodreads is down quite often, which means your widget will be empty or even slightly broken-looking whenever that happens.
Other promotional tools
If you have physical copies of your book, you can arrange a giveaway before it comes out or up to six months after publication. In my case my publisher did it for me, in the US at least, and nearly 900 people signed up! Of course a great many of these unlisted my book when they didn’t win, but around a third still have it listed as to-read, so it’s definitely an effective promotional tool. Note that you can’t give away ebooks; I don’t know if this is to prevent the system being swamped with self-published titles (since most self-pubs are ebook only), or whether the abundance of free ebooks means they aren’t seen as a valued promo, but either way you’re limited to print copies and the expense of postage that entails.
Free tools include a Facebook fan page app and the ability to set up a Q&A group, but I’ve never managed to get the former to work and I have yet to try the latter. I guess I’m worried that, being a debut author, no-one would turn up, and it would just be me and the tumbleweed!
If you’re self-published you might also want to consider advertising your book, but I know nothing about this side of Goodreads.
In summary, Goodreads is a great site to connect with readers—just don’t let yourself get obsessed with the numbers!
Justin Landon of Staffer’s Musings is holding a special blog event this July, Debut Authorpalooza, which will showcase the work of ten debut fantasy authors from 2011/12, including yours truly. Visit Staffer’s Musings on the dates below to read about the trials of writing the second novel in a series, read exclusive extracts from forthcoming novels, and enter giveaways. Yep, that’s the first public release of Chapter One of The Merchant of Dreams, plus a chance to win copies of my books!
There will also be an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit on the evening of July 19th (7pm CST, i.e. 1am the following morning UK time), where you can ask us all questions. Since it’s at a crazy time on this side of the Pond, I’m not sure if I’ll be around during the actual session, but will definitely drop by as soon as I get up the next morning to answer any questions. So, fire away!
The ten authors will be contributing guest posts as follows:
7/16: Mark Lawrence
7/17: Kameron Hurley
7/18: Elspeth Cooper
7/19: Courtney Schafer
7/20: Stina Leicht
7/23: Teresa Frohock
7/24: Mazarkis Williams
7/25: Bradley Beaulieu
7/26: Anne Lyle
7/27: Doug Hulick
So, don’t forget to drop by Justin’s blog and Reddit to find out more, and good luck!
It’s been a while since one of these posts, since spring was such a busy time for me, but with new social networks cropping up I thought I should get the ball rolling again.
Facebook is still (in 2012) the biggest and best-known social media site. There are two main kinds of Facebook content stream: individual user accounts, which is what most people are familiar with, and Pages, which are a bit like micro-websites within Facebook. You’ll need the former to use Facebook at all, and when you get close to being published, the latter is a good idea too.
I’ll admit right now that I’m not a big fan of Facebook, and don’t use it much, but it’s impossible to ignore, particularly as they have started creating “community pages” (read, “content sucked in from Wikipedia”) about every topic under the sun; presumably including any author with a Wikipedia page about them. Like it or not, unless you create your own Facebook page about yourself, someone else will probably do so—and you won’t control that content.
I won’t say much about user accounts except: be careful! Don’t friend all and sundry, and don’t be tempted to fill in all the information fields just because they’re there. There was a very disturbing story doing the rounds a few months ago, about a smartphone app that combined social media content to produce what was in effect the perfect stalking tool. Keep an eye on the privacy setting, or better still don’t put anything into your profile that you wouldn’t want made public. There have been plenty of articles published on the subject, and I invite you to check them out. Suffice to say that I post as little personal information on FB as I can get away with!
It might seem egocentric to have a “fan page” about yourself when you’re not even published yet, but really it’s just a handy way around the “mutual friending” structure of Facebook. If you don’t have a fan page, you will have to friend every single reader who wants to follow you – which means they get access to all the personal stuff you post! Much better—and safer—to set up a page they can Like. There’s also the advantage that Facebook pages are visible to the wider internet, including search engines, whereas your ordinary Facebook account is not.
