By Sharron L. McElmeel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations
For several decades I’ve worked with books for children and young adults and with the authors/illustrators that create them.
I’ve written about the books and their creators, taught educators to enjoy and use the books in classrooms and libraries, built webpages to showcase the books and the authors and illustrators, and in general become an avid promoter of literacy.
Along the way, I’ve watched young readers utilize websites, and I’ve observed educators navigating the World Wide Web, seeking information useful to their work. I’ve developed some opinions about books, and periodicals, and websites.
Often I’m asked about the ins and outs of building a website.
Here are my answers to the most frequently asked questions.
FAQs About Websites for Authors and Illustrators — And What Teachers and Librarians Want to See
- Do I really need a website?
- What domain name should I register?
- What information does a visitor to a site want?
- Will my site help increase the opportunities for school/library appearances?
- Isn’t there enough on the web about me without me creating a website, or a blog, or anything for that matter?
- Should I have something that moves?
- When I list my books, what information do librarians and teachers really want?
- Should I sell my books on my site?
- How do I get people to come to my site?
- Are there any other hints authors or illustrators should know?
1. Do I really need a website? It seems like a Facebook account or a blog would be as effective — and it is much easier for me to deal with myself. Maybe it would be more effective.
Maybe, but one must remember that a Facebook account is only accessible to those who are your friends or who know your page exists—and to those who do have a Facebook account. Some are making efforts to avoid Facebook as intrusive and time-consuming.
Use of Facebook still is not as universal as Facebook promoters would like the public to think – and it is still a “social” network. (Many schools block Facebook and other social networks, making that venue completely inaccessible to teachers and students during the day; some block blog sites as well).
No doubt, Facebook and blogs are much easier for individuals to upload pictures. A web creator is often needed for a webpage.
Major search engines do search blog entries just as they do conventional websites—a major plus for both websites and blogs. Some people have constructed their blogs to mimic the informational status of a website – meaning that there are “book” pages, “about me” types of information, and blogs are able to have the rolling updates posted periodically.
The most effective combination seems to be a website that provides the information that is more strategically organized: background information about the author/illustrator, pages providing the background of a book, contact information and so forth.
A link to a blog from the webpage will allow the author/illustrator to keep her/his fans up-to-date on writing projects or just daily/weekly happenings. The nature of a blog is that the most current information appears on the screen and older entries roll down and are automatically archived on the blog in case someone wishes to access earlier posts.
A webpage encourages an author or illustrator to put their best foot forward on their webpage — to develop a strategically planned virtual home and then to take advantage of the more informal aspects of a blog. A link from the website to the blog will direct visitors to the up-dates.
This plan allows the webpage to be worded in language that does not demand frequent up dates. “Fall 2013 Release” rather than “Coming this Fall” type of language. The blog, since it is the nature of a blog, can be used to provide more frequent and timely up-to-date comments about a body of work.
Jane Kurtz’s website is an example of a site that provides the archival type of structured information while her blog (linked from her website) provides information about her daily/weekly activities in the world of world of literacy. No one thinks that older blog posts are “out-of-date,” those entries are just viewed as earlier posts.
2. What domain name should I register?
I think the very best names mark your “brand” – you, your name. I would avoid cutesy phrases and titles that make me always “think” about the location of your site. But if you insist, try to register your name as a domain and provide a referring page that takes visitors to your domain.
For example, Laurie Halse Anderson’s site is at www.madwomanintheforest.com, and there is no referral from the expected lauriehalseanderson.com. Dori Hillestad Butler’s site is at http://www.kidswriter.com – easy enough to remember if you visit often but she also provides a referral from her “name” domain at http://www.doributler.com.
Some authors find that their “names” are common enough or taken by domain squatters so the author must devise other names for their sites. Avi, a writer of many genres of books for all ages, found his “name” taken by a vision product company. So his website is www.avi-writer.com – an appropriate solution.
Michelle Edwards is a gifted author and illustrator. However, a different Michelle Edwards is a realtor and has claimed the domain so Michelle Edwards the writer cleverly morphed her name into one by using the final “e” in Michelle as the initial “e” in Edwards, making her site www.michelledwards.com . The only problem is that, unless you are alert, you might miss that nuance. I might have preferred www.michelle-edwards.com, but alas that was claimed by a business person who sporadically posts on her site.
Strangely enough, in May of 2013, the business-woman Michelle Edwards has her domain redirected to a blog – her most recent post features Neil Gaiman. Those who might happen upon this post might assume it is the writer Michelle Edwards that hosts the site.
It is very essential one clearly identifies themselves as a writer or illustrator of books for young readers on their home page. If visitors cannot determine who you are within the first six seconds on your site, you haven’t done enough to identify yourself.
Cynthia Leitich Smith has claimed, this site, www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, as her virtual home. Her blog is at cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com and she also has a Facebook page, a Twitter account (@CynLeitichSmith), as well as a YouTube channel. Clearly her presence promotes her brand – her name.
