Websites for Indie Authors – Where to Start, Part 1

Writing is one of those occupations that have a kind of romantic allure. Writers spin worlds of wonder from whole cloth and expose corruption, give voice to the voiceless and write the lyrics of social change in poetry. Or, at least, that’s what the myth would have us believe.

In truth, writing as an occupation shares more similarities than differences with other occupations. Most writers do not travel off to exotic locales, make mortal enemies of powerful politicians or single-handedly combat social injustice with their words. Most writers sit in an office, day after day, typing on a computer and trying to make deadlines (self-imposed or for clients).

For indie writers, who are entrepreneurs for all intents and purposes, we must also confront the same issues as other entrepreneurs. One of the biggest of those challenges is dealing with technology and the first hurdle to confront is the website. When you first look into putting together a website, you’ll start bumping into a lot of phrases you recognize, but may not understand. People talk about things like domain names, hosting services, HTML5 and the virtues of blogging software themes over custom-built websites. And why the heck isn’t my regular website good enough for mobile?

So, for the uninitiated, here’s a little primer on terminology.

Domain Name

There is a very complicated and technical explanation about what a domain name is and, if you really want to know all about it, About.com has a fairly thorough explanation here. For our purposes, the easiest way to think about domain names is to consider them as being like part of an address. The domain name for this site, for example, is samuelbranch.info. When you add the rest of the address, http://www., along with anything after the .info,  you’re putting together a complete address (called a URL). In layman’s terms, http://www. is like the attn line or person in the address. For this site, .info is like the state and samuelbranch is like the city. Anything after the .info, such as /blog, is like a street. (A shout out to my tech guru brother, Troy, for helping devise an address analogy) The complete address makes it possible for anyone to reach you or, in this case, to find your website. The thing to keep in mind is that without a complete address no will ever find you. Of course, even with a complete address, they won’t find anything interesting until after you get hosting.

Hosting Service

A hosting service essentially rents you digital real estate to build your site on and makes your site accessible to the World Wide Web. What is actually happening is that the hosting service has servers, which are just computers that have been designed to serve a very specific function, where the files for your website sit until someone punches in your website address. As most people are not web programmers, hosting services have taken to providing software that simplifies processes like site building, blog installations, and so on. This software generally uses icons similar to those found on the standard desktop computer for navigation, though the features and learning curve can vary from hosting service to service.

HTML

HTLM stands for hypertext markup language. So, when you see the term HTML5 being thrown around, it’s just the latest version of the hypertext markup language. Beneath all the text and graphics and video files and audio clips and Flash content, this is the language web programmers use to build websites. Do you need to know this language? Nope.

Why Don’t I Need to Know HTML?

Good question. Odds are good that one of three things is going to happen when you get to the building phase of putting your website together. Option one is that you’ll use a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) website builder that your hosting service offers or a desktop WYSIWYG, such as Adobe’s Dreamweaver or the free, open-source Kompozer. Option two is that you’ll hire (or beg) someone who does know what the hell they’re doing to build your site for you. Option three is that you’ll install the WordPress blog software (one click installation through most web hosts), install a theme and start adding content. Personally, if I had it all to do over again, I think I’d take option three because even a premium theme is a probably going to be a lot cheaper than a custom built website and a LOT less stressful than building a site yourself.

PHP and SQL

A couple other terms you’re likely to run across, or should be aware of at any rate, are PHP an SQL. In the context of websites, PHP (hypertext preprocessor) is what they call a server-side scripting language. In simple terms, PHP lets websites do more things or “extend functionality.” For example, PHP can let you to set up a form that allows visitors to send an email directly from the site. PHP can also access information from databases (which we’ll come back to shortly). The reality, however, is that you probably won’t ever deal directly or knowingly with PHP.

SQL, sigh, is all about databases. Specifically, it’s a programming language used for storing, finding, retrieving and manipulating information that turns up in relational databases. That’s probably about all you’ll ever need to know about the technical side of SQL. The part that is relevant is that lots of things you might want to use, such as WordPress, Jupal, and osCommerce require an SQL friendly database such as MySQL or MSSQL and lots of the cool things that PHP scripts can do also rely on things like MySQL databases.

For the moment, it’s enough that you know the names and have a slight notion about what they do, as both play a role in selecting a hosting service.

Mobile

When you’re first starting out, mobile sites probably shouldn’t be your main concern. That said, a mobile site is simply a website optimized to work on the smaller screens of smart phones and tablet computers. There are several ways to create mobile sites, but there doesn’t seem to be an industry standard at this point. If you’re inclined to go mobile from the outset, Deltina Hay has a good article over on Soicalmedia.biz that covers some basic options for creating mobile sites (and provides lots of links to resources) here. Hay also covers some mobile website best practices, like simplifying both page structure and content, and building for vertical, rather than horizontal, page navigation that you can read about here.

