Like many authors, I have a day job to support my writing habit. I’m fortunate that it’s something I love and can do on my own schedule. I’m a website designer/developer. I’ve run my own website design company for almost ten years now. My specialty, not too surprisingly, is websites for authors and small businesses.
The technology end of the business has changed a lot in the last ten years. When I first started out, I created websites in straight HTML, which meant that I had to do most of the maintenance for those sites as well. Today nearly all the sites I create are done in WordPress. The back end technology is solid and it lets my clients do their own routine text maintenance. It also makes the development process simpler because so much of the basic set up is already done. I can concentrate on the design and extra functions rather that building out the basic structure.
However, some things haven’t changed at all, like what it takes to make a successful and useful author’s website. Here are five things I’ve learned about author websites over the years.
- It’s your face on the web – make sure it reflects your brand. Every bit of the look of your site – colors, layout, background, images, even the fonts—is part of the branding. Be sure it’s working for you. If you write noir thrillers, a site with a pastel background and frilly curlicue graphics isn’t going to impress visitors looking for information about your next book.
- Put a little effort into it. That basic WordPress default theme? Everyone recognizes it and knows that you aren’t interested enough in your site to try to personalize it. Very likely they won’t be too interested in hanging around in it either. Too boring. If you don’t have the interest to go hunt up a more appropriate theme, then at least get someone to design a custom header for you. Make it look like you cared enough to try to build something that would really complement and promote your books.
- You don’t have to spend a lot of money for a website, but going entirely free has its dangers as well. Don’t rely on Blogger or wordpress.com to be your main site. I’ve heard too many horror stories of people who found their Blogger sites suddenly shut down due to a complaint about their content. Google can and will do that to you, and you have very little recourse. Wix and Weebly are viable options, but there is a learning curve, and you have to pay them to do anything very interesting and individual with the site. They, too, have complete control over your site and can make it disappear entirely should they choose. For those on a budget, I recommend going with one of the many reliable, low-cost hosting sites that support WordPress. Most have one-click intall options for WordPress, and then you can play around with themes to your heart’s content.
- If you can’t afford to do anything else, at least buy your own domain name. At $15-$20 per year, it’s more than worth it, and probably the single most important investment you can make in your publishing career. Even if you’re not published yet, and don’t have a site, buy the domain name. If you have a fairly common name and yourfirstnameandlastname.com isn’t available, find something similar. Yourfirstname-lastname.com is an option, as is com. There are plenty of other alternate options available. And if you’re not ready to set up a site, you can generally park the name for free with the registrar until you’re ready to set up a site.
- Don’t do anything to drive your visitors away – Music or videos that auto-start when someone loads your website, lots of moving, blinking graphics, hard-to-read text or blinding color combinations are all bad idea. Many authors think that those things are good ways to attract attention, and in reasonable doses that’s true. But it’s easy to go overboard with it and end up with a site that makes people click off it as quickly as possible.
As a bonus, I’m throwing in five of my best WordPress tips, gleaned from having set up more than fifty sites on that platform in the last few years.
- Never use “admin” for a user name! It’s not common now, but it used to be the default user name you got when installing WordPress. If you have a site that still has a user name of “admin,” change it now. Massive brute force attacks have been launched to hack into sites that have the admin user name, trying out a long list of common passwords to go along with it. (You should also have a strong password, at least 15 characters long, including both upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters.) Changing passwords isn’t hard, so do it now if you have a short, weak one, like your mother’s first name. Changing the user name takes a few more steps but it isn’t hard. You first create a new user account with administrator privileges, using the “Users” option on the WP dashboard, then you can delete the old admin user. NOTE: Never delete the admin user unless you have a new user with administrator privileges set up. Your site MUST have at least one administrator.
- Keep your WordPress upgraded. Although upgrades add new features to WordPress, they also frequently plug security holes that hackers may have already figured out how to exploit. WordPress has made it much simpler to upgrade. Since the 3.0 version, WordPress provides a one-button-push way to update your site. Do it!
- Use a backup utility. If your site gets hacked or your hosting service goes away without warning, you can lose the site entirely. Do you really want to have to recreate the entire thing from scratch? Of course not, which is why you really should have a way to back up the entire site. There are any number of good backup plugins around, some free, some not. WPBackup is a good choice for a free plugin, while Snapshot is a pricier utility that offers deluxe restore ability as well as good backup options. Just be sure that your backup is stored somewhere other than on your site. (If the site goes down, you’ll lose access to the backup as well as the site.) Most backup utilities will save the backup to your Dropbox account, email a copy to you, or at least remind you to log in and download the backup.
- Shift + Enter – This is a simple little tip that solves a problem that confounds many people. In WordPress, when you press Enter, you get a blank line between the previous text and the new text. What to do if you don’t want a line in between? Hold down the Shift key while you press Enter and you can type on the very next line.
- Plug-ins are your friend – WordPress has plugins to do an enormous variety of things. Want a contact form on your site? Different sidebars on different pages? A fancier image gallery? An easy way to put images in your sidebar widgets? There are plugins to do all of those things, and many, many more.
Karen McCullough’s wide-ranging imagination makes her incapable of sticking to one genre for her storytelling. As a result, she’s the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which span the mystery, fantasy, paranormal, and romantic suspense genres. A former computer programmer who made a career change into being an editor with an international trade publishing company for many years, she now runs her own web design business to support her writing habit. Awards she’s won include an Eppie Award for fantasy; three other Eppie finals; Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
Blurb for A Question of Fire
When Cathy Bennett agrees to attend an important party as a favor for her boss, she knows she won’t enjoy it. But she doesn’t expect to end up holding a dying man in her arms and becoming the recipient of his last message. Bobby Stark has evidence that will prove his younger brother has been framed for arson and murder. He wants that evidence to get to his brother’s lawyer, and he tries to tell Cathy where he’s hidden it. But he dies before he can give her more than a cryptic piece of the location.
The man who killed Bobby saw him talking to her and assumes she knows where the evidence is hidden. He wants it back and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it, including following her and trying to kidnap her.
Cathy enlists the aid of attorney Peter Lowell and Danny Stark, Bobby’s prickly, difficult younger brother, as well as a handsome private detective to help her find the evidence before the killers do.