Friday, 15 September 2017

Thoughts on author websites before I take the plunge – by Rowena House

Researching WW1 for The Goose Road led me to many fantastic websites, among my favourites of which was author Lydia Syson’s, with its incredible wealth of links related to her insightful & powerful tale of the 1871 Paris Commune, Liberty’s Fire.

There’s so much knowledge there – from eye-witness accounts of the blood spilt to tantalizing ideas about the connection between the Commune and werewolves & zombie movies – that finding it almost brought my own story to a halt as I became drawn deeper and deeper into these extraordinary events.

Lydia’s site ( also set an extremely high benchmark for the depth of research and breadth of resources that can be found on the very best children’s author websites. I can’t hope to match her scholarship, but I can admire it from afar.

The more I’ve looked at author websites for inspiration for my own new site – searches which tend to be biased towards young people’s historical fiction, given my subject – the clearer it has become just how generous many authors are with their knowledge.

There are reading lists, lesson plans and activity packs, photograph galleries and collections of historical maps, museums to visit and games to play, and, and, and...

I know it’s unfair to single out anyone in a crowded field of excellence, but I particularly love Ally Sherrick’s classroom resources linked to her Black Powder story about the gunpowder plot (

Sadly, the smorgasbord that is Michael Morpurgo’s website overwhelmed rural Devon’s lethargic broadband, which at the time of writing, post-Storm Aileen, has all-but ground to a halt. I had time to make tea before his home page finished loading, and the download of one (of fifteen) teaching packs listed among his resources seized up my connection at 27%.

This experience of waiting raised an important issue for me: when designing my own site, should I assume that readers/schools/librarians/bookshops will have sufficient broadband capacity to support the latest apps and videos etc. or should I “Keep It Simple, Stupid” which always seems like good advice in almost every situation.

Some of the great writers have Kept It Simple. Margaret Atwood’s home page appears almost plain, but is subtly sophisticated with tumbling cubes of her covers that load quickly even at the end of more than a mile of copper wire.

This speed was in marked contrast to some older-fashioned sites, even some created by writers I know to be tech-savvy. One, for example, became stuck for more than a minute uploading a logo and struggled with pictures embedded in her (excellent) blog.

It seems that keeping up-to-date is essential, without going over the top.

Another thing I’ve learnt on the slow journey to publication is that return-on-advertising investment is long-term at best, non-existent at worst. So I won’t splash out on a webpage design service unless and until I can afford it. In the meanwhile, since web design isn’t rocket science, I’m going to have a go at do-it-yourself.

There is, of course, a very high probability I will fall on my face quite a lot in this process, and may well end up screaming for help. I’ve already attracted the unwanted attention of web-services providers just by buying a domain name, hence spam filters are even now being upgraded. Also, I wouldn’t risk starting out without support from my husband and son.

But as with almost everything to do with this writing business, there is an enormous amount of free design advice out there from good PR firms, and trust-worthy writing consultants who are also good at PR, as well as free software (I’m going with WordPress) and endless examples of best practice.

I’m also deeply grateful that SCBWI-BI is holding another marketing boot camp for debut authors this month, run by the inestimable Candy Gourlay, Sara Grant & Mo O’Hara, an event which got rave reviews last year. I’m sure that all of us who’ve been lucky enough to get a place on this course will come away from it buzzing.

Meanwhile, if any seasoned website-hosting authors have advice to offer a newbie on pitfalls to avoid or time-saving tips that are well-worth the effort, or anyone has thoughts to share or questions on content & design, I’d love to hear from you.

Twitter @HouseRowena

Rowena House FB author page

Website Coming Soon!

PS If you’re a professional web designer, don’t get in touch. I’ll only block/ignore you. Soz.


Rowena House said...

There is, of course, a whole debate to be had about what author websites are for. As Adele Geras commented over on Twitter, teaching resources are great but create a huge amount of work for writers. One of the reasons I was trying to check Mr Morpurgo's website was to make sure memory served me right - and his resources were created by his publisher. Will go ahead designing a site anyway, but all the while thinking hard about who & what it will be for.

Andrew Preston said...

Yes, I'm not an author, but perhaps some of this might be relevant, or of interest......

