Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Websites for Writers: 
What To Do and How

By Kim L. Cole

2002, Kim L. Cole 


Everyone has a website.  Each new movie, months before it premieres, is granted an extensive website.  Software companies have websites, as do fast food restaurants, museums, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry.  You're a writer.  Do you really need a website?  That's just one of many questions that face writers in a cyber-filled world.

The fact is that more and more people are turning to the web when they need information.  With the success of online stores like Amazon.com, readers are also turning to the web for their buying needs.  Authors with popular books are well served to have their own website, if for no other reason than to provide an official response to the inevitable fan sites.  Even if you're not yet established, authors can never go wrong by getting their names and their titles in front of the buying public.

What do I say?

You've decided you're going to have a website, and you have to come up with the content.  There are a lot of considerations here, and a lot of temptations.  A good rule of thumb is to find a focus (most likely promoting your work and yourself) and stick with it.  Evaluate every opportunity (be it technology or a new section of the site) by how well it furthers your focus.  Most of all have fun!  If the very idea is torture, you don't have to have a site.  Spend your time writing instead of agonizing over a website.

There is some basic information that you really ought to provide.  A short biography is wonderful.  Readers like to know who you are, and are often entertained by what their favorite authors do (or used to do) as a day job.  Provide an address for fan mail.  I recommend care of your publisher for snail mail.  You will also want to include book titles, summaries, and links for purchasing.  If you have magazine sales, include links and information there as well.  Also, provide promotional teasers on your upcoming works and/or appearances.

There are also some things you might think about including if they appeal to you.  You can post an e-mail address.  The downside is that you're opening yourself up to any yahoo that can press "send."  The upside is that it makes you more accessible and open to your fans, which is great.  You can also include background information on your books.  This is a great way to explain how your ideas form, or to make available all the world building that will never make its way into a book.  You could also include chapters of upcoming books, although I recommend clearing that with your publisher first.  This helps hook your readers before they even buy the book.

Among the wide array of possibilities are a few things you should not do.  Do not post works on your site that were rejected by every editor the story was eligible for.  It was probably rejected for a reason, and you don't want your low-end work representing your talent to prospective readers.  Also, don't publish works you haven't sent around yet, unless you are okay with only selling them for second print rights.  Web publishing does count as first serial rights to many editors.  Also, avoid adding unrelated issues.  If you own a pet shop, don't combine it with your writing site.  Create a second site and link to it from your biography.  The readers who want to go look will be able to, and those that only want information on your new book will be very appreciative.

Should I pay a professional?

Professional web designers are professional for a very good reason.  They're good at what they do.  There are a lot of advantages to having someone else create your site.  You won't have to learn HTML, and you don't need to know about web design.  You won't have to worry about creating any graphics.  If you have total trust in your designer, you can even leave all the layout decisions up to them.

As with anything, though, there is a downside.  Professional design rates can be higher than you're able or willing to pay.  Sometimes having them create your graphics will even cost you extra.  Updates and changes can be more difficult because you have to go through someone else.  Finally, even if someone else designs your site, you still have to figure out what you want to say and how to say it.

What if I do it myself?

Web design is an interesting field in that it is not limited to the professionals.  Amateur web designers all over the world create and maintain very good looking sites themselves.  If you choose to do this, there are benefits.  The entire project is completely under your control.  It will be much easier to make changes or do updates.  Also, your costs are reduced to what you pay for hosting.  That alone can make a big difference.

The downside is that you will need to learn basic web design.  Depending on how you create your site, you may also need to learn HTML.  One of the bonuses is also very scary - all of the decisions are in your hands.  That makes the responsibility totally yours, and you can't just call a web designer if you get stuck or have problems.

My opinion is that it's a better experience for you if you create your own site.  Writers are generally not afraid to take their destiny into their own hands, and websites shouldn't be any different.  Also, if you find you have a talent for it, you might find another avenue of income.

If I do it myself, should I use WYSIWYG?

