Adapted from the Self-Publisher's Ultimate Resource Guide. Want more outstanding self-publishing insider knowledge? Pick up the most recent edition of the Self-Publisher's Ultimate Resource Guide, created by BookWorks founder Betty Sargent and Joel Friedlander, "The Book Designer", and winner of the 2017 Silver IPPY in Reference Book category.
Part One of a 3-part series: An Insider's Guide to Author Websites
Part Two: Essential Component Checklist
Part Three: Execute!
At this point, you’ve heard the endless refrain: you need a website. Probably for years now. I won’t reiterate it. It feels a little 2008 to even be mentioning it.
What’s worth mentioning, however, is what your website needs. The independent author sphere is saturated with bad design and marketing—from unintentionally hilarious book covers to websites that look like refugees from the wreckage of Geocities—and you don’t want to add to it. But it goes much deeper than that. Design isn’t just how your website looks, but what it does (to very loosely paraphrase Steve Jobs), and you have to do more than just have something out there. It needs to be as remarkable as your book.
The Most Important Thing About Author Websites You'll Ever Read (...Maybe)
Building an excellent website is one of the first priorities for every business (and make no mistake, you are a business).
You’re not just selling a book, you’re building your brand, and everything that you put into the public sphere affects the perception of your brand, and therefore your sales.
The hard truth is this: self-published authors are still fighting an uphill battle for acceptance, despite the sensational success of a few. Yes, the media (especially the self-publishing media) loves to crow about how many books are being self-pubbed, how much authors are making, how many indie author millionaires there are. But the vast majority of indie authors will sell a handful of copies to friends and family, where they will collect dust on a shelf.
Don’t be that author. You may not be selling as much barely-masked Twilight fanfiction as E.L. James (yet!), but you can certainly look the part. Plus, you’ll have a great foundation for when those numbers do start skyrocketing.
Following is some insider knowledge from a working web design firm to help you ensure that no matter what path you choose to build your site, you’ll finish with a top-notch product.
The Golden Rules of Good Author Websites
When building your website, just keep these four rules in mind, and you should be alright. When in doubt, contact a pro to make sure you’re giving your site the attention it deserves.
Your Author Website is the Hub of Your Brand
It’s where every part of your communication strategy meets—clickthroughs from your search engine ads, folks who heard you on NPR and want to learn more (dream big, folks), reporters checking you out for a story, readers who clicked from your Facebook page for more information, or people who picked up your literature at that reading you did last week.
For most people, their first contact with a brand will be through the web, and many of those first contacts will be at the brand’s website. Your site needs to make sure that those who stop in get a great first impression, and find what they’re looking for quickly and easily.
Your Author Website is NOT a Brochure, Update Regularly
“Brochure site” is web industry jargon for a static site with no interactive features, just information dumped onto a page, usually with the indifference of a lunch lady doling out sloppy joes. It also references the fact that most of those sites are updated about as often as print pieces.
It does not have to be this way—it cannot be this way for your site to be successful. Your website is easy (and free) to update—so do it! Add a new blog post, tweak your bio, upload a new headshot. Do whatever it takes to make that site always feel fresh and cared for. Keeping your site updated will also help your chances of ranking higher on major search engines, which use frequency of updates as one of the criteria for boosting ranking.
You Must Be Mobile
With mobile and tablet viewing averaging around 50% of traffic for websites, you can’t afford to have a site that isn’t optimized for viewing on all devices. Most quality themes for self-hosted sites will be optimized for mobile, as will the themes at a website builder like Squarespace.
Repeat After Me: IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU
See how that’s in all caps? That’s because it is the most important thing you’ll ever read about building a website. The greatest sin on the internet is vanity, and most website owners we work with are guilty of it.
While most vanity is expressed on the internet as absurd selfies posted to social media, when you run a brand on the web, vanity is the assumption that users are visiting your site to hear what you have to say, rather than coming for their own reasons.
To keep users on your site, and turn them into customers, you have to think first about what they want and why they are visiting, rather than focusing on your message. For authors, this can be a real challenge, since writing a book is so intensely personal. Break through that, however, and you can create something that is hugely beneficial for your brand.
This does not mean being all things to all people. Your book has a target market, you should be talking to them. If middle-aged readers of faith-based fiction are not your market and never will be, don’t worry if they find your website and then leave. You’re looking for qualified traffic—readers for whom your brand resonates.
