Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Influence of a Blog

How influenced are you by a writer's web site or blog? As a book designer and typesetter (and author) I'm very much affected by what I see on the screen. Some blogs, such as yours, are clear, well-organized, and readable (i.e., black type on a light background rather than the more dramatic and infinitely less readable light type on a dark background). A couple of the agent blogs I follow are appalling to read. Fancy fonts, justified type (ragged right is ALWAYS best for blogs as well as manuscripts), and cluttered with a dozen snippets of recent posts all jostling for attention. In other words, a mess. Now, all things being equal, I'm sure I'd be thrilled to have any one of these agents representing me; but, should the day ever come when they're actually fighting over me, the one with the clear, crisp blog will win.

This is an interesting question and frankly I think one that I could get a lot of mileage out of. I come from a newspaper background and back in the day one of my jobs was to actually help lay out the day’s paper. That meant making sure there were no gutters (that’s the white line that travels from the top of the page to the bottom), setting size-appropriate headlines, and arranging the paper in a way that was pleasing to the eye as well as to the newshound. Because of that background I’m a bit obsessive about how pictures hang on my walls (no gutters allowed) and was very controlling when it came to the design of our own site and blog. Yes, there have been a number of changes as we’ve gotten feedback from those who are much more knowledgeable than I, and yes there were probably a few clunkers along the way. Ultimately though my goal was to make it easy to navigate, as quick to load as possible (despite the huge number of photos we have) and informative. Most important, though, I wanted our site to make it clear on what we were about. Whether we like it or not, a web site is the professional face of your business and it’s important that it gives the impression that you want to be given. Luckily I think we’ve accomplished that.

When it comes to taking on new clients I’m not that influenced by the design of an author’s blog or web site. If it needs work I figure that’s something we can discuss once the book is sold. However, I do think that once you’ve signed the contract with a publisher it’s really important to talk to a professional about your web site or blog (while I had a lot of say in our site I did not even pretend I was going to design it myself). While it’s true that most people won’t come to your site until they’ve become a fan of your work, this is a professional site and you need to show a professional face. We’ve come a long way from aol, dial-up and creating your own site just for the fun of it. Web sites are now serious business and should look like they’re serious, and the design of your site is just as important as what you’ve written.

I haven’t done a comprehensive look at different author web sites for a while, but the last time I did I was struck by two things: one, that so many of them looked exactly alike and there was no real pizazz to them; the second was the sites that just didn’t tell me what they were selling. The focus seemed to be on the author and not the books or just generally all over the place, and I had trouble navigating or finding any information at all. Since I’m not a designer it’s not my natural inclination to review or think consciously about design, however I suspect when I don’t like a site, design is a huge part of that reason.

I’m going to leave the web design advice to the designers who visit and will hopefully comment. Instead I’m going to give you some of my thoughts on things authors should consider including on their web sites.

  • List of books w/downloadable cover pictures (in case the media needs a shot at the last minute)
  • Easy to understand blurbs for each book as well as quotes from great reviews
  • Links to bookstores (to place orders)
  • Blog for updates (and please keep it updated). This doesn’t have to mean daily posts, but at least updates on how the writing is going, your next book, signings, etc. Weekly or even monthly posts would be acceptable.
  • Author photo—5x7 color downloadable (again, in case the media needs a shot)
  • Email/Contact—mailing list, contact information for those who might be interested in buying rights to your books, etc.
  • Links to other sites (if necessary)
  • Recipes, craft projects, or other fun information related to your book’s hook—something to make your site stand out a little from other author sites
  • About the author
  • Appearance information when available (book signings, etc.)



Rick Daley said...

A very good website or blog may not win the deal for you, but an awful one can probably cause you to lose it.

Here are a few things to keep in mind regarding website design:

- You have approximately 30 seconds to attract the attention of a casual visitor. Look at your site for 30 seconds, what do you notice? What does it say about you and/or your work?

- Each page should have a call to action. The content for each page should be focused on that call...read about you, view cover art, read sample chapters, buy a book, etc.

- Text should be easy to read. As the person who posed the question points out, fonts and background color can make or break you. Paragraphs should be brief and concise.

