I bet you hear this a lot: “Authors need an author website.” It’s one of the more common and oft-repeated lines coming from every book marketing and publishing industry expert. Website, website, website. You HAVE to have one.
If you’re hoping I might offer a different opinion, you’re sadly out of luck. If you’re a self-published author and you want to drive sales of your book, you really need an author website. No way around it.
Instead of lamenting the hassle of building and maintaining a web presence, I’m offering some advice and best practices for building your website. We’ve also got a helpful checklist at the end of this post you can use to make sure you don’t overlook anything important while building your author website.
Last summer I posted a blog about author websites entitled Selling Your Brand. We looked at some very high-level concepts when it comes to using your author website as a marketing tool. In that blog, I narrowed the author website to three essential considerations:
- Hosting – You’ll use a service like WordPress and host your site with a domain you purchased. This means the URL for your site will be customized by you.
- Design – The layout and theme of your website. We’re going to get deep into this below.
- Content – Lastly, you’ve got the content that is distinct from the design. This will include a homepage that updates regularly with new content (like blog posts).
Today I’m going to recycle those three considerations and go deeper into why they are important and how to go about actually building your own author website.
The most important thing to remember when you plan out and buy your URL: it won’t change.
Don’t name your website after the title of your first book. The SEO might be great for that first release. But what happens when you publish your second, and third, and fourth titles?
Name your author website something relevant and evergreen. Your name or some combination, or if you’ve established a unique publisher name, use that.
Once you’re settled on a URL, you’ll need to select a web hosting service for your site. Tools like WordPress, generally the most common and accessible web development platform, make it simple to build a site and host a blog.
WordPress is hardly the only option though. Here’s a quick list of some alternatives to using WordPress to build your site:
Being only experienced with WordPress, I won’t speak to the value and differences among these other options, but I do encourage everyone considering an Author Website to look at a range of website hosting options.
All of the examples I listed above offer one very important option for authors; editing and developing without actually having to work with HTML or CSS. You want a web hosting service with the design tools to create without forcing you to learn to code.
If you have some knowledge of HTML and CSS, that is a benefit, but thanks to platforms like WordPress, it is completely unnecessary. Anyone with an Internet connection and some patience can create a serviceable website in an afternoon.
For example, I just created this site: paulhauthor.wordpress.com
Now, I didn’t spend the $48 a year for a personal WordPress account, but if I had I would have a unique URL like paulhauthor.com. For your website, you absolutely need to pay for your domain so it can be customized to your needs. Since this was just an example, I didn’t go through that step.
Aside from that, I’ve made a couple of pages, selected a theme, added a header image, a site graphic, and a search bar/email capture in the footer. It took me all of 5 minutes to pull this together. The site itself is miles from being complete, but it’s a start. I’ve established the site with a web development platform and secured my URL.
Now comes the design phase.
Unlike the hosting, you will be able to update the design over time. Still, it’s wise to do so sparingly, maybe once every year or two. When you’re planning your website, carefully select the design attributes. You want the design to be visually pleasing, easy to digest, and as modern as possible.
I want to provide a solid, step-by-step guide for some basic design elements, so I’ll stick with my WordPress example because it’s the platform I know best and it is heavily favored by the publishing industry. If you opt to use a different platform, some of the steps and choices may vary, but the general sentiment stays the same.
Okay, let’s circle back to the example site I made. Here’s what the “above the fold” homepage looks like:
Set aside the aesthetic mistakes like the goofy logo, poor title, and clashing background and header image. YOU will need to consider these things, but I simply left them as defaults.
Those very elements I ignored are vital to the look and feel of your author site. Avoid the trap of loading your site with content and instead aim for a clean and easy to navigate page. Google identifies these kinds of things when indexing and your readers will appreciate a simple approach.
So, what does your home page need?
- A Search Bar
- Follow, Email Capture, and Social Follow buttons
- A compelling title
- Fresh content
- A Footer with your site links
You’ve got a lot of control over the individual designing of these elements, but my advice (and this is coming from someone Lulu’s creative team can attest is NOT a designer) is to stick to the basics. Don’t be afraid to mirror the aesthetic of other successful author websites, or just websites in general that you like.
Another example, I modeled my quick homepage around Hubspot’s blog homepage:
Notice how my homepage has a little less content. Mainly because I just created the site, while Hubspot has been working for years to build up a backlog of content. Otherwise, the design—header with links, left aligned body content with a recent post at the top, content-rich sidebar—is the same as my page.
Why did I model my author page on a blog home page? Good question!
An author website shouldn’t look like a retail site. Your readers and followers aren’t navigating to your site specifically to shop. They’re seeking connection with you, your work, and the things you have to say. Treating your author website more like a blog than a retail site is a good idea.
