Recently I’ve been building several author websites, or helping authors tweak their WordPress blogs. Consistently I learn that they have no set plan in place, aren’t sure how to organize things, what to have on the pages or what to write about (which is fine – that’s where I come in).
But for those of you who want to set up your own author website with WordPress, and need a basic guide to getting started, this post is for you.
The Short Version
Here’s all you need to know about your WordPress Blog: the purpose of an author website is to sell more books.
Of course there are many ways to do that. But keep that principle in mind.
Here’s how it goes: somebody finds your blog – maybe through a search or a recommendation or a link. they arrive. In about 3 seconds they will decide whether or not to stay.
How do they choose?
1) The style and layout. Is the site professional, clean, well designed, and organized?
2) The title and leading sentence. Did it catch my interest? Do I want to read more? Is it what I’m looking for?
You could argue that number 2 is more important, because people will usually stay on an ugly website if the content is what they need, and if the content is useful or valuable or entertaining, they’ll completely forgive poor design
So the main goal of everything your write on your website is to keep and hold their attention. Write a title that grabs them and leads them to the first sentence or main body. Continue to hold their attention with a story or question (stories or personal anecdotes always work best!)
Nothing else matters until you master that trick, because readers won’t stick around to look at your sidebar or social links or anything else.
This is really important, so let me rephrase it: NOTHING MATTERS except catching their interest with content that is relevant to them.
But what about the DESIGN?
Quick Tip: The vast majority of author websites are painful to look at.
Authors are often perfectionists who stress about tiny details; they often have little sense of visual aesthetics; and they often take the wheel and use their graphic designer to fulfill the whims of their inner child, resulting in VERY UGLY websites. This includes almost every author website ever made, and most of the author websites made professionally by author-website-making-companies.
This is the sad state of affairs in contemporary publishing. Add to this that most authors have very little business sense or experience in online marketing: so even the author websites that look pretty good, don’t help sell any books. (Case in point, J.K. Rowling’s new website. Luckily she doesn’t need to sell more books. And it’s pretty. But it also needs to prep new viewers with instructions on how to use it or get around and find information, because it’s not easy or intuitive).
Ask yourself, what do you want your website to do? You want to direct your readers towards one action – you want them to ‘do’ something before leaving. Having a lot of links and choices above and to the left, right and bottom of each post is confusing, and readers will probably leave without ‘doing’ anything.
Decide what step you want them to take (join your mailing list, read reviews, buy your book, get a sample, etc) and focus on that. The other info can be available if they search for it, but you don’t need everything available everywhere. The purpose of your website is to get fans and sell books, not just provide information, and there are a lot of strategies that most author websites don’t use (most author websites are terrible in terms of actually converting prospects, so they aren’t really good examples of what to do for yours.)
Every blog post or page on your site should have a purpose, and you need to let readers know what that purpose is. Want them to sign up to your mailing list? Make that big and prominent. Want them to buy the book right away? Make it super easy. You don’t want too many choices. You don’t want a dozen share icons. You don’t want two sidebars and tons of links to everything.
You want one, simple “call to action” that only takes a second.
How to sell your book online
For example, let’s take a look at your main page. What information do you have there? Hopefully you start with an eye-catching title – followed by an exciting or especially well written passage from the book. Next you could have a summary (sometimes I put the summary first).
Following this, a bunch of glowing reviews (or you can sprinkle them throughout the other text). Finally, you would have “about the author” – something short, with more info on a separate page.
Several places throughout all this you could link to the amazon page with things like “Read more Reviews” or “Visit the Author Page on Amazon” or “Available in Multiple Formats”, followed by the relevant links.
Personally I would focus on two main choices, like ‘read a sample’ or ‘go buy the book’.
1) How to get started
Hopefully you’ve already got a domain name and a server. I like hostmonster, but there are many, and almost all of them use “CPanel” which is a free platform offering many options. Through Cpanel, there are a few ways to install WordPress to your domain. You’ll get a password and username (don’t just leave the default as ‘admin’ or it will be easy to hack).
2) Setting up my Pages and Posts
Once it’s installed, you can go to “yoursite.com/wp-admin” and you’ll see a login page, which will then take you to your admin panel.
On the left you’ll see some links. Go to “Posts>Add new” and make a few blog posts. Save them as ‘sample1’, ‘sample2’, etc.
Then go to “Pages…Add new” and do the same thing with pages. You’re just making some sample content so you can see how things will look.
3) Installing or customizing a theme
The nice thing about WordPress is that you can customize everything really easily with a new theme: a theme will change the whole style, while keeping all the old content. Don’t focus on little details. Don’t obsess. The basic default “twenty-twelve” is a very decent minimalist theme, so you’d be fine just sticking with that. Otherwise, visit themeforest.com to find a cool theme. Themetrust also has some great minimalist websites.
Don’t search for free WordPress themes, because many of them have viruses or spyware that will mine information or send people to some obscure link.
Flash animations are BAD. Rotating or changing headers are OK, if they have a purpose: are you introducing more relevant content to your readers? Or are you distracting them with more options before you’ve even hooked them with the first?
