Fran Cannon Slayton - The Wild Ride To Publication (Children's Book Version!): February 2008

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Author Websites: Useful, Changing Content is King

What brings you back to an author's website?  More importantly, what will bring readers back to YOUR website?

Lately, I've been looking at author websites with the express intention of finding what works and what doesn't work as I designed my own website.  There's lots of cool stuff out there, but 
the more I look around the more I realize that "content is king."  How do you get someone to come back to your website over and over and over again?  The answer is simple:  change your content.  And make it USEFUL!

But when you change your content, you also have to ask yourself this question:  who am I changing the content for?  Who's gonna find this information useful?  I think these questions are crucial with regard to blogging as well: who is my audience?  And what do they need?

For example, in this blog (and on the "For Writers" page of my website), my stated audience is children's book writers.  But writers go to websites (and blogs) for different reasons than readers do.  Readers go to websites to find out about authors and their books, to read reviews, and maybe to learn something on a particular topic.  Kid readers might go back sometimes to enjoy a game on the site, too, or perhaps to contact the author.  Writers go to websites not only for these reasons, but also to see what other writers are doing, to check out what's working for them (and what's not), to feel like part of a writing community, to learn about book marketing and writing techniques, to find out about conferences and seminars, to watch book video trailers, and to encourage others in the same profession.

In order to get writers to return to websites or blogs, many authors provide author interviews.  This is a GREAT idea.  Everyone wins - the interviewer because she is gaining content that will draw people to her site; and the interviewee because she is gaining publicity for her book.

Editor Harold Underdown has a great site that has lots of articles on writing, as well as a "Who's Moving Where" page which outlines various moves by editors and agents in the children's book publishing industry.  It's a fantastic resource for authors, and a fantastic idea for getting authors to come back to his site!  Definitely check out his site if you haven't already.

I've seen other authors provide other sorts of content on their sites - everything from political commentary, to listings on publisher's lunch.  

I've recently added content to my site in a different way.  I've created a Children's Book News Email that goes out bi-weekly and provides a summary of the latest topics of interest in the kidlit world.  Things like books that are being censored, literacy initiatives, and unique (and copy-able!) ways authors are promoting their books.  I also provide links to full articles for further reading.  (If you are interested in signing up, you can visit the "For Writers" page of my website).    
Have you seen authors provide other kinds of useful content on their websites or blogs?  If so, leave a comment and tell us about it!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Website Ballet.  As promised, here's a little information on website design.  Folks in the business (a big thanks to SCBWI member Seth Wood!) say that readers viewing websites unconsciously prioritize what they see on a website in a Z pattern.   That is, they see top left first, then top right, then bottom left, then bottom right.  As so:


Websites should therefore be designed to take advantage of this by putting the most important information in "first" position, the next most important info in "second" position, etc.  (The "website ballet," if you will.  And yes, that is my own phrase.  And yes, I am daggone proud of it!).  Have a look at my website home page for one example of how to do this.  In first position is a little introduction and welcome to the various groups of people who might be interested in my site.  In second position is my book cover.  In third position are directions for where to go on my site for more info on various topics like trains, children's writers, my book, school visits, etc.  

Make Finding Things Simple.  Many people say that your website, or at least your home page, should all - or almost all - fit on one page without scrolling down.  Although scrolling usually doesn't deter me, it does some people.  If you have to scroll to get to your most important information, then it's not in the right place.

Simplicity reigns.  Cool sites can be, well, cool.  But if you have too many bells and whistles the reader doesn't know where to begin, so sometimes they just don't.  In my opinion, Go Daddy's site is guilty of this.  There was so much stuff on the site I found it overwhelming.  So I went to IX Web Hosting instead.  Besides driving people away, having too many things going on - especially flash stuff - can make a website load slowly.  And sometimes your reader won't wait.

Content is King.  When you're designing your website, you've got to figure out what information you want to include.  This is a huge decision, because content is what will keep your reader coming back.  Or not.  Your site has to do more than scream "hey, I've got a book - lookie, lookie!"  

