When it comes to establishing your author website, one of the more confusing topics is self-hosting: what it means, why it’s advantageous, and when you should do it.
What Is Self-Hosting?
Sometimes it’s easiest to describe what self-hosting is not. If your website has “wordpress.com” or “blogspot.com” (or the name of another service you use) in the URL, then you are not self-hosted. Rather, you are operating your site on a domain you don’t really own that could be taken down tomorrow. You have very little control over what happens to your site in the long term, or how the site works, or what happens to it in the future. The functionality you get is limited, and the rules of that functionality can change at any moment.
Even if your site does not have “wordpress.com” (or similar) in the URL, that doesn’t mean you’re self-hosted. It’s often possible to use a custom domain, or one that you’ve bought. This is called a “Domain Mapping Upgrade” at WordPress.com and costs $13/year. Blogger also allows you to use your own domain and doesn’t charge.
For the purposes of this post, self-hosting is when you have access to all of your website files and the servers where those files are stored (that is, where they are hosted). You own those files and have the freedom to change them. You get to decide exactly how your site is built, from the ground up.
You might consider self-hosting as analogous to home ownership. When you own your home, you are responsible for upkeep, the utilities, the taxes, and the insurance. You have more freedom to customize your home and the property, but you also have the burden of responsibility when something goes wrong. When you rent and something goes wrong, it’s someone else’s problem—but you’re also restricted as to what you can do as a renter, and you ultimately don’t own the structure, though you may own the contents.
What Are the Advantages of Self-Hosting?
The biggest advantages for authors include the ability to:
- Implement a fully customized design—where you get to decide all the fonts, colors, page templates, headers, footers, column widths, stylesheets, etc. This is critical for long-term author branding, and most authors hire a website design firm to do this. (Here’s one I recommend.)
- Add plug-ins or tools to improve or extend your site’s functionality, often at little or no cost to you. Some plug-ins are very lightweight and simple, and do things like add a notification bar or sharing buttons to your site. Others are very high-powered and complex, such as membership, online education, and e-commerce plug-ins.
- Add Google Analytics and gain access to Google Webmaster Tools to understand your website traffic and organic search traffic—and therefore understand more about your audience.
- Better monetize your site and activity, since you’ll have 100% freedom to host advertising, add e-commerce tools (so people can buy off your site), and add specialized landing or splash pages for books or products.
- Better integrate e-mail newsletter sign-up tools and have full control and access to your readers via e-mail.
What Are the Disadvantages of Self-Hosting?
With great power comes great responsibility. You’ll have to start thinking about:
- Site security. Have you taken necessary precautions to protect your site from attack? Here are 5 steps that cover the bases, doable by anyone.
- Site backups. You’re now responsible for site backups, which you’ll need if your site should ever suffer from a bad update, a crash, or hackers. Some hosts offer backup services for an additional cost, or as part of your hosting package.
- Site management. When your site goes down, it will become your problem to solve. When there’s a bug or error, you have to troubleshoot or hire someone to help.
Some of these disadvantages can be overcome by selecting a hosting service appropriate for your needs and skill level. (More on this later.)
When Should You Use or Switch to Self-Hosting?
First, I should acknowledge you’ll find more than a few prominent authors who (1) do not even have a website and (2) are not self-hosted. However, I don’t think they’re offering a best practice that everyone should follow. The truth is the large majority of successful authors do have a self-hosted website.
Here’s when I think the self-hosting switch is merited:
- If you’re actively publishing and marketing books to a paying readership, and you want writing to be your primary source of income
- If you sign a contract for your first book with a traditional book publisher (and it’s not the only book you plan to write)
- If you need or want to know “what works” in terms of your marketing energy and investment
- You’re already feeling the limitations of wordpress.com/blogspot.com
Here’s when it may not be merited:
- You’re unpublished
- You’re “hands off” with your marketing; reader engagement happens if it happens
- You’d rely on social media or third-party sites for reader engagement (which means you accept the risks of using a third party)
- Writing isn’t your primary focus and/or making money from writing-related activities isn’t your focus
- You have a website that’s not self-hosted, and you’ve never run up against any marketing, promotion, or reader outreach limitations
So What’s the Process and Cost to Self-Host?
It’s fairly straight forward.
- If you don’t have a domain name picked out or purchased, you’ll need to know this before beginning the process. (For example, my domain name is janefriedman.com.)
- Select a host for your site. I recommend selecting a host that has one-click installation of WordPress, since WordPress-based sites are generally the wisest for authors—they power more than 20% of the world’s websites and have a robust developer community. That means you can easily find help or solutions when you need them.
- If you have an existing site or blog, you’ll need to export your content, assuming that’s possible (for Blogger and WordPress, this is simple), then import that content into your new self-hosted WordPress site.
Hosts vary tremendously in cost and features, but for an average low-traffic site (fewer than 1,000 visits per day), you should be able to secure basic hosting for less than $100/year, often around $4–$7/month. For my host recommendations, plus a step-by-step video process, keep reading.
Choosing and Setting Up a Host for Your Site
I mentioned that some hosts offer one-click installation of WordPress, making it easy to get started. Those hosts include:
These services offer inexpensive, beginner hosting plans that work well when you need to transition to a self-hosted environment, or are thinking about establishing your first author website. They are also accustomed to working with people with no technical background and offer 24/7 support.
Disclosure: I am a Bluehost affiliate marketing partner. This means that if you end up clicking one of my links to Bluehost and sign up for a hosting package, I receive a commission. However, I recommend these specific services because I’ve used them or experienced them first hand, and think they offer good value for the types of authors and situations I’ve outlined. Bluehost offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee.
Alternatives to Self-Hosting
If you’re nervous about self-hosting, but are still looking for the advantages, then consider what’s called “managed hosting.” This is where you select a host that helps ensure your site is secure, performs routine backups, and offers a higher level of hands-on support than a basic hosting service. This is eventually where I’ve landed (but for reasons other than nervousness).
My hosting story: Earlier this summer, I switched from self-hosting to managed hosting through MediaTemple’s Premium WordPress Hosting ($29/month) to improve my website’s site load time (a factor in search engine optimization) and also because of my site’s increasing traffic. MediaTemple’s managed Wordpress hosting includes site backups and offers several other features such as site staging.
Another excellent managed hosting solution is WPEngine, but their prices don’t fit my budget given my site’s monthly traffic. (MediaTemple’s plan covers any level of site traffic.)
SquareSpace is also worth a look, which is the only non-Wordpress “site building” service I recommend, since you can export some portion of your site should you ever decide to leave their environment. It costs $8–$24/month depending on the functionality and bandwidth you need. You can use Google Analytics with a SquareSpace site and also get e-commerce capabilities.
Finally, you can also consider upgrade packages through WordPress.com (either $99 or $299 per year). Upgrading can give you increased ability to customize your site and access to a support team. Unfortunately, you still won’t get to use plug-ins or add Google Analytics to your site.