I visit a lot of author websites and blogs. Most are delightfully creative. I love how so many of the sites—especially the blogs—express the author’s personality and genre in a unique and clever way.
But then there are the others...
I’m talking about the sites that seem to have forgotten they have a purpose. They don’t offer even basic information. They may have a rant front and center, with no info on who the author is and what he/she writes. Or they may be so hard to read and tech-happy, they scream: “get out now! Save yourself!”
What’s sad is the worst offenders are often the expensive, professionally designed sites.
One of the reasons I suggest that new writers start a blog instead of a static, official-looking website is that a blog is free. But an equally good reason is that free blogs use templates, and templates are harder to screw up.
You have to work harder to make a free Blogger or Wordpress site truly awful because you don’t have the opportunity to make so many bad choices.
What makes a website awful?
Of course it's subjective. What some people love others will hate. I’m not talking about stuff that’s technically “wrong” or out of style with the geekinistas. I’m commenting merely as a frequent Web surfer.
First I should mention some things that work.
There are lots of great websites. A great example of a simple but effective DIY author website is Catherine Ryan Hyde's, and mystery author C. Hope Clark has a lovely professionally-designed site that is friendly, inviting and easy to navigate. Regency romance writer Anne Gallagher has managed to make a free Blogger blog into a gorgeous author website.
My site here is a simple Blogger blog that I’m sure wouldn’t win any design awards. But it’s easy to read and “cozy”—or at least that’s what somebody on Reddit called it when they recommended it a few weeks ago. (Thank you, anonymous Reddit fan!) That’s exactly the tone I hoped to create—a cozy, bookish spot to stop by with a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon. With a sly hint of dark humor in the books on the shelf.
I created it with a few tweaks to the Blogger Watermark template and a fantastic photo of a shelf in my study taken by the multi-talented Christine Ahern. I chose the green background for the selfish reason that it’s easy on my aging eyes. I tried to choose a green that was pale enough to contrast with the darker text without being too wimpy. It took me a couple of years to figure out that I could make the link text darker by going to the “advanced” menu on the Blogger template. Thanks much to the readers who helped me out with that.
But most of all, I worked on the principle of less is more. That’s when people screw up—when they try to get too creative with things outside their skill set.
And remember: just because you (or your web designer) CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.
Hey, we’re writers. We should save our creativity for our books and stories.
I’m talking here about stuff that makes me feel assaulted, unwelcome, or wastes my time when I land on a page.
If you want more professional advice on what makes websites successful or not, check out Vincent Flanders' Websites that Suck.
Here’s my very subjective list of top ten things NOT to do on your website or blog:
A GIF is a graphic file type invented by Internet pioneer Steve Wilhite. It’s composed of many different images on top of each other, which are compressed, creating the illusion of a mini movie. GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format. Some people say “jif” like the peanut butter, and others say it with a hard “g.” But at this year’s WEBBY Awards, he Mr. Wilhite announced that it’s “jif” as in “jiffy”...so, mystery solved.
OK, GIFs can be cool. But not on an author’s website. That's because they're distracting and pull the reader away from your text. Sometimes I have to cover a GIF with a piece of paper so I can concentrate on the text long enough to read it.
Remember: you’re a writer, so text should have priority.
They also take a long time to load. Most readers only have a minute or so to spend on your page. If that time is taken up loading the GIF, they’ll be long gone before they read your immortal prose.
2) Lots of warring colors and unpleasant color combos
Like pumpkin and mustard. If they wouldn’t taste good together, they probably don’t look good either. Startling color combos might make people take notice, but not in a good way. Remember the point is to make people want to stay and look around.
And unless you’re writing exclusively for tween girls, go easy on the pink/purple/silver-spangles combo.
Ditto lots of large, multi primary-colored text—the kind cheap bargain sales sites use. Three uniformly bright colors don't just look cheesy, they can make it impossible for readers to find the pertinent information because there’s no place for the eye to rest.
When every word you say is shouted, all you produce is noise.
3) Too many pages to click through to get to the content
I realize it’s very popular these days to have your main page present a menu of your most recent posts. This is great for browsers who have wandered onto your site through a search, but not so good for subscribers who are there to comment on that day's post.
If I really have something to say, I’ll take the extra time to open the current post. But when I then have to click on something else after that to get to the blog… and then to another page…and another… before I get to any actual content, I’m outta there.
One of my favorite bloggers had a site that would to send me into screaming frustration on a regular basis. It could take up to a minute to load and often crashed my computer if I tried to get in at peak hours. (Yeah, I have dorky DSL from the phone company. It’s not cool, but it's cheap when bundled.)
But what's more annoying, once that site finally loaded, all you'd get was a menu. And when you clicked on that...yup, another menu. Then there’d be a link to a whole other site, like a literary magazine. Maybe a great literary magazine—but by then I'd given up a chunk of my morning and never reached the content advertised in her email notification. If she were anybody else, I would have cancelled my subscription. Luckily, she's eliminated some of those endless menus recently. But who knows how many subscribers she lost because of all the hoop-jumping?
