Online Promotion: Designing an Author or Illustrator Website


By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys: Creative Encouragement, Copy Editing, Web Design specializes in the design of children’s and young adult book author sites.

What do you think makes a good author site? What elements are essential?

Perhaps the most important thing is something the average site visitor never sees—the underlying markup and coding. (The most engaging content in the world won’t be appreciated if it shows up mangled or not at all.)

Second, the purpose of the site should be clear from the first glance. It’s about a person, an author, and that author’s work. It should look particular and unique, and it should suit the person it’s about.

Third, a site shouldn’t be too fancy for its own good. Links should look like links, and sections of the site should have clear labels. Think of it this way: as a writer you work hard to make your meanings clear and valuable. Your website should reflect the same kind of care.

What considerations do you recommend to authors in selecting a designer?

Start with personal preference: Do you like the designer’s other work? (Check for credits on sites you like to locate designers). Sound out the designer. Do you feel comfortable describing what you want and asking questions about how things are done? Hire someone you can talk to, whose taste and judgment you trust.

Look to hire someone who is at ease with HTML and CSS and who can tell the difference between the “golden section: (a design principle) and the “golden arches” (the ugly but well-known branding of a fast food chain).

Consider the practical: what can you afford? Think about this carefully. What’s cheapest up front might not be best. A poorly-made, cookie-cutter site won’t serve you well. Budget carefully, but avoid stinting on costs. Fees vary widely, but a professional will give you an estimate up front.

What mistakes do you see in author sites as you’re surfing the Web?

A lot of author sites fall into this tricky abyss where the site looks both mass-produced and amateurish—certainly not what you want.

Pitfalls include:

● Problems with type: text that’s too large or too small for comfortable reading; too many different font styles; large blocks of italic or all-capped text.

● Problems with color and/or graphics: jaggy images; jarring color combinations; busy backgrounds; unnecessary or distracting animated effects; “school picture”-ish author head shots.

● Problems with performance: slow-loading pages; confusing navigation; content that’s inaccessible to visitors with disabilities.

● Problems with copy: gross spelling or grammatical errors; or key information falls “below the fold” (the first span of the screen before it becomes necessary to scroll down).

What advice do you have for do-it-yourself-ers?

Take your time and keep it simple. If you’re not intimidated by technology, it can be fun. Invest in a few good tools and references and learn to use them.

Cynsational Notes

This article was originally published in the The (21rst Annual Edition) 2009 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest, 2008). Don’t miss the previous two related posts, Market Yourself as a Speaker to Schools and Making Your Author/Illustrator Website Educator-Friendly.

The (22nd Annual Edition) 2010 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest, 2008) is now available. From the promotional copy: “The 2010 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrators Market is the most trusted source for children’s publishing information, offering more than 700 listings for book publishers, agents, magazines, and art representatives. It also contains exclusive interviews with and articles by well-respected and award-winning authors, illustrators and publishing professionals as well as nuts-and-bolts how-to information. Includes exclusive access to online listings on www.WritersMarket.com.”

Online Promotion: Market Yourself as an Author-Speaker to Schools


By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Your website can help sell you as a speaker to school groups.

Publicist Susan Raab of Raab Associates says, “For many authors and illustrators, schools have a significant impact on their careers because they offer opportunities for doing school visits, workshops, and other events that provide substantial income separate from the revenue any given book brings in.”

You may want to create a separate “events” page, which includes information on your school visits and young author workshops. School visits are made up of one-to-five classroom or auditorium presentations during the regular class schedule. Young author workshops may be distinguished in that they take place on weekends or after school and the students involved are participating by choice.

In each case, include information on the types of programs you offer.

According to Anne Irza-Leggat, educational marketing supervisor at Candlewick Press, it’s important to include: (a) whether you do donation events; (b) your rates; (c) the number of programs you’re willing to do in a day; and (d) any preferences when it comes to student age range and audience size.

Author Tanya Lee Stone provides an “About Tanya” section, which includes three different lengths of biographies, links to interviews with her, links to articles and reviews she’s written, speaking information, and downloadable photos. “These things have really helped people access the information they need,” she says, “especially when inviting me as a speaker or having students learn more about an author.”

But not all author/illustrator visits occur in “real space.” Chat technology has made it possible for speakers to participate in an online question-and-answer session with classroom groups. Supply the same information to planners as you would for an in-person visit as well as any specific technological requirements.

Finally, the page should include information on ordering your books. Many publishers offer related pages on their own sites that can be easily linked for a complete overview.

Cynsational Notes

This article was originally published in the The (21rst Annual Edition) 2009 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest, 2008).

The (22nd Annual Edition) 2010 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest, 2008) is now available. From the promotional copy: “The 2010 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrators Market is the most trusted source for children’s publishing information, offering more than 700 listings for book publishers, agents, magazines, and art representatives. It also contains exclusive interviews with and articles by well-respected and award-winning authors, illustrators and publishing professionals as well as nuts-and-bolts how-to information. Includes exclusive access to online listings on www.WritersMarket.com.”

