Attention Authors: Your Site Needs Help!

by | Jul 29, 2010


Today I have a guest post from Deb Dorchak, the co-owner and Lead Designer of Blue Sun Studio, Inc./Sirius Graphix. Deb’s been a graphic designer for more than 25 years and an artist since she could hold a crayon. She’s worked in the graphics industry doing everything from newspaper and glossy magazine layout, to animation in Las Vegas’ largest and oldest sign company. Deb got her start in Illustration, and her passion for telling stories through images hasn’t wavered yet. She and her business partner, Wendi Kelly, have finished their first novel Bonds of Blood & Spirit: Loyalties, due to release late October 2010.


Why is it that every author site I go to is, shall we say, less than spectacular? I’ve been visiting a lot of them lately, along with many publishing promotional sites, and each time I’m left scratching my head. The books are great, the content is interesting and extremely useful, but many of the sites look like they were made back in the early 90s and never left.

This never fails to baffle me each and every time. I wonder if many of these authors (some of them big names, too) think their websites aren’t all that important in the greater scheme of things? So many of these sites feel like an after thought, like “Oh, I’ve got a book on sale, guess I’d better have a website too. Okay, that site I used to have on GeoCities was alright, I think I’ll use that…”

Pardon me while I go bang my head against the wall.

Did You Put Your Makeup On Before You Left the House?

As an author or budding author with your first book, you’ve put a lot of time and consideration into your novel. You’ve sweated out not only the most intricate details of plot and character development, but you’ve also taken time to have just the right cover created and you or your designer has chosen the right typeface for everything between those covers. You’ve done countless rewrites and had editors and proofreaders go over every word and letter.

author websitesIn short, no detail has been overlooked before you’ve gone to print.

Why, oh why, then does none of that matter when it comes to your website?

Websites are no longer a hobby. They’re very effective business tools. Your website can help you promote your books, build and keep you in touch with your fan base, and spread the word through social networking. You never know who’s going to link to a post you wrote and where that link will end up. Your big break could be lurking right around the corner and you’d never know it.

This is yet another first impression waiting to happen. If your site is outdated, difficult to navigate, or doesn’t grab visitors on the first go, you’ll turn more people away because they just won’t want to stay there very long.

Keep Up With the Trends

If you’re anything like my partner, Wendi, and I, you keep up with the current trends in your particular genre of writing. Not only that, you keep up with the latest technological developments in publishing, marketing and distribution. The same applies to your website.

Take a look at your site right now. Is it very narrow? Does it look lost sitting in the middle (or off to the left as I so often see) of the screen? Is your navigation clear and easy to find? Do you even have a navigation bar? Do you have a color scheme that’s pleasing to the eye? Are you using annoying flash animation? Are you using a legible font for the text? Do you have your own domain name on a self-hosted site or are you on one of the freebies like Blogspot?

Yes, that’s a long list of questions and that’s only a small portion of what to look for.

Unfortunately, these are all common mistakes and oversights I see time and time again.

Let’s take a closer look at some of them and see why they’re so important.

Page Size
Back in the late 80s early 90s everyone was working off clunky CRT monitors – remember those boxy monstrosities? The average screen size was between 17″ and 19″. Anything above that was expensive and reserved for big graphic production companies. They were also square and not the wide screen versions we have today.

The average width of a page was 750 pixels (px) wide.

Today with our wide screens measuring 20″ and up, that tiny 750 px width gets lost. A width of at least 960 px is standard. It’s not so bad if you have a solid background, but since many of the author sites I’ve visited are still stuck in the past, many of these backgrounds are busy textures that detract from the focus – your book.

Even a large amount of solid color on either side can be distracting – especially if it’s a neon pink or green.

Navigation

Of all the elements in a website your navigation is the most important. You’ve got three seconds to capture a visitor’s attention. They don’t want to spend time trying to find the information they came there for. When websites first came out, left hand vertical navigation was very popular. Since then horizontal navigation has become the norm. Having horizontal navigation follows the natural flow of the eyes over the page. You start at the top and go down in a Z pattern from left to right.

Since most sites use sidebars, a vertical navigation is easily overlooked and assumed to be part of a sidebar. Keep your navigation at the top and horizontal, and above all, keep the clutter to a minimum. Be straight and to the point, not cute and clever. Cute and clever makes your visitors think to much. Trust me, people browsing the web don’t want to think, or think as little as possible.