Investing in a "What You See Is What You Get" (WYSIWYG) editor is one of the easier routes to a website.  These are programs that create websites on a point-and-click, drag-and-drop basis.  The benefits are many.  WYSIWYG programs are generally very easy to use from the beginning.  They can also speed up the creation of new pages, and updating existing pages is also fairly simple.  You are able to view your page as you create it, so there aren't surprises.

The downside is that the more advanced options of the program may take a lot of time to learn.  Or worse, it may not have options to create the effects you want.  If you buy an editor with a lot of advanced features and options, the price is usually rather high.  Also, many WYSIWYG programs insert extra, or junk, coding into your pages.  This may slow loading time, or it may even cause your page to display incorrectly in certain browsers.

Without any editorial comment from me, here are some possibilities for WYSIWYG programs, at varying cost levels and with different options.

o       Site Design Machine

o       Macromedia Dreamweaver

o       CoffeeCup HTML Editor

o       Microsoft FrontPage 2000

How about learning HTML?

If you decide the WYSIWYG editors are not for you, you will need to learn HTML.  I recommend purchasing a book or taking a class which teaches XHTML along with HTML, since both are in use right now.

If you learn how to code your own pages, you will never have junk coding unless you put it in yourself.  You also won't have to worry about what options you have with creating your site.  Your only limit will be what you learn.  Once you've learned HTML it is easy to proceed.  Techniques such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and Server Side Includes (SSI) are great to have, and not much harder to learn than HTML itself.

Of course, first you have to learn HTML.  This will require purchasing one or more books on the subject, or perhaps signing up for a computer class.  Hand coding can also make creating your initial pages a more time consuming process (although updating is considerably easier).  Another thing to watch for is that small mistakes can make a big difference in how your page displays, and they can take a long time to find.

I always recommend learning to hand code your pages.  Not only does this grant you a great deal of play room on your site, but it means that you are not dependent on a program or a person to do your work for you.  It's all in your hands.  If you choose to learn HTML, here are a few books to help get you started.

o       Sam's Teach Yourself HTML and XHTML in 24 Hours by Michael Morrison, Dick Oliver

o       Web Design in a Nutshell by Jennifer Niederst

o       HTML and XHTML:  The Definitive Guide by Chuck Musciano, Bill Kennedy

o       Learning Web Design:  A Beginnerís Guide to HTML, Graphics, and Beyond by Jennifer Niederst, Richard Koman

What should my page look like?

It should look like your site.  No, that's not a too-cute saying.  I mean that your site should be a reflection of your personality, and also of the type of writing you do.  A horror writer's site might be dark, while a science fiction writer's site would have shiny surfaces and a slick feel.  Create a site you feel comfortable looking at, because it increases the chances your readers will be comfortable too.  Also, remember one thing:  white space is your best friend.

One issue is whether your site should use frames or not.  This is very much a matter of opinion.  Frames offer the benefits of consistent and clear navigation.  You can choose to have graphic heavy titles and menus with frames, because they will only need to load once (instead of with every page).  Also, frames work the same as a picture frame to keep your content within a regulated space, which can help reduce clutter.

Not everything about frames is great.  You have to be twice as careful with your off-site links and be sure that they don't get trapped within your frames.  The worst case scenario is when another person's site may seem to be a part of yours.  Also, I will admit that a very small minority of people use browsers that can't read frames.  If you use frames you will lose those users.  Finally, some dislike the picture frame quality, and feel that it limits a designer's creativity.

It is possible to sidestep the issue by creating both a framed and non-framed version of the site.  I admit frankly, though, that it is twice as much work and can make updating your site seem a daunting task.  I have had non-framed sites, and framed sites, and I have maintained a site with an option for either.  I prefer framed for ease of use and updating, but neither has a clear advantage.

What about graphics?

Graphics can be very useful to liven up your text, and they help keep your readers from getting bored.  Plain text is easy to design, but not much to look at.  Graphics also attract the eyes in much the same way as a front bookstore display.  Unfortunately, graphics can also work against you if you don't use them carefully.

