Thursday, April 7, 2011

Get the Skinny on Website Design and More by Madeira James

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...

  1. Go with a professional author website designer (as I said above, look at author sites you like and find out who designed them).
  2. Make sure their style fits what you have in mind.
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. Get the price upfront.
  6. Email some of their other clients to see how they like working with them.
  7. 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 domain right away if it's available.

Maddee James is the owner of, which designs and builds cool author sites! She thinks she has the best job ever. Period.


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Maddee,

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on website design and promotion in general. I never knew that updating your website on a regular basis increases your search engine rankings. I'll have to find some way of tweaking it over the next year until my debut is released. :)


Anonymous said...

I'd like to officially second everything Maddee said. You'd be amazed the impact a professionally designed website has. And if you want the best in the business -- both in terms of the beauty of the design, the quality of the site, and the bang for your buck? Look no further than Maddee James.

(Okay, okay, end of commercial... but, seriously, she IS the best).

Carla Buckley said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Maddee! Your websites are instantly recognizable by their beauty and ease of maneuverability, which is exactly what I wanted for my website. I'm very lucky to have you as you my website designer.

One thing I learned in working with you is that it's important for an author to launch their site four to six months in advance of their publication date, so that booksellers, reviewers, librarians, and publishers can access info about your book and help get the buzz going.

Brad's right--Maddee IS a genius!

Al Leverone said...

I'm one of those people whose original website was designed by "a cousin who didn't know what they were doing," except it wasn't my cousin, it was me. And if you know how much technology hates me, you can imagine the result.

But Maddee worked with me to get the absolute perfect website and I can't tell you how many compliments I've received on it since. Not only is she the best at what she does, Madde James is also one of the nicest people you will ever meet!

(End of commercial #2 - but she really is the best)

Maddee James said...

Oh my gosh, three clients all so sweet! First, Tracey, thanks for inviting me -- this is fun!

Brad, I know I've mentioned this before, but my favorite praise we got when we finished your site (thanks Sophie!) was that it made you "look like bad news on a silver platter" - love that. My goal is always to make the site fit the author -- and working with the author to attain this is by far once of the most fun and rewarding things I do. All my clients -- including Brad, Carla and Al -- are so wonderful to work with.

Carla, you hit on one thing that I hear a lot and that I really appreciate -- that my sites are recognizable as sites even though they each fit the author. One thing with yours that is interesting to note is that we both liked the original rendition, but when your paperback came out and we updated the design to fit, we liked that one just as much. While I don't at all think it's necessary to change the design for every book, sometimes it's just right. And it sure was for you!

Al, yours was so great to work on because we took you from technologically challenged to truly professional -- and though the quality of your writing is of course more important, the professional design of your site gave you that extra edge you needed. And you picked out such great images -- they (and you!) were fun to work with!

Thanks for stopping by, everyone!

Rochelle Staab said...

Great post and excellent advice from a real pro who is more than a designer. Maddee took my vague design concepts and brought my site to life. I happily testify to her expertise!

I hope every writer finds a web designer to suit their voice and reflect their taste. Yes, it's up to the author to keep the site active and alive but a great designer is a true partner in the process. And a friend. Maddee helped me create an online presence well before my novel was sold and we continue to work together on the road to release and beyond.

Thank you for sharing your expertise here today, Maddee! You're the best.

Tracy March said...

Hi Maddee,

Thanks for joining us here today. Your work is simply fabulous. I have to add to Brad, Carla and Al's praise.

You are a joy to work with, and very kind when things don't go as planned for an author. Perhaps someday we'll get together on that website design!

Tracy :)

Carla Buckley said...

Psst, Alma--don't tell Maddee, but she's worth MORE!

Maddee James said...

Don't I just have the nicest clients (and almost-clients:) in the world?

Rochelle, thank you. It was such a joy to work with you. And then spending time with you at LCC - a treat!

Tracy, I do hope we get to work together sometime down the road. I'm not going anywhere. :)

Alma, I've been really working on trying to do as much for my clients as possible. You guys have enough to juggle as it is without having to try to figure out all the various details of sites and branding, etc. I help as much as I can. Plus I'm a stickler for keeping things up to date. And your site was great to work on -- so atmospheric. Can't wait to read your book!

Very funny Carla. ;)

Like I said in the main post, I love that authors have many website designers to choose from, and I hope we all do well by all of you. I can't really imagine working for a better group of people than authors -- I have a GREAT JOB!

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Maddee -

I love this post. It is always interesting to hear conversations on author branding and websites. Of course, my question is - what would you recommend an author do if they have two completely different kinds of books they are writing - light and funny vs dark and suspenseful? Do you recommend the author have two different sections of the websites - one for each style?

Thanks for the great info! It is much appreciated!

Maddee James said...

Hi Joelle, yes, I do think I would probably build two sides to one site. I like doing that anyway -- it's fun to tie the two together, making it obvious through some facets of the design that it's the same author. And then you build a portal page which combines the two in some intriguing way...

Nancy Bilyeau said...

Very interesting post. I just finished getting my website up. I like Facebook, Twitter, website postings and I know it helps authors boost their visibility, but I worry that it is eating into my writing time.