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How to Use Your Author Website During Book Year
You might use it more than anyone else will, so let's call it self-care.
First, here I am after a summer hiatus. I needed it. I hope you got one too, whether it involved clear alpine air or just a few days away from a screen.
Second, a few events. This Thursday (9/14), join me at the Book Journey Club online, hosted by the Northern California Writers Retreat, to talk about the journey between manuscript and book. Everyone is welcome (register for free), and you can see why this community is growing such a loyal, generous network of creators. Also:
If you’re in central Pennsylvania on September 25, I’ll be giving a reading and signing at Lebanon Valley College in Annville.
Iowa! October 9: Guest speaker at Michaelson, Briner & Kildahl Literary Symposium, Wartburg College, Waverly, IA
October 10: Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, as part of the Iowa City Book Festival (in-person, 7 p.m.)
October 12: Guest speaker at the Archway Reading Series, Dubuque University, Dubuque
October 26–28: RAWIFest + Mizna, “1+ Generation SWANA Writers on Writing ‘Home’" with Zaina Arafat, Eman Quotah, Leila Chatti, and Marim Abbas (virtual/hybrid)
Onlineness. Specifically, websites. This post is all about how to make limber use of an author site before and after the book launch. Which sounds about as fun as lawnmower maintenance, but it’s something useful to do with those nerves and it’ll make your life 0.001% more efficient for at least 18 months. Trust me, every moment of rest counts.
Do I Need a Website?
Honestly, except for the over-curious, not a lot of people are going to read your entire site. Not many more are going to visit it at all. If you don’t at least slightly enjoy web design or figuring out site-builders like Squarespace, Wix, or WordPress, you will probably rank website tasks between dentist appointments and taxes on the joy scale. But I actually do find them meditative. So much easier than writing.
A decent site is a godsend to anyone who will be interviewing you, inviting you to events, or doing light professional stalking.
It’s also a place to organize links to your online coverage, reviews, event registrations, past publications, CV, author photo, bio, blurbs, ISBN, and cover art for your own sake. I use sarahcypher.com as much as I use my wallet, the key difference being that God and everybody is welcome to dig around in my website.
Go ahead, be judge-y. I guarantee that my site is the flashiest, best, fastest, and most perfect site I am capable of making, because I am a complete amateur who thinks “java script” is what little old teitas read when they peer into your cup of coffee grounds and try to read your future. Prediction: future-you will thank you for building a website and updating it often.
Most author sites follow a version of this structure:
Home page. Stuff that goes here can be your photo, a few sentences about what you write, your book cover or riff on its design, and links to anything you want to prioritize. If a visitor is only mildly curious, there’s enough here for them to get the gist by scrolling instead of clicking.
Writing portfolio. A good place to highlight work you’re proud of, divided by genre or form. I also post a link to my CV which has a fuller publication history.
Media links. Stuff that will help an event organizer or potential audience member, as well as yourself: list of upcoming appearances with RSVP links, review links, interviews and other coverage, book details like downloadable cover and ISBN, a few downloadable author photo options, and short/medium/long bio options. Finding any of these materials on my hard drive or internet takes forever, so it saves time to have them in one place.
News feed. The least useful page. I update it occasionally, sometimes with significant news, an occasional blog post, a cut-pasted version of these Substack posts, etc. Best if you can just get a social feed there, but I removed my Twitter feed after the site got chaotic. People can also sign up for this Substack. Maybe it’s good for SEO. Every family has a freeloader.
Contact page. Lists agent and publicist contact info, a Substack signup page, and a contact form. If I am traveling or unplugging, sometimes I add a heads-up. It helps me not feel bad for not answering kind but non-urgent messages right away.
Social links and a search bar appear in the header of every page.
To be clear, this is just how I did it. It is probably not the best way, but it works for my situation. I use and like Squarespace. It’s beginner-friendly, and to get the hang of it, you might find this YouTube video helpful. I also found guidance (and live help for a small fee) on this website. I use Photoshop to work with custom background images and Unsplash.com for generic artwork when I need it.
