Websites for Indie Authors – Where to Start, Part 3

Once you’ve procured your domain name and gotten yourself hosting, you come to a major decision point. What’s the best way to go about putting up a website?

Hosting Service Website Builder

Admittedly, most hosting services provide a website builder, but these tend to have limited functionality and range. Their purpose typically isn’t to enable you to do anything fancy, but guide you through a series of steps that will leave you with a very basic, functional website. For some people, this is enough, but I don’t advocate for it.

If you want to try it out, I strongly recommend creating a subdomain called “test” or “practice” and building a site using the hosting services program there. This will give you a very clear sense of what the site builder can and cannot do and, if you don’t like it, you just delete the subdomain. If you use the hosting services program on your main domain, you have to go in and figure out what files you need to delete and which ones you need to save. Far easier, I say, to just have a subdomain you can get rid of entirely.

WordPress

A lot of people have taken to installing WordPress blogs on their domain in lieu of building an actual site. For simple efficiency and sanity, I strongly advocate this as the go-to choice for indie authors. First of all, the vast majority of hosting services have a one-click install option for WordPress. You install the software and you can start adding content immediately. The standard theme that comes with WordPress is a minimalist affair. I like it, but if the theme isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, there are countless free themes available through the WordPress site. You can also get free themes here, here and here, along with lots of other places.

If you still can’t find what you’re looking for in the free themes, you can also look into buying a “premium theme.” Premium themes tend to offer a wider variety of special features and functionalities and are readily available through countless online sources. Premium themes typically run in the $70-$100 range (circa April 2013), but pricing varies from provider to provider. If you’re inclined to go this route, you can start the search here, here and here.

The final option is to have someone make a custom theme to your specifications. You’ll probably need to hire a web designer to build a custom theme for you and pricing may be an hourly rate or a flat fee. If you go this route, I’d advise you to work with a designer who offers a flat fee option. As of April 2013, the base rate for custom Wordpess themes looks to run around $400 and go up from there, depending on the complexity of the project.

DIY

Then there is the do it yourself option. Way back in the day, this is the route I picked to creating the website for my series of novels. I used a WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) program called Kompozer. I cannot begin to tell you how many hours I poured into building that site and, when it was all said and done, I wound up with a basically functional site that I probably could have built using the hosting service website builder. Here’s a picture of the homepage for site I built.

(Click for better image.)

(Click for better image.)

The real lesson to take from this is that, unless you happen to be a website designer by day and writer by night, you probably have no business trying to build a website from scratch. It’s a wildly aggravating process and, every few years, advancements come along that make your website look amateurish and outdated.

If you’re still committed to building the site yourself and you don’t have a website design program installed on your computer, you’ll probably want to either sign up for something like Adobe’s Creative Cloud service for the Dreamweaver program or get comfortable with a browser-based HTLM5 editor like Aloha or Raptor.

Professional Web Designer

Your final option is to hire a web design professional to build you a site from scratch or to fix the mess of a website you tried to build for yourself. You may not think it’s worth it, but web designers exist for a reason. I’m getting my website (remember the picture above) redone by a pro right now. What you see above took me (too much time face consciously) to finish. This is what my brother came up with as a demo fix for that site in an hour or two, while sipping coffee and petting his cat.

 

(Click for better image.)

(Click for better image.)

It’s a completely different visual experience and that’s not even the finished version. If you’re not a web designer, don’t like the WordPress options, and the limitations of your hosting service’s website builder leave you cold, I’d recommend hiring someone to do the work for you. You’ll get a much more professional looking end-result and fewer migraines. Also, in case you’re wondering, yes, my brother is for hire.

Crafting Readable Content for the Web

One of the catchphrases in marketing is that “Content is King.” If content is king, though, readable content must reign supreme as the One King to Rule Them All. Of course, the Catch-22 here is that content must also be scannable, optimized, subheaded, bulleted, shareable, meta-tagged, and contain keywords….By Zeus’s beard and thunderbolt, it must contain keywords!

With all these competing and often diametrically opposed issues at play, not to mention the ongoing, black box mystery of Google’s search algorithms, creating content a human being can read, understand and enjoy becomes a challenge. When crafting readable content, all of these issues matter. The mistake is thinking that all of these issues matter all of the time.

Meta-Tags

Meta-tags, for example, are more of a site level concern. If you’re crafting meaningful, relevant content, it should align with the meta-tags with no extra effort from you.

