Want specific information on how the process works? Need to find out about costs involved in having a website? How you decide what your website should look like? Why do you need a website anyway? What do I think about social networking? Do I do things like branding and search engine optimization?
This is where you should find all the answers! And if you don't happen to find what you're looking for, feel free to email me. In fact, feel free to email me anyway. I'm happy to give you custom answers to your questions. Please see notes on emailing me here.
Just a note before I start... I could write this as a general FAQ for anyone interested in an author website. But you can find that information in quite a few places around the web. Instead, I've written this from my point of view here at xuni.com. I assume you're interested, since you're here. You have questions? Here are my answers...
There are four main costs associated with having a website: domain, hosting, site development and maintenance.
Domain: This is the "address" or "URL" of your site, such as xuni.com or in the case of many authors, yourname.com. You can buy it from many places around the web, such as GoDaddy.com or Register.com. I suggest that you register it (buy it) for at least two to five years, to make sure you don't lose it. This is a fee which is paid in advance, year by year. If yourname.com is taken, by the way, I usually suggest yournamebooks.com. And if you're thinking about using me and don't want to deal with registering it yourself, I'd be happy to register it for you.
Hosting: Your website needs to live somewhere, right? Well where you're hosted is where your site lives. You pay a monthly (or yearly) fee for a server to host you. I run my own server, for which I charge $175/year (very reasonable for a managed server, I promise). Because I've found that I just waste too much time trying to make things work properly on other servers, part of working with me means that you need to be hosted on my server.
Site development: You have a domain and you're ready to get started. Getting a website designed and built by me can range from about 2K to a lot higher, depending on the size and complexity of your site. I've done a few very large sites that some web development companies might have charged 15 to 20K for. I charged about a third of that. There are of course some designers who would have charged even less than that. But there are more important issues than price. Keep reading to find out more about this issue...
Maintenance: Your site is complete and online. What further costs should you expect? That depends on whether you prefer a "static" site or one which changes pretty often. Some authors have sites which only change when they have a new book out. Others want to update their sites regularly. Either way is fine—it's up to you (though updating it often makes people want to come back to the site to see what's new!). Every website company does it differently, I'm sure, but after we've launched your site, we charge for edits on an hourly basis, in six minute increments. We bill quarterly; you would be billed in January, April, July and October.
Having a professional-looking website says so much about the seriousness of your writing, while a poorly designed website can be pretty damaging. I always say it's better to not have one at all than to not have it look GOOD. That said, there are certainly authors who have the time and talent to do their own, which is great. And for those of you who can't, there are people like me. When I first started my business in 1998, there weren't too many of us who specialized in author website design. Now there are MANY. And you know what? I love that! I don't consider it competition at all—in fact, I love that there are so many designers for you all to choose from. The joy of it is we all have our own style and so do you—and you can choose the person/company which best fits YOU.
I think the best advice I would give an author in choosing a designer is to first look at lots of author sites to see what appeals to you, and then contact the designers whom you like best. By the way, I definitely suggest working with someone who works with authors regularly—we know so much more about what you need than say someone who designs business websites. They may design lovely sites, but if they don't know what an author needs, or how an author site should be set up, it's not going to get you anywhere. I've occasionally been tempted to take on e.g. a photographer as a client but I realize they really are best served by companies who specialize in photography sites. I love having my little niche and am happy to stick with it! I can't tell you how many authors have come to me with a current website which needs to be completely redone—it was designed by a cousin who didn't know what they were doing, or a faceless conglomerate who didn't pay attention to their needs. That said, here is my quick little list of what to look for in a designer...
To me, the most important issues in finding the perfect designer for you are: design style, finding someone who shares your vision, and good customer service.
Style... I specialize in designing sharp, well-organized, professional sites. If you want something super flashy and high-tech, I probably wouldn't be the right designer for you, as my style tends toward the more creative rather than "commercial" designs. If you want a quick cookie-cutter site, I wouldn't be the right designer for you, as I like to make the site fit the author. In fact, that's one of the best parts of my job—creating websites which fit the author's writing style and personality.
Vision... As I said in the previous question, there are quite a few good design firms out there who could build you a beautiful website. The difference in working with me is two-fold: personal, one-on-one service and my specialty, which is making the website specifically fit the author's style. I work with you to create exactly what you want, and if you don't know what you want, I help you figure it out. Pleasing the client is my number one priority. That said, it is a balancing act between incorporating the clients' vision and my creative expertise. In order to do this right, I send out a very specific questionnaire to get the clients' input upfront ... and then I need to be let go to run with it.
