Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know by now that an effective website is a key part of your author platform. Having your own piece of online real estate, where you control your brand, your content, and your credibility, is vital.
But, unless you love technology, knowing how to create and maintain an attractive, professional website – or how to manage someone who’ll do this for you – can quickly feel overwhelming.
If you don’t yet have a website, it can be daunting to know where to begin. Even worse is the scenario where you already have a site, but you feel ashamed to send people there. You might worry your technology is dated. Maybe you sense your design lacks flair.
I’ve analyzed dozens of author websites, and many of them are neither pleasing, nor persuasive. Often, the underlying cause is a paradox: Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.
Words Are Not King
You’re an author. I’m guessing this means you love to write… or you at least consider it one of your core competencies.
And, you figure, since your website aims to showcase your books and your writing, words must be important. Aside from a few token images, it’s just another exercise in putting text on a page, correct? Surely, you can create your website as a serious of informative essays? You can approach this like any other writing assignment, right?
Website visitors today are in a hurry. Unless you’ve already hit the bestseller lists multiple times, and you’ve cultivated an audience of eager fans, most people coming to your site have barely heard of you. They want to know what’s in it for them. Will your work solve their problem? Should they trust you? What can they glean that’s fast and free, before they invest more time (and money) in digging deeper?
These visitors are not seeking to learn everything there is to know about you and your work. Their attention span is shockingly short. Researchers at Missouri University found that website visitors spent just 5.59 seconds reading the written content on a web page. Instead, their eyes were drawn to logos, menus, images, and social links. They spent almost as long looking at the website footer, as they did the carefully composed main copy.
As an author, this is a red flag. If verbiage is the main pillar of your website, you’re missing the mark. First, you’re undermining your authority, and losing opportunities to engage your key audience. Worse, your message is overlooked by those who might need it most. And possibly worst of all: you’re leaving money on the table.
Here are 5 key areas where you should focus, if you’d like to free your website from the burden of too many words.
1. First Impressions Are (Almost) Instantaneous
Just as your book cover conveys a vital first impression and convinces a reader to look further, your website plays the same role for your overall impact and credibility as an author.
Don’t pour your effort into the words on your website, and assume your writing will speak for itself. It won’t. The Journal of Behavior & Information Technology tells us that websites have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression. If your design doesn’t impress, a visitor will dismiss you, and your work, in less time than it takes to blink.
For professional pride, your home page should be top of your list for a “first impression” makeover. Then, a tool such as Google Analytics can tell you whether there are other popular entry pages for people discovering your site. These are the pages where you should focus most attention.
2. Ditch the Clutter
If your website is older than about two years, it will likely benefit from a decluttering exercise.
Writers tend to write, and before long, your website becomes a “scrapbook” of projects, personal musings, and meandering blog posts. Comb through your content and remove anything that no longer represents you and your writing business. Look out for event dates and coming soon mentions which are now in the past. Your website is not the Wikipedia of your writing career!
I sometimes joke that the number of words on your home page should be fewer than the number of books you sold last year. So, if you’re on the New York Times list, you get more leeway here. If not, then you should pare back in order to stay credible.
The worst author websites I see are those that are built on technology originally intended for blogging. The busy, dense style of most blog templates now looks hopelessly dated, and many blog themes arrive “out of the box” with needless widgets, bells, and whistles. They also include multiple locations which encourage you to add your own clutter! For example, look at the sidebar on the next author website you visit. Ask yourself whether the vanity metrics, tag clouds, multiple calls-to-action and other confusing options add any value to your visitor experience.
3. Cheat at Good Design
Modern graphic design draws heavily on the principle that less is more. Far from implying that you don’t have much worth saying, clean design helps you appear cohesive, confident and compelling.
Good news here: if you’ve reduced the clutter on your website, you’ve already boosted your overall design. But there’s more you can do, by embracing these easy tactics:
Include plenty of empty space, which is essential to give the eye places to pause. This is how you emphasize what you’ve decided is important.
Use headlines, sub-headers and bullet points so that your busy reader can skim your page, yet still absorb key information.
Make sure calls-to-action appear as buttons, not inconspicuous text links.
Restrict both your typefaces and accent colors. For beginners, I suggest no more than two of each.
How do you choose these fonts and colors? The most obvious source is your book cover. If readers are to know, like, and trust you – key factors in selling online – you must pick a look, and stick with it. Hopefully, you love your book cover(s) and are happy for your website to be visually cohesive. If you don’t want your site to echo your book, that’s a warning bell that something is amiss in your author branding.
4. Elevate Your Images
Assuming you love your book cover, don’t be afraid to make it the star of the show. That means using a large, clear cover image, not a tiny thumbnail. A mock-up photo, showing the different formats for your book, brings your work to life and helps persuade the reader they’d like to own it. Two of my favorite mock-up tools are available through DIY Book Design and SmartMockups. These both offer free as well as paid options.
However, quality images don’t end with your book. As a nonfiction author, you are an essential part of your brand. You must have a quality headshot, ideally taken professionally, but if not, then at least make sure it’s clear and well-composed. An old, grainy photo, especially where someone else has been cropped out, is one of the fastest ways to show you simply don’t care about your website… or your readers.
5. Go Mobile, or Go Home
Estimates now reveal that between 50 and 70 per cent of your website visitors will attempt to view your page on their phone or tablet. As an author, you may spend much of your time in front of a larger screen, but your readers don’t. If your website looks terrible on a smaller device, they simply won’t stick around. In a study published by UK Web Host Review, 85% of adult website users expect your mobile version to be at least as good as what they’d see on a desktop. Give them a poor experience, and almost nine in ten say they’ll switch to a competitor instead.
The good news is that most drag-and-drop website builders now automatically help your site look great on a range of devices. The bad news is that the older your website, the less likely it is to shine on a small screen. And if your current site doesn’t perform well, fixing it may not be economic. You might want to embrace a simultaneous decluttering exercise, and start afresh.
Keep It Simple
Your guiding principle in creating an effective website is to keep your visitor’s experience top of mind. Assume they have only a few seconds to understand the key elements of your work, and make it easy for them to find and absorb this information.
When you do the right thing for your website visitor, you’ll also be doing the right thing for you.
Pauline Wiles is a website designer who builds simple, stylish sites for authors and writers. As an author herself, she noticed others were often overwhelmed by this task. Now, she’s helping to dispel some of the myths around how difficult – and costly – a web project should be.
Pauline’s professional resume includes teaching computing to adults on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as desktop support, entrepreneurship education, and marketing analysis.
British by birth, Pauline is now a contented resident of California, although she admits to an occasional yearning for afternoon tea and historic homes.
Find her at paulinewiles.com, where you can also download your free website starter kit.
If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit covering websites, blogging and social media for authors. Check it out!
Many thanks for hosting me as a guest here! I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s podcast interview also.
Many thanks, Pauline. Now for a declutter!