2009 Apr 9

The Importance of a Good Website

Alan White , a writer and founder member of MyiFolio which provides £99 websites for writers and other creatives, gives his tips on building your own website.

The Internet is one of the most powerful publicity tools available to a writer, whether they have a book to promote or are just hoping to get spotted by an agent.

For the aspiring writer it’s the most competitive marketplace there is. They’ve all heard about the success stories: those bloggers like Belle de Jour and Girl With A One Track Mind who managed to secure a book deal on the strength of their online work. They all want to be like them: they may not know anything about the Internet, but they know their writing’s good enough to get spotted. So they sign up for a free blogging account, and start to put their work out there.

But, but, but. There are thousands of blogs and only a few deals resulting from them. Why are the online successes the exception rather than the rule? Part of the problem is that there is no quality control: an agent could spend months sifting through a site like Blogger or Wordpress and find nothing more exciting than a depiction of which sandwich someone had for lunch.

But there is a bigger problem: the form of most blogs themselves. They simply aren’t an attractive enough proposition for a reader. The text is a strain on the eyes: crammed in the centre of the screen, usually too small and full of annoying links on every other word that break up the flow of what you’re reading. Then there are all the things around the edges: an archive of pieces organised by date so the reader hasn’t a clue what they’re clicking on (tip to all bloggers: always make use of the ‘labels’ option), and an interminable list of links to friends’ sites that they might not care about taking up space on the home page.

Professional writers’ sites are rarely any better. Crowded with fancy flash graphics and littered with links to miscellaneous aspects of their careers, even best-selling authors fail to get otherwise loyal readers returning to them. At MyIFolio we are always surprised by writers who ask us to design a site but who seem to have forgotten exactly the product they’re promoting: the writing itself. So here follows an eight-step guide to making the Internet work for you.

1. If you’re serious about self promotion, it’s better to use a website, not a blog. It’s a lot more effort, but it’s worth it. With a website you can do far more, and you aren’t tied in to a selection of ugly templates that everyone’s already seen a thousand times. First you need to register a domain name, at a site like www.ukreg.com. Once you’ve found the name you want, you’ll see that you need to provide your hosting. It can be done for free but this comes with a lot of limits. Paid-for should cost under £5 a month to sustain the site, and there are cheap deals if you shop around.

2. Now you need to design your site. There are scores of ways to do this, and it’s not as scary as it sounds. Would you believe that one of the most popular ways to design a site is with Microsoft Word? Just create your page as you would any other document, then save it as a web page. Word even has a Web Page Wizard.

3. However, there are plenty of other ways. Many hosting companies now provide a website creator as part of the hosting, and it usually works in much the same way as Word. For those of you feeling courageous, you might turn to specialist software like NVU (which is free and can be downloaded off the net) or for those feeling incredibly brave, professional software like Dreamweaver.

4. In terms of the design, keep the reader in mind at all times. Make the text big and clear. Remember that the average person reading anything online, whoever they are, has the attention span of a goldfish. Don’t be afraid to break the text up with pictures or any other visual elements, and try to keep it punchier than you would for print. Think about using light text against a dark background: screen and paper are quite different beasts. Above all, keep it simple and uncluttered. There’s a reason sites like Google, Wikipedia and Facebook do. Keep it easy to navigate: make it easy for the reader to return to the homepage at all times. Emma Kennedy’s site is a good example of keeping it simple in order to create something easy to read – it’s also light in tone, which helps.

5. What are you going to put on your site? It will vary from one author to another. However, as a rule, I believe the best writers’ sites make fresh content – be it articles, news, extracts from stories or poems – the centre piece of the front page. The freedom of making a blog the main element can be a blessing and a curse: if you have the material to make it interesting enough, then go for it. If you have already had books published then you should obviously have links to promote them (and links to Amazon), with press cuttings and extracts etc. You will want a biography page: try to make this as lively and interesting as possible: you might interview yourself, or answer some made up ‘FAQs’. Matt Haig’s site is worth looking at in this regard. A forum or guestbook is always a good idea. Multimedia is worthwhile, and it’s relatively easy to embed a video that you have uploaded to a site like Youtube (just copy and paste the ‘embed’ code next to the video). A ‘contact’ link is of course essential: if it means you’ll be inundated with email then make sure you use a different account to your main one!

6. Now you need to publish your masterwork. Your host will probably have given you an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client for this job. In simple terms, it moves your site from your computer to the Internet. It should be a simple click and drag operation.

7. Believe it or not, this is where the hard work really starts. Now you have to attract an audience and keep them. Online marketing is always best when it’s directed at a specific target. Who are your most likely readers, and where will you find them? Look for forums that are read by your most likely fans, and post links to your site on them. Keep it relevant: look for the comments sections of online articles that share similarities to something you’ve written on your site. Think also about authors’ and readers’ sites: some examples are Book Group Online, Book Club Forum and perhaps mention yourself in the comments section of sites like The Bookseller’s Blog. If you write anything for a publication, don’t forget to include a link to the site. You might also think about more general social networking: sell yourself to friends and strangers alike on Facebook or Twitter: it’s the best way for your potential readers to get to know you. Many designers will tell you that a comments section on your site is essential. I don’t necessarily believe this, but some form of interaction with your readers – be it on the site or on others – is definitely of value. You need to up your Google ranking and the best way to do this is to create as many links (involving your name) to the site as you can: make sure any friends with sites or blogs create links to your site, and don’t forget to return the favour.

8. You get out what you put in. You won’t get people coming back if you don’t update your site, and this is just as important whether you’re published or not. Failing to provide new material is the single biggest mistake made by online writers. People won’t keep visiting to relive your finest bon mots, and the links you post to specific articles on your site will seem far less like a sales pitch. If you need another argument in favour of it: you’re reading this article. A mailout is one of the best ways to ensure an audience, and it helps if the content is something you know your readers will be looking forward to when it arrives in their inboxes, rather than something to go straight in the spam folder. The rules are much the same whether you’re a published writer or struggling to make a name for yourself. I’m also on hand to answer any questions: just email alan@myif[email protected].