Websites for Authors

The hardest part is to remember that although (in this case) the website is about you, you must think in terms of guiding the people who visit your site. The people who visit your site aren’t thinking about you, they’re thinking about whether your site will inform them. A nice, but critical distinction.

Why you should have a website

70 percent of American Households have a computer, that’s why. People spend about 20 hours per week on the internet (excluding email!). Here are other reasons to have a website:

  1. People will find out about your books and buy them
  2. Readers stay informed and excited about your work
  3. Journalists may see your site and use it to advance your career and or the industry
  4. Email
  5. Journalists may see your site, cite it or contact you
  6. Editors might be keeping tabs on what’s up with your career
  7. Creating and maintaining your website will force you to think about your career and what you’re doing with it

A Helpful Analogy for Understanding The Web

I like to think of a website as not unlike one of my trips through the dictionary. I want to look up a specific word, so I go to that entry in the dictionary. I read the definition and darned if there isn’t a word there that I also want to look up. So, off I go to another entry in the dictionary and I read that definition and find yet another word.... In the dictionary, you flip pages. On the web, you click links, but as with the dictionary, you click on (look up) what interests you. You choose your path through the dictionary based on need, just as a website user chooses his path through the internet.

A Website Needs Structure

An Analogy for Understanding the Need for Structure

The dictionary has a structure in that the words are arranged in alphabetical order. It’s because of this structure that you are able to find anything at all. Imagine what it would be like if there were no structure, if the words appeared randomly. What a frustrating experience!

When you look up a word in the dictionary, you aren’t very likely to start at Aadvark and progress in linear fashion to zed. You might start anywhere at all. Websites are exactly the same. Although you often hear about the "Home Page" (the perceived starting point) you cannot assume that all your users will enter your site at the home page. Their first experience of your site might well be an "interior" page. The dictionary doesn’t tell you what entries you have to look at. Neither should a website force its users to a particular page.

People know dictionaries are arranged alphabetically and thus already have a basic set of rules for navigating the dictionary. This isn’t true of a website. You need to help the user figure out the rules for your site. You must give all the pages a common and easily identifiable set of rules so that the user can figure out your site no matter where they start.

Why Your Website Isn’t Really About You

The hardest part is to remember that although (in this case) the website is about you, you must think in terms of guiding the people who visit your site. The people who visit your site aren’t thinking about you, they’re thinking about whether your site will inform them. A nice, but critical distinction.

Each visitor will have a unique reason for visiting your site and you will not be able to foresee them all. (I once got an email from someone in Nigeria who was doing research on hair dyes. My site has a page devoted to hair dyes of the 1800’s. That’s where this person entered my site and she (he?) had no conception of me as an author of Romance novels. But, because I have an email link on every page, she was able to send me an email with her question.)

Great Expectations

Website users have a series of well-documented expectations about a website and they have little reason for patience unless you’re offering them money as a reward. If your page takes longer than 6-7 seconds to load, you’re likely to lose the visitor. They’ll click off before your page renders. Likewise, if your site doesn’t provide structure to aid them in the experience, they’ll go somewhere else. The basic expectations are:

  • The upper left corner of each and every page will have a small "logo" that will take them to your home page and serve as a means of identifying that they are still on your website and haven’t moved off to someone else’s.
  • Each and every interior page (meaning every page except the home page) will have a "tag line" that tells them where they are in your site.
  • The Home Page may contain a slightly larger, more elaborate logo that users expect to find in the upper left corner.
  • The Home Page contains a SHORT (60-120 characters) description (tag line) of what your site is about, which is usually located in the upper portion of the page, to the right of the logo. This tag line should be helpful and informative for the visitor. Thus, "mission statement" tag lines are usually a failure because they relay no useful information to the visitor. "So what if Acme.com, is devoted to customer service, do they sell widgets?" A tag line of "Premium Widgets sold here" is better than "Dedicated to Serving Customers"
  • Each and every page will have navigation elements, usually contained in a vertical bar down the left hand side of the page or in a horizontal strip across the top. Navigation elements embody your site’s structure and allow users to move quickly from one area or subject matter to another. The navigation elements at Amazon.com are generally considered to be an excellent model of horizontal navigation. The navigation elements should be consistent throughout the site. Don’t mix and match styles.
  • The bottom of every page contains the same navigation elements as the side or top. This is because, as you know, it’s quite possible for a user to scroll past the side or top-horizontal navigation.

You can arrive at a basic structure by answering the following questions:
What is your site about? What do you want people to know about you? Do you intend to provide any services? If so, what are they? What kind of information will people find on your site?

My site does at least these two things:

  1. It helps readers and potential readers of my books learn more about my work.
  2. It provides advice and tips to people interested in writing romance.

Add other elements as appropriate to what you do.

I happen to be a minimalist, for me, smaller, faster, better. Aside from the cover shot, there are only two graphics used on the entire site. That’s a bit extreme, but I’m not an artist and I want to post my pages quickly.

Some common pitfalls:

Too many graphics. Graphics increase the size of your page and make it slower to load. (remember, you have 6-7 seconds!) In your case, the exception would be the portion of your site dedicated to your artwork, by definition, that’s going to be image heavy. But you can reduce the burden by using thumbnail size images and allowing visitors to click on the thumbnail for a larger image. At that point, they’ll be expecting a slower load time.

Graphics that are too large and/or not optimized for the web. You want the important information near the top of the page rather than forcing users to scroll down to see what books you’ve written. Chances are only the dedicated/determined user will scroll on a site they don’t know will give them what they’re looking for.

Graphics should never (or rarely) be used to convey important information. Usability tests show that users ignore graphics. They immediately scan for text that guides them to what they’re interested in. If they don’t find it, they’re gone. You can have a huge gorgeous graphic that says "Romance Author Extraordinaire" and most users will take in only the text that says "I don’t sell widgets."

Use of a background other than black or white. White is best. I’ve seen a few sites that use a dark grey that seem OK. Background images almost always interfere with readability. High contrast between background and foreground makes for better readability.

The failure to provide a Search feature. Atomz.com is free and easy to set up.

The use of frames. Just don’t do it.

The use of Microsoft Frontpage to create a website. Any professional web developer can tell a FrontPage site at a glance. They tend to be broken in any browser but IE and often in IE, too. FrontPage also doesn’t optimize well so a page ( in file size) is larger than need be.

Useful websites:

Useit - Jakob Neilsen is THE usability expert. Lots of good advice here about how to improve the user experience.

Lynda.com - This site is a great design resource. Lots to links to sites with neat and interesting design.

Web Sites That Suck - If you see your website here, you’re in trouble!

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