How to Build Your Author Website (Even if You Don’t Know How to Code)
In my last blog, I showed you what your author website needs if it’s going to help you sell your books.
Now I want to show you how to build it. I’ll show you exactly how I went from “What’s WordPress” to “Wow! My website looks good” in a few months, a few hours a week, and $295 (+ annual hosting costs).
The Nuts and Bolts
I built in WordPress. They’re the best, bar none. They’re easy to customize. Cheap. They have amazing support.
Platforms like Wix and SquareSpace tend to be a headache to customize, and expensive on top of that. And you never actually own your site. They’re built for hobbyists. If you’re here, odds are you are — or want to be — a professional (writer, not web dev 🙂 ).
For the same reason, I would caution against a WordPress domain name (i.e. julianadorney.wordpress.com). It just doesn’t look professional. For a few bucks a month you can get great hosting and a custom domain name.
Inside WordPress, there are thousands of different themes. How do you choose one without being overloaded? Here’s what I love:
Genesis. It’s what the pros use. Not because you need to be a pro to use it, but because it’s a breeze to customize once you learn it. It’s beautiful. It looks great on tablet and mobile. And it’s amazing under the hood.
My website is built in Genesis–Awaken. 90% of why it looks so beautiful is the theme.
Cost: $35 for the Genesis framework. $60 for Awaken (the theme itself).
But even if you don’t love Genesis, I would caution against a free theme. A great theme is typically less than $100. A great paid theme is a breeze to customize, even if you want to do advanced stuff. It has tons of potential and can incorporate plugins like Mailchimp and Optimizely that help you sell more books.
If you can afford it, find a high-quality, customizable paid theme and go for it. If you can’t, though, I understand. Sell as many books as you can, and when finances permit, upgrade. Your website should be near the top of your BUSINESS INVESTMENTS list.
Now, a paid theme and a custom domain can be tricky to set up. You have to do things like configure your hosting, point your DNS, and upload your child theme via FTP. It’s tricky, especially for a guy like me with zero tech savvy.
So how do you go from, “what’s a DNS, and why isn’t my site showing up online?” to finished site?
This course helped me.
If you sign up (just like if you buy any of the products I mention in this blog), I get absolutely nothing….apart from the warm fuzzies of turning someone else onto a great course. This course walked me through, in a few hours, how to:
- Upload my theme to WordPress so my site goes live and I can start editing
- Get my hosting set up
- Edit pretty much every element of the site, using the Genesis theme
- Integrate Mailchimp
- Make the site look great on mobile
Now, if you do Genesis-Awaken and take this course, there are a couple gaps. He doesn’t teach you how to edit the home page, for instance. Awaken actually has its own walkthrough that’s long but incredibly easy to read, and has a fantastic support staff.
Selling Your Books
For the most part, my website is pretty basic when you get down to it: each inner page (so, not the home page) has a big header image and a lot of text. But there are five things going on besides that, that help me sell books.
1) Home Page
The home page does a lot of different things: it sells my novel The Dragon’s Curse, my short story Parius, and it introduces me as an author.
Those multiple sections are extremely easy to build out in Genesis–Awaken, and is one of the biggest reasons why I chose that theme. Using the free Simple Custom Post Order plugin for Genesis, you can easily build out sections with whatever you want (custom backgrounds, text, calls to action and buttons) and drag-and-drop order them.
This required a little bit of custom code, but was also fairly easy in Awaken. Awaken has a Widgets section that lets you add in sidebar elements, so it was just a matter of adding in the text, adding in the cover images, and then adding some simple code to make it look nice.
If you don’t want a sidebar, you don’t need one. I like mine, because it makes the text look narrower (and less like an essay) and I suspect it will sell books; but if you want a full-width layout, it’s easy–just ignore the Widgets section in your backend.
3) Call to action button
You can see what I mean here: http://julianadorney.com/dragons-curse/ At the bottom of most pages, there’s a little snippet of text about The Dragon’s Curse, and a button that takes you to the book’s Amazon page.
To be honest, this was a huge pain to build. It’s written in PHP, which is a coding language in which your whole site will go down if you misplace a comma. That happened to me. Three times. Three almost-heart-attacks.
If you want to do it, you’ll need to download a plugin called Genesis Simple Hooks, which lets you do cool stuff like add site-wide PHP. Then, frankly, I recommend writing the text and button copy, and asking Genesis’ excellent support staff to help with the PHP unless you’re already fluent in PHP. It’s not a fun language to learn by trial-and-error.
I do think that the button will pay off in terms of more sales, but it’s also a big initial time investment.
I mentioned in the last blog that one purpose of your site is to collect emails, because that’s how you build an audience that you can keep telling about your new books, rather than just an audience of people who loved your first book and may or may not remember to look you up on Amazon some day.
