It feels a bit heretical to be writing that headline, here on my, uh, website. But I just read this article by David Wogahn that answers that question with “Maybe, maybe not.”
My answer is, why not? It’s very easy for even someone with limited technological skills to have a website. And by “technological skills” I really mean “online skills,” which is something rather less technical. Using any of the blogging software that is free or almost free, you can click on buttons, write some text, create some links, and have a website. Any dummy can do it. And I suspect if you’ve written a book, you’re no dummy.
Maybe I’m biased. Ever since I discovered GeoCities way back when, I’ve been playing around with websites. When I heard about TypePad, I started a blog, which morphed into a website. What’s the difference between a blog and a website? Not much. All you have to do is create some static pages, link to them in your navigation bar (if you have one) or your sidebar and you can properly call your blog a website.
That’s the beauty of blogging platforms like TypePad, WordPress, Blogger, and all the recent startups like Weebly, Wix, Squarespace and Jimdo. You can try them all for free, and most are free to use permanently, though you might need to pay for extras, like mapping a domain name to your site. (Mapping a domain allows you to have a unique URL for your website, like JaneSmithAuthor.com instead of JaneSmithAuthor.typepad.com. I highly recommend you do this if you want to come across as a professional.)
What are the advantages of having a website? It’s a landing place for potential readers and fans to find you. If you have a blog on your site, you can write blog posts that attract readers via social media, that is, if what you’ve written is interesting enough. You can showcase your reviews, highlight some interesting facts about your books, publish excerpts and deleted scenes to engage your readers.
If you’re trying to decide how best to spend your marketing budget, don’t blow it all on a professionally designed website, unless your budget is in four or more figures. A good website designer will charge around $2000, although you might be able to find one who works for less. I’m pretty picky about website design, and until I can afford to have a bang up website design, I’m going to spend my marketing budget somewhere else and do it myself.
Here’s what you need to know if you’ve decided to DIY a website:
Buy your domain name. Do it now, before someone else snatches your name and, possibly, “parks” the name, making it much more expensive later. Before you decide on a penname, if you haven’t already, check to see if the name is available as a domain name. It’s simple to look up the availability at any of the domain name registries: GoDaddy, NameCheap, Register.com, and about a dozen more. They cost at a minimum about $10 a year or the equivalent in your local currency, but they’ll try to sell you a lot of add-ons, like registration privacy, multi-year discounts, etc.
You can also purchase a domain name through WordPress if you’re using WordPress.com (which is different from WordPress.org). It’s around $12, and I think the mapping process is a lot smoother if you go ahead and buy through WordPress.
Decide on a platform. From what I can tell, WordPress has one of the steeper learning curves. This website is maintained on WordPress.org. But the advantages are the wide range of themes (designs) offered, as well as the plug-ins (gadgets like Facebook “like” counters, sidebar images, buttons, and utilities like traffic counters so you can see how many people are visiting your site and from where).
I haven’t tried Wix or Weebly, but they both seem like a very easy way to get a website up and running quickly. TypePad is pretty old school, but they’re adding new features to keep up with the newer kids on the block. They charge a fee, starting around $89 per year, but their customer service is excellent. You’ll get immediate answers when you open a “help ticket.” I can’t say the same for WordPress; their “help” consists of forums moderated by WordPress experts.
Choose a theme, i.e. a design, for your site. If you can, it’s always best to use a customizable theme, meaning you can replace the banner image with one of your own. This can be tricky if you don’t have picture editing skills (and I don’t, but even I can manage to use online photo editing software to add text to an image).
Using a stock theme is fine to start with, but eventually you’ll come across that same stock theme used in different sites. (Which is what has happened to the current theme I’m using, a free theme offered by BluChic.) Take it from me, you can spend hours, if not days, searching for the perfect theme, and then customizing it. But if all you want is a basic website, go with something simple and worry about the advanced details after you’ve seen some royalty checks.
Check out other author sites for content ideas. Even though I’d been blogging for years and designed several websites for non-profit organizations, I had no clue what to put on my author website. I checked out every one I could find, and not just in my genre, to get ideas for content.
When you design your own site, it’s simple to add another page, say for photos from your booksignings. If you employ a web designer, you have to depend on them to do it, at a cost, and probably not right away. Be sure to have a separate page for your blog, where you’ll post updates more frequently than on your static pages.
Hosting is where things get tricky. I’ll admit, my eyes glaze over whenever I deal with a web host. I don’t have a clue what all the terms mean, or what is actually going on behind the scenes, where as with a blogging platform, everything is up front and easy to figure out. But for several reasons (here’s my blog post about the switch and what prompted it), I decided to use WordPress.org instead of WordPress.com, and the main difference between the two is that you must use a host with WP.org. I googled around and found Dreamhost, and they pretty much did everything for me. All I had to do was follow their very explicit instructions and I was up and running within 24 hours. The cost is around $90 a year, still a small part of my marketing budget.
But the good news is, you don’t need a host, or rather, some blogging platforms serve as a host for you, often for free! If you’re new to the game, stick with a free hosted service and worry about the big leagues later.
This is merely the most basic of the basics, what you absolutely need to know to get your website up and running. I suspect you’ll be amazed at how easy it is, and then you’ll realize you’re having fun making your new website do tricks for you. Resist the impulse to add too many shiny baubles, and when you see your first five figure royalty check, you might think about hiring someone to design something a little spiffier.
Or maybe not!
Any questions? Are you trying to decide (as I was about a year ago) if a professionally designed website is worth the money, or if you can do it yourself? Ask in comments!