The first thing I did when I got my agent was set up a domain and build this blog-website hybrid. I believe a professional-looking website/blog is an important tool for building an author platform, as important (if not more so) as building a robust Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr presence. This is all part of “building your platform” that illusive buzz phrase we heard bandied around all the time now. Of course, you can build your platform before getting an agent, and a shiny and professional website/blog can be of assistance in getting an agent… but from most agent interviews I’ve seen, it largely does not matter (though that may change in the future!).
A robust website/blog and the *appearance* of both really becomes important as a consumer-facing marketing tool once you’re on the road to publication. Marketing and branding is incredibly important for books, and your publisher isn’t going to build a site for you. It’s your job to establish and maintain a brand that is eye-catching and approachable. This is true whether you are being traditionally published or indie publishing–in fact, if you are working with a small press or self-publishing, it is especially important to work on branding.
My day job is marketing, and I’ve been building websites/blogs going all the way back to 1997 (Buffy fandom, represent!). I am far from an expert, in fact I use readily available, user-friendly design tools. Full disclosure: my expertise (and love!) is self-hosted WordPress.org blogs (that can be designed as/double as websites). My goal for this post is to outline some easy, relatively cheap (yes, not all free!) steps to take to set yourself up with a website that will look like you hired a professional to do it! It will help immeasurably in giving you, as an author, a professional appearance.
Step One: Buy a domain. I cannot stress this enough. You look less professional with a .blogspot, .wordpress, .weebly, etc. subdomain (and you have far fewer design options with these free hosted domains). Having your domain sorted whilst on sub is not a must, but it is recommended. Once you have a book deal? Definitely. Domains are inexpensive–between $10 and $15 a year. The hard part can be getting a .com that matches your name; if you have a more common name, it may be taken. Add “author” to the end, or “books” (JaneSmithBooks, etc.), or in a pinch, buy the .net or the .org (though there may be confusion since .com is the default) Or, if choosing a pen name, pay careful attention to names that have domains available, and whose Google searches don’t return much (this is what I did). Apparently we may get .books domains in the future–that will be a hot one for authors!
Step Two: Pay for a web host. Once you have a domain, you need to host it somewhere. On the free side, you can have your domain hosted on your pre-existing free blog–Blogspot, WordPress, Tumblr, but with these you will still be limited in terms of design/customization by the free host. So I recommend going self-hosted. This is the more expensive component of going professional, I’ll admit. A web host can cost upwards of $80 a year, and understandably most authors are not made of money. However, I feel this is a worthwhile investment (the cost of eating out three or four times!). I use Bluehost, but there are many more out there. Or, if you are lucky and know someone already paying for web space… they may be very nice and allow you to host your domain/site on their account.
Step Three: Install WordPress.org. You may be familiar with WordPress.com, or even have your blog on it. WordPress.org is the shiny cousin of WordPress.com–a glorious, FREE, user-friendly way to take your blog to the next level. A WordPress.org install is always free-the cost component in using it is the domain + web host. Going self-hosted with WordPress gives you access to advanced layouts, widgets and customizations. You’d be amazed how many top level media blogs/websites are WordPress.org–Entertainment Weekly, Time, MSNBC… yep, use the WordPress.org platform.
Step Four: Get an advanced theme. There are dozens upon dozens of places you can get high caliber themes for WordPress.org, including through WordPress’s interface. Go to the Dashboard, to Themes and “add new” and you can browse all the free themes available to install. However, I am a big fan of paying for an advanced theme. They usually look the best and are the easiest to customize. Cost and models vary, as do design. Some designs are best suited for blogs, others for image portfolios, others for blogs-masquerading-as-websites. Browse carefully and choose the one best for you. Here are some recommendations:
- Elegant Themes. This was recommended to me by a fellow author, and so far I’m immensely happy with my choice/investment. For only $39 a year, I have access to every single theme. Right now I’m using one with a primary blog interface, but in the future I may switch to a website-mostly choice. And I have that option! (and sometimes you can think a theme is perfect and then hate it when you plug everything in, so you have the freedom to change your mind!)
- Woo Themes. I was a massive fan of Woo Themes when I was running a weight loss blog several years ago. They make gorgeous themes, especially image-heavy magazine/blog/portfolio sites. Woo Themes is a “pay for each individual theme you want” model, however you get two “free” bonus themes with every purchase–so it’s really a “three for one” deal for $99. This is what I did–I picked out a theme I was crazy for, and then got two others as well. Woo Themes also has some free themes that are just a bit more basic, but still really nice. You can also look out for Woo Themes sales–I recommend following them on Facebook. Woo Themes also enables you to build a test site, so you can test out themes before you buy them.