Online Promotion: Making Your Author/Illustrator Website Educator-Friendly

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Who will visit your author or illustrator website?

Young readers may be your ultimate target audience, but educators—teachers, university professors of youth literature, and school librarians—are on the forefront of efforts to connect books and kids. What’s more, they’re using the Internet more than ever to help them make purchasing decisions.

“It is professional librarians and educators who are most likely to specifically seek out information about authors and illustrators and ways to use children’s books in educational and group settings,” says author and former school librarian Toni Buzzeo. “Teachers and librarians continue to discover and value books, even when the books are no longer on the front list. They look for books that connect with writing and literature topics. They value books long after they’ve appeared in the publisher’s catalog or a review source.”

Buzzeo adds that librarians are likewise interested in paperbacks and that teachers sometimes seek paperbacks that can be purchased for full class study.

Many teachers build their own classroom libraries. Some use their own money. Others apply grants or donations from parents and other community members.

“We’ve heard reports that many media specialists can only buy books for the media center if these books are requested by teachers,” says publicist Vicki Palmquist of Winding Oak, an agency offering promotional services to authors and illustrators. “This puts a lot of book-buying power in the hands of teachers.”

Organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and the American Library Association (ALA), as well as their state and district affiliates, are highly influential.

Each publishes journals and websites that highlight authors, illustrators, and youth literature. In addition, they sponsor prestigious award programs, a few of which can prompt thousands—even hundreds of thousands—of sales.

Publicist Susan Raab of Raab Associates emphasizes a website is one way that authors and illustrators can raise their awareness in this market so their books have a better chance of being considered for awards.

As librarian Sharron L. McElmeel noted, “What could be more credible than the author’s own site providing information about a book?”

So, how do you make your website educator-friendly?

First, cover the basics. It’s better to start with a small, well-designed site and build thoughtfully over time than to upload several unorganized and incomplete pages.

Remember that this is your “professional face” to prospective readers. Kid-friendly and colorful may work. Cutesy and homemade won’t. When in doubt, err on the side of easy navigation, clean lines, and a limited color pallet.

Wait until the site is ready before uploading. “Under construction” signs suggest a lack of commitment. On the flip side, think twice before adding cutting edge technology. Freezing your visitors’ computer screens won’t help you (or your book) win any new readers.

One question is whether the focus of the site should be you or your debut book itself. Your byline is your brand. In today’s crowded market, it will be enough of a challenge for readers to learn your name. When it comes to awareness-raising, you don’t want to have to start over with each new title. If you’re planning a long-term career, first launch an author/illustrator site and then consider a book-specific site as a supplemental marketing tool.

For example, although we both have official author sites, my co-author Greg Leitich Smith and I decided to launch www.santa-knows.com to promote our picture book, Santa Knows (Scholastic Book Club). “The real marketing window for a holiday book is only open for a couple of months,” he explains. “You have to look for any opportunity to maximize outreach.”

One exception to the author-site-first guideline would be in the case of a book series. Before you take on the job of launching a series tie-in site, however, check first to see if your publisher is willing to provide one for you.

Ideally, your site should launch at about the same time review copies are sent, usually six months prior to publication. Each new book listing should be added to the site on the same schedule. But it’s never too late to promote a book in print.

If budget allows, research the possibility of hiring a Web designer. The time saved and professional results may well be worth the money. A handful of designers even specialize in children’s-YA book creator sites. Ask established published authors and illustrators in your local writing community or on listservs for recommendations.

In the alternative, investigate pre-formatted options. The Authors Guild, for example, offers such sites to members for nominal fees.

“I chose the Authors Guild as host because they’re inexpensive, it’s a good organization, and they use a convenient template without bells and whistles that a simple-minded person such as I can update in seconds,” says author Leda Schubert.

At a minimum, include a brief biography and your photograph along with basic publication information (cover art, title, author, illustrator, publisher, publication date, target audience age range, and ISBN). The cover art should be large enough to see clearly and, if possible, include a link to a larger, high-resolution image. Clear titles for each page, emphasizing the title and author/illustrator names, will help facilitate search engines. So will choosing your name as the URL.

“A name like supercoolwriter.com is not going to be as easily discovered by someone looking for you as cynthialeitichsmith.com,” says Anne Irza-Leggat, educational marketing supervisor at Candlewick Press.

Links to your publisher’s website and/or the sites of your co-creators also are helpful and courteous.

Children’s-YA author Tanya Lee Stone offers a printer-friendly, comprehensible title list (PDF) of her books. She explains, “This was a suggestion I got from a librarian who commented that she’s surprised more authors don’t have their own complete list somewhere.”

Beyond the basics, offer visitors a taste of each book. Consider including an excerpt or interior illustration or link to these on your publisher’s site, if provided.

Keep in mind that copyright law applies to the Internet. Authors should request permission from illustrators to highlight an example of their interior art. Illustrators should request authors’ permission to feature text excerpts.

Include award listings and review excerpts as they arise. Those from established print journals and/or blurbs from well-known authors or youth literature experts tend to be the most persuasive. Moreover, reviews, too, are subject to copyright and may not be wholly reproduced without permission. Use short quotes, and link to the source website.

