Whether you’re a veteran published author, or new writer looking for discovery, you’ve heard what the experts have to say. Authors need to establish an online presence and build a brand. It’s the first thing most agents will check if they’re interested in your work. If self-publishing, an author website can be a critical tool to market a book.
Armed with good advice from Geoff Mehl, a fellow GLVWG member, David Miller shares his recent dip into the murky waters of website building. Geoff’s notes follow David’s article below.
No Website? Well then…you should sing:
“I got plenty of nuthin’…and nuthin’s plenty for me!”
Porgy & Bess – Opera by George Gershwin
I should know. I’ve got a novel and a history published…but haven’t gotten around to doing a website. So, at the last GLVWG Writers Café, I challenged everyone to get a website FREE. I started by investigating the Top Ten Free Website Builders. You’ll find an excellent comparison chart, ratings, etc.
What I learned: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch!”
All these firms need to make a profit. Sort of like banks that offer “free checking.” But then you’re ‘nickel-and-dimed’ on services.
So I decided to trust Geoff Mehl’s advice. His notes follow this article.
I went with Blue Host. Geoff’s notes refer to “$7.50/mo. For server space”, but they have a special: $3.99/month for the first three years. And there are “unlimited” pages for the basic website. This is better than others on the above list, who give you five pages.
Step 1: Pick a name
Consider that every noun in the English language is already taken as a website. What does that leave you?
- Something incredibly powerful? Very smart people do this for a living.
- Your own name? Well, that’s a lot more logical.
However, here’s what can happen when you go to any one of the sites listed:
I typed in: davidmiller Sorry, that’s already taken.
I typed in: davidamiller: Sorry, that’s already taken.
I typed in: davidamillerII: Congratulations! That domain is available.
Huzzah! I now have a website name.
Key advice from Emily Miller, who handles all our domains: Never transfer a domain you own to someone else who is helping design your site. It is not necessary and you may not ever get your site back.
Step 2: Domain Details
You will receive a printout of details re: your new website. It has a numerical address…and a lot more.
- DNS Zone File
- Premium DNS
- DS Records
- Host Names
- Domain Transfer
- Authorization Code
You don’t have to understand it all, but you DO have to create a folder and know where to find it.
Step 3: The learning curve…is really hard.
I’m starting to feel like a passenger on the Titanic.
I signed up with BlueHost because of their great promises.
- Web hosting: $3.49/month. There’s a three year requirement, and you’ll find out you paid for three years worth of stuff you didn’t plan to buy.
- FREE domains
- FREE Site Builders. Except that all the themes are priced at $49.
- Unlimited bandwidth.
- Instant setup. Not by a long shot.
- 24/7 support. Not hardly!
You’ve probably seen the current GoDaddy TV spot: “A buck a month!”
You get ‘human help’ (over-acting guy in a cardboard box), who assists “helpless female” to create an instant website. Within seconds, a huge bag of money drops right on her keyboard. Happily ever after?
At this moment, I’m stymied. I can’t get my website designed without paying a fortune. Blue Host offers a 30-day money back guarantee, which I’ll claim.
I’ll also have to take the heat at the August Writers Café meeting, as I challenged everyone to make a website and couldn’t do it quickly or easily.
Life goes on. I’ll keep making notes and solve this. At that point, I’ll ask Dan if he wants a follow-up blog when/if I get my website up and running.
David A. Miller, II
Miller has published the first novel in a trilogy: “Time Birds”, a spy/adventure sci-fi thriller, featuring robotic birds with the ability to travel in time. Reaching completion is ‘Bravo 26’, a thriller about the deeds and misdeeds of a thinly disguised Special Forces unit.
He has also published ‘A Gift of Love’, a history of the first 100 years of The Lutheran Home at Topton. He is working on a history of Muhlenberg College, “This WAS a Man’s School.” It details the reasons why a successful all-male institution decided to go co-ed.
Miller has built a successful creative career in advertising, marketing and publishing, heading three successful advertising agencies. Accounts included Mack Trucks, Inc., The Lutheran Church in America, major accounting firms in the New York metro, plus timeshare properties from Maine to Aruba.
Web Comments and Thoughts
By GLVWG member, Geoffrey Mehl, a GLVWG, who covers just about every web question you might have. Read it. Thank him personally at: www.geoffmehl.com
Web hosting — the service of providing space on a mainframe so your website can be accessed by the world; typically includes the site itself as well as email accounts you manage.