Readers spend less than 3 seconds on a site to see if it’s what they want. Get their attention and keep it!
A nice picture can work, with a powerful sentence. A lot of pictures and lots of diverse options won’t work.
After you have your theme, you can go into your options and set up your menu (you’ll need to add the pages you’ve set up to the menu) and blog page (you’ll probably have to create a page, save it as a “blog” type template (perhaps on the ‘templates option on the right side of the blog post setup page)) and then add that to the menu.
4) Changing your Background or Header
Under your theme’s “Appearance” section there will probably be an option to change the header and background – if so they will probably tell you an exact size for the header image. You might need to hire a graphic designer or someone to make this for you.
Personally, I’d recommend a simple, but nice and stylish, text-only header. Maybe just your author name or site’s title. Maybe something a little clever, a simple logo. The reason is because, on each new page and post, you’ll have different content – and the best way to go is to compliment the new content with a nice image.
So a big header image with text would be really distracting – if they find some page/post on your blog, it’s probably the content they are looking for. They don’t care about the header. They want the content.
Hook their attention with a powerful sentence, idea, story, add a pretty and relevant picture to the left/right of the text, and keep links and sidebar and header simple and clean. Don’t distract. Give them the space and freedom to get into your content without scaring them off.
If they like your content, invite them to stick around at the end, or share, like, etc.
5) Fixing the fonts and style
Lots of spacing between text, and you can use a plugin like fontific or google fonts to change the font style of the headers, post titles, sidebar headings, etc. Don’t go crazy, but pick a nice and stylish font that matches your genre.
7) Installing Widgets and Plugins
WordPress is so powerful because you can add Widgets and Plugins. Widgets are like little apps that go on in your sidebar. For example you’ll probably want to set up an affiliate program with Amazon, and put their widget on your website, to link to your books. You might get a widget for social plugins, facebook fan page… there are many but choose wisely.
Plugins, on the other hand, affect everything on your blog – so you could use an ‘imagebox’ or ‘lightbox’ plugin to change how images display and what happens when you click on one. There are plugins that give you more administrative options. There are plugins that help with your site’s security.
BE CAREFUL: one of the problems with WordPress is that when widgets, plugins and themes get old, they are vulnerable to attacks. So if you’re not using something, delete it, and make sure to login at least once a week and update everything (it’s automatic, and wordpress will tell you what you need to update).
When I have more time, I’ll make a list of WordPress Plugins and Widgets I recommend for author websites and add it here.
8) Setting up the Sidebar
Again – don’t distract. I would probably put an excellent review at the top, followed by a ‘signup for my mailing list for a free book’. Personally I give away books for free to readers who find my website; your first goal should be exposure and loyal fans, not sales and profit. If you only have one book, give away a short, free version, or a teaser.
If you only have 5 Facebook fans, are you sure you want to add a Facebook fan page?
Making a Facebook or Twitter page for yourself as an author will probably fail/be a waste of time (unless you’re super active and you like engaging people in social media.) If you’re friendly, leave a lot of witty comments and helpful suggestions on other people’s pages, and people get to know and like you as a person, social media can be powerful. But it can also be a huge time sap with no positive results.
Think about starting a group around a concept or theme, something that people can get behind. People share things about themselves, not things that help other people.
Of course you can have a link to your book/books in the sidebar, and you should. You should also sign up for Amazon affiliate to get some extra cash on each sale when you direct someone to your book.
9) Now what? What do I write about?
- Keep it simple and stylish
- Make each post or page about one thing, hook and hold attention
- Decide what you want readers to do before leaving, and make that option really big and prominent
Got all that? Great. Now what do you write about? This is a huge problem for authors trying to promote books. You don’t want to give away your book for free, so it can’t all be excerpts. And writing a lot about yourself or your life will be pretty boring for most people.
What’s in it for them? You need to either be teaching them something they want to know or provide answers to questions they have, or entertain. Many self-publishers get successful by blogging about the self-publishing process and help other authors (building exposure and a fan base that leads to book sales).
First, you need to identify the type of readers that may enjoy your book. What else are they interested in? Fantasy? Magic? Horses? Romance? Foreign Travel? Sports? Identify those topics, and then blog about them, or write stories about them, or blog about how to write stories about them. Entertain and teach your target reader. Anticipate the things they’re going to Google today.
10) SEO and smart blogging for more traffic
SEO doesn’t mean much anymore. There are all kinds of tricks, but basically it means people are trying to outsmart Google, and Google is always trying to keep things honest with better and more accurate search results. The solution: Don’t worry about SEO and keywords too much. Write content that provides exactly what people are searching for. The right people will find you.
If there is a ton of competition already (and there is, certainly), keep in mind that as your blog gets older and more popular (lots of other blogs are linking to you and recommending your content) Google will start to show you higher in search results.
Provide excellent, provocative, innovative, entertaining content. Do it by being original, funny and unique. There is no gaming the system.
If you’re awesome, and your writing kicks ass, people will like it and share it.
There’s another good guide to building a website HERE.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.