I Need Coffee: Websites for Writers
One of the questions I get asked a lot by new authors, and even experienced authors, is how they should design their websites.
The first thing I tell authors is this: Your website is a very personal thing. It is your personal representation on the internet. Thus, your website is a high-stakes representation of you.
At the same time, it is a living creation that you have to maintain and nurture over time. In order to maintain it, it must be simple enough that you can maintain it, most likely by yourself unless you have money to burn on a web consultant. Even if you can afford a web consultant, learning to maintain your own website is very empowering. It also means that you can keep your website up-to-date and accurate faster.
Websites are thus a delicate balance: a high stakes representation, but one that is constantly evolving. For this reason, if you’re not careful, your website will suck a lot of your time. Planning well at the beginning will head off a lot of that time-suck later. Let’s work through some of the questions that you should consider as you plan your website design or redesign.
Should You Have Multiple Websites?
Many authors often wonder whether to have multiple websites, especially if an author is already full-time freelancer in some other capacity. My advice, almost always, is that you should have a single website. The reason is simple: You are your brand. Your brand is not your book, or your editing services, or your consulting work, or your hand-made books, or your photography, or anything else that you do for love or money.
(Sidebar: If you have trouble thinking of your writing self as a “brand,” you might need to work on that. Of COURSE you are a brand. Readers buy books from authors they like. From authors they think are neat-o. They want to know about your life, about your favorite jeans, about your fedora collection, about your pets, about how your spouse can’t sort the utensils properly, about who you are as a person. Because you are you. You are your brand.)
Thus, reason number one to have a single website is to give a full picture of you, your brand.
Reason number two to have a single website is to make it easier for you to make money. It’s a given that (most) authors have multiple income streams. We do other work for money. Some of us teach, some edit, some coach, some tutor, some design websites, some illustrate books and design covers. I have heard so many different work descriptions from my author friends.
Authors are such creative people. We need websites that encompass the fullness of our creativity — and make it easy for clients to hire us. A reader may come to our website for our books, but that reader may be an aspiring author as well. If she loves your books, she’ll hire you as an editor or writing coach. She might love your books, and that love will bleed over into a love of your art or photography.
What do DON’T want to do is make it difficult for you to make money. And sending people to multiple websites is difficult for them. They have to click more links. They have to learn a new website with new navigation. They have to figure out how the new website relates to the old website. Don’t make your readers do that. Keep all of your work in one place online.
Reason number three to have a single website is simple practicality: You do not want the hassle of maintaining multiple websites — or of writing multiple blogs. (Remember, writing blog posts is the best way to drive traffic to your website.) It’s hard enough to post once or twice a week. Posting that much on two or three blogs? No way.
So what does a single website look like in action? You’re welcome to take a look at mine, but let’s use my friend’s design process as an example. I recently consulted on her website redesign, and the website came out great.
An Example: The Artist-Novelist
My friend is an artist, a writing consultant, a workshop leader and teacher, and a novelist. She told me that she needed help designing a website for her forthcoming novel series. She already had a thriving business with her work as an artist and had taught artist workshops around the country. She sells her work in her online store and it hangs in museums and galleries. Her artist website also has a blog about her art and about her burgeoning writing career. (She has written the first three novels in a series, and is working on the fourth.)
When she asked me what to do about her website, I told her she had three choices: (1) Create a new website for her novelist identity that would be separate from her artist identity. (2) Create a new website for just her novel series (a book site). (3) Expand her existing website to encompass her novelist identity and books. Guess which one I suggested she do. That’s right. Option number three.
(Sidebar: Many new authors choose #2 — the book-centered website. Unless you only plan on writing one book, this is a terrible idea. And even then, I don’t recommend it. The book isn’t the product. YOU are the product. And what happens when you publish your second book, and your third? You’ve created a whole website for a single book, a website that has become irrelevant.)
First I asked her a question: “Do you want to keep up with writing two blogs?” She made an appalled face. I explained to her how posting to your blog drives traffic to your website, and how spreading that traffic across two websites might be counterproductive.
Then we got out a piece of paper and drew a sketch. I asked her, “Tell me all of the things you do. All of them.” And I drew this:
I didn’t even have to say the words. She saw it for herself. Those bubbles pointing at “You” became the top-level navigation for her website (along with an “About” page, of course, because you should always have one of those).
It clicked once she saw that the website was about her, not about the stuff she did. She was the focus. And that’s as it should be.
Top-Level Navigation: Who Are You?
After my friend and I drew this sketch of her identities, we used these identities to design her top-level navigation menu.