- Graph Paper Press. This company makes some gorgeous themes. I never personally bought any as their themes didn’t work well for my last blog topic, but I always coveted their designs. These are particularly good if you want an image-based look/feel. They have an “access all themes” for a yearly cost option that is on the pricey end–$125. Their single theme purchase price is also higher–$79.
- Theme Fuse. This is a new one from last time I was cruising the theme world, but it looks solid and has reasonable pricing. There is a low monthly pricing option, however it requires an expensive “one time” fee. Single theme purchases start at $49.
- Themify.me. Another newbie to me that looks solid. Themes are $39 and you get a bonus theme (ie: 2 themes for $39).
Step Five: Design a logo. Most themes have a logo area–some an image file, others text-based. If text-based, when you are customizing it’s easy to change it to your name. However, if image based, you will need to design a logo. This may actually be the trickiest of all the steps to do as a novice. I’m only a baby step above novice when it comes to logos. A quick Google search tells me there are some free online options, but I can’t vouch for them (http://www.logomaker.com/; http://logoyes.com/). If you have a friend with Photoshop and design chops, you should enlist them. I have Photoshop Elements, which is not heinously expensive, but I wouldn’t shell out that money just for this project. I’ve also been tinkering in design programs since I was 14, so I have a middling-to-passable ability in Photoshop. ANYWAY. Simple is usually best–find a font that speaks to the “brand” you want to convey. Personally, I decided an all-caps sans serif font would best convey both professionalism and a bit of playfulness, but a subtle cursive font can also look nice. Don’t get too fussy or weird with fonts–avoid curlicues, excessively flourished cursive; really anything that is unreadable/overused (never, ever, ever use Papyrus or Comic Sans. EVER). My favorite free font download site is dafont.com, but you can Google “free fonts” and get dozens of great sites. Watch out for licenses–not all fonts are free; some are shareware or donationware. If you’re using Photoshop or similar, save as a PNG as usually you’re going to want/need a transparent background so it blends into your layout.
If you do want to get fancy with your logo, I would look into paying a professional to help you out.
Step Six: Be smart about colors. This goes hand in hand with choosing your theme layout. 99% of the time, light sites (think white-ish) with dark text are the easiest on the eyes. Dark sites with light text can work, but you need to be smart about the balance between dark background elements and light text. This is actually a precise reason to buy a professional theme–a professional designer can produce a gorgeous light-on-dark theme with no readability issues (obviously, I am using a dark-themed site!).
Step Seven: Make your site easily navigable. Navigability typically comes with a well-designed theme, but you can also create your pages/posts and use widgets to aid users in finding what they need to find. Things that should be easy to find when someone comes to your author site:
- Your bio/who you are
- About your book(s)
- Who your agent is (should be on your bio or your book page)
- How to contact you
- How to find you on social media
- Your blog (if applicable)
In WordPress, “posts” become your blog, and “pages” become the equivalent of that tabs/menus you’d see on a website (this is how you can use WordPress, a blogging platform, to create a website–just exclusively use Pages instead of Posts). You can design custom Menus in WordPress–I recommend doing this, having a link to About, Books, Blog & Contact for sure… you can also put social media in, though I’m using a sidebar widget for that. You can put any of your blog Categories or Tags in your menu, as well, though I personally prefer to do that via widgets. So widgets are the nifty things you can drag & drop to your side bar(s), or in some layouts, your footer. You can add a search bar, archive calendar, a list of blog categories, tag cloud, Twitter stream, etc… there are dozens of widgets, and some themes come with custom widgets.
There are more specifics that I can get into at a later time but above are the basics! So essentially for an initial investment of approximately $115-$130, you get a domain, web host and professional layouts and then you have an ongoing cost of $115 if you keep up your subscriptions, or $100 if you drop theme cost was a one-time deal. It seems like a lot… but $100 out of the whole year to maintain your professional author website is a drop in the bucket. In Los Angeles, that’s eating out three times. If someone else hosts your domain (friend or your free blog provider), your yearly costs drops to $15 (domain renewal) if you don’t continually subscribe to a theme website (which gets you theme updates).
So even if you’re technologically and/or graphically illiterate, it’s easy to set up a swanky website with a small investment. Go forth, authors, and market yourself!