QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, June 21, 2010

Building Your Book/Author Website

Why is a website so crucial?  Well, partly because the first thing many of us do when we hear about a product that interests us is go online to find out more. A website dedicated to the author/book in question serves several purposes:

1. It legitimizes the author and the book.

In the social sciences (like psychology), something that has been legitimized has clout and power behind it. It feels somehow more real, more authoritative, than something that has not. Think about the mega-authors, the bestselling authors, the ones who are household names -- they all have websites. It's part of the product that is [insert mega-name author here]. 

In a digital world, especially one in which it's so easy to create a webpage, there's really no excuse for not having a site.

2. It gives you a way to brand yourself.

I've talked about branding before, and about how I developed the Archetype Writing brand:
Before we get into [website] content, let’s talk a little bit about design. You need to pick a theme or symbol to represent you. Something that’s unique to your site and your work. In advertising, we call that branding.
I have this really cool pen that my mom got me as a stocking stuffer one year. The barrel is clear, and there’s a little light in there that changes colors. I turned it on, put it on a white sheet of paper and started snapping photographs as it changed colors. That silly little gift, with the light orange, has become my symbol for Archetype Writing. I have it on my site; I have it on my blog. (I also have it on notepaper and my business cards. I'm getting oodles of mileage out of that pen.)

I also used specific colors to go with the Archetype brand --  most notably orange, a color I chose because it is associated with adjectives like energizing, vital, friendly, and fun.  I paired it with black to ground it, since black brings to mind adjectives like bold, strong, powerful, and sober.  In other words -- I was going for a site that is fun to visit, but also includes authoritative information.  (If you're particularly interested in the psychology of color in branding and advertising to help you build your site, I highly, highly recommend the Pantone Guide to Communicating with Color by Leatrice Eiseman.)

Over on my new Writer's Guide to Psychology website, the brand is strongly influenced by my book cover. I decided to carry over the image of the brain, along with the typewriter font and the warm, robust colors, particularly dark red.  If someone has seen the book, I want them to know they've reached the right website the second they see it, and vice versa.

3. It provides interested parties with additional information -- information that you control.

Sites like Amazon.com provide fantastic information on books.  They give us all the details on the publisher, let us browse reviews, and even let us order a copy for ourselves.  But while newer features like Author Central give writers ways to customize their pages and bios, they still can't control a lot of the information published there.

On your website, you can include as much information as you like -- and make sure it's accurate.  You can provide excerpts, tips, and tidbits to really get potential readers intrigued.

So how do you go about creating your own website?  

Storyboarding

The first thing you need to do is sit down with a pencil and a piece of paper and storyboard a bit.  What is your primary graphical symbol going to be? What do you want your menus to say?  Will you have submenus?  How will you lay them out?

To the right you'll see what a basic storyboard looks like for me...and how that might translate into a completed site.  My sites rarely look just like my storyboards, but they're often quite similar.

Once I've come up with a basic storyboard, I do a lot of thinking in Photoshop and Dreamweaver.  I try combining things in different ways to see how they look.  I went through nearly 15 iterations of the Writer's Guide to Psychology website before I was happy with the design.  To the right and below are just three of them (the bottom one being what I settled on).


In other words, don't worry if it takes you a while to get it right.  Trial and error is often the best way to figure out what's going to work for you and your book.

Actually Building the Site

I'm one of the lucky ones -- I've been creating webpages since 1995, and I love doing it. It's fun for me to design a site; create the graphics, text, and other media; and tweak until I'm happy.

You may not feel that way, or you may not yet know how to build a website on your own.  If either of these things is the case, you have several options.

1. Hire someone to build the site for you.
  • Pros: You don't have to get your hands dirty.  You pay someone and the work is done.
  • Cons: You're trusting your site to someone else, and you don't get the same opportunity to play around until the site feels just right.  Having someone else build a site for you an also be expensive, especially if you rely on them to do all your updates.
2. Use a website that provides templates.
  • Pros: You can build a site on your own without having to understand how the coding works.
  • Cons: These template sites vary widely in quality, ease of use, and functionality. Many (if not most) of them scream amateur. Some require you to have some basic knowledge of how the web works.  Some are costly.  You are limited by the template you choose, especially if you're plunking down hard-earned cash to use a particular one. And there's no guarantee someone else won't be using exactly the same template.
3. Use a blogging website like WordPress or Blogger to create your site.
  • Pros: Easy to use and update, lots of templates to choose from.  In many cases you can tailor a blog to look more like a website than a blog.  WordPress and Blogger both offer a way to make different pages so everything isn't running through the blog engine.
  • Cons: Custom templates can be buggy, and they often require some HTML and/or CSS knowledge to really tweak them.  Instructions on how to make changes vary from very good to extremely poor. 
4. Tackle a website-building program like Microsoft Expression Web or Adobe Dreamweaver (or find a friend who knows them and can help you).
  • Pros: You have complete control over your site and the possibilities are limitless.
  • Cons: Advanced knowledge and patience are required.  (If you're going to try to learn Dreamweaver, I highly recommend Dreamweaver CS4 Missing Manual and CSS: The Missing Manual if you want to really understand CSS.)  MS Expression web is considerably cheaper (unless you're a student or teacher) and has very similar functionality to Dreamweaver. There are also plenty of books to help you learn MS Expression Web, though I haven't read any of them, so I can't make any particular recommendations. (Once you learn one of the programs, you can move back and forth pretty easily between them.)
For the novice, I suggest using a blogging platform like Blogger or WordPress.  Overall, they're easy to use, there's lots of help available, and they're fairly easy to customize.

A little tip as you build, especially if you're using someone else's templates.  Remember, just because you can do something doesn't always mean you should do something.  In other words, simple is often better.

Your Domain Name

If you're not using Blogger or WordPress (or sometimes even if you are), you'll want a website address (aka a domain name) that refers to you or your product.  Fortunately, domain names are inexpensive, often around $10 a year.  GoDaddy.com is an easy place to buy a domain name, though I prefer SSL Catacomb Networking, as they're often cheaper and I like the control they give me over my domain names.

Dot-com (.com) names are the most popular because everyone automatically tacks ".com" onto a website address, but you can use all kinds of domain extensions (.net, .info, etc.) if .com is already taken.  Though website domain sellers often encourage you to buy every extension under the sun, that's really not necessary.

Once you have your domain name and host service, you're ready to upload your finished site. (I use Website Source because you can do pretty much everything with it...including shell in if you want to. Don't worry if you don't know what shelling in is...it's the ability to do high-level customization of your site on the server side.)  Programs like Dreamweaver and Expression Web will help you upload straight from the program.

So...what have I missed? What else does a website do to help a book? And as a writer, do you have your own author or book website? If you have a website, what approach are you using?  Do you like it?  Would you do anything differently if you were starting over?


19 comments:

Eric W. Trant said...

If you've ever owned your own business, you understand the concept of perception in the marketplace.

Becoming a published author is just that: owning your own business.

And that ain't easy.

- Eric

Stephanie said...

To be a success these days, sometimes a website alone isn't enough. Gotta be on Twitter, have a blog, etc.. And keeping up with all that is in itself a full-time job.

Erinn said...

Stephanie is right, you also might need a facebook page for your characters or a twitter page too. Branding is a full time job, lots of work, but does it pay out?

Suzi McGowen said...

Don't forget the most important aspect of your website. Content!

Will it be strictly business? Anything personal? How much? Will you discuss politics? Religion?

What kind of content is on your favorite author's website? What author did you stop reading after you visited their website? Keep these exeperiences in mind :)

Francis said...

I've been designing websites for 12 years and just blogged about this last week. I shared my years if experience and offered the options to build your online presence for as little money as possible, as well as the basics of website designing for those taking the do-it-yourself road.

The two posts can be read here:
http://blog.franciscossette.com/2010/06/website-design-part-2.html

http://blog.franciscossette.com/2010/06/tweet-your-way-to-publication-and.html

ali said...

Wow, thanks so much for the great info!

Silke said...