Domain — the name of your website, i.e., http://www.myname.com. Comes with email addressing, i.e., email@example.com.
FTP — file transfer protocol, the means of moving web files from your computer to the server.
WYSIWYG — say “wizzy-wig;” what you see is what you get, generally applied to web-page applications that look like the finished product as you produce them. The alternative option is to write code in text form, the old-fashioned way. The former is easier for those unfamiliar with code, but tends to write very complicated coding to make it work; the latter writes much more efficient pages, but you spend a lot of time checking your progress in a web browser. There are freewares to do both, and word processors can save as html. WordPress is a good example of WYSIWYG.
Number One General Caution
No matter which way you go to access your webpage for construction and maintenance, take care to use an extremely secure password. Make it so complicated that you have to cut and paste it from a text file on a flash drive.
Hacking attempts are constant, relentless, and will attack several times a day, from all over the world — especially China and Russia. The number one targets are the files that administer WordPress. If they gain access, your site becomes part of a botnet, used mostly for spamming.
There are ways to respond by denying access from places that don’t play nice, but that’s a topic for another time.
Web hosting services
Web hosting packages vary from basic (usually the best for very small web activities) to very extensive (you could operate a medium-sized corporation with one). I have used Blue Host for more than 10 years and am very happy with them — customer service is excellent. Basic costs:
Server space: $7.50/month for one domain; $12/month for unlimited domains (the former includes 100 email accounts; the latter is unlimited). First domain registration is free; others are $15 per domain and “privacy protection” is another $12 per domain. The value of privacy protection is that when someone does a “who-is” on your domain, they find the owner’s name, street address and phone; the protection cloaks that and the information about Blue Host appears instead. You can purchase other services — database security, spam filtering, etc., as well, but I’ve never done it. The billing is generally for a 24-month period, upfront.
All web domains — i.e., mydomain.com — are registered internationally so web browsers can find them. When I go to mydomain.com, I am actually going to an IP address — i.e., 184.108.40.206 — which belongs to Blue Host and is assigned to my account.
When you open an account on a hosting service, you can easily ask for and get a domain name; just like other services, they’ll let you know if your favorite is taken and you’ll need to pick an alternate. Dot-com, dot-org, dot-net are the preferred ones, but there are now many other options.
I own pennystone.com and to protect it as a brand, I also registered pennystone.net — but pennystone.org was owned for a long time by a name broker (they register zillions of names and then sell them); when that guy let it go, I snapped it up. I don’t use them very much, but I own them all just to protect the name pennystone as a potential brand.
When you register a domain name with a hosting service, they immediately set it up with your account and you are in business; just FTP your stuff into place and say, “Hello, world.”
Remember the recent controversy over Hillary Clinton’s email while she was secretary of state? Essentially, it was a pretty basic arrangement. The Clintons registered a domain on a hosting service somewhere specifically to give her a private email account; one email account to keep things simple. As such, the Clintons controlled all the records and could delete them at will. Which they did, just before turning it all in to authorities.
The nice thing about hosting service email is setting up accounts that are a) private and b) disposable — i.e., firstname.lastname@example.org.
Search engines, optimization
Everyone wants to be noticed, be at the top of the list on google, yahoo, bing, duck-duck, et al. It’s a complicated business if you’re selling widgets along with a thousand other retail outlets, but if you’re just you, don’t worry. All the search engine bots (including some you might not welcome because they’re probing for sites to hack) will find you and soon enough. Who’s allowed and what they are allowed to see is relatively easy to manage with a file universally named robots.txt (again, a topic for another time).
But the way to make life comfortable for the big and useful bots are with page titling (in the metadata) and the first heading (in the body of the page). Bots read page code from top down, so the order of stuff makes a difference. Bots also know when you’re stuffing it with phony terms to attract attention and then the search engines will ignore you.
What do you need, really?
Unless you’re famous, doing a high volume of e-commerce, pushing hard on a social or political cause… not much. Big league websites usually have professionals doing the sophisticated code work to make it happen. Small timers really only need just a basic “business-card” site — who you are, book cover(s), nice photo, what your book is about, a link to where people can buy it.
It’s a good place for a detailed description, maybe an excerpt.
Remember: people do NOT read websites. They SCAN websites for information they need and then move on. Don’t slow them down or make it difficult.
