(The following post originally appeared at WritingChallenge.org.)
It may give away my age, but I’ll admit, I’ve been developing websites since the mid-90s. (This is my company.) I first learned during my senior year in college when my dad called me up and asked me to learn how to make a website for a new computer store he was opening. I was an English major, for goodness sake! I didn’t have the first clue about developing a website. All I knew was how to get around on the limited number of websites available in 1996 by using what were, at the time, popular search engines like WebCrawler or Lycos. In a Netscape browser, no less.
But you aren’t reading this post so that I can drag you on a trip down my own memory lane. No, I’m just trying to let you know that when it comes to developing an effective website, I may know a thing or two. In fact, I earn a living building websites to this day. While I cut my eye teeth writing HTML, then using Frontpage, and later Dreamweaver, I eventually moved on to experiment with a variety of CMS (Content Management System) platforms for building sites. In my experience, WordPress (the privately-hosted version, not the .com) is the easiest to use and extremely flexible, so that’s what I’ll be talking about below. That said, here are some steps you should think about taking sooner, rather than later, if you want to begin building your platform as an author.
- If you don’t already own a domain name, register one. Some things to remember:
- Stick with a .com if you can. I’d avoid .net, .org, .info, .us and similar domains. If you want a country specific domain, that’s ok, too, but .coms still rule the Internet.
- I think it’s great to establish your author site with your name, or the name under which you intend to publish. If your name is often misspelled, you might want to consider registering a second domain name as an alias, just so you can be sure folks will find you.
- I always use GoDaddy for domain name registrations.
- While I don’t use GoDaddy for hosting (our company has its own server), they do have reasonable hosting rates and I recommend their WordPress hosting. If you call their customer support, they’ll be happy to get you started with your domain name and an inexpensive hosting package. DO NOT go for the WebSite Tonight deal, though. I recommend WordPress for the easiest website development experience. More on that in the next step.
- WordPress. As writers, many of you may already have experience with a WordPress.com blog. Using the open-source WordPress.org version (which can be quick-installed through most hosting company packages) will allow you to quickly and easily set up an attractive website that you can easily manage from any web browser.
- Website themes. There are plenty of good-looking free themes available, but if you’re willing to fork over a few extra bucks, there are a number of themes and theme frameworks that I think you’ll find are well-worth the money.
- Two of the most popular theme frameworks are Thesis and Genesis. I’ve used both, but I prefer the Genesis framework.
- Look for a responsive theme. That means it will look good on any device. People will be able to read and navigate your site whether they are sitting at their huge desktop monitor, or using their smartphone while they’re in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. TIP: StudioPress themes are all responsive right out-of-the-box.
- Content. I could probably write books on any of these topics, especially this one.
- The first content you need to have on your site is an About page. (Obvious, right?)
- You also need a way for people to contact you, either via e-mail, a contact form, Twitter, etc..
- If you’ve already written and published books or articles, put that on your site, with links if you are able.
- Think about writing blog posts about the world of your book, the characters, your research — BUT NOT SPOILERS. For instance, my Adam Fletcher Adventure Series is historical fiction that takes place on the Carolina coast in the 1760s. It involves shipping merchants, colonial life, apprenticeships, and smuggling, among other things. I have posted some interesting items I found while researching my novels on the book series website. They don’t give anything away about the stories that you couldn’t guess from the title, and yet they still offer insight into the world of my novels.
- USE IMAGES! (And keep them classy!) Please don’t create posts without images. Seriously. People are visual. Few books attract readers without an interesting cover. The same is true for blog posts. If it’s pure text, people might not be as likely to read it (unless it’s just a quick blurb — but if it were me, I’d still pick an image.) There are some great tools out there such as Canva and Adobe Spark.
- Plugins. One of my favorite things about WordPress is the variety of frequently-updated plugins. They can help you achieve everything from setting up social media icons on your page, to making one of those snazzy pop-ups to grab newsletter subscribers. Here’s a bit more on plugins:
- Jetpack is a must-have. It’s a powerful plugin that is actually like dozens of plugins in one. One of my favorite Jetpack features is the ability to choose from various photo gallery options. I also love the built-in related posts feature.
- The WordPress import plugin will allow you to bring over posts from another blog, provided you have one hosted on another standard blogging platform. Of course you’ll have to export the posts from the other blog before you can import them into WordPress.
- Another favorite plugin is called Image Widget. It will allow you to upload an image directly into a widget area and then have that point to any link you specify (maybe a post or page on your site, or a link elsewhere.) That’s great for creating those descriptive image buttons that you’ll so frequently see on high-end blogs, as well as creating direct links to your books once you have them written.
- Widgets. Be wise about the widgets you feature on your site. Some themes have unique widget areas for the home page, and a sidebar that appears on all other pages and posts.
- The default WordPress widgets are pretty lame, so I’d remove those if I were you.
- Your chosen theme may use some specific plugins for widgets in their demo design. The instructions should tell you what those are, but don’t feel limited to using the ones in the sample site.
- One of the most exciting things about WordPress is the ability to do just about anything with a website. But just because you can do anything doesn’t mean you should do anything. Don’t ring bells and blow whistles if you don’t need to.
- Text widgets are where you’ll paste the code from sites like Goodreads or Twitter in order to get content from those sites to show up on your author site. There are usually several options you can choose. Think about what will work best with the area where you’ll be placing the widget. Consider color schemes, size, and what you hope to accomplish with the widget.
There is a ton to learn about developing an author site, or any site for that matter, but you’ll have to start somewhere. Relying on that old Blogger or WordPress.com blog might be ok when you’re writing as a hobby, but if you want to write as a career, you need to invest in your online image. I’m not saying you have to hire a website developer like me, but taking some of the steps above will help you set yourself apart as someone who takes their writing seriously.
Thankfully, there are ample resources available online to teach you virtually anything you need to know about working with WordPress, and depending on the theme you use, there might also be an active support system in place to answer your questions.
Feel free to post your questions below and I’ll do my best to answer them.