Website Design Tips for Authors: An Interview with Jessica Zeigler

Website Design Tips for Authors: An Interview with Jessica Zeigler

When we decided to sell our hardcover and activity books online on our own website, we jumped in feet first — the blind leading the blind, you might say.  It was an interesting learning process, to say the least. We enjoyed the learning curve and were able to accomplish a lot with research and patience, but we also became very frustrated at certain points. Time to enlist the help of a friend!

Jessica Ziegler, author and illustrator of Story Tots (www.StoryTots.com) and director of social media design at Vestor Logic (www.VestorLogic.com), has been an integral part of making our website run smoothly. What would no doubt have taken us weeks to accomplish, she had up and running in a matter of hours. What a relief that was!

We asked Jessica to share her professional insight on website design with our readers….

1. Is there a specific program you’d recommend to authors who want to create a website for selling their books?

 Any online content management system, like WordPress or Blogger is the way to go. If you are self-hosted (with WordPress), you have complete control over what is on your site. If you use another CMS like Blogger or WordPress.com, while it’s relatively “free,” technically they own your content. Authors take issue with that. If you use one of the free-ish (there’s always a fee for the good stuff!) “drag-and-drop” builders, you will be tied to their system and will pay your monthly fee forever. It’s not easy, often impossible, to take your site out of their system. My preference in self-hosted is WordPress.

2. What types of themes do you prefer?

 I prefer StudioPress themes; the Genesis framework is top notch, well-designed and well-coded. If you have experience with html and php (or are willing to learn), it is extremely flexible.

3. What are some common mistakes “newbies” make when setting up websites?

 If you don’t have experience with building a website, it can be a steep learning curve, even with the newer drag-and-drop site builders like squarespace, weebly or wix. It’s definitely do-able, but it would be a good idea to assume it will take about three times longer than you’d think (or want). Just go straight to the tutorials. They all have them, and they will save you a ton of time. Also, if you can figure out the right question to ask, google will ALWAYS have the answer!

4. We were hacked when we first started our website design. We were told that hackers often get in through plug-ins. Is that true? What precautions can be taken?

 That can be true, although this is not an issue unless you are self-hosted. Not every plugin is solidly coded or frequently updated. It’s not uncommon for someone to build a plugin for a specific need and then wander off, never to maintain it again. When you are adding plugins to your site, look for lots of downloads and the last updated date. If it’s been several months or years, keep looking. It also is extremely important to make sure that you run all plugin and WordPress core updates as they become available. WordPress releases a list of all of the things it’s fixing with each update, which is basically a hacker roadmap.

5. What are the greatest obstacles an inexperienced website designer faces?

 Not knowing the technology and not having the right graphics programs to create the beautiful site you want. If you are interested and want to learn, it can be fun. If it’s just a task on your to-do list when you’d really rather be writing, it can be endlessly frustrating.

6. If an author wants to enlist the help of a web designer, how much should he expect to pay for a basic design?

 It really depends on the depth and breadth of the site needed, as well as the experience level of the developer. A designer may charge anywhere from $50-150 an hour, or they may charge you a flat rate for a site. It can really run anywhere from $400 or $500 to $2500, even for something basic.

7.  When you design a website for someone, how long does it typically take from start to finish?

 If I can get all of the login information, graphics or logos and content the client already has, it can just take a few days.  (Of course, WHEN those few days fall depends on what other projects I have ahead of the new client’s). Usually the hold-ups occur when I can’t gather all of the bits and pieces that I need to get going. It’s also very helpful if the client can show the designer a few sites he really likes; that gives the designer a quick insight into what the client finds appealing.

8. Authors want to sell books on their sites; what would you advise them to include so that the ordering process is smooth for buyers?

 Button links to Amazon, if that is where you are selling your books, is the easiest.  Let Amazon manage your shipping, etc. If you are selling directly from your site or have multiple products, I really like the WooCommerce plugin. They also build themes, but I still usually stick with Genesis as my theme core.

9. What advice would you give to an author who wants a website for book sales?

 Think about your future plans. Will this be the first of many books? If so, you might not want the site design to be too tied to the first book design or cover. Get all of your content in order — a good start is an “about” page, “contact” page, pages for each book and a blog so fans can follow your progress and your story. Your site is more than just a sales channel; it’s an inside look at your process. That’s what fans really want to see. Artists and authors can easily forget that not everyone is creative, and fans find it fascinating and inspiring to see the process in action. Look for sites that you like and think about whether or not those ideas could work well for your site.

10. If someone wants to enlist your services, how can they contact you for information and pricing?

 They can email me at jz@storytots.com…and with any luck it won’t get buried under all the Groupon deals and Viagra ads.

Books for Boys: Where Are They?

Books for Boys: Where Are They?

Is it just me or do we have a serious lack of quality literature for boys in the middle grades? When I “google” or ask a librarian to steer me toward the best books for boys,  and I have the same titles come up that I saw 30 years ago…Houston, we have a problem. I love “Where the Red Fern Grows” as much as the next guy, but really? We haven’t moved on from that?