The big thing today are “responsive” web designs — i.e., websites that work on all sizes of devices, from phones to desktops. Especially phones. There’s an art to doing this, and it starts with very uncomplicated basic design. This is new and trendy and causing a lot of sites to rebuild (including mine). Reconstruction is a necessary periodic chore to freshen sites; it’s all too easy to become complacent. Avoid complicated; what you build, you must maintain.
Send me an email…or maybe not
I have six web domains that average around 1,500 visitors a month. In the past ten years, I have probably received less than 20 legitimate queries and maybe a hundred from spammers who picked up the address from somewhere else. No longer worth the trouble.
Bottom line: keep a website simple, keep it professional, avoid controversy, don’t get cute or silly. No need for twirling do-dads, strange colors, eye candy. No real need for links to Facebook, Linked In, etc. — use those sites to instead link to your website, where the info on your book and the way to buy it are located. But backlink to them if you’re hunting likes.
There was a time when lots of readable stuff on a website was important. Not any more. Websites are used to book a flight or a hotel room, to find directions, to buy an appliance, to research some arcane term.
There was a time when blogs were important, when what you were doing, thinking, considering was important to a small group of acquaintances. Not any more. Facebook and Twitter have generally killed them (although some people “interview” others who rank higher and can do a little quid pro quo at the next conference when an agent or editor is hanging around.
There was a time when social media was important, and to an extent it still is. Facebook is the biggie, simply because there’s such a vast extended network to get your name and book title out there. Linked In, Pinterest, etc. are less important and Twitter is a good place to make a casual remark that gets you into apology mode.
Facebook can serve several functions. Your personal page is where you share daily trivia with family and close friends and nobody else. Your author page is where you promote your work — it can be a professional page and/or a fan page. It should relentlessly link to your web page and harvest likes shamelessly. Your product page is one you can create for a specific book title and primarily link back to your author page and your webpage.
When I started out with web work, there were 1,200 registered sites in the entire world. Today there are billions. Back then, everyone rushed to see what someone else was doing with the very new medium. Today, nobody notices.
If you are rich and famous, someone else will be doing a nice, slick site for you and the brand will be tended by professionals.
If you are not rich and famous, traffic will be very light, almost discouraging. That’s okay. It’s part of the cost of doing business. Just keep it in perspective.
For all the hype over the past twenty years, the web is proving itself to be a useful tool — but certainly not better than excellent writing and a personal handshake with someone who can sell it. Craftsmanship and personal networking still rule.
About 15 years ago, when the web was really starting to pick up steam, I used to tell starry-eyed people, “Think of the web as a thousand-acre lake. Looks impressive until you realize the water is only ankle deep.”
Geoffrey Mehl is a writer, photographer, and sustainable landscaping advocate who lives in Pennsylvania.
Fun and informative article. Definitely want to see the finished product, Dave, and your humorous recap of the journey. I’ve been through it. Patience of Job, indeed.
Geoff Mehl said:
Thanks for the kind words, Dave and sorry to hear your path to web glory was not an easy one. I did some follow up notes on how to wade into the thicket from a neophyte consumer point of view, which I’ll be glad to share (word doc) if anyone is interested.
As i said at the Cafe meeting, websites have value for varying reasons, ranging from just sharing your work or full-blown marketing. It might be a just-for-fun prestige thing or very serious transactional e-commerce. This directly impacts whether you really need one at all, or just how much energy you plant to invest. The basic mechanics of web page production are fairly simple — but what you do with a website is a more complicated and introspective question.
I know enough html to get by — by no means an expert — but will be glad to answer questions about the marketing aspect of websites and how they integrate into larger marketing plans, as well as resources to help site design and construction.
Sometimes the best thing that you can do when creating your first website is to think of it like the first draft of your novel.
Yeah, there might be moments of brilliance, but there will also be things that need to be gutted before you can move forward.
My advice for anyone who wants to create a website on their own is to try out Google’s Blogger first. Unlike many of the “free” services, this one is free. It’s fairly straight forward to use, and the skills that you learn working with blogger will transfer to other web site tools that you might use in the future.
Play around with the site. Build it, destroy it, then build it again. Find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Refine your draft until you have something that you are ready to share.
Then, and only then, should you consider spending money on a website.
If you want to to know what it takes to set up a website on Google’s Blogger take a moment to read Building a Blogger Site at http://www.tiwsg.com/p/blog-page_10.html (or you can just go to tiwsg.com and click on the Resources link).