Choosing the Right Platform for Your Author Website

We Explored Website Platforms So You Don’t Have To

5/13/2016

Ahh, websites. They're the bane of every tech-phobic creative. (Even somewhat tech-savvy authors have been known to be defeated by websites on occasion.) But every author needs to have one. So before we get into the bulk of this article, let's define a few terms.

URL, short for Uniform Resource Identifier, is the address you type into your Internet browser to take you to a specific page.

A domain name is the main address of a website. It's the "top level," or what comes after "www" (including the .com, .net, or .org). A domain can encompass many pages. For example, facebook.com is the domain name for Facebook, but facebook.com/amshofnerauthor is the URL for my Facebook author Page.

A host supplies you with the physical space for your website (and your domain name points visitors to this space). Your website must be hosted somewhere. If the domain name is similar to the address of a house, the host is the land the house is built on.

A CMS, or content management system, is the platform used to create websites and blogs. All of the platforms discussed here are content management systems that can be used to create your author website.

As an author, your goal should be to appear as professional and legit as possible, which is always important since self-publishing still carries a stigma in certain crowds. Your website should reflect this goal.

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100 Percent Free

The "everything free" options include platforms like the ever popular Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress.com (different from WordPress.org), but also newer platforms, such as Wix or Weebly.

You'll know these 100 percent free websites when you see them: The domain name will always include the platform. They'll read something like "yoursite.blogspot.com" or "yoursite.wordpress.com." For real-life examples, you can see the sites I set up for the purposes of this article—pubmagtest.weebly.com and the less attractive amanda540.wix.com/pubmagtest.

While you can easily build a rather nice website on these platforms, the domain name could be an issue. Your writing career is a business, and it should be treated as such. Hobby bloggers can (and do) use 100 percent free options, but they're not in it to make money. You are.

Consider, at least, taking the next step up with your website by buying a domain from a site like name.com or GoDaddy.

Domains and Easy CMSes

All of the free options mentioned above allow you to use your own domain name. In the case of Blogger and Tumblr, using your own domain name costs you nothing beyond the purchase of the domain and the time required to set it up.

WordPress.com, Wix, and Weebly have paid upgrades. WordPress.com charges an annual domain mapping fee, whereas Wix and Weebly charge monthly fees to use their services. You can also use Squarespace, which is similar to Wix and Weebly, except it has no free option.

Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress.com are primarily built to be blogging platforms. While you can turn a blog on any of these platforms into a website, each has disadvantages. Blogger is notorious for cluttered and amateur websites (sorry, Blogger fans), and it takes a skilled designer/developer to turn a Blogger site into one that's professional-looking. WordPress.com offers a wider range of better-designed themes that will create the overall look of your site, but has limited functionality—without javascript, for example, you'll be unable to add a form on your site to collect emails. And Tumblr's just not set up for a robust website.

If you're not interested in a self-hosted WordPress site, or you don't have the capabilities (or money) to build your own, the next best option is one of the CMS services that combine website building and blogging. Wix, Weebly, and Squarespace fall under this category.

Wix

With Wix, you're prompted to choose a template from a number of categories. I found the Author & Poet template under the Creative Arts category. No other template seemed suited to what you might need as an author (e.g., book pages). From there, you start off with the template as is, as you can see from the screenshot below.

There are a number of ways to customize your site from there. I spent about an hour playing around, which was enough time to figure out how to change background images, site fonts, and options on the navigation menu. I also added a blog and created a couple book pages.

The final result isn't terrible, but definitely has room for improvement. It's a basic website, and if all you're looking for is a web presence, Wix is a decent option. It gives you the ability to work on SEO (a plus), but has an odd URL structure. The blog, for example, is amanda540.wix.com/pubmagtest#!blog/gieo2. Because URL structure can play a part in SEO factors, the "#!blog/gieo2" puts your site at a disadvantage.

Wix premium plans

The Author & Poet template functions as a single-page website, where all your main content lives on the "homepage" (or the main URL for the site). This seems to be the direction that many websites are moving toward. You can also build out individual pages, such as book pages, although they seem to be pretty basic on Wix.

If you want to have a blog on your Wix site, it's easy enough to add one. A disadvantage to the blog is that the Facebook comment plugin is the only option for commenting. Many sites use the Facebook comment plugin, so this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but since not everyone wishes to log into Facebook to comment, this aspect of Wix could cause people to go elsewhere.

The final cautionary point with Wix is that you're unable to change your template without starting a new site and then transferring your domain over. If you're the type of person who wants to set up your site and forget it, this limitation won't affect you. But if you like to tweak your site design, you might want to try a different website builder.