The Author Website Build Process
A good website will have five phases. These apply even if you’re doing the site yourself with a website builder, and any professional worth their salt will have you go through some version of these phases. They help iron out what you need, what your users need, and how to join those needs in an effective website strategy.
This phase lays out the basic knowledge that will form the building blocks of your site. If you’re working with a web professional, this will help them understand your brand, your book, your personality, and your readers so that they can design a website that helps you achieve your goals.
This is equally important if you’re working solo because it will get you used to thinking like a business with a goal-oriented mindset. You can use a simple discovery questionnaire like this one (from my agency, Well Design) to get started.
Good discovery focuses on your goals, understanding your market and understanding your users.
Information architecture is just a fancy way of saying, “how you organize your website.” You must decide how visitors to your site would like to see the information you want to present, and how to best meet their needs with the structure and content of your site. Need some helpful tips on structuring your content? BookWorks has you covered.
During this phase of planning, you should create a simple visual representation of your content. See below for an example of basic website information architecture. Your site doesn't have to be much more complicated than that unless you want it to be. For more information, be sure to check out The Complete Beginner's Guide to Information Architecture on UX Booth.
Now you get to do what you do best—write. Using your information architecture plan from the previous step, you will create content for your entire site.
If you are working with a professional designer, they will generally give you a few different design directions to choose from, and you can combine and revise them into something that works for your brand.
Once you get rolling with these templates, particularly in WordPress, they are really quite simple to use and design with.
A custom website will then be coded by your web professional or agency. Website builders and self-hosted websites will have the templates already developed for you, you’ll just need to do the required setup to use the theme with your site. Processes for getting the theme installed on your site, as well as the amount of setup once the theme has been installed, vary.
If you like, you may pay about $50 to have your theme setup through ThemeForest, by qualified support staff.
This can’t be stressed enough. When the site development is done, test it. After every revision during the development phase, test it. When you’re hours from going live, test it again. And don’t only test things that have changed—test it all. Test each page, each link, each product. Test the site in the four major browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and IE11+) to make certain that users can see your site and brand as you intended them to. Then grab your tablet and mobile and start all over again. Testing is grueling but absolutely necessary.
Choosing Your Provider
There are myriad ways to build a site today—from excellent website builders like Squarespace to self-hosted WordPress templates—but the gold standard remains having a professional plan, design, and build your site.
What to Look for in a Web Designer
Anyone can say they're a web designer—there are no credentials or certifications needed. But finding one that has the right mix of design sense, industry knowledge, and the ability to finish their projects on time and on budget can be a challenge.
When looking for your web designer, treat the process like you were hiring an employee at a business.
Ask for References
Testimonials on the designer’s website are great—but you should request direct references, and actually call them. Even clients who love a particular designer will have something to say that can help you work with the designer successfully should you hire them.
Study Their Work
Does their design style match what you’re looking for? Do they have experience creating sites for authors? Do the sites they link to in their portfolio achieve the goals of their owners? Are the clients’ brands represented well?
The proof is in the portfolio. Don’t merely glance at the work they’ve chosen to show there.
Look for Credentials
While web design is a profession that only requires a computer and some know-how, good designers will often be recognized by third parties. Check to see if their work has won awards, been featured in media outlets, or has earned some sort of credentials, such as a certificate in one or more of their key skills.
Take the Interview Seriously
When you finally get past perusing designers' sites and move into the hiring phase, you’ll be speaking with or corresponding via email with a few different prospective providers. These exchanges should sound and feel like job interviews—because that’s exactly what they are, and you're the boss. What interview questions would you expect to be asked if you were applying for this job?
Ask the designer about how they work on their projects, and what steps they take in creating a website. Find out what work they are particularly proud of and why. Ask them what they feel their weaknesses are, and how they compensate for them.
In conclusion, regardless of how you decide to build your site, be it DIY or hiring a professional (such as BookWorks' preferred website partner, Featherlight) to do the hard work for you, you’ll need to have a lot of input in the process. Remember, your website is not just a requirement of modern marketing—it’s a launch point or endpoint for what a potential reader will do next after discovering your book. A poor site will stop them dead in their tracks.
Use the insider info we’ve provided to start your website build off on the right foot (or revamp your existing site) and to ensure that you get the product that your brand deserves.
Part One of a 3-part series: An Insider's Guide to Author Websites