Monday, May 24, 2010

Influential Characters

There is a apocalyptically silly political campaign ad that asks viewers, "who would Jack Bauer vote for?"  In case he isn't part of pop culture in your neck of the woods, Jack Bauer is a fictional character who fights terrorists in the television drama "24".

This isn't the first time that Jack Bauer has been invoked in public debate.  His fictional success is frequently cited as proof that torturing terrorist suspects in real life is a good idea.  You have to hand it to the writers of this show; they have created an influential character.

After my eyes stopped rolling, I realized I personally would be more interested in Atticus Finch's opinion.  Now I find myself trying and failing to think of fictional characters who are so clearly drawn that I actually would be influenced by their hypothetical opinions.  Who might sway you?  How would you create such a character?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Real Life Horror

If you haven't heard, the Texas State Board of Education has decided to micromanage the content of history textbooks for openly partisan purposes, claiming they are correcting a liberal bias.   Actual historians are horrified.  Along with every Texas parent I know.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Kate's Guide to Author Websites, Part IV

This blog is first and foremost about my journey as a writer, and I learn something every day about writing and publishing from this fantastic community.  I’ve taken the time to build Kate’s Guide to Author Websites as a way to give back what I can, and I trust it is received as such.  That said, in my non-writing life I do offer the professional services described below, so I hope you’ll forgive me for not mentioning any competing companies by name.

Working With a Professional Web Designer

If I did my job right, Parts I, II, and III gave you the knowledge and confidence to go out and create your own website at minimal cost.  But if you want to take it to the next level, hiring a professional has some significant benefits.  However, it isn’t like hiring a house painter.  You need to know what you're getting into.

The Players

You will discover immediately that there are a lot of players in this field.  There are big marketing companies, online website factories, and one-man part-time outfits.  There are web designers, web developers, graphic artists, marketing consultants, and more.  Ultimately, neither the nature of the company nor the individuals’ titles determines the quality of the result; it is how they do business.

The Cost

Costs vary widely.  My feeling is that if you are technical enough to blog, and take the advice in Parts I, II, and III of this series, you can create your own website as well as the cheapie cookie-cutter services out there. If you are going to go with a professional, really go professional and expect to pay US$2000 and up for a good looking, truly custom, author website. I know this is a lot of money to you, the author, and I won’t pretend it is cost-effective for most of us. But I can tell you it isn’t gouging. Professional design takes a lot of time, talent, knowledge, and skill with some very expensive and hard-to-learn software. The designer is not getting rich on $2000/site, or even $5000/site.

In addition to the cost of the design and site launch, there are some potential ongoing costs.  Of course there is domain registration and web hosting, but one of the most crucial decisions when working with a pro is how changes will be made to the site after its initial launch.  A typical model requires you to go back to the designer and pay her an hourly rate for changes, and wait for her to implement those changes.  This can get expensive if your site changes frequently, but a site that changes frequently is going to be more successful, so you should at least discuss ways for you to update content directly and only go back to the designer for design changes.  This could mean a content management system or you learning a little bit of HTML.  Designing a site that accomodates either of these could increase the cost of the initial design, so have this discussion upfront and decide if it's worthwhile.

Cutting Costs

On the other hand, there are some ways to drive costs down. 
  • There are often discounts available with bundled services, such as hosting, or marketing packages.
  • Authors should check with their publishers and agents for any such services they provide.
  • Look for someone who is motivated by something other than money: a student project, someone building his or her portfolio (ahem), a friend who is a graphic designer but thinking about getting into web design, etc. Obviously quality may vary here, so you will need to analyze the risk/reward ratio.
  • Commission a custom blog theme instead of a full-blown website.  Many professional websites are actually powered by blog systems (CMS's).  It may or may not be much less expensive up front, but you should be able to eliminate maintenance costs (including hosting!) this way.  Just make sure you still use your own domain name.

Making a Choice

First I will say that while it isn't necessary to hire someone with experience designing author websites, I do think you are more likely to be satisfied with the process and the result.  Take it from me: working with people who don't understand your business can be very frustrating.

