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.

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!

Self-Publishing a Children’s Picture Book 2: Choosing the Right Publisher

When Karen and I decided that we would self-publish our book, “The Great PJ Elf Chase: A Christmas Eve Tradition” using a print-on-demand publisher, we were a little overwhelmed by the number of companies from which to choose. There are many.

Like most of us these days, our research began with searching out reviews of self-publishing companies on the Internet. One website that really helped make the landscape clearer was http://www.newselfpublishing.com. Aaron Shepard gives important insight into a few of the self-publishing companies out there vying for our business. Lightening Source is one company he discusses at length, but my take-away from his knowledge was that the better company to go with when publishing a full-color children’s picture book was CreateSpace. That’s one vote for CreateSpace.

In addition to conducting research on the Internet, I asked two friends about their experiences with self-publishing. Lulu was a publisher Jessica Ziegler used to publish her paperback picture books, including “Dinosaur Circus”. She was pleased with Lulu but they did not offer a hardcover edition, which we thought would be important for our holiday children’s Christmas book. One thing to note is that Jessica is an artist and illustrated her own books. She did not have to seek out the services of an illustrator.

Another friend, Rebecca Green Gaspar, was quite familiar with CreateSpace as she self-published, “Break from You”, her young adult novel on teen dating abuse. Rebecca has had a good experience thus far with CreateSpace and recommended their services. That’s two votes for CreateSpace. Because “Break from You” is a novel without illustrations, Rebecca only had the cover art to consider which she was able to beautifully do herself. Karen and I are not illustrators (too bad for us!). Because we needed 19 illustrations, this complicated our search for a self-publisher, as negotiating that aspect of the deal would be a large part of our decision-making process. It’s true that we could have put more effort into finding a local artist, but decided that we would give our publishing company a try.

After weeks of research, we decided to contact CreateSpace, an Amazon company. We filled out their online form and quickly were in touch with one of their publishing consultants. Our publishing consultant set up a phone appointment time and called as scheduled. She verbally discussed the basic pricing information and what services CreateSpace offered. While our consultant was easy to work with and answered questions in a timely manner, we later realized that some key information was omitted, or a smidgeon inaccurate, in her verbal quote. As time passed, it became clear that our lack of experience in this process could have been a real detriment if we weren’t paying attention. And in some cases, clearly, we weren’t paying attention.

After months of discussion between Karen and me, we signed a contract with CreateSpace. The services we contracted for included using the CreateSpace expanded distribution network, a hard-cover upgrade for $100, 19 illustrations and book cover, the LCCN Assignment, a Kirkus Review, and full design of the inside of the book. We were first quoted a deal on the illustrations, counting a two-page spread as 1 ½ instead of two. Our publishing consultant did not recall quoting this to us initially. We had to present this as a deal-breaker until she finally went to her manager to secure this for us. She also threw in 20 free hardcovers and 50 free paperbacks. We are feeling very glad we negotiated those free copies up front as every little bit helps. The grand total for all of these services came to right around $5000. Yikes. That’s a lot of books to sell.

Each of our paperback books would cost us $3.65, plus shipping. There was something on the CreateSpace website about royalties, but we stupidly thought they meant that the $3.65 was the cost and the royalty was whatever we charged for the book beyond that price. Not so. We soon realized that each of the sales avenues CreateSpace offered would also get a cut. However, one major benefit of using CreateSpace was that we could set our own price. We found, buried on the CreateSpace website, a calculator to see what our earnings would be based on the price we set. Check it out for your book: https://www.CreateSpace.com/Products/Book/. If we sold a 35 page full-color, paperback with bleed for $9.95, we would get $2.32 from Amazon, $4.31 from eStore (this is the website CreateSpace provides to sell your book) and a mere $0.33 from Expanded Distribution.

Our publishing consultant mentioned numerous times that, while the fee to format our book for a hardcover edition was a flat $100, it could not be sold via any of the channels offered through CreateSpace such as Amazon or their eStore. We would sell those ourselves on a website, at signings, and so on, and they would cost us $10.00 each. By the way, we later found out that our hardcover cost is not $10.00 per book. It will cost us $11.75 per copy. That is almost $2.00 more than what our publishing consultant had told us over and over again.

After we signed the contract and got started with the CreateSpace Design team, we quickly ran into a pretty big problem. They advertise that you can choose your own illustrator from a given list you can find on their website (https://www.CreateSpace.com/Services/CustomIllustrations.jsp) We soon realized that some of the artists listed were either not available or not interested in our project. Ouch! Take a look at our blog: xxx to follow our story on how we came to find our fantastic illustrator, Lorena. Before we found, Lorena, however, we were wondering if we needed to look elsewhere. We were realizing that many of the artists from CreateSpace offered more of a cartoonish look to their illustrations. We wanted more of a realistic look to the characters in our book. We were concerned, also, about the confusion surrounding the true cost of our book. We wondered if we should try to break the contract we just signed and go with someone else?
Read: Self-Publishing: CreateSpace vs. AuthorHouse to find out what how we made this important decision.

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