Friday, August 26, 2016

Wood on Words Episode 7- Author Websites

How to create an effective author website.


Indie Publishing Success- Author Websites

Listen to the companion podcast episode.

A web presence is an important tool for the successful indie author. It's one of the places readers can learn about our books, get news about our new releases, and sign up for our newsletter. But what should our website look like? What should it contain? A few helpful tips:

Think like a reader
Your website isn't for you (nor is your book cover, but we'll talk about that another time). It's not a place for creative self-expression. It's a tool for selling books, which means it should be consumer-focused.Your website should be designed with discovery and ease of purchase in mind.

-Keep it clean and uncluttered. Don't make me work to find your catalog of books, news of new release,  your newsletter opt-in, and a contact form.

-White space is your friend. The text sections on my site are black text on white background.

-Avoid light fonts on dark backgrounds. Horror writers, I'm looking at you. I don't want red text on a black background.

-Don't overload me with text. I want to find your books, in order, see the cover image, read a short synopsis, and click on a "buy" link.

-Make it easy to navigate. The modern consumer wants convenience. Reading is a leisure activity. If I have to work to find what I want on your site, I'll go elsewhere, and maybe even give my money to someone else.

- Avoid videos or music that automatically start playing, and things that make for slow loading. Many of us still live in areas where the only available internet service is slow. (Also, it's obnoxious.) Watch out for flash, as it's unsupported on some devices.

-How does it look in mobile? Lots of people browse and shop on their phone or tablet, so make sure your site is easy to navigate on a mobile device.

-Does overall "feel" of the website match the sorts of books you write? A science fiction writer's website should have a different vibe than a writer of cozy mystery. That doesn't mean you should go over the top with your design. Just consider the overall feel. If you write in a wide variety of genres, consider a simple, professional design that says "author" but doesn't necessarily imply a genre.

-Design with an eye to the future. Choose a look that won't need a massive overhaul every time you choose to branch out as a writer.

-Choose a url that identifies with you as a writer. If you also want to secure urls for your character or series names, and link them to your site, that's fine, but don't make them primary.

-Start with the essentials: Complete catalog of books, grouped by series and listed in order; newsletter opt-in; a place for news of new releases.

-Individual books pages should be simple. This isn't the place for lengthy reflection on the work or your writing process. It needs a cover image, product description, and "Buy" links. When creating those links, be sure to select the "Open in another window" option so the reader isn't forced to leave your site. If you're publishing "wide" (on stores other than Amazon/Kindle), includes those links, too, at least to the major stores.

-Links that support your social media presence: Facebook author page, Twitter, and your Amazon author page are the most important. Some authors load up their business cards with urls for all the above. I don't like a cluttered business card, so I put only my website url on my card and make sure links to the other important sites are easy to find.

- Consider having an "About " section with a little bit about you. Your interests, particularly those which impact your writing, your favorite authors or books, a few photos of you. This isn't an essential, but it's good for self-revelation and building connections with the readers who are interested in learning a bit more about you. "Hey! He likes Neil Gaiman too!" "Whoa! She and I both prefer the Battlestar Galactica reboot to the original!" "Wow! We're both into..." If you've won awards, list them here, particularly if they're prestigious awards.

My Own Website
My site isn't perfect and I'm in the process of streamlining it. (The indie author life is a perpetual treadmill of refining, adapting, revising, re-thinking...) My Catalog section, in particular, is problematic. The catalog page shows my various series in order, but when the reader places the cursor over the Catalog link in the main bar, it shows a drop-down menu of all my books. Thus, it isn't clear that the reader could click on the word "Catalog" and navigate to a catalog page. That's #1 on my "to correct" list.

My site includes:
Catalog of books
Blog- This is where I share news and notes.
A page for my lesser-known pen name
About Me
Contact Form
Translated Works
A separate page for audiobooks I'm on the fence about keeping this page. I've been told by successful indies that Audible, in particular, likes for audiobooks to be listed separately, though it's rare for an author to get much love from Audible unless you're a "big hitter." I do all right, and Audible hasn't featured me in a long time. 

My newsletter opt-in is a small box in the sidebar of every page. It's small, unobtrusive, and easy to find. I also use a pop-up.

In addition to Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon author links, my links section includes my podcasts, YouTube channel, and a link to International Thriller Writers, the professional organization of which I'm a member. If you're a member of such an organization, there's no harm in including links as a subtle form of social proof. I also include a link to Indiebound. Many indie booksellers frown on authors who only link to Amazon.