In any case, you need your designer to be savvy about the business of websites.  I've talked a lot about putting business before cool in Part III, and I am sorry to say there are a lot of players who simply don't think in these terms.  To get a sense if a candidate does, ask her what she thinks the goal of your site is and how she will design to best meet that goal.

This should probably go without saying, but in my opinion, you need to be able to communicate directly with your designer.  This can actually be a problem with large firms that employ account managers as middle-men, and some cheap online design factories actually charge you extra for this privilege.

As for aesthetics, your website will represent your author brand.  Style and taste are highly individual, so if you are going to be paying anything up front, it is important to see and like the portfolio of the specific person who will be working on your design, even if it's a small portfolio.  This can also sometimes be difficult when working with large firms or marketing firms that farm out design work to independent contractors.

Finally, deadlines are important.  If you are paying for a site, you are paying to get it within a certain time frame.  Don’t hire anyone who is cagey about their process or how long each step should take them.  (On the other hand, recognize that if you are slow to return feedback, decisions, or payment, it may throw off their whole schedule and create delays that are your fault, not theirs.)

The Process

Pros all have different processes, but typically it works like this:
  1. You have a consultation to discuss your needs and the scope of the project.
  2. You are given a cost estimate and time estimate and probably asked to pay some percentage up front.
  3. The detailed organization of the site is determined – the pages, navigation, what information goes where.
  4. The designer creates “comps” for you, which are representations of design concepts. The number and sophistication level varies by designer. Some will provide 3-5 hand-drawn sketches, while others provide 1-3 mock screen shots.  Comps are often expensive to produce, so you may have to pay more for additional comps if you don’t like anything in the initial set.
  5. Once a concept is chosen, you and the designer go through the process of refining it.  Make change requests thoughtfully and bundle them together; a certain amount of refining effort will be included in the initial cost estimate, but endless drafts will drive up costs.
  6. When the design is finalized, the functional site is created, the content is filled in, tweaks and tests are completed, and the site is launched.
The Details

There are a lot of different layers involved in building even a simple website, and you need to be sure you understand what services you are paying for. Specific things to ask about, in no particular order, are:
  • Information architecture.  Is the designer responsible for determining how your site is organized, or are you?
  • Content management.  Is the text on the site stored in static HTML, or is it in a database? Who is responsible for writing the text? What is involved in making updates?
  • SEO (search engine optimization).  This is a complicated issue, but it starts with using good design techniques.  Your designer should be able to speak coherently about how she will make your site highly searchable.  If he skips straight to “keyword purchases” or “Google adword buys” that could be a red flag.
  • Quality assurance.  How will the web designer test your site?  Will he guarantee it works on all major browsers used by your target market?  (Does he know what they are? It varies by region.)  Will he guarantee certain maximum average download times?  Will he guarantee it works well with screen readers and is otherwise accessible?  All of these things should come automatically with solid, standards-based design, and your designer should be able to articulate as much.
  • Metrics and analytics. Make sure you know what data will be available to you vis-à-vis user statistics.  Savvy authors can use this information in a lot of ways, from optimizing the site to planning book tours.  Knowing where your visitors are, what browsers they use, and how they find your site can all be really helpful.
  • CRM (customer relationship management).  Are you going to allow people to contact you from the site, or will you collect their contact info for a mailing list, etc?  This stuff can get complicated and expensive, but you need to know what your designer is providing.
  • Blog.  Will the site include a blog or link to an outside blog?  What platform will be used?  Can they provide a blog theme that looks like part of your website?  If you decide to stop blogging, how much will it cost to remove the blog or links from your site?
  • RSS, Facebook, and Twitter.  Like blogs, there are many levels of integration possible here – from simple links to feeds to creating Facebook and Twitter pages for a cohesive look.  And yes, it’s perfectly OK if you are not on Facebook or Twitter or just don’t want to link to them.
  • Forums.  If you want to have your own user community, ask your designer for an example of how it would look, work, and what it would take to administer.
  • Artwork/Creative.  A professionally designed site will almost certainly include illustrations, photos, and/or other graphic design elements.  If you ever want to reuse any of these elements on another site or in printed products like posters, you need to know if you have the right to do so. I also want you to know where the designer got them. There are really only three right answers here: they are royalty-free purchases (as from a site like iStockPhoto); public-domain or otherwise expressly free (from a site like stock.xchng); or original artwork by the designer.  It is not OK for anyone to simply copy a photo from another site.  I’ve said it before, but I'm kind of making a big deal about this because as authors we don’t want people ripping off our work.  Artists and photographers don’t want their work ripped off either, and I think we all need to stick together on this.  Finally, you should be wary of displaying a photograph of a recognizable person on your site (exclusive of yourself and book covers), because you may need a model release to do so, and making sure you have one can be a pain.
Working with a pro sometimes has other strings attached.  For example, some will only design for you if you also buy hosting from them.  This isn’t typically to make an extra buck, it just makes it easier for them to manage your site and generally saves both of you time and money.  If you do engage your web designer to provide hosting, just find out if the server is in his living room, or leased space from a reliable company with guaranteed uptimes and 24x7 tech support, with the latter being preferred.

