Recently, my friend Jason texted me and asked for some feedback on a few songs he’d posted on SoundCloud. He said I could find them on Facebook.
Texted > SoundCloud > Facebook — the number of high tech solutions immediately available to us are impressive — but I was on my phone where, like most people I know, I do the majority of my time-wasting internet stuff.
Usually, I absorb content on my phone while doing other relaxing things. Here’s a good tweet related to that:
Update: watching an entire episode of a TV show without looking at your phone now counts as reading a book.
— Christian Hoard (@christianhoard) December 19, 2016
The problem I encountered is that you can’t play SoundCloud songs on Facebook without opening the SoundCloud app. I’m certainly not going to download an app so I can listen to Jason’s songs while also watching Cheers reruns.
Therefore, I still haven’t listened to Jason’s songs. I just checked — I can play them in the browser on my laptop, but this machine is for important stuff like doing my paying job, sending emails apologizing for not doing my job sooner, and writing this essay.
What I learned from this experience is that, even though there are a multitude of technologies available, finding the right one is crucially important if we want anyone to actually pick up what we’re putting down.
User Experience designers — or UX people — study how we use modern applications and the challenges we face, like the speedbump I hit trying to listen to Jason’s songs. It wasn’t a mistake that SoundCloud tried to force me to download the app; it’s probably part of a big push to get more users for their service.
UX people know that phones are the most popular way to access the internet, so they account for that in the way they build websites. Along with their Search Engine Optimization (SEO) team, they know where their traffic is coming from, on the web and in the real world — their “referrals.” They know why users will “land” on their websites, and where they will land. They even track where users are looking with their eyeballs and where they move their mouse — even if they don’t click on something. They rank how long people stay on a site before clicking, and whether they click a link on the site, or close the tab, or just abandon it.
They don’t know if you get up to microwave a Hot Pocket, though, and neither does Obama.
If you’re interested in building an author site, and you want it to be worth your effort, you need to think like the UX people and the SEO folk. If you’re reasonably handy with the web, you can make a reasonably handy website in just a handful of hours. Platforms like Tumblr, WordPress, SquareSpace, Blogger, and Wix are reasonably handy, too.
But if you want those hours not to be wasted, you probably want people to look at your new site. And if you want people to visit, you probably want to make it worth their while, right? You also want to present yourself in the best possible way, according to your personality. Think of it the way you think of deciding what to wear: how does my wardrobe/website represent me?
So here’s where you start your website project: with a pen and piece of paper. Daydream some answers to questions like these:
- What do I want to know about other writers?
- Why will people visit my website?
- What should people learn about me?
- How will they know the site exists?
- What are Google search terms that could lead people there? (Know that without an insane amount of effort on your part, people aren’t going to arrive at your website because they Google “short stories” or “contemporary American writer”)
- What’s my message?
- What’s the simplest way to get my message across?
- How often will I update my site?
- What’s my personal brand?
- How many visitors should I expect a day/week/month?
- Do I even care if people visit my website, or do I need one just in case someone wants to find out more about me?
- Do I want to sell anything?
- What kind of tone should my website take in its appearance and in the writing?
- What pages would I have on my website?
- What pages should appear in the main menu?
- How should people interact — with comments, contact forms, social sharing, ranking posts, or maybe not at all?
- How will I measure success?
- How will I sustain the website?
- How much money do I want to spend every year?
As long as you’ve got that pen and paper going, write down your own questions similar to these. I can think of plenty more, and you should too — even things like “what colors do I want my site to feature,” “how many pictures should I have,” and “what is the first thing I want people to see when they visit?”
In order to guide your thinking, look up the websites of writers you like, and those of super-famous writers. Most importantly, focus on writers who are at a similar point in their career as you. What kind of content do they have?
Now you’re at a good point to … no, not start building your website — pause and step away. Ask whether or not you need an author site at all. You’ve accumulated some good answers to questions about yourself, about what you’ve got to share, and why — as well as what other people in your writing world are doing (you should have made some judgments about what you think of these other sites). What does all this information tell you?
It might be really motivating. You might be surprised at how many ideas you have, and maybe you’ve developed a good plan for success. Or you might have thought, “Well, it looks like I don’t really want a site, and it’s not going to be something I’m going to spend much time supporting.”
In that case, you should think about some other options. In 2017, having a cool Instagram can be just as valuable as having a website you’ll abandon after a few well-intentioned months. If you can think of a social media platform that you’d be interested in, you’ll get a lot more mileage out of it.
