Building a Gorgeous Website That Sells Your Books: A Guide
…Having a gorgeous website that makes you fall in love every time you see it.
…Finding excuses to show off your site to friends and other authors, just because it looks so damn cool.
…Seeing orders for your book roll in, because your site converts visitors into buyers.
If that’s what you want, you’ve come to the right place.
My name’s Julian. I’m a professional marketer and semi-professional web dev, and I wanted to talk a little bit (okay, a lot) about building your website. I warn you, this post is long. I’ve done my best to make it super skimmable so you can easily find what you need.
You can check out the rest of my site from the navbar links. If you like the look of what I’ve built, I want to show you how you can do something just as good. I’m NOT selling anything here. But a strong website is the cornerstone of an online business, and if you’re floundering, I want to help.
Is This Post For You?
First, building a website is like writing a novel: there is no ONE TRUE WAY. Beautiful websites exist out there that ignore every single piece of advice I’m about to give.
That said. If you’re just starting out, and you know you need a site but don’t know how to build one. If you’ve read dozens of blogs but they just leave you more confused about where to start.
Or if you have an okay website, but you’re not super happy with it — it just looks “meh”. It doesn’t light that spark in your soul when you see it.
Or if you’re stuck, tired, worn out, and considering just not having a website at all.
If that’s you, read on. This guide is for you.
1) I am NOT selling anything here. I receive NO compensation for any of the services I recommend. I’m also not taking on clients. All I get from this blog is the satisfaction of recommending a service — or a person — or a platform — that I personally think is wonderful.
2) I’m using my site, wherein I sell my books, as an example. I am NOT trying to promote it, and I wouldn’t mind a whit if no-one even looked at the other pages I mention except to say, “Okay, he’s legit.” (or, “Okay, I don’t like that, goodbye.”). But examples help me learn. If you learn like I do, I want to help you the way my mentors helped me.
Now then. On to creating a beautiful site that helps you sell your books…for cheap.
Why Do I Need a Website?
You just do. Simple.
What’s that, I have to actually explain why I hold an opinion? Fiiiiiiine.
Your website is your base of operations for your online book-selling campaign. When you give an interview, where’s the interviewer going to direct people to learn more about you? Your website. When you write a post on someone else’s blog, where is that link going to go? Your website. When you want to promote yourself on Facebook and Twitter, what are you going to post a link to? Probably not your Amazon sales page; that comes across like a hard-sell. You’ll post a link to your website.
But I’ll go further. Your website’s purpose is a) to sell your books and build a relationship with readers and b) to collect emails…which you then use to sell your books and build a relationship with readers. Most people aren’t going to read your name in an online interview, get all fired up, go to your Amazon book page, buy your book, and just remember you for the rest of your life, diligently checking Amazon every 3 months to see if you have a new book out. I’m sorry. I wish it worked like that.
What they’ll do instead is forget about you.
That’s why you need a website. Confused yet? Let me explain….
First, interested users want to learn more about a book before buying it. They want a neat little excerpt. They want to see what else you’ve written. They want to know a little about you. In short, all the stuff a website offers them.
Second, most people who visit your site won’t buy your books…even if they think they would love them. This is 2016 and we’re all ADD. Your ideal reader hops onto your site, reads a chapter, hits the Amazon buy page….and then the tea pot starts whistling. Or her friend calls to chat. Or her boss says lunch is over. And she leaves.
If you don’t have some way to contact her and remind her about your book, she’s gone forever.
That’s where email comes in.
If she’s on your site and she requests your FREE short story ebook, and you email it to her….she gave you her email. You can then send her a soft-sell email mentioning your novel. When your new book comes out, you can email her about that one too. Don’t be spammy, but just think to yourself: If you know she’d love your book, if you know she’s looking for the kind of story you write (which she is, because she already downloaded your free short story), you have a duty to mention it to her. You don’t have to shove it down her throat. Just mention it. Give her the option to read a great book.
So that’s the point of a website.
- A base of operations where interested users can find you and what you offer.
- A place to sell your book.
- A way to collect email addresses from readers who want to hear from you.
Alright, Enough…Just Tell Me How to Build It Already!
Fair enough. Here’s exactly how I went from “What the hell is WordPress” to “Wow! That looks good” in a few months, a few hours a week, and $320 (+ hosting costs).
I built in WordPress. They’re the best, bar none. They’re easy to customize. Cheap. Amazing support. Platforms like Wix and SquareSpace tend to be a headache to customize, and expensive on top of that. And you never actually own your site. They’re built for hobbyists. If you’re here, odds are you are — or want to be — a professional (writer, not web dev ).
For the same reason, I would caution against a WordPress domain name (i.e. julianadorney.wordpress.com). It just doesn’t look professional. For a few bucks a month you can get great hosting and a custom domain name.
Inside WordPress, there are 1000s of different themes. How do you choose one without being overloaded?