Finally, do a little Google and Better Business Bureau research for any complaints, and be thoughtful about anything you find.


Well friends, this marks the end of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.  I hope you have found it interesting and helpful, and if so, that you will pass it along.  I encourage questions in the comments, or your can email me directly.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Functional Design Considerations

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Functional Design Considerations

As I've said before in this series, I assume you are not a web developer and that you are using some sort of tool to create your author website.  I've actually already talked about a lot of functional considerations in my discussions of visual and informational design.  There are just a few more aspects to be aware of.

Browser vs Website

Let's have a little thought experiment.  You have a room full of people, each of whom has pencils and paper.  Now you issue them the following instruction:
Draw a happy face.
What do you think will be the results?  Some people will draw two dots and an arc for a mouth inside a circle, and some will just draw the two dots and arc.  Some may also draw noses, or eyelashes, or eyebrows.  But even the ones who draw the same elements will draw them a little differently.

Your website is just you, issuing the instruction, "Draw a happy face."  The many different versions of many different brands of browsers and other internet-enabled devices will all interpret that instruction a little differently, and each will express it according to its own capabilities.

Hopefully the website you generate will have specific and sufficiently unambiguous instructions that all major browsers will display it acceptably if not identically.  But the only way to be sure is to test your website on as many browsers and other internet-enabled devices as you can, and on multiple versions of those.  Test it with zooming on, testing it with a screen reader, test it on a mobile phone, test it on an iPhone.  You get the picture.


Of course you will test all your links, on every page. But unlike the rest of your site, you need to test your links, especially test links to other sites, on a frequent basis, in case those external pages get moved or taken down. Broken links not only make your site look stale and abandoned, they also make it less interesting to search engines crawling your site.


A web page, as it is received by the browser, is made up of some version of HTML, CSS, often Javascript, and possibly some other technologies.  You should be aware that very old and very new technology will be the least well supported by your visitors' browsers.  HTML and CSS are universal (though there are different versions), and Javascript is virtually universal except where users have disabled it (usually for security), so you generally don't need to worry about these.  However, anything that requires the user to install a plug-in might cost you some visitors.  Flash is a prime example.  Not only do several percent of users refuse to install Flash on their browser, but many can't even if they want to.

Last week I was headed to a new restaurant, and Google maps on my iPhone amazingly gave me the wrong location.  So naturally I went to the restaurant's website for directions, and crap, I couldn't open the site.  It was a slick animated Flash site, and Apple doesn't support Flash on the iPhone (or iPad or iPod Touch).  So I went to a different restaurant.

The restaurant used Flash for their entire site because they wanted that cool factor.  Cool is great, but they made the mistake of putting cool ahead of business.  You can make your site cool in a way that doesn't eclipse or block access to the real content.  If you use Flash, use it in addition to - not in place of - all regular content.  This goes for any technology that requires a plug-in.

Well this marks the end of Part III: Design Considerations.  Next up is Part IV: Working with a Professional.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Informational Design Considerations

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Informational Design Considerations

There is an entire academic and professional field called Information Architecture, which is concerned with organizing information in a way that it can be easily located, accessed, and consumed.  Although your author website is unlikely to have so much content that you need an expert architect, you shouldn't take your content for granted.  You also shouldn't treat it the same as your books or your blog.

