Saturday, March 28, 2009

Caught in the Web(site)

Janet Koch is an engineering designer, a writer, a web products creator through her company, Deepwater Design and a pretty decent water-skier. Today she’s talking about website design. Next month Janet will be back to talk about book trailers.

PDD: This one always seems to come up: Does an unpublished writer need a website?

JK: Primary cautionary note: the following answers are my opinion and my opinion only. Secondary cautionary note: as I am only a budding web designer and book trailer producer, my opinions are not exactly being sought after by the new administration.

Does an unpublished writer need a website? As in I’m-gonna-kill-my-writing-career-before-it-starts-if-I-don’t-have-a-website? Nah. But there are reasons to go ahead and get started, even if you’re uncontracted and/or unagented.

First, becoming familiar with the whole business of creating a website is valuable. Whether you do it yourself or hire a designer, there’s a lot to learn. Waiting until two months before your publication date to get a site going isn’t a good idea.

Next, it’s an opportunity to get your name out there. Take Jeri Westerson. Long before her debut novel, Veil of Lies, was published, she’d established a web presence with a blog focusing on medieval history. By the time the book came out she’d already established a solid base of potential readers. Sure, that’s a blog, not a website, but the same principles apply.

Next, having a website provides instant credibility. Maybe only a teensy bit, but when dealing with the cold, cruel world of publishing, writers can use all the help they can get.

Last – it’s fun!

There are, of course, a couple of reasons for an unpublished writer NOT to have a website. If you can’t see the value of expending all that energy on putting together a site when you’re not even close to being published, don’t bother. And if the cost just flat out doesn’t fit into your budget, don’t worry about it. But I do advise spending ten bucks or so a year and reserving a URL in your name.

PDD: If someone doesn’t want a website now, but wants to be able to use their name as a URL someday. What should they do?

JK: Someday is now. For about ten bucks a year you can stake out your domain name claim with any number of registrars. Google “domain name registration” and you’ll be inundated with options. Go Daddy is popular. When you’re ready to pull the trigger, ask around for what your friends use. Just don’t forget to renew that domain name every year.

Fun fact: a URL (uniform resource locator) is the complete web address: while a domain name is the part.

PDD: What makes a good website, aside from content? What design elements entice visitors to look around?

JK: Um, you said aside from content, but in my opinion content is king. You must offer your users something of value. With that opinion out of the way ... getting people to look around means having good content. Oops. Said I was done with content, didn’t I? Sorry.

I’m not sure any particular design element is universally attractive. Jake over there might think a background grunge graphic with hidden links is way cool, but his mother might wince and make a mental note to avoid the site. A site designed with light pastel colors might appeal to Heather, but her boyfriend Tony wouldn’t be caught dead with that site on his laptop. Moral of the story? Know your audience.

No matter how you assemble your website, functionality is key. A user shows up at your site for a reason, so when designing a site you need to guess at all those possible reasons and make it easy for users to accomplish their goals. Steve Krug, website consultant, titled his classic book on web usability Don’t Make Me Think. And that kind of says it all.

But there’s no denying the Cool Factor. If you come up with something cool, people will flock to your site. The CF is that indefinable thing that makes you say, “Hey, that’s cool,” and pass the link to ten friends. Cool can vary from a slick animated Flash production to historic photos to a laugh-out-loud essay. Unfortunately, you can’t predict what’s going to be cool. I mean, post-1980, who would have guessed that bell-bottoms would ever again be considered cool?

PPD: You said, "You must offer your users something of value." What kinds of things can writers offer aside from book excerpts?

JK: The simplest offering is content that might be of interest to other writers. Essays are always good. Talk about the funny thing that happened when you started researching the history of chimneys. Talk about your original goals, your revised goals, your accomplished goals. Lists of links are good – links to your favorite conferences, links to helpful research sites, links to inspirational sites, a list of the blogs you read. Have a page listing your favorite novels. Have a page featuring your favorite writing books. Add reviews.

A better idea is to offer things of interest to the complete strangers out there who might become your readers. If your writing tends to feature Great Danes, add a page about Great Danes. If your manuscripts always seem to include an exploding house, add something about that. Post interesting facts about the setting for your WIP. Post photos you’ve taken for your Work In Progress. And keep adding information on a regular basis. New information draws new readers.

Bottom line: offering content of interest to writers is good, but offering good content to the greater world is even better. Build name recognition everywhere! And don’t be shy about adding a page about your chia pets. Anything you happen to be interested in, some other people are, too.

PDD: What things don't work on a website other than my personal pet peeve--red type on black background?

JK: If you Google “Website mistakes” you’ll find lists that include things like: slow-loading pages, low contrast pages, broken links, bad fonts, bad content, browser incompatibility, etc. Almost every item on these lists is saying the same thing: don’t design a webpage that annoys users.

What’s the most annoying? The biggest mistake of all -- making your website hard to use. I once came across a website that included a link to instructions on how to use the site. Please. How many people are going to take the time to read that? If a site doesn’t make itself clear about its purpose in life, users won’t hang around.

Second biggest mistake? Not providing the information users want. If someone is, say, trying to find your photo to paste into a conference brochure, having those photos buried at the bottom of your Pets page isn’t going to make that someone happy. Along those same lines, not providing contact information is a slow form of web-death.

Everyone has their pet peeves regarding websites. Some people hate music. Some people hate clever little animations. Some people can’t stand red type on black background. Just as there’s no book that every person on the planet likes, there’s no website design that everyone likes. What can you do? Get familiar with your target audience and make your site easy to use.

PPD: Do you have any examples of mystery writer websites that you think are particularly effective or well done?