On a website, the top-level navigation menu is the menu that helps a user navigate around the entire site (as opposed to around a single page). It appears on every page of the website. It is also called a “persistent” navigation menu because it persists — appears — no matter what page you are on.
Two important notes before we proceed:
First: Your website WILL have a persistent, top-level navigation menu. Period. Full stop.
Second: Your website will only have ONE persistent, top-level navigation menu. You don’t get two. So choose your top-level navigation items with care.
When we were finished, my friend had the following items across the top of her website in her persistent, top-level navigation menu:
BLOG | ABOUT | BOOKS | ART & DESIGN | CONSULTING | TEACHING
The “About” page contained her biography, a professional portrait, and contact information. You should have an “About” page. You can put “Contact” on a separate page if you would like, or your contact information can be on your “About” page.
Once you have designed your top-level navigation, you have designed the main architecture of your website. Congratulations. Now, if you wish, you can create sub-pages that branch off of these top-level pages. That’s up to you.
Your Blog: Creating Relationships
Back when I was talking to my friend about whether to maintain multiple websites, I asked her if she wanted to maintain multiple blogs. She was horrified by the suggestion. Maintaining one was a ton of work already.
She’s not wrong. Blogging well is hard. But, if you are a writer seeking to build relationships with readers, it’s a good thing for you to do it.
When you write a new blog post, you (had better) share the heck out of that blog post all over social media — Facebook, Twitter, whatever you use. The blog post then drives traffic to your website.
The website traffic, generated by your blog post, earns you blog readers and readerly goodwill. You are a writer, and likely a good one since you are an author or aspiring author. You are writing fun and engaging blog posts and giving them to your readers for free. I love free stuff! Don’t you? So does everyone else.
Ideally, you are also giving readers a glimpse into your life (as much as you feel like sharing your life with the world on the internet), and you are creating relationships with readers. (You can read more about how to blog to create relationships here.)
And because you have, through blogging, created a readership for your website, and you have earned their goodwill, you won’t need to “sell” your books and other services. You blog readers will want to buy them because of their good relationship with you.
Now, that good relationship I just described won’t develop overnight. It also won’t develop unless you put yourself out there on social media and get people to come to your blog and read your posts, learning about you as a person and engaging with you. If you throw a (blog) party and no one comes, then you can’t make any friends. You have to invite folks to come read. (Yes, this is why social media is important for authors.)
Alternatively, if your website and blog are “dead,” then people have little reason to visit it. A regularly updated blog means your website it alive. It’s living. It’s regularly updated.
What should you blog about? Blog about you. Your life. Stuff that interests you. Whatever you are geeky about. You don’t always have to write about writing. In fact, you shouldn’t.
Furthermore, you don’t always have time to write a new substantive post. That’s okay! I bet you have a backlog of things you’ve written and never published. You are a writer, right? Old poems you’ve never published? Flash fiction? Photography? Every once in a while, post from your backlog.
If you are publishing text, always include a riveting image. Either use one you’ve taken, or use one from a free stock photo site such as Morguefile.com or Pixabay.com. Images are essential to attract people to your blog posts and your social media links that you will post to invite people to read your blog posts.
Need a little more inspiration about what to blog about? Here’s a piece I wrote, my 3-Part Recipe for Author Blogging, over on Shelf Pleasure.
Your Books: Where Do They Go?
Whether you have one book or twenty, you need to have a top-level navigation menu item that says “Books” or something like that. I’ll use my own website, katieroseguestpryal.com, as an example here because it shows how you can handle a book situation that’s a little complicated.
I have two top-level navigation items for my books: NOVELS and NONFICTION. I write novels (4 out, 3 forthcoming) and nonfiction (mostly books on law, but some other stuff too). For me, then, these two different types of books represented two different facets of my identity. They required two separate top-level navigation items.
Then, each of these top-level navigation items has a drop-down menu, representing sub-pages. Each of my books gets a sub-page. But the sub-pages are not just for books. I have book tour dates, book reviews, interviews I gave about the books, and information for book clubs, and buy links. It’s all there, under NOVELS.
Under NONFICTION, there is a list of all my books. Here’s where things get tricky. Many of my nonfiction books have external websites maintained by my publishers. So, instead of me having to maintain a web page for each book, the menu item is just a link to an external website. Linking to websites maintained by other people saves me work.
However you decide to organize your book web pages under your top-level BOOKS navigation, remember that you can have multiple webpages that do multiple things, even link to external sites. In the end, as an author, your BOOKS pages are the heart of your site. Give them all the attention they deserve.