Before the Launch
There were three big design milestones with my site. The first was when I first created it; I’ve had a writing site for longer than I published anything regularly because agents, magazine editors, and some application committees will lightly stalk you, and it’s good to have a presence. The second milestone was when I started querying agents; I had a backlog of updates to do, and I also did some back-end optimization to make it run a little faster. The third was when I got cover art about nine months before my book’s on-sale date (a.k.a., “launch”); I changed the background and colors to complement the art and displayed the mock-up. At the same time, I also updated my social media profiles to match it.
Unintuitive but Handy Uses
Many months before my book launch, I discovered the magic of unlinked pages in Squarespace. Whatever platform you use, an unlinked page is just a secret room of your website that can’t be accessed unless someone types in the exact URL: your main website doesn’t link to it, it’s unlinked. They are good if you need to transmit a boatload of information without bogging down an email with a million big attachments. For instance:
When my editor asked for examples of covers I really loved, I created an unlinked page. I screenshotted other authors’ covers I liked and uploaded them into a scrolling gallery, added a few ideas as bullet points, and shared the link. (More about book covers in my other Substack post.)
I didn’t love paying $100 a year for Linktree in Instagram (i.e., when someone says “link in bio” and you click on it and get a stack of portfolio items and/or the ability to subscribe to their newsletter). An unlinked Squarespace page will do the the exact same thing on mobile browsers, though it looks a little ugly on a desktop, and you don’t have to pay extra.
There was a time when it seemed that my publisher wanted me to change my title from The Skin and Its Girl to something else, and besides hyperventilating a little, I also made an unlinked page of other possibilities and a word cloud for inspiration, and I sent it to everybody I trusted for their thoughts on alternatives.
When I needed a simple, pretty photo gallery to accompany a presentation, I created an unlinked page and clicked through it on my laptop as I spoke. If you’re not a pro on 1x.com and the other photo geek sites, it’s handy.
I gave a presentation to teen writers, so I made an unlinked page of online resources, made a QR code, and posted it by the door so they could quickly pull it up on their phones for later exploration. It saved a lot of paper and made it easier for them to explore a variety of websites.
I should add that if you got a book deal, you can do exactly none of this and you’ll still have a book in the world. I’ve run an online editing business for 20 years, and doing these tasks feels like a natural part of any professional venture.
Six Weeks Before and After Launch
This is when you might be updating your site every few days. Every time The Skin and Its Girl got a review, or my publicity team booked an event, or an interview went live, I added the link to my media page. If you put the time into designing a functional, intuitive site a year before the book comes out, this becomes an autopilot phase.
I also started updating my CV monthly. It feels like overkill, but a new thing or two always occurs to me, and I know myself well enough to realize that it’ll be lost to memory otherwise. If you are also applying to residencies, grant organizations, fellowships, etc., you’ll need the CV. If you have no idea how to make one, or how it differs from a résumé, the Creative Capital organization provides this outstanding how-to.
Launch (to Infinity? 🚀)
Congrats: Your book is alive in the wild! Don’t forget to remove “forthcoming” from your website and social media profiles and update any graphics that say “coming soon.”
As for my site, it continues to run on autopilot. Every month, I update my CV; I add events as they come up; I move old events to a separate column. If an essay or story gets published, I add it to the writing page. My physical business card has a QR code that loads my website. I don’t plan to make any design changes until I have another book (god willing and the creek don’t rise).
I repeat: if you got a book deal, you can do exactly none of this and you’ll still have a book in the world.
The digital divide is real and tech knowledge is not equally distributed (nor is the desire to spend time learning it). If web design isn’t your wheelhouse, outsource the work if you can, and then direct your time and gifts toward any of the myriad other ways you can celebrate and support this massive jubilee in your creative life. Fellow member of the Editorial Freelancers Association Nate Hoffelder specializes in simple author websites, and you can also hire a pro through (for example) Squarespace when you sign up. You don’t need fancy—functional is fine. Just know how to update it.
Last tip for anybody on a screen: Take eye breaks. Blink. Go outside. Be nice to yourself.