Thursday, April 01, 2010

Whether you're a seasoned pro or just getting started, web design and development can be a quandry. So I decided to interview my amazing designer, Margie Summers, owner of SumSites Web Development, to help shed some light on the DOs and DON'Ts of this all-important area of the biz: 

Q: What sort of training is required to be a Web developer?

Depends on what you want to focus on. You can learn everything you need to know about Web development on the Web itself, and you can find most of it for free. From there it’s just a matter of “practice making perfect” and always trying to add new technologies to your toolbox. I learned HTML and some other basics by following online tutorials and then by reverse-engineering sites to see how they were built. Once I knew HTML, I drifted into CSS, Javascript, Flash, and what have you. Learning the design end of things is a bit different . . . that goes more on instinct. You develop an eye over time, but it helps to stay current on what Web “fashions” are at any given moment. It helps to learn the grassroots methods of development, though. I don’t use templates or WYSIWYG design tools like Dreamweaver. I like to code in NotePad because it gives me more control over whatever I’m trying to execute.

Q: What are the top five do advice points for anyone thinking about setting up a Web site?

1. To save yourself time, money, and grief, cut to the chase and hire a professional.

2. Review portfolios and check references before you choose your developer. Have a long conversation with him (in person if possible) and ask a lot of questions before you sign a contract. Look for someone you feel comfortable with—it’s a symbiotic relationship—and who both listens to you and explains things clearly.

3. Have a budget in mind and let your developer know what it is. If you have a tight budget, she can usually recommend some cost-effective options for features you want on your site.

4. Ask for the terms of the project in writing and sign a contract.

5. Be prepared to move forward with site development once you hire someone, and stay involved in the process, submitting content in a timely manner and giving feedback on a regular basis.

Q: And what are the top five don’t points for working with a Web developer?

1. I think the worst mistake companies can make is failure to communicate with their Web developers. This almost always guarantees they will get less than they could have for their investment. The more a client is involved, giving feedback and submitting content, the better the outcome will be.

2. On the other hand, it’s a mistake for clients to try to design their site “through” me. They’re paying me to do that so they don’t have to; they need to step back and relax and let me earn my m

oney. 3. Also, don’t assume that a Web developer is willing to build six versions of the same site and let you pick one. Trust me; she won’t be.

4. Don’t try to put every bit of information you can think of on your Web site.

5. And a little text goes a long way. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, brevity is the soul of Web text.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes made by people who set up their own Web sites?

Just one: Setting up their own Web sites. Do-it-yourself can be a viable option for someone on a tight budget. But in general, the biggest mistake of do-it-yourselfers is poor organization: “blind alleys” without links to the rest of the pages on the site, for example. Another one is cramming too much information on a page so that the poor user has to scroll vertically to China, sometimes down a long, unbroken wall of text. Or worse, has to scroll horizontally. One flagrant error that DIYers often make is to specify any font that’s installed on their computer, so of course it shows up beautifully on their own PCs.

What they don’t realize is that the rest of the world is seeing their carefully selected Haandskrift Medium Oblique as Times or Arial—the Web defaults—because the rest of the world doesn’t happen to have Haandskrift installed. Which leads me to another issue: Most DIYers fail to test their sites on anything but their own systems when, in fact, they need to check it on other monitors, browsers, screen resolutions, and operating systems. (I don’t like sites done entirely in Flash for that reason: Some part of them is usually inaccessible on some systems.)

Q: How often should clients update their sites?

At the very least, sites need to be freshened up every six months. For sites used as a business’s primary marketing tool, once a month is good; once a week is better.

Q: What’s the best way to ensure our sites are viewed by the largest possible audience?

Search engine optimization, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, e-newsletters . . . I recommend using pretty much every tool out there to spread the word. Of course, make sure your Web address is included on every print piece you have, and spread it around at every conceivable opportunity.

Q: How can people find you on the Web?

My business site is I’m also on Facebook as SumSites and as Margie Summers. And I can always be reached by e-mail:

Thanks, Margie! Yer a peach!

Been Branded Yet?


Seems that’s the question being asked all across Publishland, doesn’t it?

It’s really no great surprise, really. Thanks to buy-outs, mergers, and take-overs, there are fewer publishing companies now than there were a decade or two ago. At the same time—thanks to the sagging economy—the number of people lining up for writing jobs doubles every day.

At least, that’s how it feels as we struggle to stay afloat in these stormy publishing seas.

Those of us who’ve taken The Great Leap (and quit our day jobs to write full time) stand toe-to-toe with serious competition every time we aim a query or cover letter toward an editor’s desk. And even those of us who’ve adopted Great Expectations by signing with an agent cringe and wring our hands, hoping our idea will stand out from the hundreds of others in the slush pile.

The advice for separating yourself from the herd? Wading through it is a little like trying to cross the Times Square intersection. Against the light. During rush hour. Information whizzes past us at an alarming rate of speed. So fast that we barely have time to make sense of it… if we get a glimpse at all:

“Create a web presence, so editors can ‘check you out.’” Yeah. Like they have time while digging through the massive stacks of stuff on their desks. Nevertheless, like most of you, I’m doin’ my darndest to “be everywhere” online. Not an easy feat while meeting multiple deadlines and trying to live a somewhat normal life.

“Teach classes, give speeches, arrange book signings, get your press kit to TV and radio stations.” And do it in such a way that the show hosts don’t see you as a self-centered, addicted to shameless-self-promotional jerk.

“Develop a web site, where editors can ‘learn more about you’ when deliberating whether or not to issue you a contract.” Uh-huh. I can see editors now, visiting the web sites of every author with a proposal on their desks.

“Come up with a one-word title that will tell the world what your book is about, while providing editors with a ‘hook’ to help sell your books.” When I hear ‘hook’, I see the long-handled staff stagehands used to pull annoying Vaudeville acts off the stage.

“Develop a back cover blurb that’ll tell editors (and hopefully, someday, readers) that your book is “…fascinating!” “Riveting!” “A must-read!” Provided they read both of your carefully-crafted paragraphs, that is.

“You need a platform!” Really? As in ‘soap box’? I’m pretty handy with every tool in the shed, but build one of those? On my budget?

“You need a Brand!” When I hear that tidbit, I see the company logos, like Nike and Campbell’s and Ford. Yet this advice, say the marketing gurus, is probably the thing that’ll make the most difference. Those glowing-hot iron things pressed into horses’ withers and cattle behinds. Or maybe a tattoo. (But which design? And where-o-where to put it?)

The big question pinging in my empty head was “What is branding, anyway?”

And near as I could figure, it’s like fly paper in that Your Brand grabs readers and doesn’t let ‘em go. And then, once you’ve got ‘em, Your Brand is what holds onto ‘em.

Okay. That makes sense. Sorta. But how to come up a one-of-a-kind brand that’s unique to you and your books? Especially if, like me, you write in more than one genre? What buzz word(s) = YOU? And how do you choose words that, like fly paper, will continue to hold as your career develops?

I banged my head against the Branding Wall for months. