When I started out as a serious writer, back in the mid-1990s, I didn’t even own a home computer. I wrote in longhand and word-processed after hours at work. Once I had my first publishing contract I acquired a home PC and got internet access, and a family member who worked in IT set up an author website for me. It was pretty simple, a basic template with a Celtic border framing each page of text. The pages were Author Bio, Books, Contact and News. There were links to several online forums run by readers. As the fan base grew, readers were invited to submit book reviews, art work and (sometimes) their own writing for display on the site.
My readership outgrew that first website within five years or so. Not only did it get too time-consuming for me to handle the updates myself, but the program that supported the site became outmoded. The technology was developing fast and readers wanted more features. So I employed a professional web designer to create a new site, working in consultation with me. I pay her a monthly fee to maintain and update the site for me – a decision I have never regretted.
So what did we want, back in 2006? A quicker response. A way of displaying fan art more effectively. Features such as a rotating display of book covers. Video clips and audio samples. But what about the overall design? (Remember, at this point, tablets and smartphones were not widely in use – most people were still accessing the internet via laptop.)
I thought I knew what I wanted. Whether it was a good idea at the time, I’m still not sure.
I had a choice. Quick access and easy navigation: a single template with a smallish number of pages. Or atmosphere – a more complex, visually beautiful design that conjured up the ‘celtic twilight’ romanticism of my writing and led the reader on a journey full of intriguing surprises. In the end, I couldn’t resist the second option. After a lot of work by the designer, we ended up with this: www.julietmarillier.com
That website has done good service for more than 8 years. Readers loved it when it was new. It’s elaborate: there’s a different page design for each series (six designs in all) and the backlist book pages all have extras such as maps and/or historical notes. The rotating cover displays include every edition of each novel. Some of the best of the fan art is featured, and there are also links to galleries of reader art. It’s exactly what I wanted back then – a wandering pathway through the books, like a walk through a fairy tale forest.
Lovely as it is, this website, too, has outlived its usefulness. It’s horrible to read on a smartphone. And these days, when people want things instantly, it’s too far convoluted. The fact is, if something can’t be found in two clicks, many people lose patience and don’t bother. This is proven by the number of messages I get asking questions whose answers are on the site. So, another complete redesign is in order. This time we’ll go for a streamlined site, though I hope to keep a hint of the old flavour. I’ve asked my readers to suggest author websites they think are well-designed, and they’ve provided some great examples.
The new site is a work in progress, but it will be up before my next book, Tower of Thorns, comes out in October 2015. One change I will make is to add a personal blog. Up until now I’ve confined myself to my two-monthly Writer Unboxed contributions and occasional posts on GoodReads, plus my Facebook fan page. I’m concerned that maintaining a personal blog may gobble up time needed for writing my book. But a blog does help a writer engage with readers, especially a Twitter-averse writer like me (that’s a topic for another time.)
Instead of displaying readers’ art work, some of which is really wonderful, on the site or in a gallery, I will be putting it on my Facebook fan page, where it will most likely gain a wider audience. I’ll be reducing the amount of ancillary material on the site (maps, historical notes, cover art for foreign language editions and so on.) I love my backlist books dearly. A bit too dearly. People want what’s new, what’s current, what’s coming up, not what was written five, ten, fifteen years ago. So the new design will feature the current series front and centre, along with my upcoming travels and appearances. The backlist books will get one cover each with a brief story outline. Kill your darlings!
Essential pages, alongside the blog and the book pages, are Author Bio (short and snappy); Contact (rules of engagement, email and/or postal address); links to Facebook, Goodreads, Writer Unboxed etc; FAQ. And of course, info on how and where to purchase the books and audiobooks.
Although I feel a little sad at the pending demise of my current website, I’m excited about the development of the new one. I wonder how long it will be before the technology overtakes it once again.
I’d love to hear the story of your website – how you made your decisions about design and content and what changes you’ve had to make along the way. I’m sure many of you have far more bells and whistles on your site than I do on mine.