An Internet presence is an essential part of an author’s platform, so it follows that said author needs a website. And you need it before you’re published. In fact, you need it before you create your book proposal—that document you’ll use to attract agents to you like a magnet. Well, don’t take that magnet part too seriously, but you will want to list your website in the section of your proposal dedicated to marketing and promotion.
Before I sound like I know it all, I'll mention that this series on personal branding is where I share my journey as a first-time author. I’m learning as I go.
Anyone can get on the Internet these days. It’s easy to express an opinion, post photos, or even tell the world what you had for supper last night. I’d already taken the social media plunge by the time I had to think about a website. I’d seen my face on Facebook, but it was still weird to think of myself as the subject of a website. It helped me to look at the process as work and reduce it to steps and tasks instead of seeing my site as the doorway to fame.
I began researching website creation after I had a publishing contract, but a year before my book was due in stores. Before that, it was finish the book, target agents, put a proposal together, write letters, and try not to wait by the e-mailbox. The advice books mention that writing your book is only the beginning, and it’s true.
For website inspiration, I looked at the sites of famous authors. I remember masculine-looking bookcases on John Grisham’s site. Lee Child’s home page shows the author holding a cigarette. The smoke drifts out across the page, its motion a very cool effect. James Patterson’s site is highly interactive and loaded. Sandra Brown’s has an intro that loads while you wait. Romance author Julia Spencer-Fleming’s site is gorgeous.
A few authors had poorly designed websites—too much text, wild margins, too many fonts, crazy colors, or other faux pas that cried “homemade” in the worst sense of the word. Growing up in West Virginia, I wore homemade clothes, but anyone picturing flour sacks sewn together didn’t know my grandmother’s talent with a Singer.
I initially asked a media editor friend to help me set up my website, but she was already consumed with her full-time job. Next I explored companies on the Internet that would guide me through the process and then host my site. It looked easy enough, but did I really want a site I’d created myself?
One of my sayings is pretty simple: You can’t do everything. How much did I want to do myself? It wasn’t just a question of what I liked to do—or had the skill to do--versus what I didn’t. I also had to consider how many people I could afford to hire in the process of creating my brand: Not many.
In the end I paid attention to a bit of advice I came across in my research: Hire a professional, because the difference will be obvious to those who count. I’m not saying that’s always true, but combined with my lack of web savvy and low level of desire to build my own site, it worked for me.
Professional websites can cost thousands of dollars—and a website isn’t the only piece of a publicity plan that costs money--so it pays to shop around. I was very lucky to find an excellent designer who could work within my budget. As soon as I hired him, I was glad. He immediately reserved my domain name and asked me to compile a list of key words I’d want picked up by a search engine.
Over the next several days I made a list of my ideas. Some didn’t make it past the designer’s wisdom, and I was glad. As an example, I wanted a device that would track and display the number of visits to my site. He quickly convinced me that I might want to rethink that one, especially at the beginning. What if I had only a few visitors?
I also asked for something dramatic like Lee Child’s wafting cigarette smoke, but I gave it up when I learned it would be expensive for me and possibly slow to load. Here's another reason I liked my designer: For everything I gave up, he suggested something else.
I knew that a blog would be a critical piece of my “online presence.” After giving serious thought to what I’d write about, I thought up the name for my blog. Then I Googled “So Write!” to see if anyone else had thought of it first. I also suggested a little feature called “Transylvania Trivia” to teach people about Dracula’s homeland, since that’s a setting in my book. My research for my memoir had yielded many facts that would fit the trivia format.
Regarding interactivity, I was advised not to go crazy. So far my site is free of contests, special offers, games, and the like. If you make a large time commitment to your site, who’s going to keep that up? Recently I wrote to a favorite author via his website. I was disappointed when the language of his reply smacked of someone else’s touch. It was just too pat and didn’t seem like anything he would say.
My site has the usual menu: Home, About, Books, News, Links, and Contact. I wrote the copy for the pages and reviewed various stages of the site design. My designer initially prepared three “looks,” and I chose after asking friends and family for their input.
I furnished photos for my site, glad again for my session at Glamour Shots a few months earlier as well as the hundreds of pictures I’d taken in Romania. I had to export them in a photo editing program (I used Picasa) at a lower resolution for the web. My publisher furnished the required book information, and because my web designer is also the book cover designer, he provided the cover image.
Every two weeks I send in an update, for instance a new Transylvania Trivia. Soon I’ll be listing Events on that page. My web designer makes those changes, but I post new blog entries myself.
Of all the decisions required in developing a website, hiring a professional designer was the best one I made. He helped me through the decision points, making a huge task manageable and allowing me to move on to other things as my book went through the publishing process. My designer has been amazing--creative, knowledgeable, and quick; the process was affordable; and the site, www.janecongdon.com, is everything I could have wanted. Thanks, Tatomir!