According to several website experts, it is estimated that 40 percent to 50 percent of website visits are the result of direct navigation (meaning the URL is typed directly into the navigation bar); thus, it makes sense to have the URL for your site as intuitive as possible.
3. What information does a visitor to a site want?
There is most likely a different list of wants for every individual visitor. However, in general, visitors to an author or illustrator’s site want something they can’t find elsewhere.
If your site does not offer something unique to the mix, let your publisher or general sites do the job.
A visit to an author’s/illustrator’s site should offer background to a book, bits and pieces of the author’s/illustrator’s life that impacted the book’s creation, or in general comments only available on the book creator’s site.
Teachers particularly appreciate extension ideas and ties to curriculum pieces. The ideas need not be elaborate – just plant the seed such as those ideas accompanying Laurie Lawlor’s book Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World on her site.
4. Will my site help increase the opportunities for school/library appearances?
Possibly. Offer to speak at conferences, libraries, anywhere that those who have funds to invite you are at. Your presentation will be the major selling point as word of mouth is the most effective
advertisement. Your website alone will not be a major factor, but it can make contacting you easier. Put as few roadblocks in the way as possible.
Forms always turn me off – just because I am never sure that the message is going to the author or illustrator that I want to contact. And I don’t know what e-mail address to whitelist in my mail program. The forms just don’t seem friendly.
Protect your personal e-mail with a dedicated e-mail for author visit contacts but visitors appreciate the “direct contact.”
Regardless of whether you decide to use forms or an e-mail address or an author visit coordinator, make sure e-mails are answered promptly. Gracious responses will be the key.
Accessibility is often a key, too – check out the experience of Dori Butler who was brought to a school by a sixth grader.
5. Isn’t there enough on the web about me without me creating a website, or a blog, or anything for that matter?
Perhaps, only you can be the judge of that. However, when I am searching for an author for a conference appearance, or searching for information about a new book, I most frequently head to a dedicated website expecting to find the most information, links to reviews, interviews etc. Such a site saves me an immense amount of time. A well constructed website serves as a gateway to other information about the author/illustrator and his/her books.
6. Should I have something that moves?
Yes, but if it is gratuitous then forget it. Make sure it adds something your audience actually might want, not just what you want. Example: “No” to animated flash pages that force visitors to wait through cutesy animations before moving into your site. “Yes” to book trailers that introduce your books or share an interview with you. But even then offer but don’t automatically start the video.
7. When I list my books, what information do librarians and teachers really want?
Title, publisher, and date of publication. Users need to know if the book is new, or published long enough ago to warrant a look in the library for copies purchased previously.
Images from the jacket covers are always helpful. Full citation information makes it convenient for writers of articles/blogs to cite a book.
Actually, as a writer of reference materials about authors/illustrators, I like best those sites that provide a citation such as those on Jim Aylesworth’s site. Example: Aylesworth, Jim. The Mitten. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Scholastic, 2009 32 pages. ISBN-10: 0-439-92544-4; ISBN-13: 978-0439925440. $16.99.
I don’t think the ISBN number is crucial, but some do like to have those so if you can include information as appropriate. Definitely include publication date. Don’t make visitors hunt for the details.
8. Should I sell my books on my site?
You can and offering to autograph purchased copies (and perhaps free shipping or a good discount) might give you the edge. Unless you offer something special you will not compete with the local brick-and-mortar store which can offer immediate delivery; or the online stores that offer free shipping and convenience (often one-step shopping).
9. How do I get people to come to my site?
Promote your website address on your business cards, book jackets, anyplace that you are able to put the address in front of readers. It is a vehicle that stretches your other promotional efforts.
At conferences when papers mount up and are too cumbersome to carry – a bookmark or card with your web address will provide all the information I need – provided your website is well developed. Makes following up on your presentation easy and informative.
And in the content mention your colleagues, popular books that your books connect to, anything that legitimately mentions other content that searchers might use and stumble across your site – and be impressed by what you have to say.
And this is a perfect opportunity to use your Twitter account and your Facebook account to keep readers aware of new pages, new books, and other information about your writing.
10. Are there any other hints authors or illustrators should know?
There is much more for the actual developer, but the ideas are more technical than content per se. For example:
Search engines do not like frames as they have difficulties indexing framed pages; and those who want to return to a specific page on your site have difficulty since the address bar no longer indicates the actual page. One should make sure intuitive keywords are used in the site’s meta-tags to make the page as easy to find as possible.
Visitors prefer to click rather than scroll, so make the pages shorter with links for more information. Pay particular attention to resolution and readability especially if you are using dark backgrounds.
But above all else – remember that first impressions are still the most important.
Good luck. If you thought these 10 tips were helpful or informative but have other questions you’d like to ask, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org – use the subject heading “Website Question.”