I love Genesis. It’s what the pros use. Not because you need to be a pro to use it, but because it’s a breeze to customize once you learn it. It’s beautiful. It looks great on tablet and mobile. And it’s amazing under the hood.
But even if you don’t love Genesis, I would caution against a free theme. A great theme is typically less than $100. A great paid theme is a breeze to customize, even if you want to do advanced stuff. It has tons of potential and can incorporate plugins like Mailchimp and Optimizely that help you sell more books.
If you can afford it, find a great paid theme and go for it. If you can’t, though, I understand. Sell as many books as you can, and when finances permit, upgrade. Your website should be near the top of your BUSINESS INVESTMENTS list.
Now, a paid theme and a custom domain can be tricky to set up. You have to do things like configure your hosting, point your DNS, and upload your child theme via FTP. It’s tricky, especially for a guy like me with zero tech savvy.
So how do you go from, “what’s a DNS, and why isn’t my site showing up online?” to finished site?
This course helped me.
If you sign up, I get ABSOLUTELY NOTHING….apart from the warm fuzzies of turning someone else onto a great course. This course walked me through, in a few hours, how to:
- Upload my theme to WordPress so my site goes live and I can start editing
- Get my hosting set up
- Edit pretty much every element of the site
- Integrate Mailchimp
- Make the site look great on mobile
Now, if you do Genesis-Awaken and take this course, there are a couple gaps. He doesn’t teach you how to edit the home page, for instance. Awaken actually has its own walkthrough that’s long but incredibly easy to read, and has an incredible support staff.
How to Make Your Website Do What It Needs to Do — Build a Connection and Sell Books
Like I said at the beginning, your website’s purpose is to:
- Sell your books and connect with readers
- Collect email addresses (ethically)
With that in mind, your website should be arranged in a way that makes it really easy for users to buy your books or sign up for your email list. I’m going to use my site as an example.
I recommend including an image of your book on the home page, right under the navbar. I paid $75 for some custom art for mine, based on the cover (the cover cost more than that, but it wasn’t a website expense). You can see what I mean here: http://julianadorney.com/. Bam, right away the user sees I have a book, and learns about said book. If it’s not their cup of tea, cool. But if it is, I’ve made it VERY easy for them to check it out.
Under that image, I have a little more info about the book. If you like it, you can go read the first chapter free. That’s a really easy giveaway — I’m 1) giving readers something fun to read and 2) hooking them into the book. And again, if they don’t like it — fine. But if they do, I make it super easy for them to keep taking little steps towards a sale: read a 1-sentence teaser, then read the blurb, then read the first chapter, then buy the book on Amazon.
The other two key things on my homepage:
1) The About Me section. You know what your biggest asset is as a solo-preneur and self-publishing writer? You. You’re a one-person shop, a real person, an artist; not a corporation. That lets you create a human connection with your readers. Make the most of it. Don’t flaunt yourself or put yourself first (my bio’s pretty far down the home page) but also be clear about who you are.
On that note: Voice. As a writer, you probably already know this, but just a reminder. Just like your book is YOUR BOOK, your website is YOUR SITE. Not mine. Not your dad’s, who always wanted you to become a carpenter anyway. Not your boyfriend’s or your sister’s or Nora Roberts’. YOURS. When you’re writing text for your site, write from your heart. When you’re writing your bio, let your unique spirit shine.
Look at my bio. You can find 1,000 bios online about how Danny “was born in Colorado, and graduated college in 2014 before moving on to a career as a housepainter, where he started writing novels in his free time and —” That doesn’t help you build a connection with your reader. It doesn’t help you stand out.
In my bio, I talk about how I’m a super nerdy kid who loves gangsta rap and climbs trees and resolved to never grow up. Is it perfect, or will everyone like it? Of course not. But it’s memorable and it’s me. And the people who look at it and think, “That’s awesome”? They’ll buy my book. And they’ll like it (okay, hopefully), because they’re my Ideal Reader.
Writing copy for your website is like writing your novel: NEVER BE BORING. Be unique. Stand out. Just like in your novels, dig deep and be YOU.
Partly because it’s fun. Who wants to spend hours writing the same thing as everyone else? But also because, from a marketing standpoint, authentic uniqueness WORKS.
Okay, rant over…..
2) The next thing about my home page you’ll notice is the section about Parius. This is where I collect emails. You see the text and the image (the image was a slightly different version of the header image on http://julianadorney.com/parius, which saved money), and if you like it, you click the button. That takes you to http://julianadorney.com/parius/, where you get more info about the story and an invitation to get it for free…just enter your email so I know where to send it.
So at this point, my website is designed to do 3 things:
- Move interested users down a path (what we in marketing call a funnel) from landing on the site, to learning more about my book, to buying my book.
- Move interested users down a path from landing on the site, to seeing I have a free book, to learning about said free book, to giving me their email address so I can send them their free book.
