This is a post I've been meaning to write for a very long time. I've heard a lot of questions ranging from "Do I need a website?" "Do I need a blog?" "Do I need both?" to "How are they even different, anyway?" And a ton of others about timing. Now, obviously, there's a lot of different opinions on the matter-- these are mine.
The difference between a website and a blog:
In a nutshell? A blog is aimed toward writers, a website is aimed toward readers. This isn't the case every time, of course, but it's a good rule of thumb. Readers and writers are looking for entirely different content, so it's easier to give them just the content they want if you keep them separate. Readers are looking for extras (think the "special features" you see on a DVD), where writers are looking to get to know you through commiseration, your insight, your sense of humor, your skills, and / or like personalities. Writers know to look for blogs; readers know to look for websites.
What if I don't want to make a website? Can't I just use my blog?
Of course! Some people start off with most of their posts being aimed toward writers, then as they get books coming out, they gradually change their focus to things readers will be interested in. Some people do a combination of both, and have a "For Readers" tab and a "For Writers" tab with content or links to posts that will interest each group. Having a blog is not all that different from having a website that also has a link to your blog, no? The biggest difference is how much flexibility you have for the look and ways to show content.
If I decide to do a website, when should I make it?
My opinion? After you get your book deal (if you're self-publishing, then do it when you decide you're going to go that route). Do you need to make a website before you query? Nope. Agents / editors care how much your manuscript rocks, not about how many publicity things you've already done. This business moves a little slowly--- they know you'll have time to get those kinds of ducks in a row before your book comes out. I've been working on my website, and I can tell you that I have SO much more clear of an idea of what I want as content now than I had back when I was querying. Plus, you won't really know what to include for a lot of your "extras" content before you go through the whole revisions process with your editor. It's a much more efficient use of your time if you wait until you know what you want there.
IMPORTANT: If at all possible, register your domain name now. I'm not kidding. If you ever want to do a website, don't put this off. You can google "Register domain name" to find some places to go, or ask around. I asked around, and got a lot of people highly recommending NameCheap. That's who I went with, and have had a great experience with them. If memory serves, it's less than $10 a year to register your domain name. (And no, you don't have to have a website tied to it anytime soon. I bought mine quite a while ago, and just set it to redirect to my blog until I get my website live.)
Here's why it's important: I don't mean to freak you out-- just to warn you of a possibility that could happen (but definitely doesn't happen all the time or even most of the time). I've heard that there are sketchy people out there who watch Publisher's Marketplace for deals. If they see that Billy Bob Jones got a book deal, they'll go register BillyBobJones.com, then when Billy gets around to buying his domain name, it'll be gone, and sketchy person will help Billy out by offering to sell him the domain name for hundreds of dollars. (A second buyer-beware tip: Don't search to see if your domain name is available until you are ready to buy it. Sometimes hackers can see what you searched for, assume you're going to be back, and then buy it quickly so they can sell it to you when you come back.) No sense whining about it-- just work with it. If you want one, buy it early, and don't search ahead of time.
If you decide to blog (which you totally don't have to do), when should you start?
That's a much harder question to answer, because the answer is different for everyone. And no, you don't HAVE to blog. It's good to have an online social media presence, but choose the one (or two, or three ;)) that you LOVE. Forget doing any that feel like a chore. But instead of talking about the ifs and whens of blogging, let's talk pros and cons.
Pros to blogging:
True fact: Writers need writing friends, and blogging is a fabulous way to get to know other writers. They comment on your blog, you go back and comment on theirs... repeat... and you get to know each other! I waited a long time to start my blog. I couldn't believe how much more I felt a part of the writing world once I started blogging.
It can help you find critique partners. Since blogging uses more words than other social media, so you get to know people better. And once you get to know them, you can get a good sense of whether or not you'd likely be good critique partners. I wrote a post once about finding critique partners (you can find it here), and so many people mentioned in the comments that they found their critique partners through blogging.
It gives you a great creative outlet with less pressure on what you write, with a hugely wide open field of possibilities to write about.
It improves your writing.
Cons to blogging:
It takes a LOT of time. It takes time to think about / write / find images for each and every post. And if you don't spend much time on your posts, people are less likely to keep coming back.
It also takes a LOT of time to build followers. When you first start blogging, the world doesn't automatically know that you just started a blog and that it rocks. You have to go out and search for other blogs that you love, follow them and comment on them so that they'll wonder about you and follow you back to your blog. It takes time to pay it forward with comments, and to build those relationships with other bloggers. It may be totally and completely worth it, but it does take huge amounts of time.
All the time you spend on blogging is that much less time you have to spend on writing.
Other things to consider:
If you do decide to blog, it takes a while to find your blogging voice. It's different from your writing voice, and it's different from your talking voice. It's all it's own, and you'll develop it as you blog.
It also takes a while to come up with a plan / focus for your blog. It takes a while to try out things to see if they work, and to adjust accordingly based on the reactions of your blog readers.
So if you want your blog going strong when you query / when your book comes out, don't wait until the month before to start.
If you're already blogging, or you've already made your website, when did you start, and why? Do you wish you'd started at a different time? If you're not a blogger, do you ever plan to be?