Don't limit your audience to the rich and techy. Remember you may have visitors with old computers or who live in places with slow Internet connections. Don't make them spend 10 minutes trying to find your content. They'll give up long before they get to your actual information and you will have lost a reader.
Worst of all—I used to follow a couple of bloggers who put up a separate "teaser" post a few days before they actually posted. This "promise" post had the same header as the real post and went out to subscribers as if it were a notice of actual new content. After at least six visits to the blog only to find a two-sentence teaser for "next Friday's post," I unsubscribed. There is NO reason to do this to your readers. You are not filling them with anticipation for your upcoming post. You are inviting them in for a meal and then serving nothing.
NOTE: "Teasers" in general are a bad idea in this age of instant gratification. Heavily advertising books that aren't available for pre-order is a waste of your readers' time, which will annoy the *@%! out of them. A cover reveal is fine. Ditto a "coming soon" on your book page, but save your major marketing efforts for when you have an actual product to sell.
4) A cluttered home page with too many choices
Beware any design that provides nowhere for the eye to rest. It becomes an unreadable jumble. A visitor can’t find anything because everything is the same and nothing stands out.
I recently was interviewed on a great Internet radio site. The interviewer is savvy and smart and I knew she’d have great questions. But the radio network’s website is so unreadable, I nearly had a panic attack trying to find the button to click to get to her show. There were endless ads, links to numerous shows, interviewer bios, and all manner of irrelevant content, all in text of equal size and intensity in a rainbow of over-bright colors.
It took me several minutes and some deep breathing before I finally found the show, after clicking on everything I could find. It was terrifying. I almost didn’t get on in time for my interview.
There’s no reason to do this to your visitors. Use bolding and larger fonts to point to your most searched-for elements.
5) Big blocks of text
Less is more. On a home page of a website, just offer the basic info, with links to more in-depth information.
And even on your blog, you need lots of white space and headers that draw the reader through the text.
Older writers especially have to relearn a lot of what they thought was “good writing.” If you compose dense, Kierkegaard-wannabe sentences buried in gigantic, impenetrable paragraphs, you’re not going to impress people with your fancy education. You’re going to piss people off.
People who read online are skimmers. They want an overview of what you’ve got to say before they’ll decide to plunge in. You can’t start out with a rambling anecdote and bury your main points in the middle of a 500-word paragraph.
What people are looking for on the Web is information. Give it to them in the easiest possible way to grasp in a glance. Use bolding, bullet points, and lots and lots of white space. Sentence fragments are just fine.
Ditto one-sentence paragraphs.
6) Stuff your web designer thinks is cool
Writers need to avoid flashy gimmicks that show off web designer’s skill at the expense of clarity and ease of navigation.
Weird minimalist designs that involve using teeny tiny fonts for buttons that lead to your actual information aren't clever; they are a big "GO AWAY" sign to any visitor over forty.
And I suggest you avoid what designers call “mystery meat navigation.”
That’s when the links are concealed until you happen to run a mouse over a particular photograph. Or all the information is concealed in a drop-down menu identified by an icon of murky symbolism. Big literary agencies, especially, seem to favor this kind of design. It says “if you’re not cool enough to know the secret code to get into my website, you’re not cool enough to query me.”
And then they complain you didn’t read the guidelines.
This kind of stuff also happens when you ask your nephew who’s studying web design to build your website for you. He’s dying to show off all the FUN!! FLASHY!! stuff he knows how to do, but he has no sense of empathy with the readers who might actually visit your site.
Beware anything that obscures the information your visitors are there to find out, like your name, bio, contact information, and book titles.
7) The pop-up window that says “are you sure you want to leave this site?” and won’t let a visitor close the window
You click on a website and a GIF practically jumps out of the screen to grab you by the collar. Then there's a sudden blast of noise: maybe a fanfare by Richard Strauss, and suddenly an infomercial voice screams at you about how you can CHANGE YOUR LIFE by reading this book!!!
Yikes. You desperately try to close the window to turn off the assault on the senses of the entire office. Meanwhile, your supervisor starts stomping over to your cube to see what the h**! is going on.
That's when this insulting little window comes up. "Are you sure you want to leave this site? You're losing your chance to find out about the miracle snake oil that will cure cancer, get you laid, and make your hair bouncy and shiny!"
All you want is a button that says, “Click here to send the owner of this site to Hades for Eternity.”
It’s usually nonfic writers—ones who hire marketing companies—who do this. The kind who write books with titles like MAKE A BILLION DOLLARS IN REAL ESTATE WITH MONEY FROM YOUR MOM’S COUCH CUSHIONS.
These writers are taking advice from the kind of booksellers who follow widows home from the funeral to push overpriced Bibles. They see customers as prey to be insulted and bullied into buying their products. I hope the Afterlife has an especially dark hot place for them. Don’t join their ranks.
Remember that professional marketers often know nothing about readers or the book business.
8) Centered text
No, it doesn’t make your words look poetic. It makes them hard to read.
Readers of most European languages are trained to read from left to right,
with a justified left margin. If you make our eyeballs
work overtime, you won’t impress us.