- Keep in mind that many people surf the web on mobile devices now, don't get too fancy with artwork or animation if your goal is for someone to read the site. You want it to load quickly.

- When you write the text for your website, make sure you incorporate keywords that you think your prospective readers would use in a Google search. This helps for search engine optimization (SEO).

- Update the content regularly. This also helps for SEO.

Ash. Elizabeth said...

great post. it'll come in handy whenever i get published and ned a website :) yes, yes. it will be a while, but that's alright. love your blog and keep up the good work!

Northwriter said...

Jessica, thanks for the information. And Rick, thanks for sharing your expertise. I've been searching for this type of information.

Anna Claire said...

Love this post! I'm emailing it to myself to keep for when/if I become published!

I absolutely second your tips on including downloadable book cover images and author mugs. I work for a newspaper-owned magazine, and it drives me nuts when I have to go hunting for a usable image - and some times I give up and move on. Plus, the downloadable images need to be fairly high-res; at least 1MB in size for a magazine.

I'd also suggest that the author could put the downloadable images, along with book synopsis(es), author contact info, blurbs and a link to the author bio in a special section of the site called "Press" or "Media" to make it easy on us. The easier it is on a journalist, the more likely you are to get some press.

If you approach a journalist about covering your book and we're interested, you'd better believe we're hitting up your Web site after we get off the phone with you.

AM said...
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Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I was perusing author websites yesterday after receiving an agent newsletter in my e-mail. I am planning on using this company when I'm ready: xuni.com. I love their designs. My background is also in marketing. I agree w/everything the writer said except I don't think the text always needs to be ragged right. Personally, I love the clean look of justified text. As with everything, you have to do what works for you and is an expression of your personality and artistic sensibilities. After all, that is precisely what separates you from everyone else.

JDuncan said...

Having recently received a deal, I'm now in the position to begin pondering this exact issue. I have a website and blog currently, neither of which is anything out of the ordinary (only so much one can do with the free stuff). I've been able to put serious thought into it, and given I have a publication date at least a year away, I've the luxury of taking my time to do this. Plus, I'll need advance money to get it going regardless. I've been looking into ways to tie in non-book things to make it stand out, such as some more general things on the paranormal, since my book has a strong paranormal element in it. I get to consider the tone/flavor of the site. Being a noirish urban fantasy suspense series, I'll want a site that portrays something of a dark and gritty feel to it. They key I think, will be able to convey immediately to the reader what they're in for with my story, as well as giving them something to come back for on a regular basis. I want them to think, "This is a cool site to visit, and there's interesting content here to come back for on a regular basis." I believe it's significant to building a readership base if you can manage to do something that is of interest beyond the words you have on the page, and is appealing to a broader base of readers. In this case, lots of folks have an interest in the paranormal who may not typically pick up my story, but by providing something that appeals to them, I will have the opportunity to draw them in and get them to buy the book and want to continue with the series. That's my hope at least.

Jake Nantz said...

It's so interesting that you mention something about the sites being more about the author and less about the books being off-putting (or at least bland and unoriginal), because I always thought that was part of "branding" as an author. Either way it's nothing I need worry about until I get something an agent considers publishable, but still it's interesting.

AM said...

Thanks for the checklist. Having the correct product information on any website is critical for increased sales.

Authors should consider their products (books) and their image (brand) when they setup their websites. And knowing that their website’s first impression is critical, authors should design the site with their target audience in mind. The site should give the visitors a feel for the author’s work, and like a good introduction to a novel, it should pull them in.

Our worst critics should assess our websites and give us their unvarnished feedback. What was their first impression? Where did their eyes go? Did they want to stay awhile? Does it promote the author's image? What should change?

I think that writers must remember that everything they do and say on the internet is contributing to creating their professional image, and they should conduct themselves professionally in all aspects of their image development.

Anonymous said...

I've got a website question.

I write psychological thrillers. Very much for adults.

I also write fairly young YA--closer to upper middle.

I also also write older YA.

For my own sanity, I was considering a single website, with a first page that lets readers choose which me they want, kinda. But I'm not sure if that's just too sloppy and messy and lazy.

