Sometimes you’ll hear people say things like, “the only legitimate way to be an author is to find a big publisher to get your book out there.” This word, “legitimate,” has always been troubling to me. It’s a bunch of baloney, most of the time. Sure, the only legitimate way to be a physician is to go to medical school, but there are a whole host of professions where that kind of training and certification doesn’t apply and being an author is one of them. You are a legitimate author as soon as you have written a book. The only thing that distinguishes one author from another is how many people know about their work.
Large publishers have an advantage of a well-defined infrastructure, with a long reach designed to promote books, but as you’ve likely heard, they are no longer alone in that capacity. Lots and lots of indie authors have found a variety of ways to get the word out about their work online. Maybe you’re aware of Joanna Penn, who is a prolific author and shares her amazing knowledge and resources on book promotion, self-publishing, and book marketing. She’s just one great example of someone who created an extremely successful career for herself as an indie author of fiction & non-fiction alike.
So what does this mean if you’re an indie author looking for a website? How do you capture the kind of success you’re looking for without a publisher in the wings? Having worked on many indie author websites, here are my top tips:
- Define success incrementally, and celebrate all milestones. Even large publishers take a phased approach when signing authors for a series; the first book is a test of the concept, and targets are set relatively low. As an indie author, your first steps into publishing your work may not seem particularly exciting — perhaps your first book only gets into a few dozen hands. But if your next book gets into a few hundred hands, then a few thousand, the trajectory is pretty spectacular. If you set your goals too high, you’re bound to be disappointed, so I encourage my indie author website clients to look to metrics on their sites — like how many people sign up for their mailing list, read their blog, or download an excerpt — and watch how those metrics change over time. For many people, initial book marketing efforts can seem like shouting into the void but with persistence and patience you will start to see changes for the better. Becoming an indie author isn’t a quick way to wealth & riches — there are a lucky few (just like winning the lottery) who hit it big, but for most people, it’s lots of hard work over many years. Celebrating smaller successes can help remind you that your efforts aren’t for naught.
- Don’t expect your website to do all the work for you. Yes, it’s important to have a great on-brand website as an indie author. (An Amazon and/or Facebook author page is not enough — you can read more about that here.) After all, your website can be part of what separates you from the crowd, brings you a new audience, and helps them stay interested in your work. By itself, however, it’s just like any tool: The magic is in what you do with it. Even if you have an exquisitely beautiful website that has been optimized to the hilt for search engines, if people don’t know about it, it doesn’t matter. The way people find out about your website is by marketing yourself, and by adding interesting content to your site over time. The wealth of content you add to your website draws people to it through search or by sharing it on social platforms. Consider your site a repository for information about you and your work, and you want that repository to grow — maybe you write a blog, maybe you publish videos, maybe you write articles for other people that you link from your site but, no matter what, you want to be adding keyword-rich content to your site and pointing people to it over and over again.
- Treat your site like it represents a business, because it does. Being an author is a long-held dream for many people, but even if you have a large publisher working with you on your book, you’re going to have to participate in lots of activities that aren’t anything like writing books. These activities include marketing yourself & building an audience, just like any business. While you can have an informal brand as an author, you should always take these efforts seriously. Learn about your target audience: Where they hang out and how to reach them. Make sure the content you include on your site is designed to reach that audience, and follow up with your analytics to see if your efforts are working. Any business that’s run haphazardly is much less likely to succeed than one that is making strategic, informed decisions.
- Don’t cut corners. This doesn’t mean you need to blow your budget! I encourage folks with limited resources to simplify. Rather than trying to do a bunch of different things poorly because you’ve seen some great ideas on other sites that you want to replicate, focus on your most important priorities and find ways to implement them simply. If you create an author website that has a bunch of bells and whistles but they don’t make sense for you and are executed poorly, not only will it be obvious to your site visitors, but it will do you a disservice by turning people off. The same is true if you don’t fully understand something yet. For example, if you don’t have a plan for what you might do with a blog, even if you’ve heard it will help drive traffic to your website, don’t start one until you understand what your blog will be about and how (and when) you’ll use it.
- Set yourself up with a great web host. Price is most certainly a consideration when it comes to choosing a web host, but sometimes paying a little bit extra will have huge rewards. A good web host is not only reliable, but also speedy and secure. If you’re saving a few dollars a month by going with a less expensive option, but are losing out on site visitors — and therefore sales — because your site is slow (Google factors the speed of your site into search rankings!), or even worse, hacked, then you’re better off spending a little bit extra. If your site will be built on WordPress, then choose a hosting plan designed for WordPress — it will be optimized for that platform to perform best. If you need a recommendation for a great web host, I’ve provided a page of resources for websites here.
There are so many things to master as an indie publisher, and you can feel like you need to be great at everything before you even begin. That’s not true! Just don’t bite off more than you can chew. Perhaps you need to give yourself more time to get everything ready. Perhaps you need to simplify your initial plan. Perhaps you need to better define your goals & priorities. Alternatively, maybe you need to add someone to your team to help you get where you need to go. No matter what, getting started is always the best way forward!