I have been anxiously awaiting word from Writers of the Future and it has only grown more anxious after finding out that the first round of rejections and my own story is not among them. There are at least two more waves of rejections to go, so I am keeping my emotions in check about the matter, but it does have me paying attention. One of the things I decided to do was to look over the webpages of several winners from the last few years.
To my surprise, most of them either had a very bare bones and uninspired website or they had nothing at all. One or two stood out as having something that would really draw attention and keep people coming back to look for more. I was stunned. I just couldn’t understand how anyone who had put so much time into winning such a huge award had put no effort at all into their platform. Anyone who managed finalist or better is going to have a huge swell of traffic moving through their site and driving sales of their other works. To ignore your own platform when you are at a catalyst point in your career is insane!
Building Your Website
It led me to today’s topic. Your Website. You are here, so you already know about mine. It is a work in progress as I try to find a feel that is uniquely me and still easy to use and follow. I only recently found a number of errors on my website that had been driving my search engine listing down and have begun to correct these. That is one of the pitfalls of doing the web design yourself of course.
There are three basic routes you can take. First, if you have money in excess (besides being a rare writer indeed) you can simply pay someone to build you a high quality webpage or purchase one pre-built from a professional template. It is a huge cost for most starting writers, but can pay off in traffic early on.
The next option is to build it yourself. You can find pre-made templates and any number of online tools to help you get started learning how to expand on the very basic HTML that comes with most free templates. The core page for www.DXLogan.com was taken from an incredibly simple template and heavily reworked into something I had more use of. This option can be deeply satisfying, but also a source of unending headaches. As I mentioned, I am still finding errors in the HTML after all this time it has been there. Some of this can possibly be avoided with WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) programs that abound, but others are going to require you to learn a little of the HTML to remedy. I have no personal experience with either, but I have been told that two good WYSIWYG programs are Nvu and KompoZer.
Last is the use of a blog such as WordPress. There is a surprising amount of customization you can do and an entire author’s site can be easily worked around them. Many authors are picking this option since it is easier to modify than HTML and creates a very clean, if simple, look. The biggest thing to keep clear on is that you need to decide early on if you want two columns or three. If you have more than a little content, you will
Hosting Your Website
Okay, so you decided how you want to do it. Now what? Well your website needs to be something with your personal brand to it. If pen name is something too common or already taken for some reason, pick something clearly associated with your writing in some way. DO NOT use something like a blog site that appends their name at the end of yours or tosses ads that you have no control over into your site. Cough up the 10 dollars for a year of a domain name and find a free host until your writing begins making enough to cover a few dollars a month in hosting. Seriously, you can write a few product descriptions and make that much in a few hours. Your own domain name is worth the investment.
Starting out, you are probably not going to need the space or bandwidth to worry about a paid hosting, but you do want to pick one that offers a lot of quality in their free version so that you know what you are getting when the time comes to start expanding into a paid account. I did a lot of research into the best free hosting when I first began my website and decided on Freehostia.com as my host. The reason was that they offered a lot for someone on the free service. To this day, I have not even filled my maximum storage past halfway and have suffered only one major downtime since the beginning. They have been easy to use and offered all sorts of free extras from blogs and forums to merchant services. At the free level, you can only select one, but that seems like a rather minor issue starting out. I get several emails and best of all, they have been amazing for troubleshooting despite my account being a free one. I have never had to wait more than a few hours for a return email with any problem that has come up. Should you use them? That’s up to you. Do your research and decide what you need. I am certain that for myself, they were the right choice and when I transition to paid hosting, I plan to stick with them.
What Your Website Should Have
There are a number of aspects your page should most certainly have if you want to draw traffic. A solid landing page is a must. If you are using a blog program as your main site, this is often already in place. If you are custom coding something new, make sure it has all of the most vital information about yourself and clear links to all areas of the site. Make sure all of your meta data has been properly embedded into the page as well to help raise your rankings. If your site isn’t a blog itself, you can improve your traffic and SEO (search engine optimization) by including a blog link of some sort.
Dull facts are good to know, but hard to read. Most people write their bio in the third person, but that doesn’t mean the site as a whole can’t have a sense of personality to it. People get to know you a bit through your website, so make sure you pour some of yourself into it. Many new writers are so worried about looking professional that they forget to seem human as well. Don’t be frightened to show a bit of humor here and there.
