How You (Yes You) Can Create a Rockin’ Author Website

on April 4, 2011 in Book Design & Production, Book Marketing & PR
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We recently looked at some of the reasons many author websites suck and I shared a few good author website designs with you as inspiration. Today let's move on to some tools and resources that can help you improve the author website you already have or build a beautiful new site to promote your books.

Note that the information below is for those who are new to Web design and managing their own author sites. If you're more experienced the tips and resources below might not be as much help to you, but I encourage you to share additional resources in the comments.

There really is no excuse these days for even the least tech-savvy authors to have shoddy websites. There are countless Web templates and blog themes available. And today I want to focus on using pre-made templates to build a better website -- something anyone can do.

Types of Web Templates

There are two primary types of pre-made Web templates you'll come across including:

  • Static website templates;
  • Blog themes.

For most authors I would recommend going with a blog platform as your website's back-end system. More specifically I recommend self-hosting a WordPress site.

Note: WordPress can be used for much more than blogging. You can also create static-looking websites (with no auto-updating homepage) or a combination author site / blog. WordPress is a very versatile platform to work with and you can update your website from anywhere with Internet access rather than having to update on your system and manually upload files to your server.

One of the biggest reasons I suggest WordPress to folks who are new to setting up websites is that once you've installed the system and set up the template (WordPress theme), you really get to play in a familiar playground. You can log into your site's admin area and add pages or blog posts using a familiar wysiwyg ("what you see is what you get") editor -- the same tools you probably use in your favorite word processing program.

Now let's take a look at WordPress themes and how you can find awesome options for your new or updated author website.

Types of WordPress Themes

You'll come across two main groups of WordPress themes, including:

  • Free themes;
  • Premium themes.

One set is free. The other you pay for. Free has its benefits (namely being free). But there are drawbacks too. For example, you're often required to keep one or more links in the footer -- sometimes just to the designers and sometimes to sponsor sites. When you put unrelated links in your footer, that looks incredibly unprofessional and it tells people you didn't care enough to invest in your site. And if you won't invest in your site, why on earth should people be willing to invest in your books promoted there? Free themes are fine for personal use, but I recommend against most of them for any site tied to a business (and like it or not, if you're selling your book you're in business).

There are exceptions. Actually, there are only two that I can think of and they include:

  • Free themes with no link requirements (rare);
  • Free themes where the author will let you remove those links for a nominal fee that you still find affordable (most ask for $20 or less in my experience).

In most cases however I recommend premium themes.

Benefits of Using Premium WordPress Themes

Most premium themes offer benefits you rarely find with free themes, such as:

  • Themes don't saturate the market as much when people have to pay for them;
  • Premium themes usually let you change the footer info and links (but not all so check the license terms);
  • Premium WordPress themes are often better-designed than free ones;
  • You'll often get better support and updates for premium themes than free ones;
  • These days many premium themes come with their own easy-to-use admin area to adjust how the theme looks (so you don't have to mess around with the code as much, if at all).

Where to Get Premium WordPress Themes

There are two basic ways to buy premium WordPress themes, including:

I don't personally have a preference. Some of my sites are custom designed and coded by me. Others are custom-made by designers and coders I hire. Some are built on one-off premium themes. And several (including this blog) are using premium themes from theme clubs (where you pay a monthly or yearly fee for access to all themes a site offers as well as support). They can all work well as long as your design suits your market and your goals for the site.

Features to Look for in an Author Site WordPress Theme

Not all themes are created equal. You should look for themes that offer functionality you'll want on your site. You can also add features using plugins later, but sometimes design elements like page template types are harder to figure out on your own unless you're experienced in PHP, HTML, and CSS.

The main thing to be concerned with is e-commerce functionality. Most themes aren't set up for sites designed to sell things -- as you'll do with your books (if you plan to sell them directly on-site). So look for e-commerce sites. Some are designed to sell software or e-books for example, but you can easily tailor them to sell books instead. Having a page template included that can feature multiple products in gallery form and also on individual product pages would be a big bonus.

More advanced themes also come with specialty page templates that can do other things, like feature a collection of testimonials (which you might use to feature quotes from good reviews). I also suggest finding one with a built-in full-page option (that lets you create pages with or without a sidebar like you're used to seeing on blogs). It gives you variety and lets you really customize your site easily. Every page doesn't have to look exactly the same.

Customizing WordPress Themes

It's not enough to choose a great base theme to work with. The more unique you can make it, the better it is for branding and other marketing purposes. On this blog I didn't change things much visually from the template, but I did customize specific features to make the site work in a better way for my needs. On others I drastically change the design, just keeping the underlying code structure.