I use MailChimp Forms by MailMunch, which is a plugin that lets you integrate Mailchimp on your site. When you download Parius, I ask for your email address so I know where to send the FREE short story. With the Mailchimp plugin, that email address goes into a Mailchimp list, which starts sending a sequence of emails. The first email sends you your PDF of Parius. The second email, sent a few days later, transitions into soft-selling the story’s sequel, a $3 novel called The Dragon’s Curse. By that point you’ve probably finished Parius (it’s short), so you’re more likely to buy the sequel.
You can see the structure I’ve used. Send your audience a free short story (or novel, if it’s part 1 in a series) that (ideally) feeds into your paid novel/series. Give them some time to finish it. Around the time you think they’ll finish it, send them an email with a link to your paid story.
I like Mailchimp because it’s free to start, up to 2,000 subscribers. It also sends autoresponders with the free account. It’s also elegant and super user-friendly.
5) Contact Form
Like I said last time, your biggest asset as a writer is YOU. You’re not a corporation, you’re a real person that your readers can get to know. And when they get to know you, they’ll remember you and buy more of your work.
That’s why you should add a contact form to your site. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it should be there and it should be on a dedicated Contact page.
I use Contact Form 7, a free and pretty versatile plugin.
Making It Gleam
All well and good, you say, but how do you make it pretty? Look, you poured your heart and soul into your novel (or novels). By the time it’s published, every page gleams, and you thumb through it and think, “I wrote this? Holy crap, that’s awesome!” Your spirit soars just a little bit every time you see it.
You want a website that does that for you too.
Not a bland, “Meh, it looks okay…I really don’t know how to make it better.”
Sure as hell not a, “Holy crap this looks bad….I hope no-one else notices!”
You want a website that does justice — real justice — to your book. Your website’s your first impression to users. It’s like the first chapter of your book, but for marketing. It should gleam. It should glisten. It should make you find excuses to visit it, just because you love it so damn much.
And it should make your Ideal Reader love it too. It should pull your Ideal Reader in right from the start and make her remember your site.
So, here’s how to do that.
1) A Great WordPress Theme
It’s REALLY hard to build a beautiful site on a bad theme. That’s why I talked about Genesis Awaken earlier. Awaken is clean and elegant, and it’s 90% of why my site looks the way it does. If you don’t like it, no worries. Find a theme you do love. Like looking for a good picture for your cover, this isn’t something you should do halfway.
For me, my site came alive when I added them. For most of the pages, I went to stock.adobe.com and picked out images.
Not haphazardly. I had an Excel doc listing every page on my site, and what information and feel I wanted each one to convey. Then I went and searched for images for each page, one by one, until I had something that fit each page. My page about Esmerelda’s diary has a picture of an old-fashioned diary and a quill. That fit the medieval fantasy vibe I’m going for.
After I had found every single image I wanted to buy (and I didn’t rush this process….it took hours, spread across multiple days), I signed up for 1 month of Adobe Stock. $30 lets you buy 10 awesome, full-size images. Then I supplemented that with some custom work from an incredible (and affordable) artist who did my cover art, Ida Jannson (http://www.amygdaladesign.net/)
Bear in mind, if you use Genesis Awaken, you’ll need to install a plugin (https://wordpress.org/plugins/display-featured-image-genesis/) to add header images to non-home-page pages. It’s free. And bonus, I got to know the dev when I was building my site and she is wonderful. Incredibly helpful.
The images were crucial for the site. People online are visual and ADD. We like pretty things and pictures. We hate essays and blocks of text. You don’t have to hire a custom artist, but put the same time (and possibly money) into this that you did into creating your cover.
3) Breaking Up the Text
Finally, PLEASE don’t make your page a solid wall of text.
People online skim. I know, as writers, we all hate this idea. But it’s true, and it’s because readers are busy and overloaded with 30 different cries for their attention. When they buy your book, they’ll curl up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and read every single word. When they’re on your site, before they know you….they skim.
So make it easy for them.
Look at how this blog is laid out. Headings. Subheadings. Lots of white space, especially between paragraphs. Short paragraphs. Holly’s sidebar makes the text look narrower and therefore easier to read.
This bugged the hell out of me when I first learned it, because as writers we really do want people to read every word. It feels like an offense against nature when we’re told to write short paragraphs, add headings, and basically market to cell-phone-addicted teenagers.
But look. You CAN get people to read LONG content. But you can only do this IF YOU MAKE IT EASY FOR PEOPLE TO READ.
That means short paragraphs (6 lines max). Lots of white space between paragraphs. Text that doesn’t fill up the whole page.
First, text that’s broken up is just more visually appealing. Second, it doesn’t repel readers.
Genesis framework: $35
Genesis Awaken (the theme itself, built on Genesis): $60
Images from Adobestock: $30
Custom images for Parius and The Dragon’s Curse ($150) (the priciest part of the site, but I suspect they’ll drive enough sales to be worth it)
Total: $275 (plus hosting fees; I use InMotion Hosting for $60/yr)
Now Start Building!
…and that’s about it. Use the tools I gave you, and you can make a beautiful website for pretty cheap.
And remember: have fun. This is your website, the online home for your books. Make it something you’re excited to visit.