Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tweet your way to publication and building your online self

Celebrating a blogging milestone today: I have FIVE followers! :D

After spending a day working on my website, I still see code whenever I look away from the screen. Since I'm in the mood to talk about it, I thought I could blog about building websites, but from a writer's perspective: what are the best options depending of your situation and budget?

I recently came across this amazing success story while I was doing research. This writer had already been rejected by her dream agent, but kept tabs on the agency and followed the agent's Twitter. After a few exchanged tweets, she caught the agent's attention and lured her to her blog. This prompted the agent to send her an e-mail and an invitation to re-query, because the agent thought the voice of the blog was enchanting. In short: this writer tweeted her way to an offer of representation from her dream agent.

I'm not saying this happens every day, but it shows that an online presence can be beneficial. I'm neither published or agented, so I'm not in a position to give any advice about writing other than what I've read elsewhere. However, I've been designing websites for the past 12 years and I am in a position to help you with that. This will be a long post, so bear with me.

1) The Importance (with a capital I) of an online presence
Before I began to build my website, I questioned whether it was a good idea. I thought an agent might find it arrogant that an unpublished or unagented writer felt the need to build himself an online shrine.

I quickly discovered this was very negative thinking and was completely off the track. Several agents or figures of the publishing industry have repeatedly blogged about this, and all agree: in this day and age, every writer absolutely needs a website.

The amazing Eric at Pimp my Novel had good advice as he explains what he thinks is important in a writer's website. Not all agents agree you absolutely need a site before you get published though. The equally amazing Jessica Faust of BookEnds LLC answered a reader's question involving the importance of websites. Since you're working so hard to get published though, why wait? Nathan Bransford's blog has covered this many times, but this entry is particularly good.

You can research this further if you want (in fact, I encourage you to), but I just wanted to establish that a website and/or blog will be a necessity down the line.

2) Figuring out your budget and your options

A quick and easy option is to get a blog. Blogger and Wordpress are the two options. I chose to go with Blogger because it is owned by Google and it integrates fabulously well with all the Google tools out there. Both are just as good for what a writer needs to do, so in the end, it boils down to personal choice and whether or not you already deal with one of these platforms.

Blogger: fewer templates to choose from (including 3rd party templates), harder to template yourself without experience, but is the most popular platform for writers and has a much better commenting system, which makes it easier for users to follow you and leave comments.

Wordpress: A lot more versatile and easier to template, can be hosted on your own server, but is much less popular among writers and the comment system forces registration or requires anonymous posting. This is really bad for blog readers who want to leave a quick comment using their own Blogger profile (which they spent time personalizing).

Be warned: if you know you won't have time to blog regularly, having a dead and empty blog could be counter productive. Eric at PMN explains it well: The Ten Commandments of Blogging.

If you do plan to pay attention to your blog, there are a lot of options, and most are free. You should immediately work on personalizing your blog's style to make it yours and easily recognizable. Consider getting or buying a professional template, because the standard ones all suck. This site offers free templates, as well as here, here, here and here. Explore the widgets that are available to make it more into your own.

If you want a no-strings-attached online presence, it'll have to be a website.

3) Getting a website: what it costs and the options

Building a website from scratch is a lot easier than it used to. Using softwares such as Dreamweaver, you can create your very own layout and design with no HTML/CSS coding skills whatsoever. WYSIWYG editors (What You See Is What You Get) are the easiest to use, but learning it will still require some effort for any beginner. I highly recommend the free HTML editor KompoZer if you're a newbie. Dreamweaver is the most powerful editor out there and the one most professionals use, but it retails at 400$. If you're a student though, you get significant Adobe discounts, so look into it.

A competent webmaster who builds websites for a living will cost, at a bare minimum, 20$/h. Most webmasters charge a flat fee for a basic package, which includes a fixed number of pages (usually five). A usual fee is 100$/page for the first five. I personally never take contracts under 500$ because of all the time involved in setting a brand new site up. It's just not worth it.

There are three ways to get a website.

A) The professional way
Find a professional in your local ads. Be weary of incredibly cheap offers. Alternatively, you can post a "project" on sites such as Project4Hire and CodingForums where developers will bid on your project, and you get to choose who you want to work with. I've found good clients this way, and the method works. You can have a very basic but professional looking website for 200$ if you deal with students who study in the field. They'll be looking to build a portfolio and will accept cheaper contracts. Be on the lookout for those.

