how to project a professional website

Watching: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Reading: It’s Here… Somewhere by Alice Fulton-Osborne & Pauline Hatch
Listening to: Call Me by Sylvester

As well as doing a bit of website design on the side, I spend a lot of time visiting blogs and checking out sites, waxing lyrical over the fabulous ones and bitching and moaning about the not-so-professional ones.  If you have a site or are thinking of getting one, here are my experiences and thoughts, as well as some painfully awful don’ts that will hopefully help you in avoiding the (sadly common) pitfalls of web design. (BTW these pointers also apply to group or professional association sites and blogs too – check out the Australian Romance Readers site for a clean, professional look).

DO

  • visit sites you like and find out who designed them, then get quotes.  There are many, many designers out there and the prices can vary dramatically.
  • be aware it can take a little skill to build a website from scratch if you chose not to pay a designer.  You will need a design program (I use the full version of Webpage Maker),  knowledge of color and layout, and basic html.  And not everyone has the ability to design a nice-looking site, in which case, there are templates.
  • make a list of all the pages you want to include on your site.  For authors, you should at the very minimum have a bio page, a books page, links,  an email address (or how to contact you) and a home button.  Other options that will draw in your readers are a ‘behind the book’, excerpts, a contest and any articles you’ve written.  A blog, Twitter account and Facebook are all totally optional, depending on how much time and effort you want to spend.
  • have an idea of what your product is.  Do you write sweet rural romance?  Hot sexy paranormals?  Your writing, personal style and tone of your books  should reflect in your website –  from the colors and pictures to the layout and font.  For example, CC Coburn (Harlequin American) wanted a site that reflected the kind of books she writes, something airy, down-home and American.  Kerri Lane  (children’s author) wanted something fun and open for her blog.  Marianna Jameson writes bio-thrillers, hence the ominous dark cloud.  And Cathryn Hein (Allen & Unwin) writes Aussie rural romance so her up-coming site will reflect earthy tones.  If you hate pink, roses and anything to do with hearts, then don’t include them on your site!
  • keep uniformity in the pages.  Your banner and links should be the same throughout –  don’t have a multitude of changing images just because you love 20 different photos of couples in a clinch.   The exception is Anna Campbell‘s website, but you’ll notice only the photos are different and the banner itself remains exactly the same on every page.

Now, some unpublished writers may not want to go the website route just yet, which is where a blog comes in handy.  I use WordPress.com which is free and has a stack of different standard templates and designs, which I then design different banners to personalize each blog.  A few I’ve done are Diamonds Down Under, Outback Billionaires and Babies, Kaz Delaney, Shannon Curtis and of course, mine.

And now we come to the most important bit – marks of an amateur site (aka stuff that makes me want to rip my hair out in frustration):

  • a multitude of different fonts and sizes.  I love fonts but they have their place.  For ease of reading, the body of your website should be a standard Arial 10 point, not that fancy Bickley Script – because the fonts on my computer may not necessarily be on Jane’s computer in Texas.  So Jane’s computer will substitute it for a default (and often clunky!) font.
  • basic comical flash objects such as dancing pigs, popup email envelopes and fluttering butterflies.  This kind of stuff went out in the early 90s and doesn’t have a place on a professional site
  • a bunch of frames and boxes and /or pictures that are just dumped on a page.  This just looks too busy and amateurish
  • misaligned pictures, fonts – again, smacks of ‘I don’t care about my website’.  So why should a reader?
  • ads.  OMG, please, pay the small amount and invest in your own domain name and webmaking software!  Ads from third parties make everything look cheap and nasty.  Why should you, as an author, provide free advertising for someone else?
  • a dark background with white text / multicolored headings in fancy fonts.  You don’t want to give your readers eye strain.
  • links to pages or sites that don’t work
  • overloading your home page with text, pictures, award logos and other stuff.  The purpose of this page is to provide a little info about you, a news update, and advert of your wares, and encouragement to browsers to keep looking.  Being bombarded with a bunch of “5 hearts at Romance Review Site!” logos isn’t relevant here – save it for your Awards or Book page.
  • text that runs off the page so that you miss half of what’s being said.
  • and one of my pet peeves – a site that’s so wide you have to scroll with the bottom navigation bar to get to the other side.  Bad, bad, bad.  If it involves more than a few clicks, you will lose readers.