I think it's kinda fun that I write in a variety of genres, but hey, I love me! I'm not sure that anyone else would agree.

Any advice?

Multiple Matt

Sherry Dale Rogers said...
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Cassandra Frear said...

I really enjoyed this post. My husband is a news editor, and we often talk about layout, design, clarity, accessibility.

While I am an amateur blogger, I did think about the design of my site and how to draw the reader in. I am not selling any products, but I am trying to create an experience. I am trying to be consistent.

One thing I have been pondering is how to select a focus so that it is specific enough to be distinct, but broad enough to create some flexibility. For those of us who aren't promoting published books, this can be tricky.

I'd love to see a post about it here.

Sherry Dale Rogers said...

I would like to think my blog has pizzaz and I try to keep it clutter free.

I love your blog, very informative, thank you.

I made a copy of your list and plan to take your suggestions in to consideration.

Kimber Li said...

I've never thought about this, because I figure agents and editors don't have time to look at my sites. And I don't consider an agent's blog or website design to be an important factor, since they don't choose things like cover art. It's content which matters for them, if they keep guidelines clear and up to date, for example.

However, this is a HUGE issue for published authors' sites because the Internet is do vital now, espeically for certain genres like Erotica, which rely on the Internet so much.

Some people are visually oriented and others are not. As a blogging book reviewer, I've seen tons of authors' sites. Some good, some just aweful. If you're not visually oriented, it's worth to pay someone who is to do your sites.

Likewise, some ePublishers websites are nice and others are literally painful to look at.

Catherine Bybee said...

Things that make you go... "Hmm?"

I think I have some work to do toady. lol

Hillsy said...


Isn't that basically writing for all the imaginary fans you don't have.

.....Course some lucky people find out that this is actually reality.....=0P

Kristin Laughtin said...

While I'm still a few years from seeking publication, I have thought about the hypothetical author site I'll be making someday, and I thank you for your list of things to include. It's very comprehensive, almost like a checklist. Also thanks to everyone who expanded in the comments! It was interest to read about your influence as a typesetter. A good website should follow the same rules of layout as a good newspaper or magazine. They've figured out what attracts the eye and makes people pay attention. The principles don't suddenly change in hyperspace.

Mira said...

This is great advice.

I'm thinking of J.K. Rowling's blog. It's fun! If you click on objects, it takes you to various pages with more things to click on. It's designed in the atmosphere of the story. And there are little hidden secrets throughout the site, things move magically, etc. And in all that, you feel like you are getting to know the author better. Very nicely designed site.

I'd like to do something like that if I ever get published - a somewhat interactive site that is enjoyable in and of itself and in the style of the books I write.

That's good marketing. :)

E.J. Stevens said...

I agree with many of the points made in this blog post.

Many of my readers are now finding me through my blog (and twitter).

Anonymous said...

So once I have a book deal, I have to have a website - which I get - but I already have a blog. A long time blog and I love to blog. It's more than a place to promote my work or discuss writing in general or specific. Does it have to "sell out"?

A.C. Douglas said...

DebraLSchubert wrote: I agree w/everything the writer said except I don't think the text always needs to be ragged right. Personally, I love the clean look of justified text. As with everything, you have to do what works for you and is an expression of your personality and artistic sensibilities.

Quite right. Jessica's correspondent's declaration that a, "ragged right [margin] is ALWAYS best for blogs..." is, well, just plain silly. Some blogs employ justified main body text because, like Ms. Schubert, the blog author simply "love[s] the clean look" of it. Others, like myself, use justified main body text primarily (but not exclusively) because it's actually a calculated design element of the blog page. My blog, Sounds & Fury, employs a three-column layout — left sidebar, central main body text area, right sidebar — but the background color is the same for the entire page — header, footer, sidebars, and central main body text area — and the straight margins of the central main body justified text act in place of the "noisy", full-page, top-to-bottom vertical lines that typically serve to separate the sidebars from the central main body text area in a three-column layout.

So, which is best for a blog, ragged right margin or justified right margin? As with most things, it all depends.


Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. My website's really new, so this really helps.

Sylvia said...

I should point out that I actually declined to submit to an agent because the website was a flash-based mess, which resized my browser window on my behalf, made annoying clicking noises and had a news page last updated in 2007.

