The Writer's Web Site: Build It and They Will Come

Sue Bowness
From the July/August 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Of all the professions associated with technology, creative writing is not at the top of the list. While contemporary authors will admit to composing at the computer, classic tools like the typewriter or even the fountain pen still hold their positions as icons of the craft. Yet even the most technophobic writers will grudgingly recognize the power of the Internet to get one's writing out there, sell books, and connect with readers in unlikely places. Whether you create it yourself or hire a designer, developing an author Web site is one of the best ways to promote yourself and provide an authoritative source for readers to discover your work.

If you're a first-time or aspiring writer, a Web site with sample chapters can be used to gain exposure for your forthcoming work.

As a writer who designs Web sites for other writers, I often find myself using my own site as a marketing tool. I've had plenty of clients find my site through search engines or by linking from another site, but, most frequently, they visit my site after I've given them a business card or mentioned my Web site at a party or other event. Either way, having one provides the portal through which visitors can access a professional-looking portfolio and author profile at any time of day, anywhere in the world.

A Web address is a useful thing to include on a business card, e-mail signature, or even in casual conversation at, say, a writers conference. If you're an established author, it can be an easy way to provide readers with information about your books and readings. If you're a first-time or aspiring writer, a Web site with sample chapters can be used to gain exposure for your forthcoming work. And if nothing else, a Web site—where you control the content—offers an alternative to whatever else may be online (if you've ever Googled yourself and found less-than-flattering reviews of your work, an outdated profile, or, perhaps worse, nothing at all, you know exactly what I mean).

By the time most writers approach me about creating a Web site, they've been contemplating the idea for a while. After all, creating a site can be a daunting project; it's difficult to know where to begin. My first recommendation always is to look for other writers' sites that you admire the look of and think promote the authors' work well. This also helps you collect ideas about the kinds of colors, fonts, and even page categories you'd like for your site—typically, most writers' sites include at least a home page, a biography, writing samples or book chapters, and a contact page.

Once you've got some ideas in mind for your site, it's time to make that big decision about whether to hire a Web designer or to try creating a site yourself. In 1997, when I created my first Web site, I used my computer's Notepad program to type out the HTML code—the HyperText Markup Language that is used to create documents on the Web. Luckily, today there are many programs available that allow you to create pages much more simply, with setups that automatically add code. For instance, you can click on the program's Bold button—much the same way a word processing program allows you to manipulate text—and it adds the tags to make a word appear in boldface on your HTML page. Some of these programs, such as Microsoft's FrontPage, may already be installed on your computer, or you may have to invest in software—Adobe's Dreamweaver, for example. Like with most computer programs, it may take time to learn how to use it, but if you are willing to put in the effort, creating a basic site is not that difficult. These days, it's pretty easy to find a book or a class to help you out too. If you're going to take the plunge yourself, it's essential that you read up on basic design principles, and maybe even befriend a professional Web designer in case you have any questions.

If you decide to hire someone to design your site for you, there are a few things to consider in determining a good fit. First of all, finding a designer is sometimes difficult, because larger Web design companies often don't take on smaller projects. Try asking friends and colleagues with Web sites for recommendations, doing a Web search, or calling local Web design companies for suggestions. Once you find potential designers, look at some of the other sites they've designed to see if their aesthetic is along the lines of what you have in mind for your own site. Ask them about what their working style is like—whether they're available to meet in person or prefer to do most of the work over the Internet and communicate by e-mail or telephone. Ask how many samples they will give you to review and how many revisions you will be allowed before committing to the final design. Ask whether their service includes domain name registration, setting you up with a hosting service, submitting your information to search engines, and updating options. Finally, ask about pricing (some designers may have pricing packages that allow you to start small and upgrade) and payment (expect a percentage of the payment to be required up front).