In order to figure out what to include, you have to first determine your readership - your website's as well as your book's.  Who do you want to be attracted to your site?  What do you want them to get out of it?  What can you give them to keep them coming back?  Whatever it is, it's got to be changing.  Who's going to come back to the same content again and again?  Not as many people as who will come back if they know they're going to get something new that they can use. 

The Cool Factor:  Age of Reader.  Will the reader of your book also be the reader of your website? Maybe, but maybe not.  If you've got a board book for infants, your website should probably be targeting parents not kids.  Design your site accordingly.  For elementary, middle grade and YA books, do you want your site to be a place for kids to hang out, or for adults to get information on you and your book?  Maybe it should be both.  My book is a middle grade novel that I believe will also appeal to YA.  So I knew I needed a pretty cool looking site with some interesting content if kids were going to visit.  But then when I started designing my site I realized kids weren't the only ones I wanted as visitors.  

Website Readers of Multiple Ages; Website Pages with Multiple Foci.  Websites need to direct each visitor, no matter her age or focus, to the part of the website that will be most interesting to her.  My book is about the railroad and trains, so I knew I wanted a train page that would appeal not only to kids, but also to rail fans who might be interested in my book as a way of sharing their interest in trains with kids or grandkids. I also wanted a page where I could address the needs of teachers and librarians, especially with regard to school visits.  And I knew I wanted a page that would be helpful to writers.  Thus, my writer's page was born along with this blog.  And since I plan to do interviews to promote my book, I also knew that I'd need a "press page" full of information for the media.  Mine includes a light-hearted bio, a Frequently Asked Questions section, and downloadable pictures of my book cover and myself.   As soon as I get some reviews (any reviewers out there?!) I'll put up a link to my reviews.  Ditto for my press releases.  I also hope to figure out how to put a form up to gather email addresses so I can send emails to people when I'm in the news, etc.  And of course, I have a "contact me" page for (hopefully!) people who like my book and media (again, hopefully!) to be able to reach me. 

The Most Helpful Thing.  The thing I found most helpful in designing my website was going to other authors' websites and noting the things I felt worked and didn't work.  Usually authors sites (and blogs even more so) will have links to other authors' sites, and so it's easy to find a whole slew of websites to study and take notes on.  

All and all, I found the whole process of designing my website extremely entertaining.  It was fun to see other sites, fun to read books on the subject, and really fun to finally see the thing up and running!  It took a lot of time and effort, but hey, so did writing the book.  And I figure if I took all that time to write the book - a book that I love dearly - I oughta take the time to put it out there in the world with the best (and most cost-effective) website possible!

Happy designing!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Author Websites

I can't believe it, but I finally have a website!  I've only been working on it since, oh, the beginning of November so it's pretty exciting to finally have something out there actually breathing in the cyber world!

For those of you who are thinking about a website, I'll share the process I went through. First, I had to decide whether to have a website or a blog or both.  I opted for both because everything I've read about book marketing says you absolutely, positively need a website if you've got a book coming out.  It's the very best way to let people know about you and your book and having one is not negotiable these days.  But if you're pre-published, having only a blog might be the way to go.  It gives you a web presence, helps you become part of the kidlit community, and best of all it's free!

Once I realized I needed a website I had to figure out how to go about it.  And more importantly, how much it would cost.  I figured I had three primary options:   1) hire a web designer, 2) find a really good friend with web knowledge, or 3) design it myself.  I didn't want to impose upon friends, so #2 was out.  I didn't mind putting money into a web designer because my website was going to be a pretty important part of my marketing efforts.  When I researched cost, I found they could run from perhaps $500 to $20,000.00!  Of course, when I priced my "dream site" it turned out to be on the high side.  As in more than my advance.  And at the same time I realized that if another person designs your site you often, if not always, have to pay them when you want to change it.  I wanted my website to be dynamic - as in changing - and I didn't want to have to go back to someone else over and over again every time I wanted to make a change.