This is your site, for goodness sakes, put information about you in it. There must be somewhere that people can find a clear link to “About Me” or “Author Biography” or something similar. It is important because a bio lets editors, agents and readers know who you are and what your experience is. If you make it into news articles, they are likely going to lean on this for reference. Having a longer history and a short bio both will let those who need a quick blurb have an easy time and make them more likely to do so. Connect your short bio to your Press or Media page.
If you draw the attention of an editor, publisher, agent or other interested party, they need a way to contact you. If they can’t easily figure out how to do so, it stands as a strike against you and could lose potential sales. You must have a dedicated contact page, even if it repeats information that was found on your landing page. The absolute minimum is some way to email you. You can easily use Google Voice to obtain a number that can ring and relay messages onto several of your phones to help you catch calls as well as to obfuscate your real number.
If you plan on having people associate your name with a real person, you need a photo. Trust me on this, include a photo. If you are having a family photo done, get an extra done of yourself and use that. Better yet, include several. Before you say it; I know I only have one photo and it is clearly not professional. I haven’t had professional photos in a few years and it feels like lying for me to picture my younger self there overmuch. When I do get better new photos, I plan to upload them into the system. A second reason for the photo is that they will sometimes be featured on websites you write for.
A media or press page is another vital item if you plan to sell books. These make it easy for media to get the word out about you and your book. At the very least, this page needs book announcement press releases, a short bio or link to one, a graphic of each book’s cover and one head shot of you. This should give everything they need to quickly write an article for your latest works.
Offering free samples of your work can draw the interest of editors and readers alike. Tables of contents, clips from articles, sample chapters and free supplements can do a lot to showcase your abilities. Make sure these come in multiple forms, as that will improve your search-ability and lets people choose how they will read them. Site text, pdf, .doc files should make appearances. At least one work should be in plain text format for the sake of search engines. Some editors won’t even try if they have to download a clip. Lastly, avoid a clutter of links to outside sites, since these raise the chances of errors.
Sell The Books!
Seriously? Does this need said? Put a way on your site for people to clearly see your current works and links to obtain them. I don’t care if there is something to buy it on your own site or something through Amazon.com, don’t pass the chance to link your readers to your work.
Reviews and testimonials are important. They can give you an increase to the credibility that is already there. If you say good things about your work, it doesn’t matter if they are true or not. If other people say those same things, they have more weight. If the person who says them has a large following, it can only stand to improve your reception. How do you get them? Ask. Don’t make a pest of yourself, but ask if favorite authors, editors or people in the fields related to the topic are interested in getting a copy of your work free and doing a review of it. If the reviews you receive link to a specific book, make sure they are connected to it directly.
Steady Website Change
Blog. Add weekly content. Do something that keeps the site active and gives people a reason to check in from time to time. If nothing is ever changed or added outside of new novels, it might be only once a year or more before they check in. They may forget your site entirely! I don’t care if you blog, give away crossword puzzles based on your books or release character bios. Whatever you do, don’t stop being active.
The Right Tools
If you plan to have a mailing list, Mailchimp is free and can be embedded into your site readily. They let you offer a regular newsletter to those who are most interested in your work! While they do have limits, they are a good choice for starting authors. Once you improve readership or if you plan on offering affiliate links, you will want to switch to a higher quality paid service like Aweber. Both services offer affiliate linking, though I would suggest only promoting services you feel are worth the cost.
Social media are important as well. I would argue they aren’t as important as some people credit them to be, but they are part of your platform and shouldn’t be ignored. Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are the big three for most people, it might also be worth it to look into Linkedin and other sites as well. The presence of these sites in connection with your own can do a lot to raise how many people see your work.
Two tools for checking on errors that can come in handy are …… and …… The first checks the site as a whole and points out areas that need the most work along with suggestions of how to fix them. The second points out HTML errors that you may want to address. From personal experience, only trust the second one to a degree. Sometimes the fixes it suggest break the functionality. Other times they help point out where an error is originating.
Lastly, as a means of keeping track of things associated with the website, Google puts out two tools that are both very helpful. First is their Analytics, which tracks what has been happening with your site including who is clicking, where they come from and what they were looking for when they found your site. The second is the Webmaster and it’s helpful for understanding how your links and pages are influencing search engines.
Start Your Website Right Away!
Hopefully all of this will help you get started on building up your own platform and branding. When your big chance happens, be ready with a site already up and running to drive all that extra traffic to. You might never have a huge break like winning Writers of the Future, but even the small breaks can help to snowball if you are ready for them!
Sidenote: I am trying something new with the way I lay out section headers. If you find that you have a strong opinion about this new version and the original, please let me know so I have an idea of what people prefer.