But you’re not strictly a blog. Blogging might not even be central to your plan and it doesn’t have to be. Notice in my example that I have a menu link to “Blog.” This is key if you opt to have a static homepage—a page that stays largely the same and displays some content you’ve selected.
Blogs generally update to display the newest post on the front page. And there are lots of good reasons to do this, but you might want more control over the home page. A static page means getting into your admin controls to make updates, but once you’ve done it a few times it’s not a challenging task.
If you do opt for a true home page experience, the link to your blog will be needed to get your users to that content. Remember that the blog will likely be your primary means of building SEO and getting search engine hits, so don’t bury the content in your pages.
Your design wants to be fairly simple, but don’t neglect it either. Look at sites you like on the web and emulate their design. Consider how the placement of the top menu, body content, and sidebar content affects your experience on other sites and put that understanding to work when you plan your site.
All the design aspects we just went through pertain directly to your content. How you choose to layout your site, where you locate the navigation, the links you include; all this is tied directly to the content you’ll be providing.
For the ease of working through this, I think of the content as everything on your site that isn’t the home page and layout that persists from page to page. Arguably, all of these elements are content as well—your header and sidebar will have content, won’t it?
But we need to draw a line. I feel that the “content” of your page will consist of the following elements specifically, and are separate from the site design in that this content exists within the design and is generally more adaptable than the broader site design.
Temporal Content (Home Page & Blog)
Primarily on your homepage (and if not, on your blog page), you’ll need to continually add more content to your site. Peripheral pages like your About and Product pages will largely remain the same over time, but your home page should provide your visitors with relevant and fresh information.
The easiest way to do this is to host a blog on your website.
Managing a blog, on top of writing and designing books, is no small task. But the benefits are many, not the least of which include maintaining a vibrant and interesting site.
Blogs can be as detailed or broad as you want—my most valuable suggestion here is to think about the kinds of readers who will be visiting your site and do your best to tailor the content you create around their wants and desires.
For example, you might love to travel and take pictures of exotic locales. You might also write instructional manuals for using modern digital cameras. Your author website will, of course, need to appeal to photographers, but that does not mean your blog should be a travelogue of your adventures. If this isn’t the material that appeals to your audience, you may actually drive them away from your site!
Your book needs to be the material and content you want to write. The website needs to be the content your readers want to read. The difference is very fine, but recognizing and creating content around the wants of your readers will have positive results in your website traffic.
With a good sense of what your readers want, you should aim to serve up new content on a regular schedule. Data shows that posting more often (upwards of 16 posts a month) leads to better traffic and click through for businesses, but as an individual author, you’re probably not in a position to generate content at that volume.
Instead, you’ll need to determine for yourself how to plan your blog. Here’s some great advice from marketing guru Neil Patel about how to find the “sweet spot” when it comes to posting frequency. My comment would be only to be consistent with whatever schedule you set and to do your best to give your readers (even if there are only a handful) high-quality content.
This temporal content should include regular posts about your book(s), your writing and signing tours, and your writing process. For many authors, those three categories will be the bulk of content on the blog, but as with the photographer example, it is wise to try to get a sense of your audience and what they like to read, then focus your efforts on this kind of content.
The About Page is absolutely crucial for any website. Imagine a common scenario:
You’re browsing your favorite social media platform and you come across a product that seems interesting to you. You follow the link and land on a creator’s website. You poke around on the home page a little—what link are you most likely to click?
If you want to know more about the product, you’ll be scanning for a product listing page. But if you’re more interested in the creator or business, that About page will be your target. What happens next? You browse the About page and decide to either continue learning more about the product and company or you click away to something more interesting.
As such, your About page serves two critical roles: to draw a user in and to steer them to further pages on your site.
With that in mind, there are three pieces of the About page you should aim to incorporate:
- A story – this is likely to be some backstory about you, your products, and your area of expertise.
- A value proposition – why should this Internet user buy your book instead of a different one?
- A Call to Action – give your reader a link (or two or three) that directs them to the next steps you’d like them to take (most likely buying a book).
The About page is all too often overlooked or created with a minimal effort. You can’t afford to lose users who make it all the way to your page! Keeping new users on your page and converting them to a reader (someone who has bought a book) is the entire purpose of your site.
Hubspot ranks four pages as being the most often visited for any given website:
The About page is going to get traffic—likely about as much as your Homepage. So don’t neglect it.
Your Contact page is almost as important as the About page, though in a different way. While your About page will very likely be one of the most viewed pages on your site, the Contact page won’t get as many clicks.
What really matters is that users see a Contact page link is present.
