For those of us whose distribution model begins and ends with “.com”, one thing is paramount – having an author’s website. Whether or not you are published or a self-pubber, the center of your literary world online is not MySpace, Facebook, or any other social site. It is your own personal website. This is where you can expand on your work – offering special insights along with the all-important excerpt. This is where you stake your claim as a writer – and very often make the sale. This is the web address that appears after your name on every post and email.
So, let’s get started.
The first thing you need is what marketing folks call “branding” – a single name people can associate with your work. Nothing says “beginner” like having your website name come after someone else’s domain name that you hosted with. You want it all – not just a part of the URL. This means you walk away from all these “free” site hosting folks who want a piece of your action.
For most, myself included, the domain name is one’s pen name. You establish your brand out front as the name of your website – such as www.kmtolan.com. Notice that I have not elected to put in the name of my book . Why? Because I plan on writing a lot of books, and they will all need to be brought under the same branding. The same goes for any fantasy world name you might use for a series of books – it will serve you well until you end up writing something else. So, my advice is to stay with something not directly tied to your novels.
Now that you think you have your name, you need to verify that you do indeed have claim to it. Several hosting sites offer to sell you a domain name cheap. I’ll stick with my own host site – “godaddy.com” as an example. They will offer you a domain name for less than a burger and fries. Part of the process will be a check to see if the name is already being used. If it is, then pick something else. Now, like many hosting sites, you will be asked to grab related domain names. Unless you really think this is going to be an issue with someone hijacking you (doubtful), I wouldn’t bother. Remember that your hosting site is there to up-sell you.
So, now you have a domain name. Congrats! Now on to the tough stuff.
You need a place to host your web pages, and there are plenty of hosting sites including “free” ones that you can “rent” from. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you to go with “godaddy” – they are 24x7 folks who have good rates. If you want to look elsewhere, then fine, but remember that this is YOUR website. No advertising unless you put it there. No added names to your domain name address to sully your branding. This will knock out most of the “free” sites that leech of your branding. Hosting should not cost you a lot of bucks – often you can rent space for less than ten dollars a month – and even for half that amount. Shop around. Don’t tolerate an expensive plan simply because you already have an account with such-and-such for email.
I could write a book on how to create web pages – and people have. Let’s just say that either you know how to create a site, or you don’t and will have someone create it for you. In either case, your website should follow the same general guidelines:
1. The landing page is where you showcase your work enough to spark interest. This is the web equivalent to your “hook”. The rule of thumb is that your visitors should click or scroll as little as possible before viewing your product. A web page full of you – without mentioning your books save for a link, is a Bad Thing. Get the title and blurb out there – at least from your latest work if not all of them. At the same time, don’t cram everything on the main page. A teaser for your books is fine, followed by a link to a separate page where you can go into detail. Of course, if you have little to provide other than your book, the main page could be your novel’s page as well.
2. Theme. All of your pages should have the same general look and feel. The background and text, as well as the format, should be common. It should also be an attention grabber, but not to the extent that it overwhelms your product or message. For those who can geek-speak, this means style sheets will be your best friend.
3. Navigation. You may elect to have the front page also be your novel’s detail page, however you will find that your page starts getting a bit too long after you warm up to the idea of having your own website. I would suggest giving your novel its own page, and leave the front to a catchy blurb and cover with links.
4. Outside Links. This is where you can direct folks to interesting areas outside your website – such as blogs and other promotional sites (or friend sites) that you participate in. Just remember, your goal is to have folks stay on your site for a bit – so don’t go crazy here.
5. News. People like a site that has refreshed content, and your fan base will be interested in what is happening next.
6. Blog. If you want to maintain one, then do so. It doesn’t have to be on your website (I use MySpace) but most host sites offer this. In fact, some sites are actually blogs and do quite well at it. Just understand that blogs are high-maintenance if you use them as your main site.
7. Forum. If you get popular enough, you can start exchanging messages with your readers, and a forum is way to do this. However, like blogs, this is not a necessary addition and often as not you can simply link to a forum you participate in.
8. Your book’s detail page. You want the cover out there. If possible, see to it that your image is not too high a resolution as you don’t want your readers waiting for the page to load. You want to talk about your characters, any background that may be interesting, and above all – provide an excerpt (preferably the entire first chapter). The excerpt tells your readers that you are the real thing – and not a wannabe who can’t write their own name legibly. This is your vote of confidence, and also gives a reader the same benefit as if they had picked your book off a shelf and leafed through it. If you are nervous about tossing up an example of your writing then don’t bother with a website just yet. If you don’t think your writing is that good, then chances are nobody else will either. As some of your material may be enough to warrant a page by themselves (don’t want your reader doing a lot of scrolling) then don’t hesitate to create separate pages and provide a menu to them. Don't forget the final ingredient - a way for them to purchase your book.
9. Images. As said before, and especially with your background image (if any), make sure they are not so large as to take forever to load the page.
10. Format and grammar. The page should be pleasing to the eye and not look crowded. The text should be easy to read, and can vary in fonts/sizes for variety (but only a little bit). Oh, and even one grammar or spelling error is not to be allowed.
11. Refreshing. Your site will always be “live” in the sense that you will be updating it with either new books or news. As time goes by, you will probably want to do a major revamp (I am in the midst of one as of this writing – which goaded me into this article).
12. Glitz. Marquees, flash presentations, background music, and other gawd-awful advertising gimmicks that turn a webpage into a circus tent. Avoid them. Also keep in mind that these things often require a lot of load time. You are selling novels – not used cars.
For those of you who haven’t a clue what HTML means, then read no further. This is something only your web creator would be interested in.
CSS 3.0 is the latest CSS standard as of this writing and brings to the table exciting things like event handling, rounded corners, shadow boxing, and opaque settings. You would think everybody is on board with this standard, but no. Microsoft remains the one holdout with their browser simply because they are still in a game of catch-up. You should style your website with CSS style sheets, and you should leverage 3.0 whenever you can – however you will need to maintain a separate CSS style sheet for Internet Explorer with override classes as needed to deal with their lack of support for the afore-mentioned goodies. To see the extent of the difference, view my site in IE, then swing back and view it in the latest version of Firefox. You might decide to stay with Firefox if you haven’t made the switch already. Eventually, IE will catch up, but up to version 8 it does not support these features.
Make sure you have a default color to show on your background until your background image loads. Preferably, it should be as close to the general color of your image. This allows a little less obviousness to the loading of your image.
Keep it simple. Sure, you can aim to avoid using TABLE, but if adding or re-arranging your site ends up taking a lot of time simply because of your complexity, then it is time to re-think. Humble TABLE is widely used for a reason. The new CSS TABLE might be a nice compromise, but I haven’t worked with it enough to know. I have worked with “liquid” designs using FLOAT but they are a royal pain to update. The idea is that you want to spend the least amount of time as possible when maintaining your site.