Also, as mentioned above, once you are big enough to merit a Wikipedia page, Facebook will create a Page about you that you don’t control, so it’s worth getting in on the ground floor and attracting a following. That will push your Page above the automated one in any search results and ensure than anyone on Facebook who’s looking for you will find real, fresh information, not a bunch of third-hand, rarely updated stuff.
As you can see from the screenshot of my own page, the new “timeline” view allows, nay encourages, you to add an image to the top of your page. The size is fixed and a bit weird, so you may have to do some fiddling around with your chosen image to get something suitable.
I populate the page with my blog feed via RSS, and check back once or twice a day to see if anyone’s left a message. I also post the occasional bit of unique content, usually if I have some news that isn’t significant enough for a blog post but is too long for a tweet. Because I mostly post on here rather than my personal account, my friends who follow me aren’t swamped with content.
A word about “reach”
Since posting this article, my attention has been drawn to the fact that posts on your Page are not automatically added to the feed of everyone who Likes your page (betcha didn’t know that, did you? No, neither did I until just before I wrote this.). The probability of an individual fan getting your posts depends on how often they like and comment on other posts, i.e. how engaged they are with your content, but also how much interest the post is getting from other, more dedicated fans. Fortunately Facebook shows the percentage reach at the bottom of each item, so you can see how many of your fans are seeing the content.
On the one hand this is a blatant ploy by Facebook to get you to pay for advertising, but you can also see it as a way to judge how effective your content is. If you post boring stuff that no-one responds to, your reach will go down (the average is apparently only 16%!) – which is a good incentive to post better content! Mine usually range between 20 and 50 percent, and of course major announcements like cover art and publication dates get more interest than more general blog posts (the same is true of the number of comments on the blog itself). So, do keep an eye on these numbers!
That’s really all I have to say about Facebook. If you love it you may find it a great promotional tool, but for me it’s just a way to reach a few more fans, particularly who don’t use Twitter.
As mentioned in my last post about social media, Twitter is my favourite social network. I tend not to use the main website, as (like Facebook) the interface is full of stuff I don’t want to see, e.g. trending topics, but there are plenty of third-party applications for computers, smartphones and so on.
I know that some people find Twitter confusing, perhaps because individual posts (tweets) are so short and the interface is pretty sparse. It’s best to think of it as somewhere between live chat and Facebook – I find it a more immediate experience than the “big content” social networks, and the ability to easily direct comments to your friends using the @ “mention” function feels more friendly than Facebook, which often feels to me like shouting into a void.
Another thing I like about Twitter is that I can follow, say, a big-name author without them having ever to acknowledge my presence, and likewise I don’t have to “friend” every random user who wants to follow me. It’s very like socialising at a party, where you can hover on the edge of a conversation or have a long one-to-one chat, depending on your level of acquaintance.
In addition, the very simplicity of Twitter means that I don’t have to worry about the complex privacy issues surrounding Facebook. A Twitter account holds your tweets and a brief biography – that’s it. One caveat is that you need to remember that unlike FB, Twitter is completely public. There is a DM (direct message) facility which can be used for private, one-to-one tweets, but anything else you say is visible to the entire Internet. Writer, beware!
So, how do you go about using Twitter to network as a writer? Rule one: do not spam your timeline with promos for your books. This bears repeating: do not spam your timeline with promos for your books. In particular, if someone is kind enough to follow you back, do not DM them with invitations to buy your book. This is really, really poor netiquette and will lose you followers.
This is not to say that you can’t promote your book at all, because that’s part of the reason people follow you – to get the latest news from the horse’s mouth. But make it just one small part. Talk about how your writing is going, retweet useful/cool/funny posts about your areas of interest (see the article on blogging), and most of all, interact with your followers and the people you follow. Capture people’s interest first, and then they won’t mind the occasional promo tweet.
One tool I find really useful is Hootsuite, which is a web-based Twitter client. Its multi-column interface allows you to see incoming and outgoing tweets, direct messages, mentions, etc all on one web page, and you can hook it up to multiple accounts, both on Twitter and other social networks such as Facebook. Even more useful, you can schedule tweets to go out when you’re not online – very handy if you want your book announcement to be seen at a busy time of day in another timezone, but don’t want to stay up all night.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can be more creative with Twitter. I’m currently running a second account, @MalCatlyn, in which I tweet in the persona of the protagonist of my Night’s Masque novels. Of course this is an additional commitment on top of my normal social media presence, and thus not to be recommended unless you really love Twitter and have the time to spare.