JK: Joe Konrath’s site does a great job of presenting a tremendous amount of information in an orderly and easy to navigate way. Jenny Cruise’s site design perfectly presents the personality of her books. I love the photos of Paris that Cara Black has on her site, Isabel Allende’s home page is beautiful, and ... are you going to stop me or can I keep going?

PDD: When a writer--or anyone else--is looking for a website or book trailer designer what kinds of questions should they ask?

JK: First thing is to determine your budget. Falling in love with the designs of a firm that charges $2000 a site isn’t going to work out very well if $400 is the most you want to spend. Designer’s websites usually give at least a ballpark indication of the price range the firm typically charges.

(Have I said lately that everything I’m saying is opinion and opinion only? Yes? Good.)

Next, check the design firm’s portfolio of work, which should also be on their website. Poke around and, if you like what you see, try contacting a client or two. Ask if they’d mind if you ask a couple questions. If they don’t mind, see if you can get a feel for how happy they were with the firm, the design process, and the final product.

Other than that, I’d turn your question around. To get the website of your dreams, I think what’s more important than the questions you ask a designer are the questions a designer asks you, the potential client. There are probably an infinite number of ways for a designer to get at your dreams and I wouldn’t presume to say which way is best. But I do think a designer should spend time learning your likes, dislikes, preferences, tastes, and something about your personality. If you dress in, say, city black and wear hard-soled shoes that click-click-click, you’re probably not going to be happy with a site that, say, includes sidebar images of decorated outhouses.

One last piece of opinion: before you start looking for the perfect designer, spending some time thinking. Think about what you want to accomplish with your site. Think about who is going to visit your site and what they’ll want from it. Make some notes. Think some more. Your future website designer will bless you.

Thanks Janet. Join us next month (April 25) when Janet returns to talk about book trailers.


Sandra Parshall said...

Red type on a black background -- that ALWAYS turns me off! I can't read it without getting a headache, so I don't read it at all.

Kate Stine, editor of Mystery Scene magazine, once posted a message on mystery e-lists pleading with authors to include high-resolution photos of themselves on their sites. If Mystery Scene reviews your book, and a hi-res shot is readily available, you stand a chance of getting a more prominent display in the magazine, and we all want that, don't we?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Two of the most important things for me are (1) navigability--there should be a menu on every page that offers a link to every other page (sounds obvious, but not everybody does it); and (2) ease of updating by the author--that's a tech element rather than a design element, but it makes a huge difference not to have to bring in your webmaster every time you want to change content or notice a typo.

Paul Lamb said...

All get info! About the only thing I might add is that I think content should be freshened regularly. There have been plenty of websites I've visited with great enthusiasm, explored and read, and then I've lost interest in them because nothing new is posted to them for months or years. I guess that's why I prefer blogs. The posts there are more frequent.

Pablo said...

Oops. Looks like the Jenny Cruise site has been hijacked. I've heard of this happening at other sites. What can a person do to prevent this?

Janet Koch said...

Sandy, hi-res photos are a great idea for an author site. I'd suggest make them a downloadable link rather than an image to keep the page's loading speed down.

Liz, you're absolutely right -- navigability is crucial. Sites where you can't find your way back to a previous page drive me batty. It can be tough to do with a complex site, but it's always possible.

Paul is right on target with the importance of new information. Lots of author sites these days include links to blogs, or have a home page that is itself a kind of blog.

Jenny Cruise's site has been hijacked? Uh-oh!! To my knowledge, hijacking is more of an issue for the host provider than the webmaster. (It's a topic I should read up on.) Hope she gets it corrected soon. Tess Gerritsen had the same problem a while back and it was a couple days before the site was repaired.

Lori said...

Janet, what would you suggest a yet-to-be published writer use as content on a website?

Sofie Kelly said...

Hey Janet, I have a question. Why do some sites look different on different computer screens?

Sandra Parshall said...

I'll echo Darlene's question. The background for the text box on my site is supposedly ivory, but a lot of people swear it looks pink to them.

RhondaL said...

Tiny font is one of my pet peeves, especially tiny white font on black background.

I'm glad I started learning web stuff early. Sometimes, the learning curve has felt like the tea cup ride at Disney. I'd hate to be plunging into it a couple of months from publication.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer Crusie's site is fine, the link posted has the s & i switched is all.

Janet Koch said...

Lori: I think a not-yet-published writer can go a couple of ways with a website.

1) A site about your writing. This could include information about your settings, about your themes, about your writing habits, about how you fit writing into your day, etc.

2) Make your site about you and your interests. If you're into knitting, put up photos of completed projects -- and if knitting comes up in your manuscripts, so much the better. Anything that's part of your life is potential content for a website: recipes, tips on how to bottle feed baby bunnies, vacation photos, whatever.

Darlene and Sandy: creating stable websites across platforms is an art in itself. Every browser out there interprets a site's code in a slightly different way. You can code a site that looks great in Safari and Opera and Mozilla, but when you open it in Explorer....well, some bad words might be said. Every time a new browser come out web designers have to learn a whole new set of quirks. Fun, eh?

There are 216 "web safe" colors, but that doesn't mean the colors on your computer will be the same as on my computer. Colors can look very different on a thin flat screen than on a CRT. Plus, I think the age of a monitor can effect color.

Color is completely different on a computer and a printed page. In light (which means your monitor) color is additive. In paint, color is subtractive. The additive and subtractive terms refer to how you get white. In light, you add all the colors you have available to get white; in paint, you remove all colors to get white.

I know this all sounds more complicated than it needs to be, but it's just the way things are. Physics in action!

In light, there are three primary colors that create all other colors: red, green, and blue (RGB). In paint, it takes four colors to do the same thing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). The colors we see on a printed page are due to the colors the inks absorb....

Um, this is probably more than you wanted to know, isn't it? I find color fascinating -- it's hard to get me to stop talking about it :)

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