Remember that a page has to load before anyone can see it.  So try to make sure that your graphic files have as small a weight as possible without damaging their look.  Five kilobytes and under is usually best, unless you've warned the user that it's a full-page graphic.  Avoid animated graphics unless they're really important to your site.  They're easy to overdo, and a lot of long-time surfers are sick to death of them.  Finally, be wary of background graphics.  Good ones can be a great addition, but bad ones can make your text utterly unreadable.

Make sure your graphics are easy to read, if they include words, or easy to understand, if they are only images.  Obscure symbols won't help your user navigate your site, and you'll lose them right there.  Remember, also, that the reader has to know a graphic is a link before they can click on it.  Also, all graphics should have a purpose.  "I think it's neat looking," is not a purpose as far as web design is concerned.  Be careful with your graphics and sugar to taste (so to speak).  Finally, make sure your graphics have height and width tags so that your page doesn't change shape as it loads.  Your readers will thank you.

I've made a site.  Where do I host it?

That depends on a lot of different factors.  Holly Lisle's site needed to be on a host that would support all the features of the Forward Motion Community.  That automatically meant a paid host, as ad-free cost-free hosts do not provide that type of service.  So take a look at your site and see what you have.  Think carefully about what is necessary, and what your budget will provide for.  Choose your host accordingly.

I provide below a list of search engines and list sites.  Doing your own research is much more efficient than just going with my recommendation, for a number of reasons.  For one, I haven't tried every host on earth and cannot in good conscience limit my recommendations to the hosts I have tried.  For another, hosting packages and prices change daily.  The bargain of the week today might be next month's top-end, price-heavy package.  This way you can use their updated listings to choose the hosting package that's ready for you when you are ready for it.

Free Hosts

Many free hosts offer space but require that their pop-up or banner ad appear on your site.  You do not have to use such a host.  There are many free hosts that do not require any ads on your site at all.  I would recommend searching until you find one that will work for you.  The downside of free sites is that they do not all offer FTP access, and there are often strong limits on your storage size and perhaps also transfer rates.  Do your research and make sure you agree to their requirements and limits.

o       100 Best Free Web Space Services - http://100best-free-web-space.com/

o       Free Web Hosting List - http://www.clickherefree.com/

o       FreeWebspace.Net - http://www.freewebspace.net/

Paid Hosts

You are now paying for your service.  So make sure you get what you're paying for.  No paid host should ever impose advertisements on your site.  If you find one that does, keep looking.  Also, there is often a correlation between how much space you get and how much you pay.  Ditto for the options and support.  Don't stop on the first low price you find, or the first high price that offers everything you want.  Look at many different hosts and compare them all before you choose.  Also, be sure you understand the terms of your contract.  If you sign a two year contract, you may be out a lot of money when you find the service stinks.  Always do your research.

o       Web Hosting Ratings - http://www.webhostingratings.com/

o       Host Search - http://www.hostsearch.com/

o       Host Review - http://www.hostreview.com/

Call me for the christening

You're ready now to make the decisions you need to make.  Whether you pay a professional web designer or decide to become one yourself, this should give you the basics you need to begin.  As always, remember the writer's two favorite tools.  Research your decisions before you make them, and read everything you can find about web design.  Whether someone else delivers it to you or you create it from day one, this site is still yours.  Your words will be on it, and your worlds discussed within.  Be sure that you're proud of it before you send it out into the world to speak for you.

o       Sams Teach Yourself HTML and XHTML in 24 Hours by Michael Morrison, Dick Oliver

o       Publisher: Sams; ISBN: 0672320762; 5th edition (February 15, 2001)

o       Web Design in a Nutshell by Jennifer Niederst

o       Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates; ISBN: 0596001967; 2nd edition (October 15, 2001)

o       HTML and XHTML:  The Definitive Guide by Chuck Musciano, Bill Kennedy

o       Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates; ISBN: 059600026X; 4th edition (August 2000)

o       Learning Web Design:  A Beginnerís Guide to HTML, Graphics, and Beyond by Jennifer Niederst, Richard Koman

o       Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates; ISBN: 0596000367; (March 15, 2001)