Customer service... My team and I are probably online and responsive more than necessary. :) We respond to email within 24 to 48 hours, often within just a few. Need something done in a huge hurry? We can almost always oblige you. What can we say? We really love what we do.
Think about what books you've written and what kind of information you would want to share with people. Check out other author sites for ideas. And then email me! xuni.com has done so many author sites that I'm full of ideas on what kind of information works well and how to organize it all. The most important question to ask yourself is: what kind of image do I want to project? Mysterious? Elegant? Fun? Your website should be a reflection of you and your writing. That's why some of the unprofessional sites are worse than having none at all—they can make the author look like they're not serious about their work.
So people can find out more about you and your books in the hope that it makes them buy more. It's as simple as that! If you put your URL on your book jacket, some people will undoubtedly look up your site to see what else you've written. Or if people see your book in a bookstore, they may go home and look up your site just to find out about your books first. And of course since so much is bought online these days, you want to have a website "home" ... your own place for people to find out about you and your books. These days, a website is like a business card—it's expected, and is often someone's first impression of you.
And if you're a yet-unpublished author, having a website is a way to show potential agents and editors that you're serious about becoming published. Or if you plan to self-publish and you're active on social networking, it's important to have a place you can link to where people can find out more about you and your writing.
First of all, a lot more people probably want to know about you than you think! If you've written a book, there will undoubtedly be people who want to know more—about when your next book is coming out, what it's about, etc. Once your website is up and running and you've promoted it to a certain extent (through online promotion, your URL on your book jacket, in your signature line of emails, etc.), you'll be amazed at how many visitors you get. Your site will be set up with a site statistics account such as Google Analytics, which can tell you more than you could ever care to know about how many visitors you get, where on the web they come from, what pages they visit the most, etc.
As we all know, social networking is the big thing right now. Authors all feel like they have to blog, tweet, and commune with fans on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, etc. etc. I would say if you want to get into all that (and yes it's fun and can certainly help gain new readers), go for it (just make sure you put your real writing first ;)). By the way, if you're pondering blogging, you might want to think about joining or starting a group blog. They're so much more fun, and you attract more readers for all the obvious reasons.
I guess in a nutshell, if you're a really social person, all the social networking makes the lonely job of writing more fun... and if you're not social, you might want to try to force yourself to be at least a little bit more so, as it's a great way to meet both fellow authors and of course readers! Readers want to connect with authors, and not just to hear about their new books, but to find out about who they really are, what they like, etc. Our best advice would be 1) think about where your audience is (e.g. on Twitter there are a lot of mystery readers and writers but not as many kid readers) and then 2) choose one or two that you really like (e.g. blogging and Facebook) and do just those things. Don't try to do everything... you'll end up using way too much precious time and why bother doing something you don't really enjoy?
It's important for you to build a clear perception of you and your writing, and one of the best ways to do that is through your website identity. One of the first things I ask an author, before I start designing, is what do you want your site to FEEL like? How do you want potential readers to envision you and your books? It's so important! And once we get the website design down, then we can design other things to go along with that: blogs, Facebook timeline cover images, Twitter backgrounds, YouTube channel headers, logos, newsletters, business cards, bookmarks, rotating ads, bookplates, etc.—all which match the author's site. It's exceptionally fun! Examples here.
We do basic search engine optimization with every site we build. We also offer more specialized SEO for those clients who want it. While there are no "guarantees," we have definitely seen authors rise in the search engines after good SEO work.
It's certainly good to update a site relatively frequently to keep things fresh. This is not only true to keep visitors coming back, but it's also good for search engines—you will rise higher in the rankings if you update your site regularly. We try to encourage our clients to update their sites at least once a month or so. That might be adding a new review, news about a new book in the works, an upcoming event, whatever is NEW!
I'm a big proponent of newsletters—it's a great (and simple) way for authors to keep in touch with their readers. I design the newsletter template in the style of the author's site (as part of the original design process), so it's a great branding tool as well. Names are collected through "sign up for the mailing list" forms and then newsletters can be sent out every now and then when something new is happening (e.g. a new book, a movie option, an upcoming book tour). It's professional, colorful, and never comes across as spam, since people have signed up for it in advance.
While much of my work is with published authors, I take on a lot of clients who are either publishing their own work (as ebooks, for example), or are still looking to be published through traditional publishing. I'm pretty choosy—the strength of the person's commitment to their craft is important to me, because I'm serious about my work and I like to work with people who have this same feeling about theirs. Whether you "should" have a site before you have a publishing contract is completely up to you. Some people feel it will show them to be serious so they may be more likely to get an agent and publishing contract. I would stand by the thought that how well you write is what gets you a contract—but that a website (a beautiful one that is!) certainly can't hurt. :)
(Updated Winter 2015)