All authors need a web presence, that’s a given. We know agents and publishers look at author websites as part of their decision-making process and some publishers even require them. When is it right to roll up your sleeves and build your website yourself, and when is it right to outsource the task to a web designer or design firm?
Building your own author website
It is absolutely possible for you to build your own website. I’m a web designer by trade and I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. There are a lot of free or cheap and easy-to-use tools available that make it possible to do it yourself like never before.
These solutions are generally what we refer to as “hosted solutions,” which means they are plug-and-play website builders hosted by a third-party. You don’t have to know how to code or how to create graphical interfaces to get up and running fairly quickly. Examples include Wix, Weebly, and WordPress.com (not to be confused with the self-hosted WordPress.org).
Here on Launch The Book, we’re even developing a training series to help “DIYers” build self-hosted websites using WordPress. While they’re a little bit more complicated to set up, we recommend self-hosted solutions because they provide you with a lot more flexibility and are completely scalable — your site can grow as your business grows (and writing is a business, right?). And because you’re hosting the site yourself, you remain in control and retain complete ownership of your website and all its content.
We believe building your own website is something anybody, no matter your level of technical expertise, can do if you’re willing to learn and invest the time. But just because you can, does it mean you should?
Reasons why authors choose to build their own websites:
- Cost savings
- Mistrust of web designers/bad previous experience
- Desire to learn how to build and maintain your website because it’s fun for you
Building your own website to save money
A custom website can cost anywhere from $1500-$5,000 and more. There are a myriad of reasons why an author may decide to forego the expense of outsourcing web design: perhaps hiring that expensive publicist seems like a better investment, or maybe fancy-schmancy just isn’t in the budget yet. (I can relate — like an attorney friend of mine says, “I couldn’t afford to hire myself.”)
When it’s right to spend the money and hire a designer:
What should a website cost — free? $500? $5,000? It depends on the value you place on your website, and only you can answer that. What do expect of your website?
- Increased sales?
- Presenting a unique and professional image in order to position yourself in the market (branding)?
- To save yourself time and frustration so you can focus on writing a better book?
A designer’s role is to understand your goals and help you achieve them; a professionally-designed site should add value, and should not be viewed as a burdensome expense — but rather, as an investment that will yield a return by meeting your objectives and expectations.
Building your own website because you don’t trust web designers
Look, I get it. I’ve hired web designers and have had very bad luck, so I can understand why authors — especially those who are on a shoestring budget — are hesitant to hire a designer, especially if they’ve had a bad experience in the past or heard horror stories from others.
Some designers can be very unreliable, especially if they’re not doing it as a means to pay their mortgage. They can be slow to respond, miss deadlines and even completely disappear off the face of the planet. Here I speak from personal experience, all of these things have happened to me with subcontractors over the years.
There are shady people in every line of work, web design is no exception. And because there is no certification required to practice web design, there are a lot of amateurs behaving like professionals (taking your money). I’ve had clients come to me after being completely bamboozled because the person they hired took advantage of their lack of technical understanding or otherwise engaged in unethical business practices. Recently, a PR colleague of mine told me a horror story about how one of her clients hired a firm, paid them $35,000, and had such horrible and unprofessional service they basically had to start over. They were sold a line of goods; it happens.
I’ve even heard some people say that “design” can even get in the way of the message and it’s better not to have a designer involved. (This is patently false, and a misunderstanding of what professional designers do. Design helps communicate the message — form follows function, always. A copy of Photoshop does not a designer make.)
When it’s right to place your trust in and hire a designer:
I’m of the opinion that you should be extremely cautious when hiring someone to build your website unless they have “skin in the game.” That means that it’s not a hobby or a side gig. I’m not saying it’s not possible to get incredible value and service from people who aren’t doing design for a living, or from professionals who are moonlighting … but if you’re leery of handing over your hard-earned cash, it’s something you should consider carefully.
If what you want are great results then this is my best and honest advice — hire a professional with an established business reputation who will be happy to provide you with references and a contract that clearly defines what they’ll deliver, when, and at what price. A lot of people can help you put up a website and take your money, that doesn’t make them a professional designer. Your level of trust in designers will grow when you are dealing with people who have a vested interest in your success.
Building your own website because you enjoy design and want to learn
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn how to build your own website, and design might be a source of enjoyment for you.
When it’s right to stick to what you do best and hire a designer:
Aaaaand, here’s some straight talk, ready for it? I’ve seen many, many websites built by authors who are probably wonderful writers, but their design skills are well … erm, amateurish to say it nicely. Personal expression is fine and web design can be very fun, but this is your business. Are you serving it well? Is the quality of your website, your brand, a reflection of the quality of your writing? If not, people may click the back button before they have a chance to find out how great your books are.
If you’re unsure whether your self-made site design is helping or harming you, here’s what I would do: ask a professional to do a site review/evaluation for you. Or, ask your friends — preferably those who have some expertise in the fields of marketing, communications and/or design — to evaluate your site objectively and to give you honest feedback. You’re a writer, you’re tough, you can take it. It’s not personal, it’s about using the web as your personal storefront, your platform. It’s important. And based on this feedback, you may decide that it’s worth the investment to hire a professional to step in and help.
(If you simply must design your own website and can’t imagine ever relinquishing control, I’ll be writing about design fundamentals and usability practices in future posts so please sign up for updates.)
How to hire a designer
Tip #1: Hire a professional you can form a long-term trust relationship with. If you simply hire the first or cheapest person you come across that can help you get a website, THAT is going to be expensive, even if the price tag is relatively low. You are probably better off doing it yourself.
Tip #2: If a designer doesn’t ask you about your goals and fails to give you some indication of how they’ll achieve them before presenting a price quote: red flag, run! Design is not merely “decoration,” it is a function of marketing that combines strategic thinking, an understanding of consumer behavior and web usability, and technical expertise as well as graphic design, and should be goal-focused and add value to your business.
Tip #3: Do your due diligence. If you’re considering hiring a designer, get multiple referrals, contact several designers after reviewing their portfolios, ask them for references, and pay special attention to the questions they ask you before giving you a price quote. If they’re asking you about what kinds of colors you like but fail to inquire about your work, your readers, your goals… red flag, run!
Tip #4: Get it in writing. If the designer doesn’t require a contract: red flag, run! A contract protects both parties. Sometimes things don’t work out, it happens, but you should have the terms clearly defined from jump-street. What will they deliver, and when, for the agreed upon price?
Tip #5: If you do ultimately decide to hire a designer, read this post I wrote on my personal blog “How to Get Your Web Designer to Read Your Mind.”
If you have any questions, please do leave them in comments, and good luck!