So I began to think about option #3, designing it myself.  At first I looked into learning HTML, but the learning curve was seriously high and I really wasn't interested.  I knew there were simple website templates available on various web hosting services, and I'd even used one called Website in a Box for another organization I belong to.  Website in a Box certainly is easy and it's cheap (around $60 or $80 per year), and it allows you to control your own content 24/7.  But for all the great things about it, it just wasn't as polished and professional as I wanted for my author site.  I was about to embark upon a search for the best templates available when to my delight, my problem was unexpectedly solved!
I bought a Mac.  Little did I know at the time it would be the solution to my website woes.  When I got it home I found out it had this great program called iWeb.  iWeb's templates were amazingly professional and extremely versatile.  Long story short, it's how I made my website. It lets me add my own pictures, video, and podcasts pretty much where ever I want, and I can change the content at any time.  It took some effort, but it was not nearly as complicated as learning HTML.  I absolutely love it!  

But there are a few drawbacks to iWeb.  From a programmer's viewpoint, I understand that the program is rather cumbersome and the files become very large.  That makes the site load a little on the slow side, especially if you have video.  To combat this I decided not to use my dotMac (.Mac) account to host my site because the Mac servers are said to be slow.  I opted to pay for a web host - I used IX Web Hosting because it had unlimited storage and transfers per month and they had a money back guarantee.  Granted, it's not been 24 hours since I uploaded, but so far so good.  My site uploads a little slowly - not because of IX, but because of iWeb - but I don't think it's so slow that it will be a problem.  Hopefully some of you will take a look at it and let me know if it's too slow for you.  I've noticed that the pages with less background "stuff" load quicker, so I can always change over to them if quicker loading becomes necessary.

More on website design next time . . .

Saturday, February 16, 2008

They always say you have to start somewhere, so I guess I'll start at the beginning.  July, 2006. I was unrepresented by an agent; I was about 70 pages into my book; I'd never finished writing a novel before; and I was enrolled in the Sierra Nevada SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) mentorship program with the amazing Ellen Hopkins as my mentor and the wonderful Suzy Williams as Regional Advisor.

And then it happened: I met Patti Gauch at the stupendiforous Highlights Foundation's children's book writing conference at the Chautauqua Institute.  And my life has never been the same!  At the urging of a couple members of the faculty (and ONLY because they gave me permission to do so) I asked Patti to read the first 10 pages of my manuscript.  And she did.  Right there at a table in front of me.  It was a milk of magnesia moment.  My palms started to sweat as I stared at the back of her head.  I had to sit down, sure I was going to pass out.  After two eternities passed, she called me over.  She liked it!  She wanted to read more!  And in a few weeks she'd read all 70 unfinished pages.  And she still liked it enough to offer a gift.  The gift was her time.  Her encouragement to finish it.  Herself.  It was one of the best gifts I've ever received.  So I put my nose to the grindstone and I started writing!

In this blog, I'm going to go ahead and lay out some of the writerly lessons I've learned, and am learning, during my journey to being a published author.  Not because I think I know so very much, but because I hope it might help someone else out along the way.  It takes a village to get a book published, or at least it did for me.  I hope whatever I write here might become part of the village that helps you achieve your dreams.

Lesson #1:  Invest in your dreams. 
With both your time and your money.  If I hadn't gone to the Highlights Chautauqua workshop, I would have never met Patti Gauch.  And if I hadn't applied for a scholarship to the workshop I could never have afforded to go.  Take the time to research good conferences.  Start with the less expensive one-day seminars.  Apply for scholarships.  Use those frequent flier miles if you have them.  Save your money.  Make a conference part of your family vacation.  But however you get there, GET THERE!

Lesson #2:  Network.
Conferences are where you meet people who can help you learn more about your craft, people who can publish your work, and people who share your interest in writing.  I used to think networking was a dirty word, the implication being that if you are networking, you are merely using people as rungs on your personal career ladder.  I've seen it be that way, and it's ugly.  But it doesn't have to be.  Networking can also be a great way to meet new friends who share a common interest.  It's all in how you look at it.  And how you do it.  I can't tell you how fun it's been for me to see friends I've made at conferences go on to amazing successes.  It's a joy.  And they cheered for me when I sold my book, too.