Fonts

Some fonts were made for reading. Other fonts were made to look pretty. And still more are overused or outdated. For content and on screen reading, stick to sans serif fonts like Arial, Helvetica, Tahoma and so on. For headlines or in the header graphic, it’s fine to get fancy – but for God’s sake please make sure that’s legible, too. Going all caps with a fancy handwritten script is not pretty. What it is, is unreadable.

Also stay away from having a rainbow in your content. I remember there was one site I visited that had a black background and nearly every paragraph was a different color. The information on the site was very good, I wanted to stay and read it, I really did, but I couldn’t stand to look at the site any more than I had to.

Domain Names and Freebie Sites

I do realize that free blogging sites are great money savers. I also realize that many authors are on a tight budget. Even so, it would do you well to get an economy package on a reputable hosting service, like InMotion Hosting or GoDaddy, and invest in a domain name (less than $10 a year!) rather than have Blogspot at the top of your page.

Why? Credibility.

Think about it: Which kind of site do you feel has more authority? Which site is going to look more professional? The site with its own domain name each and every time.

In addition to the credibility factor, you also have more freedom with what you can do on your site as far as advertising and layout goes; and you have control over every aspect of your site.

Tight Budget? No Problem.

All of this sounds expensive, I know. But you know what? There are always options, and the best option is to do your site in stages. Start with a simple, clear design *cough…shameless plug…like Simply Sirius* where your visitors and fans can find what they need. After that, you can add the fancy stuff over time.

Or better yet, have someone like us analyze your site for you. Many people know they need a change, they just don’t know where to start or what it is they want. Not only do we do website design, but we also offer consultations on everything from design to marketing. Sometimes sites lack focus because the site owners can’t focus themselves.

What it all comes down to is your website is as much a part of your book promotions as anything else. Give it the same consideration you would as you would choosing an editor or a book cover. I guarantee you, you’ll thank yourself for it in the end.


Thanks, Deb. That’s great advice for authors who want to bring their websites into the twenty-first century.

You can find more of Deb’s articles on design, writing, and publishing at Sirius Graphix, or follow her @SiriusGraphix on Twitter. If you’re an author who needs a site designed or redesigned, send her and the team an email at [email protected].

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by JesusPresley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jesuspresley/;

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

13 Comments

  1. Diana Kimpton

    You’ve made some excellent points, Deb, but I think we have to be cautious about the page size issue. Although some people are using huge screens, many people aren’t. Our sites need to look good on iPads and netbooks too.

    Reply
    • Deb Dorchak

      Thanks Diana. I totally agree and that’s why I like working with the Genesis Theme framework. Brian Gardner at Studio Press kept all those devices in mind when he designed the Genesis system and it works beautifully across many different platforms.

      Reply
  2. C. A. Kobu

    Deb and Joel, great article! And Michael, you’ve provided a tremendous list of what not do do! Thank you all.

    I want to see authors skillfully use all the effective blogging and internet marketing tools and techniques to reach their audience. I want to see them design fabulous sites in a way that defines who their readers will be.
    I want to see them use tools like Aweber to promote themselves better than their publisher can. I want to see them create their own community of raving fans.

    The game has changed. Now as an author, you have fewer excuses for not self-promoting your books. And you have the opportunity to wear many hats at once: author, web designer, marketer. The resources and tools that are available for free as well as the reasonably priced services are amazing. A learning curve naturally exists, but what in life does not have a learning curve? Besides, learning new things is nourishing and fun!

    Reply
    • Michael N. Marcus

      C.A.:

      I had never heard of Aweber, so I looked at the website and found that the company provides email marketing.

      In theory, I think building an email list is a good idea, but it has serious problems.

      At one time I sent out a monthly email newsletter (with new product announcements, tech tips and special deals for my telecommunications equipment business) using a service provided by Microsoft.

      We promoted the newsletter actively and our list got close to 2,000 people at its peak, but gradually shrunk down to about 800.

      There was a huge number of bounce-backs because of changed email addresses. We also got complaints from subscribers who did not get their newsletters because they were trapped in spam filters–either on their own PCs or at their ISPs.

      When Microsoft discontinued the service, we didn’t bother to find another company to handle it.

      For book promotion now, I rely on our blogs and websites, plus social sites, search engines and press releases.

      I might consider using email marketing some time in the future, but managing an email campaign seems like a full-time career–and there are other things I’d rather do with my life.