Subheads, Bullets, and Scannability

Subheads and bullets serve a couple of functions. They break up content into easily digestible chunks. This post, for example, would be much more difficult to read without subheads. It also means the reader can easily scan over the article to get a sense of what it’s about and what, if any, parts they want to read.

I’ve seen requests for content that include both subheads and bullet lists. In my experience, any given article or blog post can call for a bulleted list OR subheads, but very few ever call for both, and some call for neither. Readable content employs the tactics the topic warrants and only those.

Shareability

Shareability boils down to two, virtually unrelated items. There is a technical component, which usually entails turning on a plugin in your blog software or embedding some HTLM code in website so that sharing buttons appear. The other side of shareability is more nebulous. Different groups of people share different kinds of things.

People that are primarily passive recipients of information (news, gossip, and so on) tend to share things related with their obsessions. Fans of the Marvel Universe films, for example, will share more or less any update on those films. People involved in an industry or profession, on the other hand, tend to look for and share actionable content. How-to articles, tips and tricks, and strategies for professional/business development tend to top the list. They want things they can use. Understand the kind of readers you’re developing content for and angle in that direction.

Keywords

Keyword is one of those inescapable terms when it comes to developing content for the web. Everyone is looking for the golden keyword that will draw in readers and buyers by the droves. Then there is the ever-shifting advice on keyword density. If your content is actually about the topic you think it’s about, the keyword should turn up naturally in the text and at about the right level of density. If you find yourself shoehorning a keyword in to get the keyword density up, it probably means the content isn’t nearly as relevant to that keyword as you think. More importantly, it’s going to be aggravating to read. The keyword becomes repetitive and the content becomes less enjoyable to read.

Semantic Search

One of the things that is and will likely continue to change the game for web content is semantic search on Google. While the technical details are beyond me, the basic idea is that rather than simply giving a list of websites that have the right keywords, the search engine will look for contextually relevant content. In theory, this should provide results that will align more closely with the search query. Mashable provides a good overview here. For those developing content, however, it should also mean that well constructed, readable content starts ranking a little better than lousy, barely readable content that was search engine optimized.

How to Lose Fans and Aggravate People or, How Fox Screwed Up PR, Again

So I recently read this article over on Buzzfeed. The quick version of the story goes like this. Many moons ago, there was a show on Fox called Firefly that aired for one, far too brief and truncated, season. Fox then cancelled the show and more or less forgot about it. However, the show developed a rabid base of fans that refer to themselves as Browncoats. One of the symbols adopted by the Browncoat culture is called the “Cunning Hat” or “Jayne’s Hat,” a yellow and orange knit hat with flaps, similar to one worn by actor Adam Baldwin (Character name: Jayne Cobb) in an episode of the show. See a picture of Baldwin in character, wearing the hat, here.

For years, Firefly devotees with a knack for knitting have crafted these hats and sold them to other Firefly devotees that lack a knack for knitting, via sites like Etsy. Now, after years of fans working like crazy to introduce friends and family to the show, the film continuation Serenity, and the wonder that is the Cunning Hat – in effect, creating a market for a product based on a show that Fox treated very, very badly – website ThinkGeek partnered up with Ripple Junction and, by proxy, Fox to provide official, licensed versions of the hat. Okay, fine, a decade too late, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

The kicker, however, is that Fox’s legal department has begun carpet bombing all the Etsy-based Cunning Hat providers with cease and desist orders. Caveat: I acknowledge that Fox has at least a tenuous legal right to do this, though an argument can be made that they abandoned their legal interest in this by turning a blind eye to the fan-made products for a decade. Simply as a point of honor, this is a miserable way to treat the people who helped build the market you’re trying to cater to. It’s also clear that Fox’s legal department didn’t consult their PR people before sending out these cease and desist orders. Here’s how I know this.

It would have taken less than an hour of research for someone who knew absolutely nothing about Joss Whedon, Firefly, Serenity or the Browncoat fanbase to realize that this move was going to be a public relations mess of Hindenbergian proportions. Browncoats are tech-savvy, social media-engaged, and a very proactive group. For example, there are the annual, fan coordinated screenings of Serenity. Or, you might recall that fans banded together to Help Nathan Buy Firefly after actor Nathan Fillion made a casual comment that he would buy the rights to Firefly if he won a $300 million lottery. Then there is the annual Browncoat Ball where fans gather from around the world to celebrate Firefly.