Weebly

One step up from Wix is Weebly. You're able to choose from a number of themes, and while there's no author theme, you can easily switch themes whenever you want. You can even modify the theme itself, but you'll have to know CSS to use the code editor.

Even though I only spent about an hour setting up my test site, I was pleased with the functionality as compared to that of Wix. It's easier to add elements to your site (like the email list) and embed code. Through the "Settings" option, you're able to change your site SEO and add code to your header or footer (e.g., you'll want to add your Google Analytics tracking code).

Weebly dashboard

Weebly also has a "commerce" element that makes it possible to add a product to the page. If you upgrade to the Business plan, you'll be able to sell digital goods, making it likely you could sell your ebook directly to readers. Most authors, however, could stay at the Starter plan level to take advantage of the custom domain.

Weebly premium pricing

Weebly features a much nicer blogging area, and gives you the option of using Disqus, the Facebook comments plugin, or built-in comments. (Built-in comments are almost always the best option, since they don't require logging in, and therefore, are easiest to use.) The theme I chose doesn't work well for blogging, so if you plan to blog frequently, be sure to choose a theme that puts your blog posts front and center for the best reader experience possible.

Squarespace

Unlike Wix and Weebly, which give you the ability to have a free website, Squarespace is paid-only. If you're interested in testing out the platform, Squarespace does offer a free trial. Squarespace is quickly becoming the preferred CMS outside of self-hosted WordPress, and is my recommendation for authors who want an easy-to-build professional-looking website.

Squarespace Pricing

Squarespace is on par with Weebly and Wix as far as setting up your site, and you can adapt their templates to suit your purposes. The benefit to using Squarespace is ecommerce, which will allow you to sell your book directly to readers.

If you want an example of an author rocking it on Squarespace, check out Kristen Kieffer’s site.

Kristen Kieffer website screenshot

The Ultimate DIY Platforms (aka Self-Hosted WordPress)

All of the platforms mentioned so far are DIY options. But unlike the drag-and-drop functionality of sites like Weebly or Squarespace, where everything you need is integrated into the platform, self-hosted WordPress sites and HTML sites are the ultimate DIY platforms, where you're responsible for either finding the correct plugins or coding everything yourself.

Coding your entire website requires either that you have extensive tech knowledge or a decent amount of money to pay someone who does. You won't find many authors who go this route. Most use self-hosted WordPress sites with a paid or custom theme.

Quick aside: WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress sites aren't the same. If you're on a WordPress.com site, you have free hosting but limited features. You won't be able to add plugins or use anything that has scripts (e.g., an email subscription form). With a self-hosted WordPress site, you must contract with a hosting service (e.g., big names include Bluehost, Hostgator, and GoDaddy, but I'd suggest a smaller company like Media Temple or A Small Orange) to provide you with the server space to install your WordPress site.

Self-hosted WordPress dashboard

If the phrases "server space" and "install your WordPress site" sound technologically daunting to you, you're not alone. WordPress is highly customizable, but that means you're also responsible for the setup and maintenance of your site. Self-hosted WordPress sites don't have to be complicated, but if you're easily overwhelmed by choices or you have a tendency to "break the Internet," you might be better off steering clear of WordPress and using Squarespace instead.

WordPress theme providers like ThemeForest or StudioPress are great for new WordPress users. If you want a more hands-on theme, try the Thesis (DIYthemes) or Headway Themes frameworks. You'll also find developers selling themes through their own sites. My personal favorite is Tweak Me v2 from Nose Graze.

You can also install plugins to help you run your author site. Novelist, a plugin from Nose Graze, makes prominently displaying your books a cinch. You can even use plugins like Redirection to help you manage links in the back of your books, making it easier to update links and track clicks. (Props to Bree Bridges for writing about linking with redirects.)

Just remember to install plugins that keep your site running smoothly, too. Here are my suggestions:

Deciding What's Right for You

Your website is a lot like cover design—you only get one chance to make a good impression. You don't want your site looking like one of those obviously self-published book covers. But which platform is right for you depends on your technological skill and tolerance level.

Don't rush into a decision, though. Check out each platform and test it out if you can. Visit the websites of your favorite authors to see what they do. Don't automatically go for the cheapest option, unless you want limited choices and a less appealing finished product.

If you're looking for recommendations, this is mine: Use a self-hosted WordPress site, which will allow you the greatest amount of freedom and control (with the exception of a site that's custom coded). But if you know WordPress isn't going to be right for you, use Squarespace. It's the next best platform for presenting yourself and your brand to readers.

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Amanda Shofner

Amanda Shofner satisfies her desire for adventure with the written word and helps others do the same. Currently writing romantic suspense.

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