You don't have to get fancy. But there are some basic changes you should probably make, including:

  • Get rid of default blogroll entries / links;
  • Add your logo (unless it's a personal site, a blah-looking text name just isn't enough);
  • Put your author photo on the site (people love to connect work to faces);
  • Upload any book cover art or other images you want to feature;
  • Update the footer with your copyright information;
  • Adjust font choices, text sizes, and basic colors to better suit your tastes and your books.

A while back I created a tutorial for a client on making basic theme changes for newbies to blog design and CSS (cascading style sheets -- the code that tells a browser what design elements to display for your site). If you're unsure of even the basics like adjusting margins or replacing default header text with your logo image, please check out that article for instructions: "The Most Important HTML and CSS Tips for WordPress Newbies."

Want to use WordPress as a more advanced content management system (CMS) to create a traditional-looking website with an attached blog, where you can manage it all from a single admin area?  I have a tutorial for that too! Check out "How to Use WordPress to Set up a Combination Professional Site and Blog" for tips and advice on creating your own combo-style site. There's no need to set up a "real" website and then sign up with a separate blog host to manage a blog. Keep your branding consistent and keep your traffic on your own site instead.

Hopefully these theme resources and customization tips will help you create a better-looking and more functional author website of your own. Have other tips you'd like to share or examples of great author websites? Leave a comment below to tell us about them.

Thanks for sharing!
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14 Comments

  1. Najela April 4, 2011 Reply

    Great resource and article. I just recently switched from another platform to a self hosted wordpress site. I love it so far and even though my design is wild, it’s so easy to change when the time comes.

    I was wondering how you got the collapsible things in your sidebar. It’s a really cool way to put up a lot of content without crowding things together. Very sleek looking.

    • Jennifer Mattern April 4, 2011 Reply

      Well when “wild” fits your branding, there’s nothing wrong with that. :)

      The collapsible sections in the sidebar were built into my theme, although I had to tweak the code a good bit to change up what could be featured there. They’re jquery sliders. I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find a tutorial or plugin that would let you add something similar to another theme.

      • Najela April 4, 2011 Reply

        I’m not sure what my branding is, but wild sounds pretty awesome. lol.

        Thank you so much. I’m going to implement some of these. I also thought the info about combining wordpress website/blog was awesome. (I really did think I needed another blog for that). That’ll be something I do in the future.

        I look forward to reading more of your posts.

        • Jennifer Mattern April 5, 2011 Reply

          No problem. And you’re not alone. I thought it was important to mention that you could use the site as a combination traditional site / blog because I see a lot of authors with the same assumption you had. They have a website built and then they sign up for one of those free blog hosts (which have a huge set of problems all their own). The branding becomes inconsistent, and that’s never a good thing in business, including the business of writing and selling books. I think it’s largely about authors having dated sites in simple HTML format rather than finally moving to a CMS to make life a bit easier. With many CMSs (not just WordPress) you can create an easy combo site. With traditional HTML you’d likely need to do a separate site installation if you have one static and want the other dynamic (which just means it updates automatically when you add new content like blogs do).

  2. Tiffany N. York January 11, 2012 Reply

    Your post was very informative, but I have one question (I’m a non-techie btw):

    I already have a blog with wordpress, but I now need an author website. Do I need to sign up with a different host, like BlueHost or iPage and then choose WordPress to set up a site, or just go directly to WordPress?

    • Jennifer Mattern January 11, 2012 Reply

      If by WordPress you mean freely hosted WordPress.com blogs, I suggest staying away. I never recommend free hosts for professional sites and blogs. There are plenty of problems — design and plugin limitations that can hurt your branding, the inability to create 301 redirects if you later decide to host your own sites, and the fact that they can nickel and dime you to death if you want upgrades (like your own domain name or the ability to access certain code to make customizations).

      So I do recommend getting a paid hosting account and your own domain name. I highly recommend staying away from BlueHost. They were the worst host I’ve ever dealt with (even after coming highly recommended). Apparently they’re okay if you don’t plan to run more than one site and if your traffic isn’t expected to grow much. But if you plan to really drive traffic to your site (as should always be the plan), you need something better. I’ve found that HostGator is a pretty decent option for a starter account. I’m currently using dedicated resources with a Canadian company called MyHosting.com (support isn’t great, but I’ve had minimal problems and am overall happy with them). I usually use them for hosting now and GoDaddy for domains (look for coupon codes and you can usually get them cheapest there).

      If you go that route, I suggest using self-hosted WordPress for your business site (WordPress.org instead of .com). You can set a static page as your homepage and still keep your blog on-site. So if your blog is related to the author website, you can merge them into a single site to unify branding and make stats tracking more efficient. Here’s an article I published a while back about doing that, just in case you’re interested.

      http://www.dirjournal.com/articles/how-to-use-wordpress-to-set-up-a-combination-professional-site-and-blog/

      You can also see an example on my freelance business site — http://ProBusinessWriter.com

  3. James Oliver August 20, 2012 Reply

    Great article. Can you suggest any site themes/landing pages that are specifically designed for ebook publishing?

