Friday, August 26, 2016

Indie Publishing Success- Author Websites


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 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


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!