So now that we’ve (with hope) dealt with any lingering jargon issues, next time I’ll get into the issues surrounding selecting domain names and hosting services.

Any thoughts or questions? Leave a comment. 🙂

Be Shareable: Social Media Tip for Indie Authors

I make it a habit to peruse the blogs and publications that cater to indie authors, mainstream authors, and writers of most other stripes. I also make it a habit to share those pieces that seem especially useful or especially interesting on Twitter and with my online writers group.

So, imagine my surprise today when I ran across this very interesting, very useful blog post and could not find a share button anywhere. I guess I’m old enough that the idea of doing a simple copy and paste of the URL doesn’t seem like that much trouble and that’s what I did. My impression, though, is that I belong to an increasingly small minority of people who will take the extra time to do this.

By not enabling the share buttons for this post, the blog owner has intrinsically and unnecessarily limited how far the post is likely to spread via social media. Every blogging software package I’ve seen comes standard with an option for share buttons. It’s usually a one click process to turn them on. Making it as simple as possible for people to share your posts or articles isn’t just good practice, it’s expected these days.

So, be smart and be shareable. It’s worth it.

Author Branding: 3 Tips for the Indie Author

Marketers toss around the term branding like it’s the Holy Grail. It’s not that important…but just barely not. Authors, and indie authors in particular, frequently have trouble with this idea of Author as Brand. It’s an understandable problem. After all, when you think of Nike, Microsoft, or even Urban Outfitters as a brand, you think about the company or the products. Behind that corporate façade, you know there are thousands of individual human beings and, minimally, dozens of them are responsible for maintaining that brand. What you don’t do is tie, for example, Greg Sullivan, a Senior Marketing Manager at Microsoft, to Microsoft the brand.

For an author, though, the person and the brand are largely indistinguishable; at least from the public point of view. After all, there is no massive organization fronting for you. It’s your name and your picture that readers see when they pick up the book, or go to your blog. So the question becomes, how do you manage your brand as an indie author?

1. Understand What a Brand Is

You can define a brand in a lot of ways. I mean a whole lot of ways. I counted a while back and came up with at least 10 distinct and (slam head on desk) accurate definitions. So, if it seems like you get contradictory information about brands, you probably do. For a good brass tacks explanation, I would refer you to Jay Ehret’s piece, “What is a Brand?” Ehret defines a brand as “…the emotional and psychological relationship you have with your customers.” For the indie author, substitute readers for customers and you’ve got a working definition. In essence, your brand as an author is the response evoked in your readers by the sum total points of contact they have with you. This is where it gets tricky. This response doesn’t just come from your books, though that plays a part, but from everything you say and do in any public context, from status updates and memes on Facebook, to your blog, Twitter account, and public events. Have a meltdown at a book reading, that’s part of your brand. Take five seconds out of your day to encourage a young writer to keep at it, that’s part of your brand as well. So now that you have a framework for the concept of a brand, how do you apply this to managing your brand.

2. Define Yourself

It’s not universally true, but most writers tend to specialize in one area. Your hard-core technology reporter probably isn’t going to be making a lot of forays into writing erotica and your speculative fiction writer probably isn’t going to be penning many articles about the stock market. There are exceptions, of course. Isaac Asimov wrote fiction and non-fiction, and a lot of both. Let’s face it, though, most of us lack the inclination or the sheer, unmitigated talent to truly master multiple forms. The upshot is that this makes branding easier. When you sit down to determine what you want your author brand to be, you already have a partial answer. I want my author brand to include (insert whatever genre/subgenre/category you write in here). Then it becomes a narrowing down process. You can’t really brand yourself as “the horror guy,” because Poe tops that list and Stephen King has a lock on that broad category for the foreseeable future. You might, however, be able to lock in a brand as the noir-horror guy or rampant technology horror guy. Narrowing down gives you a specific hook that readers can grab.

Of course, that’s just the professional side of it. You also need to give serious consideration to personal or “human interest” side of your brand. Are you going to be highly open with fans about your life or maintain a certain professional distance? Neil Gaiman, for example, lives an almost shockingly public life via his blog and his Twitter account. Thomas Harris, author of the Silence of the Lambs, might very well live on the moon between publishing books for all we know. Both of these approaches are acceptable ways for authors to act, but something in the middle is probably ideal for indie authors that don’t have established audiences. You should decide going in (or very soon if you’re already online as an author) how much of your personal life you’re willing to divulge and how much time you’re willing to spend interacting with readers on social media. Once you decide, stick with it unless you’re given a very good reason to change. That consistency will become part of your brand and violations of it will probably be treated harshly by your readers.

