Picture this: you pick up a book and open it, only to discover that every page is exactly the same, a tall rectangle of text extending close the edge of the page and without interruption.
There are no spaces between paragraphs because there are no paragraphs, no chapters, no page numbers, no running heads, just text.
Does it sound appealing? No, not to me, either.
How frustrating it would be to try to read a book like that. Where did I leave off? What part of the book am I in? I might feel like the author had forced me to impose order and organization on his book.
I’m pretty sure I would put it right back down.
Over centuries we’ve developed conventions about how to present long text documents like books, and readers—who have grown up reading books that mostly follow those conventions have come to expect them.
And to rely on them:
- Sentences present a logical line of thought, moving ideas or action forward.
- Chapters divide a long work along some thematic or organizational construct.
- Sections within chapters deal with parts of each of those themes or subjects.
What book designers do is use the raw material of the book—typography and any non-text elements in the book—to create an environment in which the author’s ideas can transmit cleanly and with little interference, to the reader.
But we designers add stuff, too. We add the page break at a new chapter, to signal the reader that one thing is ending and another is about to begin.
We add page numbers to give a sense of the third dimension of the book—its length—as well as a handy reference to mark a specific page.
We also add running heads with more or less descriptive titles, so each page has something of a “breadcrumb trail” that shows its relation to the whole.
The existence of all the conventions of book design show us a concern for the reader, for giving the reader just enough information to navigate their way through the book, without distracting them from the journey.
I spent quite a bit of time last year setting up landing pages, sales pages, a membership site, affiliate tracking, payment gateways, recurring payment buttons, and automated email messages.
A lot of it was to deliver my training course, the Self-Publishing Roadmap.
I think of all this as “internet plumbing.” There are innumerable bits and pieces that have to fit together so that what happens is what we expect to happen.
For example, if you read about a video that sounds interesting, and you click through to the page and find you have to enter your email address in order to see the video, what happens next?
Behind the scenes software from a mailing list company, an e-commerce service, and gateway tracking software on the site that delivers the video each have to do something and communicate with each other.
If there’s a leak in the pipe or a broken connection, the user doesn’t get a request to confirm their email address with the list vendor.
Or they get the wrong email that doesn’t mention the video they wanted to see. Or they get a sales pitch instead.
We have expectations that come into play online, and they are powerful. We have a healthy skepticism about dealing with people we don’t know. We want to be guided at every step of the way, even if we know the messages we’re getting are automated.
We want a receipt, a link, an acknowledgement, a support number, a reminder when an event is coming up. We want to feel secure that the video, when we arrive there, actually delivers what was promised.
When putting these systems together, you have to keep in mind that many people don’t spend 12 hours a day online, that these things can be confusing. If I say “register for the webinar,” a certain percentage of people will be stumped unless I explicitly say, “first click this link, then look for the “pay now” button.” Being specific is reassuring.
It’s a matter of breaking down the process so there are navigational aids at every step. That’s what makes me more comfortable, especially if I’m doing something new.
Communication that’s recognizable, in the same voice, with the same branding, specifically about what I inquired or clicked about. That makes me secure.
The Nature of Human Consciousness
In both cases—book design and setting up internet marketing processes—the best guides to what will work and what won’t work are the people who are going to use the system.
But you wonder why we need so much hand holding, so many navigational aids.
There seem to be two reasons, both rooted in the nature of human consciousness and the psychology that has grown out of it.
First, there are so many demands on our short-term awareness, we can’t keep a lot of data handy all the time on all subjects.
We dump data out of our memory quickly and often to make room for all the new stuff that’s constantly coming in. This means that, to function properly, most of us need a lot of reminding.
The second reason is our desire to really dive into experience. When reading, we want to lose ourselves in the experience, that’s why we buy a lot of the books we do.
When we’re excited about learning something new, we want to get onto that and not have to worry about the details and arrangements, which only seem to get in the way.
The signposts and other navigational aids, delivered in a thoughtful and gracious way, allow us to experience reading a book or signing up for a webinar as a pleasant experience.
The book designer makes sure we always know where we are in the book, and gives the experience a rhythm conducive to reading.
The internet marketer makes sure we always know exactly where we are in the process, who we’re dealing with, that we’ll be taken care of and will receive the experience we’re anticipating.
Self-Publishers, or Authors Who Market
Becoming a self-published author these days almost always involves learning something about marketing, and since most of us are doing this online, that means learning about internet marketing.
Whether you’re providing entertainment in the form of novels or information in the form of nonfiction, you’ll be dealing with both book design and internet marketing, and a whole lot more.
There are two lessons I’ve taken away from these experiences.
- The first is to stay in touch with people who are just starting out. They are the best guide for whether the book or the system is working the way it should.
- The other is to keep being a beginner myself. When I set out to learn new things, I’m thrown back into that newbie mindset: passionate but clueless. That’s incredibly valuable for understanding the beginners in my own field.
And a lot of it comes down to navigation, reassurance, the big picture. Knowing where confusion comes in, and putting up a sign there to help the traveler. Taking the time to really think through what people will need.
Everyone has these experiences, because we’ve all been new at something that we then learned thoroughly. All we have to do is tap into that experience and bring it to what we are writing, publishing, or marketing today.