by Lisa Norman
I'm expecting my first grandchild in a few days. When I hold her in my arms for the first time, I'm not going to be judging her ability to run a marathon or write novels. I'm going to be happy if she looks up at me. If I keep our first encounter simple, connected, and welcoming, it will be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
When authors build their first website, sometimes they want their website to be as fancy as big-name authors' sites - and I'm not saying they can't be - but this is a distraction.
The important thing is this: Be there. Now.
On occasion I do consulting for Search Engine Optimization specialists. I was called in to consult for a big firm that had an absolutely stunning website. Problem: they weren't getting new customers.
Meanwhile, their tiny upstart competitor with a plain website was getting more work than they could handle. Why?
Because the simple website was first on the search results. The fancy website didn't even show up. Why? The fancy website was full of gorgeous video. Moving pictures. Immersive.
But search engines can't see pictures. Search engines see words.
What does your website really need?
For this post, I want to talk to you about the absolute minimum you need for a functioning website. I'm going to tell you my favorite plugins where appropriate but understand: these are not the only options. They're just my favorites.
I'm not going into detail about hosting and domain name here, because those are choices you want to make based on your budget. Generally, you want to get your name or your pen name as your domain name, and before you pick a hosting company, read a lot of recent reviews.
A website needs a place to live on the internet (hosting) and a domain name that people can type in to get to it.
If you don't want to spend any money, WordPress.COM is essentially a hosting company that only runs WordPress software. They will give you a free domain (yourname.wordpress.com) and set you up with the basics. This is the internet equivalent of living in your parents' basement. You live by their rules, but you are safe and you won't starve.
Once you get your own domain name (yourname.com - for example) you'll need to start paying them rent, and then it is cheaper to move out and live in your own space. The good news is that you can take all your furniture with you.
I'm a huge fan of WordPress because I've never seen an author outgrow the platform. I've seen a lot of folks outgrow other platforms and struggle to move their content. But if you are using something other than WordPress, most of the points that follow still apply. Just ignore the names of specific plugins.
(Note: on WordPress.com, you can not add plugins. Just use what they provide, it is sufficient.)
Your Necessary Seven Items
1. A Security Plugin
When my daughter moves out, she wants to get a German Shepherd. Wordfence — even the free version — acts like a big, protective barking dog. You can turn off the notifications if the barking bothers you, but it is handy for reminding you when to do your updates! This is the first plugin I install on any WordPress website. It will keep you safe from hackers.
2. A Contact Page
This page needs a form and some type of anti-spam so that people who you do want to talk to can reach you easily while spammers get stopped.
On WordPress, this may look like Contact Form 7 with the CleanTalk plugin to block spammers. (CleanTalk is one of the very few paid plugins that I recommend strongly. If you get just the basic package, you can get it for under $7/year. That's a bargain for keeping spammers away from your website!) Contact Form 7 generally sets itself up correctly when you install it. Pop the form onto a page and be done.
3. An "About me" Page
Include a simple bio with a headshot — this is what will be used to introduce you at speaking engagements or harvested by media personnel when your book hits the NYT bestseller list. Have fun with it. Headshot is optional, but great to add when you can.
4. A newsletter signup form on EVERY page
There are many options here, depending on what you want. I love the Newsletter plugin for a free version that keeps the emails on your website, but MailChimp and other well-known brands work, too. Newsletter will walk you through the basic setup when you install it.
This one scares a lot of authors, but it shouldn't. Treat it like a writing exercise. By current law, a plainly written one is much better than a bunch of legalese.
6. A Home Page
This can be a simple "welcome to my website, I'll put something cool on this page eventually" or it can show your blog posts if you are up to writing one every month or so. (Hint: hide the dates!)
7. A theme you can live with
A website doesn't have to be hard. If I have the author's bio and a few words of welcome, I can build a website with these bits in well under an hour.
I had a client who needed a website urgently. I built her one in 2 hours and she used it successfully for over 10 years. Sure, I have some know-how, but I share it in my classes. I promise you, anyone can build a website these days.
You may be thinking that you want so much more for your website. But like my soon-to-appear granddaughter, give your website time to grow and develop. Meanwhile, NOW is the crucial time for connection. A baby website is better than no website at all. And ask yourself: Is there anything easier to fall in love with than a baby?
Are there items that you think should be added to the must-have list? What are your author website challenges? What questions do you have for Lisa? Please share them down in the comments!
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Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.
Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.