Frequently Asked Questions

What hosting service should I use?
There are too many to list here. I use GoDaddy and Wordpress, but there are many options.

I'm broke. Do I need a hosted domain?
At minimum, you need a custom domain name, preferably not too complex. It looks more professional and makes for easy browsing.Others might disagree, but I think you can make use of a free service like Wix or Blogger and produce a professional-looking site that incorporates the essentials.

Do I need to maintain a separate blog?
No. If you see a successful author who's still maintaining a blog that's entirely separate from her/his website, it's probably because said blog has been around for a while, had lots of traffic, and the author doesn't want to lose the blog. If you're starting out, go with a site that has both. Give the reader the complete experience at one site.

But what about [insert author name here]? His/her website breaks all the rules. Why can't I?
Some authors succeed in spite of the choices they make. Some are so successful that it doesn't matter what their website looks like. Ultimately, your website isn't going to make or break you. Theoretically, you could have a successful career with no website at all. A website is simply another tool at your disposal that can potentially enhance your success, and following the practices that have worked for other authors probably gives you your best chance at success.

But..but... my [friend/partner/seven Twitter followers] says my website looks awesome, even though it breaks all the rules.
Did you ask the right questions?
Don't ask "How does this look?" "What do you think?" or "Does this look cool to you?" 
Instead, ask things like, "When you go to my website, how long did it take you to find all my books in order?" or "How hard was it to sign up for my newsletter?" or "When you first look at my site, in what genre do you think I write?" (Hey, that rhymes!" or "Can you tell, at first glance, that this is the website of a professional author?"

Also, remember the limited value of small sample sizes, and of people who already know and like you and your work. If I get 100 of my dedicated readers to give me feedback on my site, that's of limited value. They only represent a tiny fraction of my core readership, and they already like my work, so they're likely to be biased. I'm better off looking at the websites of, and seeking advice from, a large number of successful authors and finding out what works.

Should I sell book off of my site?
There's no harm in setting up a digital site through a site like Selz or Gumroad, but I've found that I get little return for the amount of time I invest. The average consumer values convenience over price, and doesn't want to bother with side-loading a book or even emailing it to him/herself.

I hope this has been helpful. Feel free to ask questions, add thoughts and suggestion, or disagree in the comments or using the contact form!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Wood on Words Episode 6- Depression and the Writing Life

What are some steps a writer dealing with depression can take to avoid potential problems caused by the nature of the full-time writing life?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On Writing by Stephen King

One of my all time favorite books on writing is the fittingly-titled On Writing by Stephen King. It is subtitled A Memoir of the Craft, which is fitting, because the book is heavy on memoir and light on writing tips. That's not a bad thing, though.

King takes us on an autobiographical journey, beginning with his early childhood. We learn about life experiences that informed or impacted his development as a writer and his journey to publication.

Along the way, he shares his philosophies on writing, and there are lessons to be gleaned, both explicitly and inductively. Some of his perspectives, such as the notion that stories are "found objects" that the writer unearths from her/his subconscious, are not universally agreed-upon, and might not work for everyone, but they're interesting nonetheless. The actual "writing advice" section is more for beginners, but still useful for a writer at any level.

I'm a fan of the audiobook, which King narrates, but On Writing is available in print and ebook if you aren't an audio junkie like me.

Buy On Writing from the Google Bookstore.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Depression and the Writing Life

Listen to the Companion Podcast Episode

Let me first say that I've suffered from depression and I struggle at times to do the things I'm going to suggest below, so this is a subject that's important to me. Creative writing, both as a hobby and a profession, seems to hold a great deal of appeal for people in my shoes. Perhaps it’s the appeal of setting one’s own schedule, staying home when you don’t feel you can face the world, and losing yourself inside your fictitious worlds. I know that for much of my life, although I usually enjoyed my jobs, I always fantasized about the day when I could sit in a chair and make up stories for a living. I viewed it as an escape and a solution.

I frequently hear tell of other writers for whom the dragon has proven too powerful to slay. Many of them find themselves unable to keep up with their professional obligations, or even put words on the page on a regular basis. Some have let their productivity wane to the point they turn to crowdfunding just to cover their living expenses. Others have even found that the nature of full-time writing led to more severe mental illnesses. It all makes me wonder if a writing career is, in fact, a bad choice for people who struggle with serious depression. Here are a few thoughts as to why full-time writing might not be the best fit:

Writing is a solitary endeavor.

The full-time writer has to make an effort to get out and interact with other people. For a person struggling with depression, this isn't easy. It's especially difficult for a writer who lives alone.