It seems that publishers believe all boys love the supernatural. Not so for so many boys that I know. When a battleship with creatures on it explodes or a maze the size of ten football fields with monsters running around is a popular series, it makes me realize why “The Diary of the Wimpy Kid” was so popular. Real boys. Real problems. Real solutions.

And yes, I love a good comic strip, but when parents and teachers are desperate to get a book in a boy’s hand and the only one they are interested in has about twenty words on a page, it’s an uphill battle. The stories that have real plots with characters of depth will turn our boys into lifelong readers.

As we ponder our next book, we realize that one of the best-loved aspects of “The Great PJ Elf Chase” was the endearing young male characters.  It’s clear to us that realistic fiction for the middle grades with boys as the main characters just might be a welcome title to many bookshelves.

In the meantime, I’m glad that “Harry Potter” came on the scene even though he, too, has fantastic ways of doing things.  James Patterson and John Grisham decided to write books for boys. And they are good ones at that. But, that list is a short one when you consider all of the beloved female characters in middle grade books for girls.

What’s your favorite middle grade book that has a boy for a main character?

Self-Publishing a Children’s Picture Book 23: Update Regarding Hardcover Books and CreateSpace Publishers

Self-Publishing a Children’s Picture Book 23: Update Regarding Hardcover Books and CreateSpace Publishers

We posted a blog regarding our experience with hardcover books and CreateSpace Publishing Company. You can read it here. We said the best kept secret of CreateSpace was that they produced hardcover books as well as paperbacks. Now we’re thinking that the production of hardcover books was probably kept under the radar because it was just an experiment at CreateSpace. They are no longer offering this option.

One of our readers, a fellow author, gave us a heads up, so we contacted a senior publishing consultant at CreateSpace to ask whether or not we’d still be able to order the hardcover version of our book. She replied, “We are no longer offering the hard cover upgrade but we are honoring all current titles that have a hard cover available.” She assured us that we are safe and nothing will change for our ordering purposes – at least with “The Great PJ Elf Chase.”

Most self-published authors of children’s pictures books look for a publishing company that offers a hardcover upgrade. We are disappointed that CreateSpace has dropped this upgrade. It will have a definite impact on our choice of publishing companies for our next children’s picture book.

Self-Publishing a Children’s Picture Book 22: Contests and Awards

Self-Publishing a Children’s Picture Book 22: Contests and Awards

Potential buyers seem to give a book a second look when its author has won a contest or received an award, so we decided it would be worth our while to submit our book to contests and award programs. Most have a variety of categories, and we were looking for children’s picture books or holiday books. What did we have to lose? Well, besides money….

Most book award contests charge entry fees ranging from $20 to $100. If you meet the early bird deadline, you will usually pay a little less. There is a limited window of opportunity for entering contests, so books typically need to be submitted soon after they are published. Authors are asked to complete an entry form and submit one to three copies of the book. Additionally, although many award programs welcome self-published books, several cater strictly to traditionally-published books.

Although the possibilities appear to be endless, the following award programs were good fits for our children’s picture book, “The Great PJ Elf Chase.” Perhaps this list will save you time if you decide to enter your self-published book in a contest or two. You can find more information about each one online.

We’ve entered and already received results on the following:  

  • Readers’ Favorite Book Review and Awards Contest: What’s unique about this contest is they review the book for free and rate it up to five stars. We just received our completed review a few days ago and were pleased with our 5-star rating! We now have a sticker we can include on our book cover, website, etc. They advertise books on their website when they are 4- or 5-star recipients also, which gives us additional publicity. Readers’ Favorites is affiliated with Windstar Films, so we have big dreams of them choosing “The Great PJ Elf Chase” as the next best-loved children’s Christmas movie!
  • National Indie Excellence Book Awards: This contest is for self-published authors only. We were just named the finalist in the “holiday books” category. There is a winner and a finalist. The way they state it, they name a finalist if it’s a very close decision between two books, and the winner could’ve gone either way…so we’re pleased with our finalist status.
  • B.R.A.G. Medallion:There is no deadline for entering this award contest, and the fee is only $20. It is for self-published authors only. You must have an electronic version of your book to enter this contest.  We’re happy to report that our book was given the B.R.A.G. Medallion honor!

    There is an initial screening to ensure the author’s work meets minimum standards of quality and content. On average, 50% of submissions fail this screening. If the book passes this preliminary screening, it’s then read by members drawn from a global readers group. 40% of the books are typically rejected by these readers.  They judge writing style, characters, copy editing, dialogue and cover/interior layout. One final factor readers use to judge a book is whether or not they would recommend it to their best friend.  Only 10% of the books considered are awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion and are presented on their website. Conversely, they do not make public the titles of any books that were not selected to receive a Medallion, or the names of their authors.