In the Design Considerations prologue, I talked about putting yourself in your visitor's place and making it easy for her to do what you want her to.  Now we get to the specifics.

The Basics

First recognize that users do not read websites the way they read books or newspapers or even blogs.  Users scan websites.  You need to make your website highly scannable by doing the following:
  • Break up text with whitespace.
  • Use a lot of headers and labels.
  • If you can describe something with a one-word label instead of a sentence, use a label.
  • Keep paragraphs short and concise.
  • Use simple and direct prose; the scanning part of your visitor's brain has a sixth-grade reading level.
  • Redundancy is good, but saying the same thing in ten different ways, as you might when you want to teach something, impedes scanning.  If you aren't teaching, say whatever it is in the simplest, most concise way, and repeat that same wording on different pages as needed.
  • Be consistent in your layout, navigation, use of font styles, and overall organization. 

The Funnel

One of the obvious things people do when creating websites is separate the content out into different pages, and then create a navigation system of links to those pages.  There is a sort of instinct among writer types to approach this the way a librarian might, thinking only of the taxonomy of the information.  This is a good start, but I'm here to tell you that a commercial website is not a library.  It is a funnel.

Remember that the purpose of your site is to get your user to perform a specific action.  No matter how a visitor reaches your site or what their point of entry is, you should always be funneling them toward your goal.  This is more than having a navigation system that keeps them within a click of every other page.  It means punctuating every topic of content with a call to action:

Blah blah blah enough about me.

Purchase now at
Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Borders, Chapters,
or your favorite independent bookstore using IndieBound

If this strikes you as a little pushy, let me assure you this is how successful sites work.  I have tested the revenue generation and user satisfaction of site flows with and without these embedded calls-to-action, and I assure you the sites with them not only generate much more revenue, but users rate these sites higher as well.


Most of the time, a user is visiting a site with a specific goal in mind. Often, they have a specific word in mind, even if it is subconscious. As soon as they get to your site, they will scan for this word, starting with the top of the home page content, and then navigation. Create your menus to match the most likely words the user is looking for.

For example, an author site should have a top-level menu link labelled Books. A common mistake is to omit Books and instead include the actual titles. But if a visitor is not familiar with your work yet, a menu that reads like the one below is confusing, throws off their scan, and can even seem like a rude inside joke:
  • Home
  • Stephen
  • The Shining
  • Thinner
  • Rose Madder
  • Appearances
  • Contact
Your top-level navigation needs to have the simple keywords a new visitor would look for, and more detailed or custom keywords should go in submenus or other link lists.

I think a reasonable organization for a typical author website would look like the one below.  Omit those that don't apply, and remember that EVERY page should have an invitation to Buy Now.
  • Home (list the latest news here)
  • About the Author
    • Bio (emphasis on writing and relationship to subject matter)
    • Links to past interviews/video/transcripts/etc
  • Books
    • Title1
      • Description
      • Praise & Awards
      • Excerpt
  • Coming Soon
    • Title2  (or Untitled Work-In-Progress)
      • Description
      • Status
      • Release time frame
      • How to get announcements
  • Resources (Particularly if you write about coping, such as with alcoholism or a specific disability, consider including links to associations or communities dedicated to this subject.)
  • Appearances
    • Calendar
    • Links to past interviews/video/transcripts/etc.
  • Forum
  • Blog
  • Contact (email address, blogs, facebook, twitter, etc.)

Let me know what you think. 

Next up in this series: Functional Design Considerations.  That one will be short, I promise!

Friday, May 14, 2010

O Bliss!

I'm still working on the last few installments of Kate's Guide to Author Websites, but first this breaking news:

I have the greatest husband evah!

A few months ago I told him offhandedly what I wanted for my birthday: complete sets of two out-of-print mystery series by one of my favorite authors.  I said this in the way one might wish for world peace or children who never say embarrassing things.

Well, Happy Birthday to Me!  Today I found all fourteen books nestled into my spot on the sofa.  Two of them are even the same novel under different titles; Dear Husband just wanted to make sure I had a really complete set!