I've also blogged on this topic before, because it frequently comes up.
Website, or...
The thing is, the term website is outdated, and there are more considerations than just whether you should, or shouldn't have one.
WebSITES are static, and unless you have the expertise to update it frequently (and by that I mean more than once a year!), you'll be better served with a blog, where you can interact with visitors.
I've elaborated in my post, and hopefully it gives a little food for thought to a few authors out there. :)
It's too long to go into here, in a comment, but instead of asking "Should I have a website", you need to ask yourself "What kind of Web Presence do I want? What can I work with?"
There's a difference. :)

Kristi Helvig said...

I just bookmarked this page--thanks!

Phylicia said...

Well...lucky for me I married a web designer, but even so, figuring out the best approach for your site is tricky. Simplifying is my next step. I have a website and a forum with a gazillion subtopics, but now I've learned that it makes my site look cluttered and takes the focus off the books. Lesson learned, next time I'll listen to my husband :).

ANDREW E. KAUFMAN said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ANDREW E. KAUFMAN said...

I've found Godaddy's Website Tonight to be very easy to use with professional looking results. They have a template and you can get an impressive author website up very fast. If you'd like to see a sample, you can look at mine: http://www.andrewekaufman.com

Melody said...

You hit it spot on! Right now, I have a daily updated blog. I hadn't thought much about the psychology of colors, but I should have. Thank you for mentioning it. And you're spot on about branding. I'm still figuring that out in my mind, because I don't want to be stuck with something I don't like. :)

Genevieve said...

I have a blog, and just recently I started up a website (on weebly.com), but cannot figure out how to connect the two. I know it's pretty amateur, but didn't have the cash or the know-how to make it any better.

I wonder if QueryTracker.net might want to organize some kind of list of web designers for writers? I'd love to know who does what!

Carolyn Kaufman said...

Genevieve -- I just always create a link to my blog from my website. With my Writer's Guide to Psychology site, the blog is more for News than an actual blog. I wanted the blog engine, b/c it's super easy to update that way, but I didn't want the expectation that I'd be posting as regularly as I do here on the Querytracker Blog. So I tailored the News (blog) section to look like just another page of the website.

Again, I'm lucky to have the knowledge on how to do that kind of thing, but it's really not that hard.

Here's the site: http://writersguidetopsychology.com/

If you click NEWS, you can see the News (blog); if you click any of the other links, you come back out to the regular site.

Silke said...

Genevieve,
All you need to do to link the two is put a prominent (i.e. highly visible) static link on your website and blog. (link the blog to the site, and the site to the blog)
I would also suggest to design the blog with the same colors you use on your webpages, so it's not so jarring for the visitor, and they know it's still the same author.
In fact, if you're able to, try to have a graphical button you can use to link back and forth, and offer the code of it as a "link to me", to make it easy (and visual) for people to link back to you.

Suzette Saxton said...

LOVELY post! And just when I needed it. I'll soon be creating another author webpage for a pen name I'll be using.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great post, Carolyn!

I was lucky. I found a great Blogger template that worked extremely well as my brand. I couldn't be happier. I've used a similar picture (that I took on vacation) for my avatar for various writing forums.

A Pen In Neverland: Angela Peña Dahle said...

Good stuff! I struggle with finding templates that work with my theme and the colors I want to keep on my blog. I think later I will link a professional website to my personal author blog. For now as I climb the publishing ladder I'll stick to more interaction and tweak and tailor my personal blog until I have a book out there. This is useful though.

Genevieve: It would be awesome if Querytracker did post a list of web techs who worked with authors to create tailored sites!

www.a-pen-in-neverland.blogspot.com

monkamonkamoo said...

This post has been really helpful. I did dabble using Dreamweaver once and it works well with static sites that don't need updating too much. I wouldn't know how to create a blog with Dreamweaver. I have a blog now but thinking what to do about the website. If I should create it myself or use a template, the existing one or a new one because the one I'm using now is a writer's theme. I think I may have to keep it until I have something published. Then instead of overhauling the blog and the few static pages I may consider having a totally different website for the book where I can go crazy matching themes to the book.

Thanks for the post Carolyn.