This is a culture that cares about the show, but also a culture that is deeply protective of its members. Laying down legal napalm on working moms and grandmas knitting in their rocking chairs is exactly the kind of thing to make legions of Browncoats rise up in fury. More importantly, any PR person worth their salary could have told Fox that this was a bad move. What Fox could have done that would have earned it miles of goodwill and tons of great press is to issue limited licenses to the Etsy “Cunning Hat” producers. Build a limit of 500 units per year into the license, which is probably a lot more than most of the Etsy sellers would ever make, and call it good.

Pinterest and the Indie Author

For writers, visual media is often foreign territory. We’re masters of punctuation and pacing, not gurus of the rule of thirds and depth of field. So, naturally, Pinterest presents a quandary for writers. As Liz Bauman puts it here, “Pinterest is a freight train barreling down the social media tracks.” We can’t dismiss it, out of hand, as being a thing “not for writers.” Yet, the visual nature of the site makes it look very much like a thing that really is not for writers. While it doesn’t seem like a natural fit, authors can use Pinterest as one more element in audience building and promotion.

Do I Really Need Pinterest?

It’s an open question and the answer hinges more on the individual than the site itself. If you have trouble managing your existing social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter, adding a Pinterest account into the mix won’t make your life a better place. It’ll be one more task you don’t really have time for, but still feel obligated to try to do. If this is you, focus on your existing social media and social networking. It’ll be better for you to deliver consistent engagement via platforms where you’re established than to lurch erratically between them. Should you get to a point where you have more time, then look at Pinterest.

Remember, It’s Still a Conversation

Like other social media and social networking sites, being on Pinterest is to have a kind of conversation. Pinning an image is like posting a status update or a tweet. If all you ever do is post your own images, you’re talking at people, not to or with them. Nobody likes the guy who talks, but never listens. Repinning is the equivalent to reposting or retweeting. It’s a way to show that you’re looking at what other people are doing and that you’re interested.

Character Boards

Among other good suggestions offered here, Caitlin Muir suggests creating boards to share characters details. (A board is like an individual page where you put focused content.) For example, if I were to create a board for my character, Samuel Branch, I might include things that you wouldn’t normally see in the novels. If, in the back of my head, I always saw him as a Jazz fan, I might pin a photo of Miles Davis on the Sam Branch board. If he’s a t-bone fanatic, I might try to get a two-for-one. I can search on Pinterest and repin a picture of a t-bone steak.  It’s an easy and kind of subtle way to add new dimensions to a character, while also giving you the chance to engage other users.

Process Insight

One of the suggestions that turns up a lot of places, and one I happen to agree with, is using Pinterest to give people an insight into your process. You can pin a picture of your desk. Or you could pin a stack of books that you’re using as reference material. You can also use this to incite some speculation by tossing a red herring in the mix, but you run the risk of alienating fans with this tactic. Some people take that kind of misdirection as part of the fun, while others might be deeply disappointed if the picture of that book on China doesn’t lead to a scene set in China or at least a reference to China. It’s a calculated risk and you have to decide whether your fans are of the right kind of mindset to appreciate the game of it.

Your Books/Media

Of course, you should be pinning things like your book covers with appropriate links to your website. Same goes for book trailers, author interviews and the like.  Just dole it out at a reasonable pace. Right at first, like most people, you’ll post a bunch of things about yourself and your books. After that, though, give at least equal weight to repinning other people’s content. It’ll gain you some goodwill and give your followers the chance to learn a little more about what your interests are.

Cautionary Note

Use the same level of discretion on Pinterest as you would use anywhere else. You might be very proud of how your house/lawn/landscaping looks, but don’t post a picture that gives away specific location information, like a house number or street. Pinterest is built to be public, so don’t post anything you wouldn’t want to discuss with your parents, kids or random strangers in a line.

Websites for Indie Authors – Where to Start, Part 2

Last time I introduced you to some of the more common terminology you’re going to confront when you start moving toward building a website. This time, we’re going to talk getting a domain name and selecting a hosting service.

Getting Your Domain Name

Getting a domain name is almost absurdly easy. One of the fastest routes is through one of the countless domain name registrars. These are companies that act as a kind of middleman between private citizens/businesses and ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). ICANN does a lot of things, which you can read about here, but for our purposes they’re in control of making sure domain names work globally. Domain name registrars do the bureaucratic heavy lifting of keeping track of who controls what domain names and for how long, while ICANN deals with global coordination.