The books, by the way, are Sheri S. Tepper's Shirley McClintock and Jason Lynx mysteries, originally published under the pseudonyms B.J. Oliphant and A.J. Orde respectively.  Sheri told me once that they're like popcorn; she wrote them on breaks between her heavy science fiction/fantasy epics.  I think there's a lesson or two in there...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Visual Design Considerations

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Visual Design Considerations

This is a vast field so I'm just going to stick with the tips that I think will be most helpful to non-professionals.  I'm assuming you are using a tool to create your design.

Where to Start

If the very idea of designing your own website gives you hives, I suggest you hire a pro or simply use a template/theme you like on one of the sites I've already recommended. 

But if you plan to design your site from scratch or modify a template/theme, I recommend you start your visual design process by collecting the images you know you will include: book covers, portrait, and your logo if you have one.  Then add a set of colors and fonts.  Then add other graphics if you like.  Now step back and make sure it all goes together and isn't too much.

If your books suggest a specific aesthetic - like steampunk, hippie, french country, or Atlantian, you should by all means reflect that in your design.  If you don't know, ask your readers!  If your books are too disparate to pin down, then just go with your personal taste.  Use Google to find web template galleries and design galleries for ideas.

I personally happen to love interior design, and find the visual web design process quite similar, so I often browse decorating magazines for inspiration. I look for the way colors are used together, the lighting, scale, and the balance of elements.

Although simplicity is fine, it really is important to have a coherent and complete look.  Google is probably the only site in the world that can get away with one pic and a handful of tiny words on a big white page.


There are two kinds of text on web pages.  There is regular text data, and then there are pictures of text.  You can tell the difference in any page by attempting to select the text the way you would in a word processor.  This is text data you are reading right now, while the big word "Google" on the Google home page is an image.

The difference is important for two reasons.  First, when you create images with text in Paint, Photoshop or other design tools, you can use any font you have installed on your system (and another several million you can get online).   That font is converted to an image that is sent to your user's system the same way a photo is.  But regular text is sent as simple strings of letters, and is rendered in a font that resides on your user's computer.  If all they have is Helvetica, your text data will be displayed to them in Helvetica.  All you can do is specify your first few choices, and a default font family.  Sans-serif fonts are thought to be the most readable, so this is what I recommend.

The second difference between regular text data and images of text is searchability.  The Google search engine has no idea what its own logo says.  (It only knows that the HTML img element has an alt attribute that says "Google".)  For this reason, and also because it requires a lot more bytes and therefore slower download times, image-text is generally only appropriate for logos, titles, and navigation.


I could talk all day about color theory, but at the end of the day, you just know what you think looks good.  Here's the important stuff:
  • Website colors are specified in RGB values, unlike colors for printing, which are CMYK.
  • Aside from graphic images, there are two primary uses of color on websites:
    • Highlight text, particularly headers and links.
    • Blocks of background colors that visually contain discrete chunks of information on the page.
  • Website color is a little unreliable.  Go ahead and use any of 32 million colors, but be aware that they will look a little different on different screens, and very different on a tiny number of really primitive screens.  The bigger issue with color is that a significant number of users, especially men, have some form of color blindness.  Generally speaking, you should avoid color-coding.
  • Anywhere you need contrast, such as contrasting text to background, you need to contrast in value: light next to dark.  For example, use black-on-white, yellow-on-black, or light blue on dark blue, but don't use bright red on bright green.
  • Excluding images, limit your color palette to four or five colors.  If you are unsure about mixing colors, just choose two or three.  If you are really scared, use a few (not too similar) shades of the same hue.  Here is a nice deck of colors that makes this easy (scroll down a bit to get to the good stuff).  But if you really want to play, check out Kuler.

Creating/sourcing/editing/optimizing images is out of scope here, but please keep the following in mind:
  • Don't rip off graphics; we artists need to stick together.  Buy photos and illustrations on sites like, get them free on, or use images you created yourself.
  • Monitors typically display in 72dpi, so you require much lower resolution online than in print (300dpi). Use whatever photo management program you have (and you almost certainly have one) to crop and compress the images as much as you can while maintaining an acceptable level of quality.  This may take some experimentation, but is enormously important for download times.  There is no better way to push away users than to have a slow site.