You’ll make us go away.
Sites that launch into loud music or worse, a “webinar” or audio sales pitch as soon as somebody lands on the site should come with a warning label.
Newsflash: People surf the Web at work. And in libraries. And when the baby finally goes down for her nap.
Remember your site is supposed to entice people to buy your books, not put you on a "don't go there" list.
...and the worst offender:
10) Unreadable text!!
Charcoal gray, navy blue or purple text on black is not a website; it’s a black hole. I have visited many sites where I actually have to copy the text and paste it into Word and remove formatting just to read it.
If you don’t want anybody to read your words, why not write them on squares of toilet paper and flush them? That will reach as many people as your unreadable dark text on dark background.
For most readers on a screen all day, light text on dark is hard on the eyeballs. Why make your words hard to read when you don’t have to?
This is one thing that must be pretty easy to screw up, even with a template, because I see an amazing number of sites with dark backgrounds and pale text. It may read all right in some browsers, but it won’t in everybody’s. And reverse black/white is painful for aging eyes.
Remember your primary purpose in having a website is to get people to read your stuff, not impress them with how dark and edgy and cool you think you are. There's nothing cool about sending your visitors away scratching their heads.
In short, what makes a website suck is saying LOOK! AT!! ME!!! instead of making people feel welcome and answering their questions.
I also want to remind authors about rants on their blogs. If you’re passionate about something, you may want to share it with your readers, but keep the ranting to a minimum. Especially if it's on a subject a lot of people will disagree about, like politics or religion.
Even if you're not addressing a particularly controversial subject, if the first time somebody hits your blog they see nothing but a series of rants about road hogs and mean people—especially if you use strong language—they could be turned off before they get to any information about your books.
Your website/blog is the face you present to the world. Keep it simple, welcoming, and professional, and save the passion for your books and stories.
What about you? What sends you away screaming from a website? What do you want to see on an author's site or blog? Do you have any pet peeves?
THIS WEEK'S BOOK DEAL
OK, it's the same as last week's but it's a goodie: My publisher has made the Camilla box set ridiculously cheap for beach season.
99 cents for three hilarious mysteries! Thanks everybody for keeping it in the top 100 in comic fiction (right between two Evanoviches) all week!
"The Best Revenge, Ghost Writers in the Sky
and Sherwood Limited
are hysterical. Anne Allen will keep you laughing throughout, but in the meantime she dabbles her fingers in some topics worth some serious thought: sexism, weightism, lechery, murder, duplicity, homelessness & poverty to name a few. If you love to laugh, you'll like these three books. If you love to think, ponder AND laugh, be ready to fall in love"... C.S. Perryess
This week I'm a guest at Morgen Bailey's award-winning blog,
in the glow of her "Author Spotlight". I talk about some of the misadventures that inspired my novels, and that bonfire I made of all my old rejection slips last year....
1) A site for KOBO READERS: TrindieBooks.com This Canadian site is the KindleNationDaily for Kobo. Really nice folks, affordable rates, and their ads are FREE if your book is free for Kobo. Reach some of those voracious Canadian readers. Kobo is the most popular ereader in Canada. Submit your book here.
2) Escargot Books is expanding its catalogue and are now
accepting submissions. Crime fiction (dark thrillers to cozies), women’s fiction, wealth and fitness,
children’s, sci-fi and dystopian. All books will be published in digital
format. Some books will be chosen for print and/or audio as well. Escargot
Books does not offer an advance, but they offer higher royalties than
traditional publishers, especially for direct sales from our website, as well
as editing, formatting, promotion, and the company of bestselling authors. They
have some big name authors and a good track record. Here’s their online submission form
3) The Lyttoniad contest for the WORST first sentence of a novel. This classic Bulwer-Lytton "Dark and Stormy Night" contest makes news every year. Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. E-mail entries should be sent to Scott Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org in the body of the message, Ariel 12 font. One e-mail may contain multiple entries. Entries will be judged by categories, from “general” to detective, western, science fiction, romance, and so on. There will be overall winners as well as category winners. No prizes that I know of, but lots of admiration from your fellow writers. Deadline is June 30th.
4) The Huffington Post's Huffpo50 is now publishing short fiction!
The rules: You must be 50 or older to enter. Writers can submit only one story per year, and all pieces must be 5,000 words or less. Send your original submissions, as well as your contact details, to email@example.com.
Literary Journal debuted last month. Submissions
are open for their Fall 2013 issue.
This prestigious journal was
founded by Suzannah Windsor, of Write it Sideways, and she's put together an
amazing editorial staff. I'm so honored to have my poem No One Will EverLove Him
included in the debut issue. They are looking for art and
photography as well as poems, literary short fiction, novel excerpts and
essays. Must not be previously published (that includes anything that has
appeared on your
We love your comments! If you can't get through Blogger's hoop-jumping, send me an email at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com and I'll post it personally.
Labels: 21st Century prose, Anne Gallagher, author websites, C. Hope Clark, Catherine Ryan Hyde, Christine Ahern, GIFs, how to blog, mystery meat navigation, Steve Wilhite, web design, websites that suck