There are lots and lots of domain registrar services out there to choose from and hosting services have jumped into the game of providing domain names as well. In my opinion, you’re best served by buying (well, renting) your domain name through a well-established registrar, such as GoDaddy, independent of your hosting service. There are two reasons for this.

First, I’m normally an advocate of anything that streamlines technical processes, but hosting services do occasionally go out of business and you don’t want your domain name getting caught up in their problems. You can always load your website onto the servers of a new hosting service, if you have your domain name registered independently. Second, hosting services have no incentive to offer you a discount on registering a domain name. Registrars regularly offer discounts on registering a domain name and will sometimes offer significant discounts if you register a domain name for more than one year.

Selecting a Domain Name

This is where the process gets a little trickier. Selecting a domain name isn’t just about finding an available domain name. Unless the name of your book happens to be Ladies Panties, for example, the domain name ladiespanties.com probably isn’t going to be helpful to you, even if it is available. This is something you spend some serious time thinking about (more than I did when I picked my domain name oh so many years ago), because it goes to branding.

Are you setting up a website for you book, series of books, or for yourself? If your setting up a site for you book, the domain name needs to be the title or something pretty close. If you’re setting a site up for a series, the domain name should probably be the series name or the name of the central character. If you’re setting up a website for yourself, it should probably be your own name. Of course, those domain names may already be taken, so work up 3 or 4 alternatives/variation that you can search for, just in case someone else has your top choice.

If someone else already has your top choice and if you’re willing to spend some time/extra money, you can always try to negotiate with that person for control of the domain name. Personally, I think it’s faster and more expedient to simply choose a different name, but it is an option you can explore if only one domain can really work for you.

Hosting Services

There are a lot of things that go into choosing a hosting service, but there are a few key issues to consider.

Cost/Storage/Usage Caps

Hosting services range from the free to the pricey. The most expensive services are typically called unlimited packages or something very close to that. Getting an unlimited package typically means you get no cap on bandwidth usage and storage or caps with limits that are so high you’re unlikely to ever crack them. (Bandwidth, in this context, means the total amount of data that can be transferred/used by people accessing your site over a given period of time, usually a month.) Free hosting services generally place much more stringent caps on both storage provided and bandwidth allocated, but those caps are deceptive. The hosting service 000webhost.com, for example, offers 1500MB of storage and 100GB of bandwidth as the caps on its free hosting. Very, very few websites are likely to need more space or require more bandwidth than that, especially in the beginning. Free hosting services often offer paid versions that lift restrictions on bandwidth and storage, so you aren’t required to find a new hosting service if you find your site getting too popular for free hosting.

PHP and SQL Database Versions

I talked about what PHP and SQL are last time, so I talk about why they matter here. Not every hosting service supports both PHP and SQL, so that’s the first thing you’ll want to check on in the features list. If the service doesn’t support them, move on. Too many things you’re likely to want will depend on your hosting service supporting PHP scripts and SQL databases/management systems. If the service does support PHP and SQL, the next thing you’ll want to look at is which versions they support. The people who develop PHP scripts and applications that use SQL databases/management systems tend to build them and update them based on the latest stable version. At present, PHP is on version 5.4.13 or thereabout. MySQL, probably the most common SQL management system, is on version 5.6.1. Anything as far back as MySQL 5.1 is probably adequate for most websites, but the more recent the release version the fewer problems you’re likely to experience.

Uptime

Uptime is one of those terms that hosting services proudly trot out as they claim 99% uptime or 99.9% uptime. What they’re really saying here is that your website is likely to be available the vast majority of the time. Good hosting services tend to store files redundantly, so that even if one or even several of their servers fail, people can still access your website and, hence, you get very little downtime. If uptime is of critical importance to you, Netcraft provides a list of the most reliable hosting services.

Control Panel

Control panels come in a couple of flavors, but one of the most common control panels is known simply as cPanel. It’s an icon based control panel and you can get a live demo of it here. Just click on the CPANEL DEMO button under Domain Owners to see what you’re likely to encounter in the back end of your hosting service.

There are a variety of other concerns that may affect which hosting service you choose, from one click install features like Fantastico to email autoresponder support, but those considerations hinge on your intended use of the site. For now, to help you at least narrow your search, here is a recent Top 10 list of Free Hosting Services from Smart Media Tips and a Top 10 list of Paid Hosting Services from TopTenReviews.