      MIchael N. Marcus
      author of “Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book” Due about 9/1. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661777

      https://BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com

      Reply
      • Joel Friedlander

        Michael,

        One of the great things about AWeber (who I also use) is their strict double opt-in policy. Because they are stringent about this, they have very high deliverability with most major ISPs. I’ve rarely had complaints about “missing” mail, although my list is much smaller than yours.

        Reply
  3. Michael N. Marcus

    Although I’m not a pro like Deb, I have operated about 80 websites and blogs starting in 1995, so I’ll add a few tips (most are from my new book, “How to Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company” — pub date 8/15/10).

    Deb is right about taking advantage of wide monitors, but that doesn’t mean that sentences should be 960 pixels wide. That would be extremely difficult to read. Divide a page into columns like a newspaper, use boxes, tables, illustrations, sidebars, etc.

    Avoid different page widths within a website. It’s disconcerting if a sidebar menu shifts horizontally from page to page.

    Keep common elements like logos in the same position on each page.

    Although a web page can be infinitely tall, a tall page makes it tough to keep your place. Long “articles” should be continued on (“jump to” in journalism lingo) another page. Slate.com uses this technique very well. The online Wall Street Journal and New York Times do not.

    Avoid garish color combinations which may be fine for the bedroom walls of a 12-year-old but not for a website.

    Use blank lines between paragraphs, with no indents–not like printed text.

    Avoid unreadable type and background color combos. It’s tough to read navy blue words on a black background.

    Avoid “reverse” type (light words on a dark background) except for small blocks of text. NEVER do a whole page in reverse. The white-on-black look made famous by school chalkbards and the Star Wars intro (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away”) is bad for providing information and making sales. Don’t let the medium interfere with the message. Ironically, one of the least readable websites belongs to the Paier College of Art, which uses a lot of tiny reverse type. https://www.paiercollegeofart.edu/generalinfo/index.htm. (I went there for a Saturday program when I was in the third grade–before it became a college.)

    Avoid cutesy animations—out of style since 1987.

    Avoid frames—out of style and a PITA.

    Avoid designs that requires scrolling to the side.

    Keep your important information visible without scrolling down. (It would be “above the fold” in a newspaper.)

    Avoid centered text except for headlines and subheads.

    Serif faces, such as the ubiquitous Times New Roman, are hard to read in small sizes.

    Italics are often hard to read in small sizes.

    Test to make sure your site looks right with multiple web browsers on different size monitors with different screen resolutions. Check it on an iPad and cellphones, too.

    Make sure people can easily find contact information, especially your email address.

    If your website does not allow people to order books, include links to your books on bookselling sites. Don’t just mention that the book is “available at Amazon.com.”

    Include important keywords as often as possible without seeming artificial.

    Don’t try to scam the search engines by using white type on a white background.

    Update often with new material, or even a new look.

    Sound effects may be more annoying than productive

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey that’s really useful, Michael thanks. Although you don’t have my 2 favorite “pet peeves” left over from the 90s:

      1. Snow – remember those? There are still some around where they have the snow effect blowing over the whole page. Hilarious and pointless at the same time.

      2. Music – the kind that starts automatically when you land on the home page. Nothing worse than sitting in a cubicle and having a song start blasting from your PC!

      Reply
      • Michael N. Marcus

        I’ll add a few to the peeve list.

        One that I find technically interesting, but really annoying, is the animated tail or star cluster or pussy cat or fish or other graphic that follows the mouse all over the screen.

        We still suffer from unwanted popups–sometimes endlessly cascading until the PC is turned off–from Netflix and porn sites.

        In the early days, we were desperate to find things to brighten up a dull web page. I once filled the bottom couple of inches of a site with the logos of a dozen or so search engines (remember Lycos, HotBot and AltaVista?) that linked to the site. The logos were like Boy Scout merit badges or the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Back then it meant something to be listed, because selections were made by HUMAN BEINGS, not robots, and implied quality or usefulness, or beauty, or something unique.

        And there were plenty of web awards, like site-of-the-week. There were also phony and funny awards that could be self-awarded.

        Some sites looked like icon museums, and got worse when animated icons appeared. Many sites had “under construction” icons. Now we all know that no website is ever completed.

        Reply
        • Joel Friedlander

          “Now we all know that no website is ever completed.”

          We now see the web more as a process than as a storefront.

          Reply
    • Deb Dorchak

      How about those little animated avatar guides who walked onto the screen and started talking? I still find a few of those around.

      Reply
  4. Deb Dorchak

    Thank you, Joel! And thanks for the opportunity to guest post on your site. By the by, how’d you manage to get a picture of my desk?

    Reply

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