It is important to me that I work with someone who understands new media. NO website is actually better than an incompetent one.

Anonymous said...

Mira, of course J.K. Rowling has a fabulous website. She's made more money than any author.

Sites with those kinds of bells and whistles are not cheap. Don't you think more authors would have them, if they could afford them?

Maggie Dana said...

The problem with justified text on a blog or a web site is that the way it's rendered to a viewer depends on that viewer's browser and the size (and resolution) of his or her screen. It's also dependent upon the column width as set by the blog or web site's design parameters, which are numerous.

A browser will justify text by inserting extra space between words to fill the line(s) to full justification, which means that the beautifully justified text you're seeing is not necessarily the same text seen by someone else on a different machine with a different browser. Too much space between words, in order to justify a line of text, is ugly.

Unlike a book where the text is anchored to the page because that's the way it was printed, the text on a screen is fluid. It behaves the way the viewer's browser dictates; not the way the original author intended.

Which boils down to this: ragged right text, because it doesn't require extra spaces between words to fill out a line to full justification, is usually more esthetically pleasing to the eye when viewed on-screen than is justified text.

I'm the book designer/typesetter who sent this comment to Jessica. In case anyone's interested, I've also written an article about readability and book design here:



Jemi Fraser said...

Another awesome post - and so many helpful comments as well! Thanks :)

Kimber Li said...

sylvia, I think I know the one and I declined too. The site gave me a headache. I had to click away too fast to submit. But, that was the only agency blog I've seen that's just awful.

Anonymous said...

Oddly, which color your blog is doesn't ever concern me. I tend to us a general rule when reading agent blogs:

I would NEVER submit to an agent that had a blog. An agent that has a blog IS NOT a good agent. If they have time to waste writing up big 2 - 3 page blog posts they aren't doing a good job representing their clients.

Look at the most infamous agent blog, The Swivet. Does anyone take her seriously as an agent? She can't even afford her own apartment, how could she possibly help me make money as an author?

I think an agency should have a professional website with a list of agents and easy to find submission guidelines, but an agent who has a blog is a BIG red flag.

If you don't believe me, check the books you see that have been published by agents that have blogs. Not a lot of big sellers in there. Mostly 2nd rate or 3rd rate stuff.

Cassidy said...

Jessica - I like to read blogs for information about writing and general info. Hopefully one day I will have people stopping by to see what writing info I have to share. Thanks for giving us your 2 cents.

Anon 8:38 - What exactly are you doing here? Why would you even post a comment like yours and not sign your name? I was always taught if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all. If you feel you must make comments like that show yourself.

Mira said...

Cass - I know.

Why would someone want to come onto an agent's blog anonymously, and then say that they would never submit to an agent who runs a blog...? What is the gain here, other than being mean?

Anyway, anon, I respectfully disagree. Many agents who blog have great client lists. Some are (smartly) trying to solicit clients in part through their blogs. Some are trying to make their own lives easier by teaching writers what they want, and some genuinely want to help writers with the submission process.

Others just enjoy blogging.

Many different motivations.

And oddly enough, I manage to do my own job very well while still having time to not only read blogs but post on them. So, it's not hard for me to believe that agents can both blog and still do very well for their clients.

June G said...

I recently started a blog after thinking about it for some time, so this post was very timely. I'm working on a first novel and I'll be keeping your suggestions in mind, especially the items related specifically to a book. Thanks. The post of Rick Daley was also very handy!

A.C. Douglas said...

Maggie Dana wrote: The problem with justified text on a blog or a web site is that the way it's rendered to a viewer depends on that viewer's browser and the size (and resolution) of his or her screen. It's also dependent upon the column width as set by the blog or web site's design parameters, which are numerous. A browser will justify text by inserting extra space between words to fill the line(s) to full justification, which means that the beautifully justified text you're seeing is not necessarily the same text seen by someone else on a different machine with a different browser. Too much space between words, in order to justify a line of text, is ugly.

You make several good points, but, in practice today, all of them are mostly moot. If one sets up the design of one's blog, justified text included, to read the same on the two leading browsers, IE and Firefox for both Windows machines and Macs, which together constitute approximately 90%-95% of all machines/browsers in use today, your first point is, well, mostly beside the point.