3. Consistency, and then more consistency

Consistency is one of the keys to an effective brand, whether you’re JC Penny or an indie author selling 5 eBooks a week. Consistency also operates at several levels. As stated above, there is the consistency with how much you divulge and how much you interact with readers. Exceptions to this include marriages, birth of a child, and traumatic events. No one will blame you for talking about that stuff, as long as you do it in a somewhat sane way. Consistency also applies to how often you do things. If you don’t plan to blog every single day, don’t say you will. If you can’t commit to blogging once a week, it’s probably best not to blog at all. Most people will make an effort to check your blog once a week. Asking them to remember you at intervals larger than that is asking too much. Can you take a day or week off here and there…sure, just let your readers know you’re doing it. Life is hectic. People get that and they will forgive you for a lot, if you give them a reason to do so.

Then there is what I call technical consistency. Duolit has an excellent piece on this element of branding, but I’ll give you two of the highlights. Do you use the same author photo everywhere? You should, since it serves as an instant visual cue to your readers that they’ve found the right book, blog, or website. How about screennames? If the URL for your Facebook author page and Twitter account don’t include the name you write under, it’s a nightmare waiting to happen. The more consistent you can be across your platforms, at every level, the better off and more potent your brand will become.

Ring the Bell: Making a Commitment to Help End Violence Against Women

I ran across this article (source: Yahoo news) about Patrick Stewart the other day . I’ll admit, up front, that I clicked on the article because it had Patrick Stewart’s name in it. As a Star Trek fan from WAY back, I’m always curious what the various Trek cast members are up to in their post-series lives.  Stewart’s call came as part of the launch of a program called Ring the Bell, which asks men to make a commitment to “to take concrete action to end violence against women.”

We’ve come a long way as a culture in a lot of ways. While racism still exists, it no longer enjoys the kind of widespread endorsement it once did. We no longer accept that brutalizing children represents an appropriate method of discipline. (A caveat here: I do think the Dr. Spock-inspired belief that any physical discipline represents abuse is erroneous at best.) The unspoken rules that kept business the domain of white men have lost much of their force, although the white, male-dominant culture of business still persists in many ways.

One place where we have fallen down, as a culture, hell, as a species, is in terms of violence against women. When women get beaten up by their boyfriends or their spouses, we shake our heads and bemoan how sad it is, but we don’t act. We try to pretend that what happens behind closed doors isn’t our problem. When women get raped, we put the women on trial and do our best to assassinate their characters. This creates a culture in which women are afraid to speak out. They are afraid, and rightly so, that they’ll be accused of being a slut or somehow “asking for it.” The persistence of the very idea that women can asked to be raped demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what rape is about and a disgusting cultural ambivalence about stopping violence against women.

These are the kinds of problems Ring the Bell hopes to begin changing. As with so many problems, the changes can’t start with laws or government, both of which have proven unable or unwilling to get the job done. As most of the violence done to women is done by men, Ring the Bell says the solution has to start with men. It is up to men to instill in their children, through word and deed, the immutable idea that women deserve to be treated with the same basic dignity and respect as men. Moreover, women deserve this not as a boon, or a gift, or largesse from men, but as a basic human right.

It is up to men to intervene, non-violently, when they are aware of violence against women. Men must educate other men about why such violence is wrong. We must be willing to donate our money and our skills and our time to stopping this violence. We must be active, engaged, and communicate the message that violence against women is unacceptable. This is what Ring the Bell is all about and they are asking men to make a public commitment to these goals.

I have made the commitment to do my part in bringing an end to violence against women. Will you make the same commitment?

Show your support for ending violence against women by making your public commitment here.

Points of Entry – Points of Departure

So it’s been about a week since my last post and some interesting things seem to be brewing in the world of Sam Branch. First and foremost, my first novel, Falls, and my own very enthusiastic self were featured over at SpecFicPick. There is a short interview and I got to explore my thoughts on the role of speculative fiction in society for a couple paragraphs, which was a lot of fun. You can read that interview here.

Prolific reviewer Larry B. Gray recently finished Turns and gave it a 5 star review, which is was both awesome and gratifying. You can read his review here.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but I may also be appearing on an online radio show to get interviewed and to do some promotional work for the Sam Branch universe. Once the details are hashed out and confirmed, I’ll be sure to let you all know the when and where of it all. I’m pretty excited by the idea of being a guest on a radio show. It’ll be a first for me and therefore is a touch intimidating, but extremely exhilarating at the same time. It also helps me to feel that, slow but sure, I’m making progress toward my goals as a novelist.

In other news, I’m also back at it in the world of painting. I’ve been trying out some new techniques that I might use for the cover of the next branch book…that is assuming I can work the kinks out of the process. At the moment, I’m playing with acrylic washes. My intention was to do a two-layer wash. The first layer was done with basic Mars Black, which gives you a nice, mottled gray in a wash. This layer turned out pretty much exactly the way I intended it to, with a cloud-like visual texture. The second layer was done with crimson red. Much to my chagrin, instead of winding up with spooky red cloud effect, I wound up with a pink, stone-washed denim effect. Who knew?  I’ll probably post a pic to Twitter so everyone can share in the hilarity of my artistic misstep.