Writing is sedentary.

I know some writers take long walks and dictate their books into a recorder, and others who experiment with things like treadmill desks, but most of us are sitting in a chair for long hours at a time. Exercise is a great way to combat depression and the average writer tends to get a lot less than other people.

Writing tends to happen indoors.

Yes, you can take your laptop or notebook outside and work, but I find that the glare on my screen or the wind blowing my pages around makes it not worth the effort. Sunshine and fresh air make a big difference in combating depression, but most of us stay inside and tap away at the keyboards.

A full-time writer must be self-motivated.

Your editor or your readers will harass, or politely encourage you to finish your next book, but unless they're showing up at your door, hauling you out of bed, and standing behind you while you work, they won't have much impact on your productivity. I am fortunate that, although I do battle depression, I'm also cursed/blessed with a solid work ethic. This too has its downsides, but I always manage to roll out of bed and get to work. Some of my days are more productive than others, but I never completely shut down. Getting up and going about your daily routine is critical in the fight against depression.

If you're battling depression and want to be a full-time writer, be sure to put systems in place to make sure you take care of yourself: medication, counseling, regular exercise, interaction with others, and the ability to stick to a writing schedule no matter how high or low you feel on a given day. You can do it, but you have to be the one to make it happen. A few suggestions:

Go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up fairly early. (This one is my biggest challenges.)  Staying up into the wee hours of the night, and either waking up sleep-deprived or sleeping late into the day fuels depression, saps productivity, and carries negative consequences for your health. I've recently asked my wife to help me out with this. 

Start your day with some kind of exercise. I find that even a short walk at the beginning of the day improves my mood, makes me feel better about myself and my writing, and actually enhances productivity. If I tell myself, "I'll finish my writing first and then take my walk" there's a good chance I won't do it.

Get out of the house. If you're already writing full-time, schedule some time away, preferably where you'll interact with other people. Take a class, volunteer, get active in a religious or service group, take up a sport. I've coaches sports, volunteered in my daughter's school and gymnastics academy, and at my local Ren Faire. I like to work in my favorite coffeehouse on a regular basis. I've gotten to know the staff a bit, it's a nice environment, and the change of scenery is good for me.

Set small, attainable writing goals. I find that I'm better off telling myself I'm going to write a minimum of 250 or 500 words a day than if I set a goal of 1,500-3,000 a day. Reaching my minimum goal gives me a sense of accomplishment and fuels me to keep writing. I typically write a lot more, but on busy days, I can knock out 250 and feel okay about myself.

Develop consistent writing habits before you go full-time. If you're not able to meet small, manageable writing goals on a regular basis, going full-time won't solve your problem.

None of this is intended to discourage anyone who is in the situation I was a few years ago. It's absolutely possible to be an author while also dealing with depression, but don't build it up in your mind as a magical solution to all of your problems. If you want to write, go ahead and do it. Some writers find they are actually happier and more productive in their writing when they have a day job that takes them out of the house and affords them interaction with others, and gives them a finite, established window of writing time. They spend their day thinking about writing and reward themselves at the end of the day with a writing session. And please, don't buy into the myth that mental illness fuels creativity. Writing is work, it's a craft, and you have all the same tools at your disposal whether you are up or down, medicated or unmedicated.

The full-time writing career is neither a magical world nor a magic pill. It's a job, but it can be the greatest job in the world. Good luck!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Indie Publishing Success- Mailing Lists and Newsletters

Listen to the Companion Podcast

If I were starting my indie publishing journey today, the first thing I would do (aside from writing, of course) would be to set up a mailing list for my newsletter. I think they're critical for the successful indie author and helpful for traditionally-published authors as well.

Benefits of Mailing Lists

Active engagement with your readership.
Opportunities to generate goodwill.
The means to reach readers without relying on Amazon or other distributors.
A nice sales boost on release day, which can help you gain visibility on bestseller charts and "Also Boughts."

Mailing List Options

There are several options for setting up automated, easy to manage mailing lists. A few of the most common are:
-Constant Contact
-Mailer Lite

-MailChimp is popular with indies who are just starting out because its "Forever Free" plan is free until you reach 2,000 subscribers. Once you exceed that threshold, you must switch over to a monthly plan.
-Mailer Lite is free for the first 1,000 subscribers. The price then goes up to $10 a month, and then goes up another $10 when you hit 5,000, 10,000 and so on.
-AWeber is significantly more expensive. The cost is $19 a month for the first 500 subscribers, jumps to $29 a month, then to $49 a month at 2,500, $69 a month at 5,000, and a whopping $149 a month at 10,000. Users who like AWeber praise its thorough data reports, large selection of templates, quality customer care, and other features.
-Constant Contact begins at $20 a month for the first 500 subscribers, then goes to $40 a month, then $60 at the 2,500 mark, and $90 a month by the time you reach 5,000 subscribers. (Modest discounts for paying six or twelve months at a time.)

