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.


  1. There's just so much to know about websites and this has been a great series of posts.

    I hope your business takes off. It's clear from today's post how much skill and effort is involved in making a good website and I love what you've done with Wendy Ramer's.

  2. Thanks for all your support, fairyhedgehog!

  3. Just a bit of follow-up: I redid my site after reading though your posts and the results have been good. Before, it was much too busy and hard to read, but now it's friendlier. After going through here again, I have more ideas for improvement. Traffic has been higher and stickier after the revamp. No doubt it could be better yet, but I learn in steps.

    I posted your link to a publisher's author group, and I can only hope that others have benefited as much as I have.

  4. Oh PD, I'm so happy to hear this! Best of luck to you, and thanks so much for sharing the info!