Depending on your design tool, you may be limited in your layout choices; this section is primarily for those of you creating your websites manually.
  • Keep your visual elements organized and lined up.  One hallmark of an amateur site is a bunch of randomly sized photos randomly strewn on a page.
  • Balance! Balance! Balance!  Use layout to balance positive and negative space, frame discrete blocks of content, and make the page easier to scan.  Another hallmark of an amateur site is a single wide column of text, usually with a ton of white space beneath it.
  • Liquid layout, in which a column width changes when the browser width changes, makes is difficult to control visual balance.
  • Test in as many browsers and devices as you can. Test resizing, zooming, and changing text size.
  • Using frames is very old school and poorly supported.  Use divs.
I hope you find this helpful.  Next up: informational and functional design considerations.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kate's Guide to Author Websites, Part III

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Design Considerations: Business Before Cool (A Prologue)

Web design is a vast, multidisciplinary field.  In order to boil it down to the most important points, I need to start by making one thing very very clear:

The purpose of a commercial website is to compel the user to take a specific action.
This is a point that tends to get lost in all the creative and technical geegawry, one that even a lot of professionals forget, so I'm going to say it again.

The purpose of a commercial website is to compel the user to take a specific action.

Your author website is a commercial website.  You may not want to think of yourself this way, but you aren't stupid; you know this is business.  So approach your website design as a matter of business. 

I'm going to discuss design considerations in three parts: visual, informational, and functional.  But since all of these play a role in getting your user to do something, your first order of business is to determine what that is.  For fiction writers, the purpose of the website is probably going to look like this:
  • If you have a book on the market, you want your visitor to buy it.
  • If you expect to have a book out at any time in the future, you want your visitor to pre-order it as soon as becomes available.
  • You want agents and publishers to request your work.
  • You want retailers to stock your book.
  • You want potential reviewers to review your book, and review it positively.
  • You want potential interviewers to interview you.
Make your own list now, and keep it next to you as you create your site.  Now you agonize over how to actually make these things happen, right?  Well, the general answer is of course to make your books and yourself sound interesting.  And while that may be the grossest oversimplification since "the world is big," there is one little secret about the web that should make you feel better:
Making a person want to do something is not difficult; real success is determined by how easy you make it for them to carry out.
So now put yourself in your various visitors' shoes and make a list of all the ways you can make the above actions easy for them, easy enough to overcome whatever objections or obstacles they might have.  Here are some examples:
  • Including interesting facts about yourself and your relationship to your subject makes it easier for a reviewer to write a compelling article.
  • Demonstrating that you are articulate about yourself, your book and your writing process assures interviewers that you would make a good guest.
  • Displaying an email address (your's or your agents') allows industry folks to get in touch as well as fans.
  • Having purchase links displayed everywhere a book is mentioned makes it easier for a visitor to buy your book the moment they decide they want it.  Especially mention if it is available on kindle/nook/etc.
  • Fair linking (including all major retailers and indies) helps buyers get your book from their preferred retailer, and assures retailers you aren't undermining them.
  • Having direct links to your twitter, facebook, and blog pages makes it easier for them to stay connected.  Likewise, allowing them to sign up for email notification of new books lets newsfeed-weary users get just the information they want.
You're probably thinking this stuff all sounds obvious, and that you were planning to include it all along.  I'm making a big deal of it because I want you make a big deal of it, and not unthinkingly bury it as so many amateurs do.  When I worked at WellKnownInternetCompany, we received 100% of our revenue directly from consumers who purchased services on our websites, so we had to make a science of ushering them to the finish line.  I know first-hand what a significant difference you can make designing purposefully, so I'll be discussing visual, informational, and functional design explicitly in terms of how it efficiently it compels and facilitates users to take the actions you want them to.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Kate's Guide to Author Websites, Part II

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Choosing Your Path
The nuts and bolts of getting your author website up and running involves three basic actions:
  1. Register a domain name.
  2. Choose a hosting service.
  3. Create the website itself.
Unfortunately, you really shouldn't look at these as a step-by-step process of decision making, because they are deeply interdependant. Deciding on a path is like building a tasty, well-balanced meal from a bunch of casseroles.