At first, I wanted to be really annoyed that the wash experiment didn’t turn out the way I expected it to. I realized, though, that the experiment wasn’t the failure I thought it was. Yes, the results were odd, silly even, but I didn’t fail to craft spooky red clouds. I learned how to create a pink, stone washed denim effect on canvas. Sure, the chance that I’ll ever need such knowledge is slim, but should that day arrive, I will know how to do it! More importantly, I’m sure the process will work more or less the same way with blue. That could turn out to be something useful.

I’ve come to think that failure, or the perception of failure, is a basic point of departure. After failure, the typical result is to quit. You depart from the context and leave everything there behind, except, perhaps, a bitter taste in your mouth. Learning, on the other hand, is a point of entry. Every time you learn something, it opens up a door or widens the horizon just a little. Today, I found a point of entry and my horizons widened just a little. For that, I’m grateful.

What’s up with “Tomorrowland”?

While I usually try to focus on writing here, I will admit to a deep and abiding love of film. I love watching movies at home and in theaters, obscenely large container of popcorn at the ready. I even read movie news and gossip. What’s got me excited today, though, is the upcoming film Tomorrowland.

First of all, Hugh Laurie has been cast as the villain. For anyone who has ever seen Laurie cheerfully playing the misanthropic title character on an episode of House M.D., the thought of Laurie playing the bad guy should make you gleeful. Second of all, Brad Bird has been attached to direct. You probably don’t recognize the name, but Brad Bird is the guy who wrote and directed the exceptional animated films The Incredibles and The Iron Giant. He’s also the man who directed Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocal, arguably the most visually interesting of the Mission: Impossible films. Also attached to star is George Clooney. I’ll admit I’m a little less excited by this casting choice. The last time Clooney made a film that was even remotely interesting looking to me was the 2006 film noir homage film, The Good German. Still, he’s shown himself capable of delivering excellent performances (O Brother, Where Art thou?, for example) and maybe this will prove to be a similar vehicle for him.

So far, details about the project have been pretty closely guarded, but the following plot snippet has made its way out to us courtesy of casting sheets and entertainment site Hitfix:

“A teenage girl, a genius middle-aged man (who was kicked out of Tomorrowland) and a pre-pubescent girl robot attempt to get to and unravel what happened to Tomorrowland, which exists in an alternative dimension, in order to save Earth.” (source Hitfix)

The Hitfix article, by Drew McWeeney, postulates that this description may just be part of a misinformation campaign. Personally, I hope that’s true, not because the description doesn’t pique my curiosity, but because Brad Bird so consistently delivers films that I find engaging and original. I’d rather be blown away by something largely unexpected. Then again, I’d go see a movie based around the plot snippet. I guess I win either way.

Writing Fearlessly

One of the biggest challenges I face in writing fiction is the temptation to doubt my own intuitions. As someone with an organic writing process, giving in to that temptation to doubt my intuitions can be crippling. I typically start out with only the vaguest idea of where the story is going and, most of the time, a wildly and painfully wrong idea. I know this and know it well. Yet, recently, I’ve found myself struggling with that doubt. Some 20,000-ish words into my new novel, I’m still waiting for that clarifying, ah-ha moment where the major plot points crystallize into something like a plan. By this point in my last two books, I knew where things were going and a lot of the why things were going there. I had a handle on the major themes and even a pretty clear idea of how long the books were going to be when they were done. This time, I know none of those things.

Here’s the weird part, when I can get past all those niggling doubts about my intuitions, the words keep flowing from the subconscious vault where I apparently store them. Scenes come together, characters interact and the story moves forward. Perhaps the problem is one of trust. The first two Sam Branch books followed a general sort of pattern, which is fine. The conflicts in those books were substantively different and if I leaned on a pattern to get from point A to point Z, I find it doesn’t bother me. Going into this novel, though, I knew that the structure of the story would be different. It had to be. This meant that I would be charting new ground in terms of process and couldn’t rely on my old tools to see me through. It was a leap into the unknown and one that I made willingly. Like all such leaps, it does come with a healthy dose of terror.

I know my old process would result in a finished book. It would probably result in one that entertained my readers. It would probably even be one that I was proud of in a shallow way. Writing a book, any book, even a formulaic book, is a feat of endurance. I’d know it was a cheat, though. As a writer, you only have a few choices. Stagnate and work with what you know, quit, or evolve. Evolving as a writer means ruthlessly pressing forward against that terror we all feel when faced with change. It means testing your ability to tell a different story or a different part of the story in a different way and trusting your readers to take that ride with you. In the end, it means writing fearlessly and accepting that your intuitions are not leading you down wrong paths, at least most of the time.