If you conclude, “I don’t want to maintain a site, but I feel I need one because I’ve got a book coming out, or I plan to do a lot of poetry readings this year,” then you should look back at the previous paragraph: can you do something else instead? Keep in mind that publishers might not even want you to build your own website, because it can conflict with their branding efforts. If you decide to build one after all, though, you should move on to the next step. Just keep your site really, really simple. Like, one-page simple, with a picture of your book, your bio, links to social media, and a way to drop you a line.
(Note that if you’re self-publishing, you might not need an author site per se, but you definitely need some web presence for your book.)
This article on how to build an author website is intentionally general, because I think overly specific guidelines result in an internet that all looks the same. That’s too bad, because the internet provides an amazing opportunity for diversity and a level playing field. But in order to be useful, here are some common elements that you should have seen while looking at other writers’ websites:
- A dedicated URL, like authorname.com, as opposed to authorname.xplatform.com — this conveys that the writer means business (since most conventional names are taken, you might also, and unfortunately, see “AuthorWrites.com.” What will your solution be? Note that with liberalized domain names, there are a lot of Top Level Domains — “the .com/.net/.org” suffix — so you can go with AuthorName.info or, like me, “.ninja”)
- “About” page which includes a short bio, perhaps a longer narrative about the writer, and maybe a headshot. I always like to see what writers look like
- “Publications” page with links to things that can be read online and the purchase page for issues of print journals they’re in
- “Books” page that includes information about their books, including a summary, blurbs, and links to reviews
- “Contact” page with a contact form or links to their agents, or just an email address
- A blog that is updated at least once a month and preferably more — even if the update is just a cat video
- Social media links, perhaps including an Instagram and/or Twitter feed
And that is pretty much it. From within those confines, great originality and personality can emerge. For instance, compare the brand new website of Kristen Iskandrian to Roxane Gay’s. Gay, media titan that she is, has a profoundly active Tumblr AMA, while Iskandrian has a fetching list of “COOL FACTS ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” — but both sites have basically the same page structure.
We’re finally getting somewhere. You’ve decided to go forward with your website, and you know what it’s going to be about, what the color scheme will be, and some practical stuff, like how much money and time you want to spend on it every month. Next, you need to decide how you’ll build the site.
I want to make this easy for you and say, “Just use WordPress because it’s the platform that more than half of all websites are built on.” But it’s not that easy. Maybe you want to spend $0; if you have great content, you can do that and still be successful with a sweet Tumblr site. Here’s where your research into other websites will pay off: just ask the people who made the ones you like what platform they use.
If you’ve come this far, you’re probably taking the whole thing seriously, and maybe you’re even willing to spend some big bucks on it. And when I say “big,” I mean a surprising amount. With all the complexity of web design these days, the minimum you can expect to pay a developer for even a very simple site is $500. Add a few bells and whistles, and it can add up to a few thousand dollars pretty quickly.
Even if you are going to hire someone else to build the site, you should get your pen and paper back out and draw what you want each page to look like. This is called “wireframing,” and there are a ton of tools for it, but none better than pen and paper.
Be as specific as possible about what elements of the site you want to appear in which spot. Don’t just write “Header” — write what you want to appear in the header. Will the site title be your name? Don’t just write “main nav.” — write the pages that you want to appear in that menu. (Don’t worry about what these things will look like, like the font or colors; you’ll figure that out later.)
When you draw the wireframe, imagine how users will move through the site. This is that UX stuff we were talking about. If people arrive directly at a blog post (because they follow a link from someplace else), how will they get to the next thing you want them to look at? Will you have a link in the sidebar to your most popular posts? Will you have a popup that says “check out my new book?” What if they arrive at your homepage from Google? Where will they look for your “About” page?
Once you know the content of the site, and the look and feel, and the way people will move through it, you’re ready to start building, or talking to pros who can build it for you. I do recommend giving it a go yourself, now that you’re at this stage. Start small and expect to be limited by your technical know-how. Use Google — there are a ton of resources out there if you need to get a specific thing done. But sometimes coming up with a workaround can result in some better ideas than you had in the first place.
Ultimately, don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to simplify, simplify, simplify. Computer people call this “iterating,” as in “let’s iterate on the simplest minimum viable product.” That means, let’s start small and build on it once we know what we can do and what people care about.
That’s, like, the smartest advice in the world.