How to get started
Obviously you need an account first – go to twitter.com to register. Note that usernames are not case-sensitive – I registered as ‘annelyle’, but I usually write it as ‘AnneLyle’ for greater readability, and all the links still work.
Once you’ve created your Twitter account, use the “Who to Follow” page to find people:
Maybe you know someone who’s on Twitter (like me!), so you can just look them up and follow them.
Try searching for your favourite authors’ names – but beware that other people might have the same name and have claimed the username first (e.g. author Adam Christopher tweets as @ghostfinder because his name was already taken). There are also a few fake, identity-thieving account around. Read the mini-biography attached to the account and check out the user’s timeline to see if they look like a real person or a spambot
Similarly, type writing (or whatever) into the “Who to Follow” search box and browse the results for interesting feeds
The best Twitter users maintain public lists of good people to follow. When you find an account to follow, see if they are on any lists (the “Listed” number on their profile) and follow the links to find out who else is on that list.
Once you’ve got a bunch of people to follow, sit back and watch your timeline spool away. Don’t be too anxious to jump in, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to reply to others, retweet stuff, or just introduce yourself. E.g.
@AnneLyle Hi! Really looking forward to reading The Alchemist of Souls 🙂
As with most social media networks, you can import your blog’s RSS feed into Twitter, which will ensure you have a steady flow of tweets in addition to general chatter. I useTwitterfeed, as it’s very easy to set up.
Before you know it, people will start following you back – though some of them will undoubtedly be pornbots! Don’t worry, though, you can block unwanted followers. Some people leave the bots in their follower list to make the numbers look higher, but personally I would rather know that 99+% of my followers are real people who might actually be reading my feed.
Writers are frequently not the most social of people – sitting alone typing for hour after hour isn’t really a hobby/occupation for extroverts. And yet nowadays we are expected, as part of our online presence, to be active on at least one social medium if not several. So, is it a boon for writers, or a soul-crushing time sink?
As with blogging, it helps to have a strategy in place; a haphazard approach is wasted effort. And whilst social media can be addictive and a temptation to procrastination, it can also be the perfect way for a shy writer to network and get noticed.
Note that I’m not going to go into technical details on how to use any of the social sites mentioned – there are many fine resources out there, and in any case, available features change all the time. Just google “twitter for beginners” or “facebook tutorial” or whatever 🙂
Which social network(s) to choose
Do you have to join every network? Good question! On the one hand, as I mentioned in part 1, it’s wise to at least register an account on each popular social network, to stake your claim to your author name in cyberspace (do people still say “cyberspace”? I may be showing my age). On the other, there’s no point participating in an activity you don’t enjoy – it won’t be an effective use of your self-promotion time.
My strategy is to focus on the one I like best (which happens to be Twitter) and maintain a minimal presence on the other ones that are currently popular, so that members of that network can find out a bit more about me. Note that I say “currently popular” – the internet is evolving all the time, and some sites that were huge 2-3 years ago (MySpace, I’m looking at you) are now shrinking in popularity, at least with certain audiences. You don’t have to jump on and off every bandwagon, but at least be aware of where your readers are likely to be found, and make sure you’re there.
The care and feeding of social media
The issue that exercises the minds of most writers is: how do I maintain a presence on social media and still find time to write? The facile answer is that you need to limit your time on these services and use them effectively, but that’s easier said than done! However, here are some suggestions:
1. As with blogging, remember that the purpose of social media is to promote yourself, not just to sell books. It’s called social media for a reason – use it to engage with your audience rather than churning out spam!
2. Research the technology. The popular services have lots of add-on applications that can be used to schedule posts, generate posts automatically from, e.g. your blog RSS (see below), manage your friends/followers, and so on. A few hours spent trying out these add-ons can save you a lot of time and effort down the line.
