What are some of the most important things an author should think about when considering a website and choosing a designer?
Maddee: There are so many things to think about, but as an overview: write the most important parts well (bio, book descriptions, etc.), organize it in a way that visitors can easily find what they need, and have a site design which expresses you and your writing. Having a professional-looking website says SO much about the seriousness of your writing—while a poorly designed website can be pretty damaging. I always say it's better to not have one at all than to not have it look GOOD. That said, there are certainly authors who have the time and talent to do their own, which is great. And for those of you who can't, there are people like me. When I first started my business in 1998, there weren't too many of us who specialized in author website design. Now there are MANY. And you know what? I love that! I don't consider it competition at all—in fact, I love that there are so many designers for you all to choose from. The joy of it is we all have our own style and so do you—and you can choose the person/company which best fits YOU.
I think the best advice I would give an author in choosing a designer is to first look at lots of author sites to see what appeals to you, and then contact the designers whom you like best. By the way, I definitely suggest working with someone who works with authors regularly—we know so much more about what you need than say someone who designs business websites. They may design lovely sites, but if they don't know what an author needs, or how an author site should be set up, it's not going to get you anywhere. I've been occasionally tempted to take on a photographer (for example) as a client but I realize they really are best served by companies who specialize in photography sites. I love having my little niche and am happy to stick with it! I can't tell you how many authors have come to me with a current website which needs to be completely redone—it was designed by a cousin who didn't know what they were doing, or a faceless conglomerate who didn't pay attention to their needs. That said, here is my quick little list of what to look for in a designer...
- Go with a professional author website designer (as I said above, look at author sites you like and find out who designed them).
- Make sure their style fits what you have in mind.
- Have them commit to a timeframe as to when the site will be LIVE (oh the horror stories about designers who never get sites done).
- Find out how long they "normally" take to do edits (my normal timeframe for edits, for example, is 24 to 48 hours and right away if needed).
- Get the price upfront.
- Email some of their other clients to see how they like working with them.
- Make sure you feel a connection to them—it should be a long-term relationship and you want someone you can trust and relate to.
Most important: it should be a fun process and the final site should be exactly what you had in mind. There is nothing I like better than to show a client a design and have them tell me I "got them." Love that!
What promotional/social networking venues (blogs, facebook, etc.) do I recommend to authors?
Maddee: As we all know, social networking is the big thing right now. Authors all feel like they have to blog, tweet, and commune with fans on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, etc. etc. I would say if you want to get into all that (and yes it's fun and can certainly help gain new readers), just make sure you put your real writing first. If you're pondering blogging, you might want to think about joining or starting a group blog. They are so much more fun, and you attract more readers for all the obvious reasons. I guess in a nutshell, if you're a really social person, all the social networking makes the job of writing even more fun—and if you're not social, try to force yourself to be at least a little bit—as it's a great way to meet both fellow authors and future readers of your books! And by the way one of the great ways to do some of the social networking a bit more time-efficiently is to cross-post—so that what you blog, for example, automatically gets posted to Facebook and Twitter.
What do I think about author branding?
Maddee: It's important for you to build a clear perception of you and your writing, and one of the best ways to do that is obviously through your website identity. One of the first things I ask an author, before I start designing, is what do you want your site to FEEL like? How do you want potential readers to envision you and your books? It's so important! And once we get the website design down, then we can design other things to go along with that: blogs, dang cool Facebook Fan pages, logos, newsletters, business cards, bookmarks, rotating ads, ebook covers, & bookplates -- all which match the author's site. It's exceptionally fun! Examples here and here (in the sidebar).
How much time needs to be devoted to website updates and newsletters to keep an author "out there?"
Maddee: It's certainly good to update a site relatively frequently to keep things fresh. This is not only true to keep visitors coming back, but it's also good for search engines—you will rise higher in the rankings if you regularly update your site. As far as newsletters go, I am a big proponent of them—it's a great (and simple) way for authors to keep in touch with their readers. I design the newsletter template in the style of the author's site (as part of the original design process), so it's a great branding tool as well. Names are collected through "sign up for the mailing list" forms and then newsletters can be sent out every now and then when something new is happening (e.g. a new book, a movie option, an upcoming book tour). It's professional, colorful, and never comes across as spam, since people have signed up for it in advance.
Should even unpublished authors have a website?
Maddee: While the majority of my work is with published authors, I do occasionally take people on who are still looking to be published. I'm pretty choosy—the strength of the person's commitment to their craft is important to me, because I'm serious about my work and I like to work for people who have this same feeling about theirs. Whether you "should" have a site before you have a publishing contract is completely up to you. Some people feel it will show them to be serious so they may be more likely to get an agent and publishing contract. I would stand by the thought that how well you write is what gets you a contract—but that a website (a beautiful one that is!) certainly can't hurt. But one thing I quite definitely suggest is to buy yourname.com domain right away if it's available.
Maddee James is the owner of xuni.com, which designs and builds cool author sites! She thinks she has the best job ever. Period.