Keeping this information up-to-date is critical. Interior links should always be in working order. The occasional exterior link may be unavoidable, but do your best to keep these current. New books should be added promptly. Such maintenance will preserve the site’s credibility and effectiveness as a promotional tool.

Offer teachers and school librarians reasons to share your book with students.

“If your book has good curricular tie-ins,” children’s author-poet Hope Vestergaard begins, “it pays to make that obvious on your site.”

Curriculum guides and related activities are especially sought after. These may include discussion questions and links to curriculum-related sites.

“I was a teacher,” explains young adult author Gail Giles, “and I know I’d pick up a book that has a teacher’s guide before a book that didn’t—if the books were essentially equal.”

Buzzeo adds, “Content standard based curriculum activities are much appreciated. Teachers do not have time to teach things simply for the fun of it anymore, in this age of standardized testing. Thoroughly familiarize yourself with national and state content standards before writing support material.” She recommends hiring a member of the educational, library, and children’s writing community to write guides.

Children’s author and reading expert Tracie Vaughn Zimmer not only is available for hire, she also posts the guides she writes to her own site, offering a “directory” that attracts visitors.

“Since most of my visitors are teachers,” Vaughn explains, “I decided to appeal directly to them. Teachers are visual people (think bulletin boards and their wonderful, bright classrooms) so my directory is like a bulletin board with all the beautiful book covers speaking for themselves. I can feature new guides this way too.”

She adds that dividing the books into age categories (along with one for poetry) makes the directory easier to navigate.

“I also don’t add a lot of design to the guides themselves,” Vaughn says, “so that teachers can use as little ink and paper necessary and just dive into activities and lessons with their students.”

Teacher guides may be augmented by background on the crafting of the book.

“If authors and illustrators will provide information about process, research, and revision that applies to specific titles, they will help educators adopt them more readily,” Palmquist says.

Question-and-answer interviews might touch on such subjects as the author’s and/or illustrator’s background in the field, inspiration behind the book, required research, challenges in bringing the story to life, the revision process, and themes.

This same information could also be shared in a story-behind-the-story article.

“I think the ‘How I Wrote It’ section is part of the educator’s extended experience for the class or reader,” says Giles. “I put it there to enhance the reading experience and make it really easy for the teacher to use the book in the classroom.”

Such Q&A interviews and articles may be further supplemented with bibliographies of books or other resources used for research in writing the story.

McElmeel encourages a global approach—making your focus wider than just yourself and your own book(s). “The ‘online presence’ should not be merely a sales site but rather should give more than take. The idea is to introduce you as an author/illustrator to more educators, and educators will find your site more often if you are gracious and include the titles and authors of other books that might be collaborative reading material.”

Consider the author’s/illustrator’s expertise and each book for special opportunities. These are limited only by the site creator’s imagination.

Children’s non-fiction author Fred Bortz offers a set of “Ask Dr. Fred” questions that includes suggestions for asking good science questions. He says, “I get an average of 30 to 50 visitors per day who are wondering why Pluto isn’t a planet anymore.”

Author Rebecca Stead’s novel First Light (Wendy Lamb, 2007) takes place in Greenland. One character’s father researches climate change. Another character lives in an imagined world within the ice cap. “I wrote a Q&A fact sheet with input from scientists, interviewed a guy about what it’s really like to dig snow pits (and why), and posted links to educational sites,” Stead says. “I also put in some bits of history/science that inspired me—about sled dogs, Volkswagen’s secret testing ground in Greenland, oak trees, etc.”

Readers’ theater adaptations of picture books, short stories, and chapters are popular with classroom groups. These work best with dialogue-heavy texts.

Coloring pages also are an option for illustrated books. Again, authors should obtain permission from illustrators before making art available for this purpose.

Children’s author-illustrator Katie Davis’ site includes activity sheets and games made with a program called Puzzlemaker. She says, “I can input specific words from my books, and they’ll get imported into a crossword puzzle.”


Recipes tend to attract traffic from teachers and parents alike.

“My ‘Hairy Toe Cookies’ recipe (PDF) is one of the biggest entry pages to my site…a lot from teachers at Halloween time,” says Shutta Crum, author of Who Took My Hairy Toe? (Albert Whitman, 2001).

Ultimately, your author site should be a reflection of your creative and professional self, a place to celebrate books and writing, and a way of reaching young readers and their champions. Educators are such heroes. Design and maintain your site to offer them all the encouragement and support they need to integrate your books into their schools.

Cynsational Notes

This article was originally published in the The (21rst Annual Edition) 2009 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest, 2008).

The (22nd Annual Edition) 2010 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest, 2008) is now available. From the promotional copy: “The 2010 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrators Market is the most trusted source for children’s publishing information, offering more than 700 listings for book publishers, agents, magazines, and art representatives. It also contains exclusive interviews with and articles by well-respected and award-winning authors, illustrators and publishing professionals as well as nuts-and-bolts how-to information. Includes exclusive access to online listings on www.WritersMarket.com.”