A professional will also offer hosting options. Do know that registering a domain name costs 10$/year at registrars such as Namecheap (this is where I get and manage all my domains), so be careful of webmasters who charge 100$ to do it.

Before approaching a professional, surf the web and save the addresses of the sites you like. Showing these to the hired webmaster will help him figure out what style you're looking for. Think of the color palette you'd like. You can even draw it (with a pencil, on paper) then scan it. Even if it's just to show the structure you want it to have. It'll shove many hours off the total production time, thus saving you money.

HOWEVER. From a writer's point of view, I think hiring a professional is not a good investment if you're willing to put just a little effort and do it yourself. I know this must sound ludicrous coming from a molecular biology student who lives on website designing, but I'm not here to spoon-feed you bullshit. The difference in quality from a professional site you'll have paid 200-500$ for and one you'll have put time into is not worth the money.

If you REALLY can't do it yourself, consider getting a blog only and wait on the website creation until you have found an agent and gotten a book deal. Then hiring a professional will make more sense, because a 1500$ site will look a lot better than one you'll have made yourself.

B) The do-it-yourself way
Using editors such as KompoZer and starting from scratch. The advantages are obvious: you do it on your own time, it'll be a reflection of your style and it's free.

You'll need webhosting to host your site on the internet. Godaddy is a good, reliable and cheap option. If you sign up with them, you can register a domain at the same time. Suggestion: get an address that resembles It's much more professional, only costs 10$/year and it allows you to have your own professional e-mail address, such as This is better than For about 80$/year, you'll have hosting, your domain, and the ability to make as many e-mail addresses as you want.

Getting your own domain also allows you to have a personalized Blogger address. For example, my blog address is and it looks like I host it myself. I don't. It was styled to match my website's design, but the blog is entirely hosted by Blogger.

The process of making a website isn't the scope of this post, but I will cover it in a future entry.

C) The hybrid way

You can buy pre-made HTML templates and modify them to fit your style or needs. Avoid flash templates at this time. The technology will soon be replaced by something new, and it is not supported by mobile phones or mobile platforms such as the iPad. This means anyone looking at your site on these devices won't be able to surf it. Considering the popularity of these devices nowadays, this is bad marketing for yourself. Stick to HTML/CSS templates.

Getting a pre-made template is easier than building something from scratch and is more easily modified. Popular sites to get these (most are not free, but they're cheap: 40-80$): here, here, here and here. The last one is probably one of the most popular and user-friendly, and is free.

4) Understanding the process

Since this was a long post, I thought I could sum it up in an easy to read list.
  • Consider what suits you best: a blog, a website, or both
  • Figure out your budget and weight the options that are available within that budget
  • If you're getting a blog: personalize it with professional templates and widgets. Remember to blog regularly
  • If you're getting a website: decide if you'll do it yourself or if you want to hire someone
  • If hiring, take your time in finding out the right webmaster for you. Consider their experience, portfolio, wages and determine EXACTLY what you're getting so there are no surprises
  • If you're doing it yourself, you'll need an HTML editor, a domain name and hosting
I will blog in more details on how to build a website and how to streamline the process to make it more efficient later this week. Since I want to avoid the pitfall of diving into techno-babble, I want to take my time in writing it so I don't confuse rather than help you.

Any questions? Use the comment section, I'll answer every and all questions to the best of my abilities.


Regan Leigh said...

Great post. :) Very well done.

This comment in the Pimp My Novel link did irk me, but I laughed at myself for getting irked...

·" Give your website a modern feel. No 1996-style frames, animated .gifs, tiled backgrounds of your dog, rainbow page breaks, &c. Hire a professional (or your teenage son) if need be."

Um, what about DAUGHTERS? ;) I was the chick learning html and css in my free time. Not that I remember half of it now. :)

Francis said...

Thanks Regan! If it helped even just a little, it was worth it.

Daughters are just as good :) In fact, one of the best CSS programmers I know is a girl.

Ted Cross said...

I had no followers for ages on my blog, but I also had no knowledge of the whole follower culture going on. Once I caught onto it, the readers started coming. You are dead on about Blogger working better for writers.

I'm not so certain about needing a website in addition to a blog, but I suppose I might feel differently once published. I have noticed not so many published writers having the followers add-on.

Hillary said...

Awesome post. Boom - you just got your sixth follower.

Francis said...

Haha, thanks Hillary :)

Draven Ames said...

I heard you got a request for more of your book. Did you get a response back?