If an indie author wants to best market herself, she's going to need to start with an author website. Once she's determined which elements -- things like reviews, an author page, and social media links -- to include on her site, there are some basics decisions to be made before creating the site.
First Things First
An author site starts with a domain. This is your web address. Even if and author isn't ready to get started on her site, registering her domain means no one else can use it. An author can either do this through a service like register.com or iwantmyname.com for a small monthly or annual fee or through a website builder like Wordpress.org or Squarespace.
If an author's name is already taken (janedoe.com), try adding “writer” to the end (janedoewriter.com). If “.com” is taken, Raymond advises trying “.net.” It’s best not to use a book title as a domain, especially if an author plans on writing more than one.
Building the Website
Depending on how tech savvy an author is and the size of her budget, there are a range of options to get an website up and running -- everything from DIY custom websites to hiring a web developer to create your site.
Quick and Easy DIY Websites
If an author want to save money and go the DIY route, she might decide to use an online website builder. There are a number of cheap and easy options.
One of the most popular is Wordpress, home to two distinct offerings that often get confused: Wordpress.com and Wordpress.org.
Choosing between the two comes down to an author's personal experience and expertise. If she knows what she's doing, then Wordpress.org is the best choice. The service allows the user to choose a host and access plugins and a wide selection of custom themes to personalize the site. If an author is familiar with coding and CSS, she'll also have the option to pay a bit extra to modify the Wordpress style sheets.
If that sounds terrifying, then Wordpress.com might be the way to go. The .com version of Wordpress doesn’t require users to download software and takes care of the hosting for free. But there are limitations. While an author doesn't have to worry about making a mistake that compromises the security of the site -- Wordpress.com has built-in safeguards against that kind of thing -- the user only has access to a much smaller pool of themes. An author also can’t sell ads on her site unless she has more than 25,000 monthly page views, at which point she'd be able to monetize, but would have to split the revenue with Wordpress’s parent company. (An author can sell as many ads as she wants with a Wordpress.org site.)
But Wordpress, though popular, isn’t the only option by a longshot. There are a growing number of website builders that cater to the indie community and will enable an author to get her site up and running fast and either cheaply or totally free.
One of those is Squarespace, a site builder and hosting service with a user-friendly drag-and-drop interface, mobile responsive templates and SEO tools. While Squarespace doesn’t offer a free plan, pricing starts at $8 a month, which includes the cost of a free custom domain. Other contenders include Wix and Weebly, both drag-and-drop web builders and hosting solutions based on a freemium model. The more you spend, the more features you get.
An author can also use a free social media site like Tumblr to run her website by registering a domain and having it redirect to Tumblr. Just like with Wordpress, an author can use free themes or pay for premium themes, most of which are affordably priced between about $20 and $50. After installing a theme, an author can use the Tumblr dashboard to upload her own content and images.
“A lot of authors are scared by technology and I’m one of them, I get it,” says Midge Raymond, cofounder of Oregon-based independent publishing house Ashland Creek Press and author of Everyday Book Marketing. “But I’d still encourage authors to look into doing it themselves first. Having control over your website is a very good thing and if you can find the right template, I think that’s the best way to go.”
Hiring a Web Developer
If an indie author doesn't feel comfortable using one of the services listed above, hiring a designer might be the way to go.
Asking other authors for recommendations is wise, but before hiring anyone, an indie author should have a general idea of what she's looking for. To this end, an author may want to check out other author websites for inspiration and worthwhile design elements -- just be sure not to go overboard.
“Fancy or flashy websites might look cool the first time you see them, but they get annoying fast,” says Linda Nagata, a self-published author with nine years of professional web development experience. “People are visiting your website because they want information. Give it to them in a simple, straightforward way.”
An indie author needs to be able to communicate with designers. She should send links to similar sites and be clear about design expectations. Will the site be for one book? Multiple books? Less about the book and more about the author brand? Establish long-term goals for the site at the beginning. Redesigns down the line are costly-- and unnecessary with proper planning
“I’d even send the designer a copy of your book or manuscript,” Raymond says. “A good designer will at least have a look at it and maybe even read it.”
Also an author should have a frank discussion with her designer about pricing and what the fee includes, and put that information in the contract. Ideally, the cost should include training on how to maintain and update the site after its finished.
“You want someone who understands your technical capacity -- or lack thereof,” Raymond says. “And very important, you need to know whether you’ll be charged for any follow-up maintenance or questions about the site.”
The overall price tag depends on the designer, the timeframe, and the elaborateness of the design, but, according to Raymond, an website will generally set an author back between $1,200 and $3,500, although it is feasible to get a perfectly serviceable basic site for about a grand. Although it’s possible to obtain a completed site within a week, it’ll more likely take between three weeks and a month to finish the project.
No matter what direction an author goes design-wise, she should remember to make sure the site is a good fit for her book. In most cases, it’s better to keep a site simple, uncluttered, and text-based -- embedding too much text into graphics is bad for search.
“A lot of authors overdesign and think their site has to be super-fancy or animated or that music needs to start playing when someone visits it,” Raymond says. “But actually, that makes it slow to load, and all you really need is an online presence so people can quickly and easily find what they need-- your book, how to contact you, and when to see you at events.”
What You Need to Know About SEO
Having done all the work, an author website needs to be searchable. An indie author might have a great site, but it’s irrelevant if it doesn’t rank well in search engine results.
The first thing to do is add an accurate site title and meta description, which an author can do in the backend of whatever system or service she's working with. The meta description is the little descriptive snippet that appears beneath the site title when someone searches on Google. It should be accurate, concise and in plain English. Don't go crazy, bending over yourself backward to fill your description with a chain of keywords.
What are keywords? Keywords are words or phrases that describe the content on a webpage. An author wants her keywords to align with the search terms that people use on Google to find your content. Keywords can be incorporated organically into the body text of a site and in the meta data. Make sure the keywords are relevant and reflect what the content is actually about. Visitors hoodwinked into checking out a site won’t be back, and shoehorning keywords into content or including off-target keywords in metadata will only result in a lower search ranking.
Also helpful are the inclusion of internal links, meaning links that direct back to relevant content on the author's site. Not only do they provide more entry points -- especially if an author's content is picked up or reposted elsewhere -- they increases a site’s value and shareability because they enables Google to more easily index content.
While it’s definitely a good idea to beautify a website with images, an author should make sure her text isn’t embedded into the visual elements. Text embedded into images isn’t searchable. In other words, do incorporate a nifty JPEG of that book cover on the homepage, but don’t forget to include the book’s title written somewhere in text form.
But the best SEO trick isn’t actually a trick at all – it’s ensuring that a website is packed with good, original content. Without that, all the keywords in the world won’t help. Click here for more on SEO.
You’ve Built It and Optimized It -- So Don’t Forget About It
An author's website is part of her author brand, so don’t let the content get stale, especially on the homepage, which is often a visitor’s first port of call. Keep the content fresh with latest new or upcoming events. If a reviewer has just said something praiseworthy, pop that onto the homepage. At the very least, Raymond updates the date at the corner of her site weekly so it’s clear “that there’s a living, breathing author behind the site.”
The last thing you want a visitor to think upon hitting your site is, "This thing doesn’t look like it’s been updated since 1992."
“My own site gets updated minimally every month and generally more often depending on the flow of news and news releases,” Nagata says. “What you don’t want is a fossil website that hasn’t been updated in years -- people will think you’re no longer writing.”