Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

Net Benefit:
How (And Why) to Set Up Your Own Website

By Anne Lyle
Copyright 2007 by Anne Lyle, All Rights Reserved


This article follows "Image Counts: Your Professional Website" by Linda Adams, which appeared in Vision Issue 11 (September 2002). That article addressed the basics of site design; here I shall be considering hosting options.

Why have a website?

Maybe you're still wondering if you need a website. Won't creating and maintaining it eat into your precious writing time? Well, yes, a little, but the benefits can far outweigh the costs.

Although web-based stores like Amazon are the main place that people will find your book online, the Internet has become such a central feature of 21st-century communication that you'll look a little old-fashioned if you don't have your own web presence. Many agents (and publishers) nowadays expect you to be business-savvy enough to exploit the Web to promote your books (see http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2005/10/author-websites.html), and loyal readers will appreciate news "from the horse's mouth." Even if you've yet to have a manuscript accepted for publication, a website can be out there working on your behalf. For example, it's a good way for an agent to find out a bit more about you without having to ask directly. If that sounds a bit like cyber-stalking, you have to remember that most agents (and editors) have encountered writers who take anything more personal than a form rejection as a prelude to acceptance. Not only do they not want to get your hopes up, they don't want to be inundated with questions about your work and why it hasn't been accepted yet. An anonymous trip to your website avoids potential awkwardness.

Of course you can always put off setting up your website until you are ready to start submitting work to editors and agents. Working on your new site can be a great way to take your mind off your anxieties whilst waiting for a response!

What about a blog?

In the last few years, blogs have exploded into the mainstream of Internet culture, and there are plenty of sites offering free blogging software (the two best-known are probably LiveJournal and BlogSpot).

Blogging is an easy way to try out having a web presence without having to know anything about web design or HTML. You just sign up and post your entries via a simple web form. There are lots of ready-made templates, so you can personalise the design of your blog and have it looking professional even if you have no artistic skills whatsoever!

One caveat on blogs: there's nothing worse than a blog that doesn't get updated.  In a 2003 survey, two-thirds of the blogs that were included had not been updated for two months, i.e. had been temporarily or permanently abandoned. To avoid this happening to your blog, you need to have a definite purpose in mind. For writers, an obvious use is to serve as a public progress report, for yourself as much as anyone else. Or it can be a place to have fun with writing, to work through patches of writer's block, or just to build up the discipline of writing every day. Do beware of posting fiction intended for submission, however; publication on an open blog can negatively affect a piece's chances of being accepted elsewhere. Why would a publisher pay for something that's already freely available online? (Exceptions have been made, but they are special cases and unlikely to apply to the ordinary novelist.)

Also, the majority of blogs are read by only a few people, typically the friends or family of the blogger. Unless you have a large and loyal group of friends -- or until you have a substantial fan-base! -- you are unlikely to get many comments. In fact, I have turned the comment feature off on my blog, so that it isn't littered with depressing '0 comments' notices. Maybe one day I'll have enough traffic to make turning it back on worth it...

Free websites

If blogging's not your thing, or you want a 'proper' website with content laid out however you want it, you may be tempted by a free web host, many of whom have been around since the mid-nineties. However, I would strongly advise against it.

This might seem an odd stance to take, when free blog hosting is perfectly acceptable to me. However, you have to bear in mind that a) a blog is expected to be informal, and b) ordinary people are not expected to be able to install or write the software needed to run a blog. A conventional website, on the other hand, is expected to show a degree of seriousness and professionalism. And now that paid hosting is available for only a couple of dollars (or pounds, or Euros) a month, even being an impoverished writer is hardly an excuse any more for choosing a free alternative.

The other issue with free hosts is that many of them claim copyright of all content posted on their servers (or at the very least, all content posted on publicly accessible pages). If you are tempted to get one of these accounts to practice on before paying for hosting, check their terms and conditions very carefully!

Commercial hosting

As mentioned above, nowadays you can find plenty of commercial hosting packages to suit even the tightest of budgets. As I'm in the UK, the examples below are British companies, but you can get similar -- or even cheaper -- deals from companies based in the US and Canada.

A quick word first about server operating systems: the majority of webservers run on Linux, as it's cheaper and more secure than Windows. If you're just writing simple HTML pages, either operating system can easily cover your needs. So, unless you need specific Windows programming languages or databases (which is unlikely for a writer's personal site), I recommend choosing Linux hosting if possible.

Ready-made websites

If you're not very technologically savvy and don't want to learn to use web design software, you can get a ready-made site template, similar to a blog but with the ability to have permanent webpages. They are not the cheapest option, but you are paying extra for ease of use. In some cases, you may get additional features apart from the webpages you write, such as an integrated blog, forum software, feedback forms, etc.

For an example, see InstantSite from Pipex: http://www.123-reg.co.uk/instantsite . Note that, in the case of this service, you need to buy a domain name as well, and fees are based of the number of 'static' pages on your site (i.e. excluding database-driven pages such as blogs).

Shared hosting

If, on the other hand, you want to design the pages yourself, you can get a much broader package for about the same price as an instant site, and of course a lot more flexibility in design and layout. A basic shared hosting package should offer the following as a minimum:

* The ability to host HTML pages. Most will also allow either PHP (Linux) or ASP (Windows) pages for dynamically-generated content (if you don't know what that is, ignore it!)

* A number of free POP3 mailboxes, plus webmail (rather like a Hotmail account, but using your own domain name)

* Web statistics, so you can see who is visiting your site. For example, http://www.123-reg.co.uk/web-hosting/

The above will probably be enough for a lot of writers, but for only a little more each month you can get a package with a whole slew of extra features. My website is hosted with UnitedHosting, which provides, for 5 GBP a month ($8), all the features of a basic shared hosting package plus several databases, blog and forum software, remote login, and loads more.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. I find that the best value comes from companies who are reasonably well established, but who aim their products at general users and not big companies with deep pockets!

A caveat regarding domain names: a lot of small companies offer free domain names with their packages. This is a tempting deal, but I can't entirely recommend it. If the company goes bust, you may have to go through a lot of hassle to get control of "your" domain name so you can carry on using it. This is not to say that small companies are bad, just that putting all your eggs in one basket can lead to problems. I know; it happened to me several years ago! Since then, I have registered domains with an established company and simply "pointed" them at my inexpensive web hosting account. Now if I need to move a site from one company's servers to another, I can update all the redirects via my registrars' website, instead of being dependent on the helpfulness of the hosting company (and let's face it, I wouldn't be moving away from them if I was happy with their service!).

Conclusion

Having a web presence has gone from being the exception to the rule; you just need to choose the approach that's right for you!

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About the author

Anne Lyle has been creating websites since 1997. She is currently a programmer for Ensembl, an online genome browser used by scientists and medical researchers around the world. You can find her personal website at http://www.annelyle.com.