    Thanks.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 21, 2012 Reply

      Most e-commerce themes would work. There are a few decent ones designed to sell single products too. Some are marketed as being for e-books. Others were designed to sell software or mobile apps, but could work equally well for e-books. Here are a few decent premium themes as examples:

      – Templatic’s E-book theme
      – Templatic’s E-commerce theme (if you’re selling multiple e-books in a storefront)
      – iThemes’ Book Nook theme
      – Woothemes’ Kaboodle theme

      And here’s one you can get through Themeforest.net (where I generally like to get my own premium themes these days). This one might work if you’re selling a novel, and you want a flipbook style preview.

      The Novelist

      If you’re looking for a static landing page, Themeforest also has an entire landing page section you should check out.

      • James Oliver August 21, 2012 Reply

        Wow. Thanks a ton! Really appreciate it.

  4. Rusty Craig October 25, 2012 Reply

    Great article for beginners. I’ve searched online for free and paid themes. If you don’t want to spend anything, you can still find great designs at no cost. But it’s really easier to find wonderful premium designs.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 25, 2012 Reply

      Definitely. And free themes often come with bigger risks. Many have sponsor links you aren’t allowed to remove due to licence restrictions (and you can’t control the content on those sites you link to, which can be changed, hacked, etc.). But more importantly, free themes often aren’t updated as frequently as premium options. That can put you, and your server, in a vulnerable position if exploits aren’t addressed quickly. Been there. Done that.

  5. Glenn Gilbert October 27, 2014 Reply

    Hi Jennifer,

    My wife has written a couple of romance novels with more in the series to come, which are being published by Create Space and Google. She has asked me to look into building a website and to market her books. I am pretty savvy with a computer but I would like to know who you would suggest we go with to host our site and which site you would recommend for building a website?

    Also, where could we get free reviews for her books. We are working on a limited budget right now until things get going so we have to take that into consideration as well.

    I would appreciate any help you could give me.

    Thanks

    • Author
      Jennifer Mattern October 29, 2014 Reply

      Hi Glenn,

      Hosts are tough. I assume if you’re just starting out you would plan to go with a shared hosting account for now. I haven’t used one in a while, but my general recommendation is to stick with cPanel hosts (easier to transfer your site between them if you want to move later, and it’s an industry standard control panel so it’s good to familiarize yourself with it). HostGator is one example. I was with them for years. I left because of issues with one particular lousy custom service rep, but for the most part they were decent to work with. I’d avoid BlueHost, 1&1, and Godaddy like the plague (for hosting — Godaddy’s tolerable for domain registrations, though I’m personally switching my domains over to NameSilo to avoid GD’s up-sell nonsense). Getting into all the reasons why would be another post (or a few) on its own. The short version is this: 1&1 was downright dishonest when I dealt with them years ago. Godaddy tries to idiot-proof everything, which in turn limits your control over your own hosting account (it’s not for anyone with even a basic understanding of what they’re doing — don’t go with hosts that can’t handle basic plugins or ones that force you to use something you don’t want to use). And Bluehost is notorious for throttling your CPU (so instead of suspensions, they slow down your site, and it’s not always clear when they’re doing it — it’s a result of major overselling. That happens on all shared hosts, but of all the hosts I’ve used, they were the worst on that front.) Like I said, HostGator had its own issues, but their support was usually easy to reach, and most of their reps were good to deal with.

      As for building the site, I generally suggest self-hosted WordPress installations (WordPress.org, not WordPress.com). Pick a nice premium theme (free themes are more likely to be over-used, often require links that you can’t remove which can make the site look less professional, and aren’t always updated as quickly or as regularly as premium themes from trustworthy developers). The reason I recommend WP is that you can run a pretty comprehensive author site on it — one installation can handle your static pages, a dynamic blog, a storefront for direct sales, and just about any supplementary material you can think to add. One designer I personally like is SwiftIdeas.com. I use two of their themes (including one on this site). They’re very responsive, the developer is wonderful, and they’re good about keeping things updated. Another option is ElegantThemes.com. These are used by more people, but they’re inexpensive and you get access to all of their themes when you pay for a membership. There are a lot of options to work with, and again, they’re pretty good about updating things to keep everything compatible with the WP core.

      As for book reviews, your best chance of getting free ones is to build relationships with reviewers early on. I’d focus on online reviews (bloggers, Amazon reviewers, etc.) and then regional reviewers if they’re open to self published books. I wrote a post recently about building those relationships, so hopefully it will give you some ideas:

      http://allindiewriters.com/build-relationships-with-book-reviewers/

      I hope that helps!

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