  We’ve entered, but haven’t yet heard results from the following:  

  • Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards: They award gold, silver and bronze winners in each category.
  • U.S.A. Best Book Award
  • Patterson Prize for Books for Young People

We plan to enter these contests, but they have later deadlines:

  • Feathered Quill Book Award: (June 1st to November 15th)
  • Cybils Children’s and Young Adult Literary Blogger Awards: (October 1st to 15th)
  • Kids Kart: (They only take submissions at certain times, so you have to keep checking back with them.)

We missed the deadlines on these contests or decided not to enter, but they might work for you.

  • Parents’ Choice
  • Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Award
  • Purple Dragonfly Book Award
  • Mom’s Choice Awards: (This was the most expensive at $300, but they say to watch for specials on their website.)
  • The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards
Self-Publishing a Children’s Picture Book 21: Marketing Do’s and Don’ts

Self-Publishing a Children’s Picture Book 21: Marketing Do’s and Don’ts

Because “The Great PJ Elf Chase: A Christmas Eve Tradition” is obviously a holiday book, our window for selling is rather small. Nobody buys a Christmas book in July. On the flip-side, we can gear up each year and repeat our efforts. Here are some of the marketing tools we tried our first selling season. Some we considered time and money well spent. Others, not so much.

Establishing a Website

When you have your manuscript ready to go, or even before that, you will definitely want to establish a professional-looking website. Remember, so many people will click on your web address and, many times, it will be their “first impression” of you and your book. We first researched how to create a website on our own. We chose to use www.Bluehost.com which turned out to be a great decision. When we got hacked, largely due to our lack of knowledge, Blue Host came to the rescue at no charge. We also used WordPress and a company called “Elegant Themes” to keep the process simple. We even created a separate website that we thought would generate interest before our book was actually ready to go (see www.parentteachertalk.com).

After being hacked and experiencing some frustration on getting this website (www.thegreatpjelfchase.com) just the way we wanted it, we asked a friend who is in the business of website design to see what she could do. Wow! It was night and day between her magic and our fumbling through it. Well worth the money spent on getting the website to look great. Thank you, Jessica! ( www.storytots.com) So, while you are putting the finishing touches on your manuscript, get that website going. If we had to do a couple of things over, we probably would have hired Jessica right away. We also would have not named our website after our first book. Now that we are working on a second book, we realize we will have to do something about that issue very soon.

Creating Marketing Materials

There are so many aspects to marketing, but if you want to keep it simple, one thing you need to have is a business card. We were able to find fantastic deals at Vista Print. (www.vistaprint.com) They have excellent customer service and user-friendly templates so that you can use your book cover as the art for the business cards. When we re-order, we will consider getting an “800” number so that our personal cell phone numbers are not floating around, along with a post office box. While we were on the Vista Print website, the temptation was there to go on a shopping spree. Keep your bottom line in mind. However, one good purchase we made was a medium vertical banner and stand which is of excellent quality. This makes a great backdrop for public appearances. We also purchased flyers, stickers, and even a canvas tote, all personalized with information about our book. Vista Print does not have bookmarks available so we had to use a different company for those. One thing we probably would not have purchased again were car magnets with the book cover on them. They did get some attention, but they also flew off of my car as I was riding down the street. Thankfully it was a side street near my house so nobody was hurt.
School Visits

One of the best evenings of our entire sales season was spent at a local elementary school. Their book fair was in full swing and the school had an evening set aside for parents to come and shop at the book fair. They invited me to come and read the book to any students who attended. Books were pre-ordered but also sold in person. First of all, it was fantastic to see the faces of kids listening intently to the story and wanting an autograph at the end of the presentation. Honestly, it brought a tear to my eye. Thrilling! Secondly, because we were selling the books in person, we were able to offer them at a discounted price. Even with the discount, it was possible to donate a couple of dollars back to the school for each book sold. We also donated a hardcover to the school library. Our intention for the next school year is to put much of our efforts into school visits, offering writing classes along with a book reading. Many authors charge for this service, but for right now, we are offering this for free. As former teachers, it is great fun to be back with the students.

Selling to Local Bookstores

We’ve had some of you ask about the profit margin when selling to the local bookstores and toy stores. Let’s just say that we won’t be doing that again next year. While we appreciated the concept of product “branding”, we felt that we just couldn’t compete with the prices on books traditionally published. By the time the stores got their cut, we typically made almost nothing. However, we can say that the book was well-received enough to be chosen by some fabulous stores and that was a feather in our cap. We will continue to do business with those stores that already have our book on their shelves.

Expos

If you hear that 20,000 people will be walking by a table with your book displayed and you just have to pay $700 for the table, would you take that risk? Well, we couldn’t resist trying it. Would we do it again? No, we would not. We sold about 50 books over a weekend at a Christmas Expo in Denver, but because the booth charge was so high, we lost money in the end. We lost time and we lost money but we learned a valuable lesson. Expos are not for single book sales.

Online Advertisements

We put a small amount of money into Facebook ads and Adwords. We did not see that paying for ads was beneficial. We did feel that the Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest accounts are something we will continue to use. Also, we believe that one of best ways to reach a larger audience is through our website, including this blog. Thanks for reading!