- Help readers develop a connection with me and remember me.
The rest of the site is pretty clean, and there aren’t many pages. That’s on purpose; don’t overwhelm your reader. The 2 important pages are julianadorney.com/dragons-curse and julianadorney.com/parius. Those pages drive sales. The other pages are just to drive goal #3: building a connection with the story and with me.
Making It Gleam
All well and good, you say, but how do you make it pretty? Look, you poured your heart and soul into your novel (or novels). By the time it’s published, every page gleams, and you thumb through it and think, “I wrote this? Holy crap, that’s awesome!” Your spirit soars just a little bit every time you see it.
You want a website that does that for you too.
Not a bland, “Meh, it looks okay…I really don’t know how to make it better.”
Sure as hell not a, “Holy crap this looks bad….I hope no-one else notices!”
You want a website that does justice — real justice — to your book. Your website’s your first impression to users. It’s like the first chapter of your book, but for marketing. It should gleam. It should glisten. It should make you find excuses to visit it, just because you love it so damn much.
And it should make your Ideal Reader love it too. It should pull your Ideal Reader in right from the start and make him remember your site.
So, here’s how to do that.
1) It starts with a great WordPress theme. It’s REALLY hard to build a beautiful site on a bad theme. That’s why I talked about Genesis Awaken earlier. Awaken is clean and elegant, and it’s 90% of why my site looks the way it does. If you don’t like it, no worries. Find a theme you do love. Like looking for a good picture for your cover, this isn’t something you should do halfway.
Not haphazardly. I had a list of all the pages on my site, and what information and feel I wanted each one to convey. Then I went and searched for images for each page, 1 by 1, until I had something that fit each one. My page about Esmerelda’s diary has a picture of an old-fashioned diary and a quill (http://julianadorney.com/behind-the-scenes/esmereldas-diary/). That fit the medieval fantasy vibe I’m going for.
After I had found every single image I wanted to buy (and I didn’t rush this process….it took hours, spread across multiple days), I signed up for 1 month of Adobe Stock. $50 lets you buy 10 awesome, full-size images. Then I supplemented that with some custom work from an incredible (and affordable) artist who did my cover art, Ida Jannson (http://www.amygdaladesign.net/)
Bear in mind, if you use Genesis Awaken, you’ll need to install a plugin (https://wordpress.org/plugins/display-featured-image-genesis/) to add header images to non-home-page pages. It’s free. And bonus, I got to know the dev when I was building my site and she is wonderful. Incredibly helpful.
The images were crucial for the site. People online are visual and ADD. We like pretty things and pictures. We hate essays and blocks of text. You don’t have to hire a custom artist, but put the same time (and possibly money) into this that you did into creating your cover.
3) Finally, PLEASE don’t make your page a solid wall of text.
People online skim. I know, as writers, we all hate this idea. But it’s true, and it’s because readers are busy and overloaded with 30 different cries for their attention. When they buy your book, they’ll curl up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and read every single word. When they’re on your site, before they know you….they skim.
So make it easy for them.
Look at how this blog is laid out. Headings. Subheadings. Lots of white space, especially between paragraphs. Short paragraphs. A sidebar.
This bugged the hell out of me when I first learned it, because as writers we really do want people to read every word. It feels like an offense against nature when we’re told to write short paragraphs, add headings, and basically market to cell-phone-addicted teenagers.
But look. You CAN get people to read LONG content. But you can only do this IF YOU MAKE IT EASY FOR PEOPLE TO READ.
That means short paragraphs (6 lines max). Lots of white space between paragraphs. Text that doesn’t fill up the whole page (notice my sidebar, offering my FREE short story? It might convert, it might not. It’s an experiment. But even if it doesn’t, it makes the actual page content narrower, more visual, and easier to read).
First, text that’s broken up is just more visually appealing. Second, it doesn’t repel readers.
Genesis framework: $60
Genesis Awaken (the theme itself, built on Genesis): $60
Images from Adobestock: $50
Custom images for Parius and The Dragon’s Curse ($150) (the priciest part of the site, but I suspect they’ll drive enough sales to be worth it)
Total: $320 (plus hosting fees; I use InMotion Hosting for $60/yr)
Now Start Building!
…and that’s about it. Use the tools I gave you, and you can make a beautiful website for pretty cheap.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What about all the stuff I didn’t tell you how to do? What about the sidebar? What about the ‘buy’ button on every page? What about the Contact Form? What about coding?
Actually, I have no idea if you’re thinking that or not. You just read 3,000 words and it’s possible all you’re thinking about is the bathroom. But if you are curious about that stuff, leave a comment and tell me you want to learn how to do it. If a few people are genuinely interested, I’ll write a follow-up post explaining all the advanced stuff. We’ll call this one “The Basics” and that one “Advanced Book-Selling Tips For Your Website.”