Click on the links above for details about each.  However, it's a lot of information, so I'll make it easy for you by providing three options you can use right now with no further fuss.

Path One
Make a website here on  If you don't want to extend your existing blog, create a new one.  Use a different email address if you need to (I recommend creating one on  Go to Customize->Posting->Edit Pages to create new pages, and add navigation.  Under Settings->Publishing->Custom domain, you can purchase a domain name for $10/yr.  Your blog is still hosted for free here on Blogger, but both the original and your new domain name will both point to it.

Path Two
If you want something less bloggy, go to and create a free website.  The process is self-explanatory.  If you like what you come up with, go to the settings tab and click on Change site address.  Choose Register a domain if you don't already have one.  They will do the DNS setup for you and charge about $40/year.  If you want to save a little money but have a little more work to do, purchase the domain at for about $10/year first.

Path Three
Hire a professional and let them handle all this stuff.  I'll talk more about hiring a professional in a later installment, but perhaps the most interesting point is that it will probably cost at least $2000 if it's worth doing at all, and there are still lots of decisions to make.  So actually, there is some fuss with this one.

Check back for Part III: Design Considerations

Monday, May 3, 2010

Do-It-Yourself Web Development

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

I'm assuming that you are not a web developer yourself, and that you will need either a tool to create your site (similar to creating a blog) or you will hire a professional web designer/developer.

I'll talk more about hiring a pro in a later installment, but if you go the do-it-yourself route, there are many ways to easily create great-looking author websites.

If you are here, you probably already blog.  Blogs can be customized to the point that they look like a regular website, and they can run under your own domain name.
  • Here on, go to Customize->Posting->Edit Pages to create new pages and add navigation. Under the Settings->Publishing tab, you can specify your own domain name. Your blog is still hosted for free here on Blogger, but both the original and your new domain name will both point to it.
  • WordPress is another highly-customizable blogging platform (really a Content Management System or CMS) that can be also run on your own host/web server. Doing so allows even more customization and you can eliminate the “Powered by WordPress” branding. This requires a little more technical knowledge, but the super-customized results can be seriously professional – many high profile, big-company sites run on WordPress. Joomla and Drupal are other popular CMS’s that you might hear about.

Hosting Service Tools
Many hosting services provide other tools to create websites using templates and components while still allowing you to use your own domain name. Many are even free, such as
  • Only consider such hosts that promise not display ads on your site.
  • The template quality and options vary widely, so you might want to try out several of these free services to find the one that gives you the best results.
  • Download speed is important. Some of these services create very bloated web pages, or have slow servers, or are on the other side of the world, any of which can make your site take forever to load in a typical visitor’s browser, and people tend to abandon slow sites.
  • Make sure the created site works on all major browsers. For example, creates slick flash animation sites (though you have to pay to use your own domain name). The downside is that not all of your visitors will have the flash player installed, and it’s not supported on the iPhone.  I’ll talk more about browser compatibility in a later installment.
  • The main downside of using these template-based sites is that they tend not to be very flexible and your site may look an awful lot like a lot of other sites.
  • The other minor downside is that you probably can’t take the template with you if you move to another host. Since you’ll probably be moving in order to update the look of your site anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much about this.

Website Creation Software
You may have heard about WYSIWYG website creation software.  Examples are Adobe Dreamweaver and Microsoft Expression.  These purport to be easy to use and are advertised with phrases like No Coding Required!  What they don't tell you is that you still have to understand the code (plus a lot more) to make the tools really work for you.  So try out free versions if you want to, but without basic working knowledge of HTML/XHTML and CSS you will probably get very frustrated very quickly, and you will still have to figure out how to test your site and publish it to an actual hosted web server.

Another option that might seem appealing is using the “Publish to Web” feature in your word processor. I do not recommend this. The web pages these generate are not standard and are not well supported by browsers. They simply aren’t going to give you professional-looking results.

Choosing a Hosting Service

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

Your website must live on a web server. A hosting service is basically a company that owns web servers and rents space on them.

I recommend you decide whether you will create your website yourself or hire a pro before choosing a host.  If you hire a pro they can help you with the hosting decision.  If you create your website yourself, you will probably want a host that has tools to help you do this and create your site for free.

