By Kate Gingold
While writing about history is my superhero job, my mild-mannered alter ego works for Sprocket Websites. So I’m happy to share a few pointers on creating a good author website.
First, a definition: A good website is the one that works for you. Ugly websites can generate incredible traffic and gorgeous websites often languish unvisited. When working on your own site, certainly mine the best ones out there for ideas, but don’t demoralize yourself with comparisons. Focus on improving your web presence rather than competing with someone else’s.
You’ll need to measure to know if you’re improving. Check if you already have an analytics tool on your website, but if not, Google Analytics is free to install and use and is a powerful measurement tool with extensive reports. Less tech-savvy folks may want to get someone to install it for them, but it shouldn’t take much time at all. And don’t be alarmed about wading through all the reports—you only really need to look at a couple.
Think Business Plan Rather Than Creative Outlet
If a good website is the one that works for you, then you need to clearly visualize what you want your site to do so you can measure how well it’s working. Who do you want to visit your site? What do you want them to do while they are there? You may find you have more than one target audience—how do you deal with that? Clarifying your intentions guides the content and makes for a more positive visitor experience.
Here are a few things you might want a visitor to do on your site:
- Buy your book
- Read an excerpt
- See your public appearance schedule
- Download classroom activities
- Read about you
- Print a bio for introducing you at a public appearance
- Contact you for an interview
- Contact you for a public appearance
- Contact you to ask for your next manuscript
- Send you fan mail
- Play a game
- Post comments or photos
- Read your blog
- Check out your professional platform
- Watch your book trailer
- See what other things you’ve done
- Find your social media locations
- Learn more that didn’t appear in the book
Your visitors might include:
- Book readers
- Book buyers
- News reporters
- Other authors
Think through what a positive experience might look like so that you can guide visitors to do what you want them to do on your site. Here are some points to consider:
- Unexpected sound may annoy your visitor. Let silence be the default setting for the sake of cubicle surfers and add a “sound on” option.
- Busy agents and news reporters often use iphones. If the information they’re looking for isn’t visible to them as text, they can’t contact you.
- Sesame Workshop says nearly 50 percent of children at age 5 play computer games, but usually while on a parent’s lap. Your site needs to appeal to both age groups.
- Creativity is admirable—but don’t frustrate your visitor by sacrificing traditional navigation to whimsy. Help them get what they came to find.
Websites Are So 1999, Aren’t They?
With the explosion of social media outlets, many people wonder if they need a website at all and the answer is still “yes.” At the very least you should own the .com of your own name, or if that’s already taken, then something very close to your name. Domain names usually cost about $10 a year and you can buy it yourself. You can see if the URL you want is available at sites like the one we use for our clients.
Make that domain your “home base.” You can link to Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, Blogger, YouTube, the page your publisher provided, and every other Internet outlet you use, but you’ll be assured that this home base will always be under your complete control. Twitter can go out of business or Facebook can change their rules, but you’ll stay in charge of your website.
Many authors use their book title as their URL because readers search for the title. The drawback is that the number of sites increases with the number of books you publish, which can get expensive and time-consuming to manage. One solution is to let your author site be home base and create “microsites” for each book title. Keep each microsite simple, focused on that specific book, and link to your author site for the event calendar, your bio, and other information. Facebook pages can be used as microsites, but keep the control issues in mind.
Investing the Time and Money
A website needs regular care to thrive. Stale content bores your visitors and makes them wonder if you still exist. In the old days, it got very expensive to hire a webmaster to keep your pages up-to-date, but today’s Content Management Systems make it easy for nearly everyone to update their own websites. Not that you have to do it yourself! Consider hiring an administrative person to update the site for you so you can focus on writing.
Costs for a website can run from $5 a month for a hosted do-it-yourself template to a couple thousand upfront for a custom design and another $30 or more a month for hosting. Here are some points to consider when deciding which end of the spectrum to choose:
- The cheapest sites may require you to show advertisements.
- A good graphic designer can make your website something special.
- Good graphic designers aren’t always good web programmers.
- Your nephew may be a good web programmer, but he may be unavailable for updates down the line.
- You could spend more than you save trying to do it yourself.
- Some old sites can’t be moved and you’ll have to start from scratch if it no longer meets your needs.
- Some newer platforms like DotNetNuke, Joomla and Drupal grow with you easily and have extensive support systems.
MySpace faded while Facebook soared and no crystal ball can tell us what’s next on the Internet, but websites continue to be relevant workhorses. J.K. Rowling’s “Pottermore” website will no doubt set new standards. Most of us don’t have the financial resources to compete with Ms. Rowling, but we shouldn’t focus on having as many visitors at our website as Pottermore has. Instead we should focus on getting more visitors this week to our sites than there were last week. We write our books to connect with readers and a good website can help us connect with more of them.
Kate Gingold writes every day, although mainly for clients’ marketing purposes. She and her husband, Don, started their web development company in 1996 and launched Sprocket Websites with another couple in 2008. Kate’s local business connections led her to write her first book of local history in 2006, Ruth by Lake and Prairie, which was later honored with an award from the Illinois State Historical Society. Since then, she has published two more books on local history and is currently working on a biography. Yes, the books all have their own websites, but like the cobbler’s barefoot children, they don’t get as much attention as the sites of business clients.