Thursday, January 26, 2006

What Not to Web

As a reader as well as a writer, I always enjoy looking at author websites, especially when I'm deciding whether to buy a certain book. I've gained valuable ideas for my own site from such surfing. Unfortunately, I've also seen much to avoid. Here are some website blunders that have kept me from buying an author's books:

  1. Poor grammar and spelling. I'm not talking about the occasional typographical error that slips by the best of us. I'm talking about authors who have no idea of the difference between "who's" and "whose," whose subjects and verbs don't agree, and whose pages are full of misspelled words. Why would I buy such an author's book when the website is so painful to view?

  2. Dated material. I've seen many websites where the author has a page listing his scheduled appearances, such as at book-signings. When I click the page, I find out that all of the appearances are a year or more old. Similarly, I saw one page recently where the author used a Halloween theme, which was cute in October but wore decidedly thin after Thanksgiving. An author's website is a valuable sales tool. If he doesn't care enough about it to keep it fresh-looking, why should I assume that more care went into his book?

  3. No excerpts. I want to sample a book before I buy it, unless it's by someone whose books I always buy. Ice cream stores have those little spoons their customers can taste a flavor with before springing for a double scoop—why not give readers the same benefit with an excerpt they can read?

  4. Fussy script. Would you buy a book written entirely in cursive script? Then why would you use all-cursive script on your website? Aside from the difficulty in reading it, not everyone has sharp young eyes, and some of us, like me, never had sharp eyes even when we were young. Pander to us a little.

  5. Busy, busy, busy. A reader looking at an author's site is interested in the books the author writes, not in how many cute icons the writer can squeeze on a page. Unless you're a talented graphic designer or have hired one, it's best to err on the side of simplicity. Remember, too, that not everyone has high-speed Internet access—if a site's so graphic-intensive it takes a long time to load, the reader's likely to press the Stop button.

  6. You like me, you really, really like me! Patting oneself on the back is fine on an author's website, in moderation, but some authors overdo it. Quote some favorable reviews, list the awards you've received, keep a guestbook full of flattering comments—but don't tell me on every page how fortunate I am just to be breathing the same air that you do. It backfires. It really, really backfires.

  7. Boring websites. Some writers list only their books and their biographical information on the websites. Why not give the viewer something to linger over, even if it's only a few links to click? If a website's captured my interest, I might well come back to it later—and this time, I might have some money to burn and be ready to buy your book.

  8. Navel-gazing. This may be my own idiosyncratic prejudice, but I dislike author websites where all or most of the links are to sites about writing and where all or most of the author Q & A's are about how to get published—as if the only people viewing the author's site are aspiring writers themselves. Of course, authors do get asked advice on how to get published, and putting it on the website saves repetition, but give folks who aren't interested in being writers or who don't need the advice something to look at also.

  9. Whining. Some authors, particularly in their blogs, go on and on about the difficulty of writing, their problems with their publishers, their battles with the phone company, and so forth. A little of this goes a very long way. Unless a reputation as a kvetch is part of your literary persona, or unless whiners are the readers you're looking for, go easy on the griping. Most people have relatives to complain to them—they don't need to search the web for that.

  10. Snarling photographs. It's a very small quibble, but I prefer to buy books from nice people rather than from mean people. Some authors, presumably trying to look serious and/or thoughtful (or, perhaps, thinner?), succeed only in looking mean. If that's the case with you, leave the picture off the website, or at least substitute a picture of yourself at age three looking mean. Leave the scowls to the high-fashion models.