As to a blog's "numerous" design parameters, one sets them oneself, and so has perfect control over them. They're not something imposed from the outside and so not under one's control, which largely moots your second point.

As to your third point — the too-much-space-between-words problem with justified text — it can indeed be a problem every so often, but in those fairly rare cases where the problem does present itself, it can be dealt with easily and quickly by small adjustments in wording or punctuation, sometimes nothing more than the alteration of a comma placement being necessary to do the trick. The problem becomes a real problem only with quoted text where one cannot make those kinds of adjustments, and in those cases, well, one's pretty much stuck with it.

So much for your third point.

Finally, it would have been one thing had you said in your comment to Jessica that justified text presents problems that left-aligned text does not. That's simply the plain truth. But that's NOT what you said. You said, "[a] ragged right [margin] is ALWAYS best for blogs..." which assertion is clearly what I said it was: just plain silly.


Hillsy said...

Anon 8:38 -

Hee hee. Thought that one through didn't you! Damn those agents!...why aren't they working? They're what? Asleep? This is intolerable! Pump them full of amphetamines and they can be awake for 3 or 4 days straight, now that's what I call productivity.

What? They have family too? OK, not a problem I'll get them relocated to another household where they won't impinge on the agents time. 'Course they'll have to take the telly with them. And of course they've got no family to go 'home' for so we'll just lock them in the office at night and pump S Club 7 through the PA system to keep them bouncy and full of energy. Replace the water cooler with a Red Bull tap.....oh yeah we'll feed them intravenously so they don't waste time eating lunch either.

s'called free time, you know. Whether or not you feel that no blogging agents have good client lists is you opinion, fine, but I don't think citing time management is a valid argument really. I mean these posts arrive between 7:00am and 8:00am....what are you doing at that time? Sleeping? Commuting? Did it not occur to you that these people do it in their spare time??

IS this just bitterness because you feel some overwhelming need to work for as long as you can to fill the void in your life hobbies and family might take up, and all you've got to show for it is high blood pressure and the knowledge that if you worked a bit smarter you might not have to do 18 hours a day? Or do you just think that only you can have a life and everyone exists purely to cater to any and every of your whims?

ahh....some people eh?

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I'm a designer, and I agree with the points in the original email. If a website or blog is a mess I lose interest pretty quickly. True, justification isn't as big of a deal, assuming everything else is clean.

The trick I learned in advertising is you have ONE main focus, then no more than two or three secondary things (per page). If you have too many things competing for attention, nothing stands out and the reader (or consumer) moves on to the next website/ad/whatever.

As for Anon 8:38 -- why are you even reading agent blogs if you feel these agents are so useless?

Diane said...

As always, an excellent post with excellent advice.

I hope it's okay to link to it from my blog.

Anonymous said...

If all these agent blogs are done during 'Free Time' then explain why they are most often posted on weekdays during regular business hours?

Kind of hard to be serving your clients when you spent the first hour of your day updating your blog.

Think about it. Is that the person you want representing you? Someone who wastes the first hour of their day updating a blog somewhere?

Cassidy said...

Anon 9:10

Okay - you hooked me in again - darn it, you got me so worked up I have to reply.

Are you the same Anon as Anon 8:28 from last night? I sure wish you would show yourself.

I asked last night, and I will ask again tonight - What are you doing here? Is it just to post negative comments? You say you would never submit to a blogging Agent. You now ask us if we really want to be represented by someone who wastes the first hour of their day updating their blog.

I don't understand why you say agents posting about publishing information is a wate of time.

Having learned much over the last few years by reading this Blog and several others, I think it is the opposite of wasting time.

If it wasn't for Blogs like this, I'd still think getting published was as easy as typing up a manuscript and sending it off to one of the big publishing houses - knowing they have editors to take special care and catch all my errors.

Now maybe once in a while an agent will post on their Blog something that does not appeal to you. Okay - just go about your business. Or even tell them the post doesn't appeal to you. But to come back time and time again making negative comments about people who I assume have never done anything against you, well...aren't you just wasting time?