Carving out your digital space is more important than ever. While many brands have ignored their own real estate–their home websites–to build their social media presence, it is often forgotten that the most popular social media platforms are owned by third parties. And while it’s important to build relationships on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other applicable social media platform, it’s crucial to remember that you, as a brand, do not actually own those relationships.

Because of this, building a robust digital empire is the first step to creating and owning a relationship with your audience (/customers?). A well designed site for your content lends authority, and the right content builds trust. As people come to you because they need advice or entertainment, the site must be intuitive and easy to navigate. Think of your site as a reception area–it is welcoming with a texture and depth that elevate from standard site to impressive resource.

So it’s time for you to build your website. The development and launch of a website is no different from the preparation and publication of a book or magazine issue. The medium is different, the goal is the same: rich content presented in a layout that enhances the experience of and engagement with the material at hand.

There are two central guiding principles I follow when planning a website for an author. The first is that content is still king, and a design should showcase the content (and not its own design bells and whistles). The second is that form follows function: decide what it is you have to offer on the web, and build a site that allows you to do this clearly and effectively.

The real work that goes into building a successful website is 90%: conception, organization, and design / 10: code and content management system (though I can tell you both are equally time- and energy-consuming). I strongly recommend–and cannot emphasize enough–that before you contact a designer, that  you build a detailed plan for you development of your site. Again, form follows function, and from that, you’ll be better able to chart what real estate you think you should be a part of, from a website to social network profiles to other author/book-centered community sites.

If you build out the components now, you’ll be better able to find a designer that can work in line with your vision. The better the designer, developer, and webmaster/editor know the “product,” the better the site. And because no one knows your product better than you, it’s critical for you to start outlining what it is you have, what you can get, and what you’re willing to do.

In a lot of ways, this first step is a lot like writing a book proposal, and one you want clear before you start interviewing designers and developers.

So the first question to ask yourself is “Do I need a website?” and “Why?” Sounds simple and a bit silly, yes, but answering why you need a website will help you focus on your reasons for doing it, and what kind of site you need. And what it’s really answering is “what can I do on the web?”

Some other questions/points to jumpstart your thinking-

*what is the message?

*what do you want your website to be and do: an all about me and my message? a community-focused site? an ‘about the book’ site? an integrated site for your brand, your business, and/or your new book?

*what is the central goal for the website: a basic online business card or portfolio? promotion and publicity? generate direct income? build audience for next book? collect feedback from site visitors for next book?

*what do you want visitors to feel and experience? What impression do you want to make?

*what media do you have? (that is, audio clips, videos, photos, testimonials, white paper?)

*what features do you/would you/could you have?: (features being a blog, message boards, etc)?

*do you want or need:

  • -community (site membership, discussion forums, user-submitted content)
  • – the bells and whistles of design (especially important, for example, for fantasy and science fiction authors, as those details may resonate with their audience)
  • -newsletters/email marketing (depends on the volume and frequency of content that you can generate)
  • -exclusivity (news, content, behind-the-scenes that only an author has and will only share on his or her website)

*Are you going to blog? What will be its focus and message? Do you want to get your blog syndicated? Can you think about what you’ll write on the blog more than just one month after publication? If it’s only for book promotion, then you shouldn’t blog. You can keep visitors updated on book news through a “News” section.

*Spend some time browsing other author sites and start listing what they have that you like, and don’t like. Look at specific elements.

*Start thinking about budgets, timing, and how you want the site to be updated/managed—is this something you could do yourself? Have an assistant do? Work with a firm that can handle this for you? How often will you update it? How often will you have new content?

I know this can seem overwhelming, but it’s an important first step. Dream big–put it all down on paper. Then go back and revise by considering what, in the end, is right for your brand (and your budget).

I highly recommend checking out The Author Online:A Short Guide to Building Your Website, Whether You Do it Yourself (and you can!) or You Work With Pros. It’s a brief but handy guide for authors just starting out on the web.