Everyone should be able to contact you through an email form. If you hope to sell books, you absolutely need to provide your readers a means to contact you with questions or (in the rare case) if there is a print defect and the reader needs a replacement book.
WordPress, as well as many of their competitors, offer a default “Contact” page as part of their basic design. The page offers a simple contact form and is a perfect jumping off point for your Contact page.
Along with a contact form, offer links to your social media, and a phone number if applicable (though most likely you’ll want to skip this). Be innovative, but don’t try to reinvent the wheel. The Contact page (and About page for that matter) should hold to best practices and serve up what your visitors expect.
Your Book (Product Pages)
The reason we’re all here, right?!
Your book(s) are going to be the primary feature of your website. Each book should have an individual sales page displaying information about the book, as well as the direct “Buy” button to start the sale process.
In my example, if you happened to look around on the pages, you might notice I listed two titles with just a goofy cover I created for the listing.
Let me be clear: if you make a book page that looks like mine, you aren’t going to sell any copies.
The book page needs to include a variety of data pertinent to your book. This includes:
- Publishing metadata
- Publishing Date/Publisher
- Similar works
I would look at various booksellers—Lulu, Barnes & Noble, and even Amazon—to inform how you design the book pages. Specifically, I suggest removing the sidebar from these pages, adding plenty of links to information (shipping times and prices for example), and to use an eCommerce engine to integrate the sales process into your page.
If eCommerce is too cumbersome or pricey for you, that’s fine. You can use Lulu’s “Buy Now” HTML buttons to embed a link to Lulu on your page. Or you can link to the Lulu store page directly, rather than developing your own pages.
But you should not do either of the above if you can avoid it.
The best option will be to utilize an eCommerce platform and sell directly to your customers. Lulu offers a Shopify App to allow you to integrate your selling through your website, or you can use our open API to build your own pipeline to our print network.
Setting up an API connection can be some work and if you’re not the most experienced web developer, it may be too much. This is the exact reason Lulu developed our Shopify App and why we are under production for numerous other eCommerce plug and play Apps.
However you design your book pages, be sure to include:
- Cover Thumbnail
- Positive Reviews or Star Rating
- Links to your other books
And of course, the large and clear Buy Button should stand out on the page.
Clear Call to Action (CTA) to buy the book
I include this separately from your product pages and the buy buttons on those pages. This Call to Action (CTA) is distinct in that it lives elsewhere on your site. For example, if you have a sidebar on your site, you might include a graphic link to buy your most recent release.
Ideally, you’ll have this “new release” content on your homepage in some way as well. Including a clear, easy to click (so actionable) CTA on the home page and in the sidebar, is a good way to encourage visitors to look closer at your book. And it ensures a visitor coming to your site specifically to buy that new book can quickly and easily do so.
Alright, the last piece of the content puzzle is a calendar. I really like creating a unique Google Calendar and embedding it on your website. This allows you all the scheduling control of a Google calendar and with the pervasiveness of Google, it’s very likely visitors will be able to add events from your calendar to theirs (so long as they use Google Calendar too).
Use this calendar to track your events, as well as any events at your local bookstores or national conventions. It’s unlikely this calendar will be a high traffic page, but if you embed it in the footer or sidebar it will get some eyes on it. WordPress makes adding a calendar relatively easy for most themes.
Bringing it all Together
There are over 1.8 billion active sites across the web. That is a lot of noise. So many options when your would-be reader opens their browser. How do you get them to navigate over to your site out of all those options?
I’ve spoken to the importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in past blog posts, so I won’t dive into that, as we’re already deep into this post. Instead, let’s end on a different note.
You don’t want to grab the random attention of people online. You should not be looking at your burgeoning website as a destination people will discover. That is the wrong mindset.
Don’t get me wrong. You need to build your site so it can be found through search engines. But that’s not your ultimate goal here.
Instead, you’re going to drop your URL on a business card, inside your book, add it to your email signature, and on all your social media handles. Your web URL is going to be tacked on to everything. What’s the benefit of driving a reader who already bought your book to your website?
Most importantly is the potential that they leave a review. Alongside that, if they enjoyed your book, they might be inclined to follow your blog, join your mailing list, and even buy other books from your catalog.
The point is the intent of your website is to serve readers and other authors you encounter. Once you’ve established a fan-base, you might start to see their extended cloud of connections showing interest. Developing a following who reliably buys your books is the most important step in earning income from your writing. The website is another tool to facilitate this goal.
To close out today, I’ve got a checklist for you. These are among the most important and necessary pieces of your author website. Go ahead and download the fillable version here to give yourself a tangible way of tracking the development of your author website and making certain no important elements are left out.