1. Slow Loading.
If a site is one that has attracted my interest, in the moment, and it's slow to load, I
seldom hang around. For me, a slow loading website is mostly a big no-no. If the
website is one that I regularly use, and there is some understanding of the reasons why,
I can live with it. But slow loading is annoyance, pure and simple.

2. I've noticed that rather a lot of authors seem to use Wordpress for their sites. In a
small word association test, the first word that 'Wordpress' generated for me was drab'.
A google search on Wordpress and drab, comes up with some reasons why that is. Seems to
be about using just Wordpress basic themes.

5. My own website is . I spend little on advertising, as by
doing so, I come up against a couple of outfits that have much more resources than I.

I concentrate on the quality of what I sell, and the quality of the interactions with
customers. About every 3 or 4 months, I email a newsletter, using a software called
Mailchimp. I make sure that I'm not sending it through my commercial need, but genuinely
contains something interesting, newsy, and useful to them. And sometimes a discount
coupon. I phrase that in a way that says... as you know the best quality dried fish is
hard to come by. However, this time round I've found a good quantity, been able to
negotiate a better price.., and I therefore pass that on to you the customer.......
People feel involved.

In summary.., the customers are hard won. From the Mailchimp analytics, however, there
is a massive difference in the email opening rates to my emails, compared with the
typical figures for this type of business emailing. As a result a lot of my business is
repeat customers.

6. I noticed recently, from my website analytics, that almost 70% of the site visitors now
reach it from mobile devices. The site looks less good, to me, when it's viewed on my
phone. It's functional, but certain things are left out, that I would prefer to be there
for customers. So there is some work there for me to think about.

Does the mobile version of your website do and say what you want it to ?

7. I'm a fan of Keep It Simple.

Rowena House said...

Thanks, Andrew. I'm completely with you about slow loading. I'm pretty sure most of us won't wait, and it's good to get a reminder about mobile version too. I still tend to focus on larger screens. Email & repeat customers is a big deal in the self-publishing world especially, backed up by giveaways and competitions etc. One could spend a large part of one's life on digital marketing - and never write another book!

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Rowena - and Andrew, for sharing this. I'm a few steps behind you, Rowena, so this is very useful.

LuWrites said...

I still haven't managed to create one, mainly through the can't-be-arsed-to-read-a-manual syndrome, or the similar and related can't-yet-afford-to-hire-someone-who-can syndrome. If you work it out, I'll probably be knocking at your door!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I guess it depends WHY you want a web site. That's one thing you need to think about first. I have seen a lot of author web sites and came to the conclusion that the standard web site was not for me. They tend to be either just advertising the next book or be very pretty but not very exciting. If you're lucky the author might post about what they had in mind when they wrote a book. Any contact details invariably led to the publisher or the agent. Children's writers should have direct contact with their young readers if possible, even if it's just answering comments. So I've just done a book and writing blog, with a direct email address and comments, while moderated, are published if they're not abusive or advertising. Sometimes I have a young guest blogger doing an interview with a favourite author or a review.

There are, fortunately, some author sites that do offer more than advertising, but those tend to have a blog section.

Whatever you decide, you need to remember that for it to work, you must keep it up to date. If a fan turns up at a web site and finds the last entry was in 2010, they might be put off.

Take One Of Three Girls: An Interview With Simmone Howell

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Sue. I absolutely agree about avoiding it just being one big advert, also about being up to date. Regular updates also essential for it to make it up Google rankings, apparently. It was interesting that when I was searching for some v famous author websites, they were quite hard to find because their last post was a while ago. And as you say, younger readers won't bother coming back without fresh content.

Lu, if I fathom it I'll definitely give you a shout. Or perhaps some of us could band together & arrange a tutoring session with a WordPress person. Just a thought. Heather, might you be interested?

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Rowena, yes, tutoring would be useful!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Urgh, no! Not Wordpress! Please! I tried it and it was more hassle than it was worth. I know a blogger who went to Wordpress for a while and returned to Blogger within a couple of months. You're right - Wordpress does need tutoring. I find, too, that because I was briefly on Wordpress it won't let me use my Google account to comment; I have to use my Twitter account.

Rowena House said...

Thanks for the warning, Sue. My domain name provider recommends free WordPress software (not as a site) as do various PR types whom I admire. So I'll start there - eventually, when life stops getting in the way!