I like MailChimp. It wasn't too difficult to set up and use, and there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube to help you through. I'm not quite at 2,000 subscribers, but at my current level, the monthly fees won't be prohibitive. If I were starting out, though, I'd definitely give consideration to Mailer Lite.

Best Practices for Mailing Lists

Use an Email Address from a Custom Domain
If you set up your newsletter using an email from somewhere like Yahoo or Gmail, it's likely to be filtered out as spam on many servers, and your readers won't see it. My newsletter, for example, is sent from an address.

Offer an Incentive for Subscribing
Give newsletter readers something free as a reward for subscribing. I give away a free ebook to my subscribers. The link to the free book comes in the automated "Welcome" email a subscriber receives after confirming her/his subscription.

This free book is -not- one of my "perma-free" books that's available on various ebook retailers. You don't want to insult your readers by offering a free ebook with subscription, and then giving them a book they could have gotten for free elsewhere.

I chose a book that isn't among my bestsellers, but is a good book and gives the reader a good feel for most of my other titles, but you don't have to give away a book. When I had only a few titles to choose from, I gave away an interview with the main characters of my most popular series. Later I changed it to a free short story. A free book is great, but what's most important is that it's a free reward, and it's something subscribers can't get for free (or at all) anywhere else.

For giving away a free ebook, Bookfunnel is an amazing, easy-to-use, service that automates the process. The cost for one author is $20 a year. If you don't feel you're at that point yet, you can do something as simple as uploading a pdf to your website and sharing the media link.
*When you set up your mailing list, one of the things you will set up is a "Welcome" email. A reader subscribes to your newsletter, then receives a "Click to Confirm" email. Once they click to confirm, they receive a "Welcome" email. This is where you will put the link to the free ebook. My "Welcome" email is short and simple. It's basically "Thanks for subscribing" and "Click here to receive your free ebook."

Put the Invitation to Subscribe Inside Your Ebooks
This is essential. Put the invitation to subscribe immediately after "The End." Don't put it after a page break because when the reader swipes past "The End" in certain ebooks (Kindle, in particular) a new page opens advertising other books. Therefore, they might not see your invitation if you don't put it on the last page of your book. Some authors choose to also put the invitation at the beginning of the book. Unfortunately, Kindle books tend to open directly to the Prologue or Chapter 1, so the reader won't see that invite unless (s)he swipes backward. There's no harm in also putting the invite up front but I don't know how many readers will see it.

Put the Invitation on Your Website, Facebook Author Page, etc...
Make it easy to find on your website. On my website, it appears in a small box on the sidebar of every page. It's unobtrusive, but easy to see.
I also have a pop-up invitation that appears when someone visits my website. It shows up once, and once it is closed, doesn't appear again. This is particularly helpful for visitors using mobile devices. Otherwise, the mailing list invite isn't so noticeable. MailChimp (and probably the other services) provides a simple html code to enable the popup.

With a Facebook author page, you can enable an "Email Signup" tab that lets you add a subscription form.

The "What/When/How" of Newsletters

My newsletters typically include:

-New release (Book description and buy links)
-An upcoming sale, a teaser, something I want to call attention to, or a short message/reflection/essay/article.
-A Giveaway.

The sidebar contains a small "What's Coming Up" text box with a few bullet points to hopefully pique readers' interest. I also include a few images of book covers, usually ones I want to call attention to, with little or no accompanying text.

Overall, keep your newsletter clean, easy to read, and keep all the sections short enough that readers don't feel overwhelmed. 

I send out a newsletter when I release a new book. Because I work with co-authors, this means I'm typically sending out six newsletters a year. Some authors choose to send one a month. I find that "open" rates decline sharply if I'm not announcing a new release.

Here's an example:

Notes on Giveaways:
I like to give something away with every newsletter. Usually it's a signed book. With each newsletter, I include a "Signed Book Giveaway" section at the bottom. I tell what book I'm giving away and ask that they simply reply to this email with the note "Please enter me in the giveaway." When the next newsletter comes out, I announce the previous winner and ask him/her to let me know where to send it.On occasion, I'll offer a free download code from Smashwords or a limited number of audiobooks from Audible, using the free codes ACX provides. These don't get nearly the engagement that signed books do, but it's still a free reward to subscribers.