3. Remember to be professional. Even more than your blog, your social media presence is your public face. Act like an idiot online and people will soon notice – and not in a good way.
4. As a corollary of 1, don’t sit back and expect people to come to you. Get out there and follow the interesting people. “Like” your favourite authors, publishers, TV shows and so on. The more you interact, the more likely it is that others will share your posts and spread your name around. Social media is the ultimate viral marketing environment!
RSS (Really Simple Syndication*)
You’ve probably seen the RSS icon (see left) on blogs and other sites you visit. It’s a way of exporting posts from a blog or social media feed so they can be read in, say, your email program or – more importantly for our purposes – displayed on another website. This means that you don’t have to post to all of your social networks all of the time. I feed my blog’s RSS into my FB page (using a Facebook app), thereby providing regular content even when I don’t have time to visit Facebook, and use the free service Twitterfeed to send it to Twitter. At the time of writing, Google+ doesn’t have this facility, so you can only post stuff manually.
* OK, so RSS actually stands for RDF Site Summary, but how dull is that?
So, is that it?
To be honest, without going into specific details about individual services, it’s hard to give more advice. So, in upcoming posts I’ll be covering the three main social networks I use: Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads. (I was going to include them here, but this post is already quite long!)
Last time I covered setting up your author website, and suggested using one of the popular blogging platforms as an easy way to run it. If you’ve done this, you now have full blogging capabilities at your fingertips – but what do you blog about?
Choosing a topic
Your knee-jerk reaction might be “Well I’m a writer, I’ll blog about my writing”. Thing is, there are a gazillion other writers out there doing exactly the same. I’m not saying you shouldn’t blog about your writing or the craft of fiction, but if you’re going to do so and build an audience, you need something unique to offer. A new voice, a new perspective.
Take for example, Terrible Minds, the blog of freelance writer Chuck Wendig. I should warn you in advance that Chuck’s blog is not for those who are offended by strong language. It’s colourful and profane but always very funny, and simultaneously very insightful about the craziness of being a writer. Chuck has a loyal following, enough that he can self-publish compilations of his blog posts and people will pay money to get this stuff that they can read online for free, which is the ultimate blogger’s accolade.
But what if you don’t think you have anything special to say about writing? Not a problem. Find something you are passionate about, something you can talk about endlessly without getting bored (because if blogging becomes a chore, your readers will sense your boredom and go elsewhere). Preferably it should be something that links to either your fiction or your target audience’s interests. Maybe you’re a keen gamer, or an expert on medieval weapons, or like to crochet tiny Cthulhu toys in your spare time. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it connects you with readers. The purpose of your blog is not to sell books, it’s to sell yourself as a cool person whose books might therefore be worth looking into. In fact that bears repeating:
The purpose of your blog is not to sell books, it’s to sell yourself.
This might sound cold and calculating, and I guess some people might approach it that way, but if you are genuine in your enthusiasm for a subject it will shine through.
If you don’t have a strong overarching theme, don’t worry. I really have two strands to this blog: stuff about (historical) fantasy, and posts like this about modern technology. They’re very different, but they’re both key elements of my personality and they probably bring in different readerships. A little diversity is unlikely to do you any harm, as long as you don’t stretch yourself so thin that you fail to satisfy any audience. Which brings us on to:
How often should you blog?
Again, opinions differ, but the general consensus seems to be that a) it’s essential to be regular and reliable and b) less than twice a month and you are probably going to find it hard to build a readership. I would recommend at least once a week, twice if you can. Daily blogging is good if you’re as prolific as, say, Chuck Wendig, but I think one good post a week is probably going to be more effective than seven indifferent ones.
A final confession
I actually cheat on both the above. In addition to this regular weekly blog, I have a Writing Journal where I blog about my writing progress on an intermittent basis (sometimes daily, sometimes hardly at all). It’s really just an online diary, which is why it’s tucked away behind the navigation bar rather than featuring on the home page. As a promotional tool, it’s not a model to be emulated!
So, what are you going to (or do you) blog about? Feel free to pimp your blog here, if you already have one.
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).
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?