The details:
  • Expect to pay $0 to $20 per month.
  • There are different kinds of web servers running different kinds of programs and different kinds of sites. However, a typical author website should be able to run on practically any kind of web server.
  • Look for a hosting service that has a guaranteed availability (or uptime) of 99.9% or better. This assures you that your visitors will be able to get to your site any time.
  • Look for a hosting service with excellent customer service, preferably one with a prominently displayed phone number that is answered by a real person 24x7x365.
  • If they offer multiple packages, the lowest-priced one will usually more-than-suffice for a typical author website, and you can always upgrade or move later if necessary.
  • Most hosting services also offer domain name registration, but make sure you actually own any domain you reserve with them and get it take it with you if you change services.  This is almost always the case with larger providers.
  • Many hosting services offer free or inexpensive tools that allow you to develop your own website similar to the way you customize your blog.  In fact blog sites themselves are free hosting services, and these days you can make your blog look very much like a regular website by simply adding pages.
  • Many web developers and development firms also offer hosting. Although they may not guarantee 99.9% uptime or answer the phone at 4am, this disadvantage may be offset by the fact that they know you and your site and may be more comfortable for you to deal with. Others resell hosting services from larger providers, potentially giving you the best of both worlds.
  • Avoid using a small hosting company in a different part of the world. They are unlikely to have servers near your visitors (which impacts download times), and may be difficult to communicate with. 
  • If you are a minimally technical person and want to create your website yourself on the cheap, I recommend using  It is free and has an easy website creation tool, and unlike some such sites, weebly doesn't charge extra to use your own domain name (though they do charge a premium to register it for you).  There are two main downsides.  The first is that the site might look more simple and less unique than you'd like, and the second is that you have to pay extra if you don't want the "Create free website with Weebly" branding at the bottom of the page.  However, you can always move to something more sophisticated later if you feel compelled to.

Buying Your Own Domain Name

This is part of Kate's Guide to Author Websites.

If you plan to have a professional author website, you will need your own domain name. Although may look better and be easier to remember than, the real reason you need to own your own domain name is to be able to print it in books and know that as long as you pay your bill it will belong to you no matter how many times you update or move the website itself. Here is a cautionary tale of why this is so important.

Now the facts:
  • Registering a domain name just takes a few minutes from any of a zillion online services (google to see what I mean). You can almost always buy it from your host or developer as well.
  • Expect to pay around $10 a year.  There is usually a discount for buying more than one year up front.
  • Be absolutely certain that YOU own the domain. Sometimes web development firms or hosting sites will register a domain name on your behalf, but you only get to use it as long as you are their customer (and they stay in business). The whole point of getting your own domain is to be able to take it with you.
  • For an author site, you should naturally use your name as it appears on your books, preferably followed by .com or the most prevalent commercial suffix for your geographic region:, If that isn't available, add the word "books" to the end of your name:
  • If you check with a registration service and discover your name is available, I recommend you purchase it immediately. Likewise, don't discuss your specific domain name ideas in public forums. There are some unscrupulous people out there who, upon learning someone is interested in a specific domain name, will buy it up and then offer to sell it back to you at an outrageous price.
  • If you checked your name a while back and it was in use, try checking again. There used to be companies that would buy every name in the phone book. Thankfully, most of these companies seem to have gone out of business and zillions of names are back on the general market.
  • Once you have purchased a domain name, you will have to "point it" to your website.  This is process is usually called DNS setup.  This can happen in a lot of ways, but if you use the same company to both register and host your site, it will usually do this for you.  Generally, if you sign up with a different host, they will give you one or two name servers.  You then provide the name servers to the domain registrar.  It might sound a little complicated right now, but in practice is really simple.
  • If you are buying a domain name by itself, I recommend using  Their prices are competitive and they have very good 24x7 phone support.  The main downside is that they try to upsell you to death.
  • Although often included automatically, it is worth paying a bit extra for private domain registration.  Anyone can look up who owns a domain name, and this information includes an address.  As an author, you probably don't want your address visible to overzealous fans.  Domain registration privacy service hides it.  This also protects you from a lot of spam.