I only give away one book per newsletter and sometimes it's the same book for several months in a row. What matters is that I'm giving them something free that non-subscribers can't get. Also, a single paperback doesn't cost much to mail, especially with USPS's "media mail" option.

Some authors simply choose the winner from their entire list rather than having readers reply to enter. I prefer replies because it increases engagement and rewards the readers who actually read my newsletter.

Pay Attention to  Data and Results

Your service provider will give you results from your email campaigns, such as how many subscribers opened a given newsletter and how many clicked on a link contained within. "Open rates" and "click rates" don't tell the whole story, but pay attention to them. Do you get significantly better results on a certain day of the week or a given time of day? You can even segment your list, sending it out in sections, in order to compare times of day.

For example, one very successful author in my network has found that Saturdays and Sundays are the worst days for her list. She also gets maximum results from her list by sending one segment to her less-engaged readers in the early afternoon, and hitting her most engaged readers in the evening. Of course, every author and audience will be different, so find out what works for you and yours.

If results of a given newsletter are subpar, consider all the factors. Look at the subject line in the header. Was it compelling? What sort of content did you include? Were your entries too long? Were you promoting a series that's less popular? Was the date and time of day a factor? Analyzing results, whether it's newsletter opens, book sales, ad views, or many other things, is important for indie success.

Ideas for Reaching New Subscribers

-Immediately prior to sending out a newsletter, make an announcement through your social media that the newsletter is coming up and mention exclusive content. "Next newsletter comes out Tuesday. Subscribe for a chance to be entered in exclusive signed book giveaways."
-As mentioned above, include the invite in your ebooks and on your website and Facebook page.
-Run a contest in which everyone who subscribes  is automatically entered. (Many authors recommend creating a separate list for contest subscribers, as they tend to be much less engaged than readers who reach you organically.)
-Run a Facebook ad advertising the "free book when you subscribe." (I wouldn't recommend using this strategy if you're only giving stories or something else small. With so many authors using this strategy to give away books or even collections, giving away something less risks the first impression you make being a negative one.)

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I set up my mailing list? 
Do it now! If you haven't yet published your first book, go ahead and set it up so that you may include the invitation to subscribe when you publish your book.

How much is too much?
You'll have to figure that out for yourself and your audience, but once a month or even less frequently is my recommendation.

What if I can't write more than one book a year?
In that case, I'd send something out in between, maybe every four or six months. Be sure to make it engaging. Give an update on the work in-progress, share a little something you've learned in your research, maybe a little bit about you, give away a short story or a signed book. Keep it short, interesting, and reader-focused.

Should I set up an auto-responder on Twitter so that, when someone follows me, they immediately receive a direct message inviting them to join my mailing list?

Can you elaborate?
Sure. Twitter is most effective for engaging with other people. It can be a great place to connect with other authors, and sometimes with readers, but it's not an advertising platform. Your first contact with someone shouldn't be an advertisement, and direct messages to someone you don't know are seldom well-received. Don't be that guy (or girl).

Do I have to send everything on the same day?
Not necessarily. Because Amazon rankings take into account sales from previous days, some authors, especially those with large mailing lists, like to segment their list and sent the newsletter out over a period of two or three days in order to avoid the "spike and plummet" that sometimes comes with a single newsletter blast.

Should I periodically cull my list, removing my "least engaged" subscribers?
Probably not. Some readers see the newsletter in their inbox and immediately click over to their preferred store to buy your new book. They don't necessarily read the newsletter. Other readers open your newsletter in mobile, or don't enable images in their email, which can cause the newsletter to show as not having been opened. I don't think it's worth the risk of cutting out readers who are buying your books.

Will some readers sign up for my list just to get the free ebook and then never buy one of my books?
Some will, but those people weren't going to buy your books anyway. Don't worry about them.

My mailing list provider offers a url so people who aren't on my mailing list can view the newsletter. Should I make use of that feature?
I don't think so. It a disincentive to sign up for your mailing list and makes your exclusive newsletter content non-exclusive. If people choose not to sign up for your mailing list because they know they can see the newsletter online, you've lost an opportunity for active engagement with that reader.

That's it for now. Feel free to add questions, thoughts, tips, disagreements in the comments section. Until next time...

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Wood on Words 4- Reader Engagement

     The importance and benefits of making reader engagement a priority from the start.



Buy it on Google Play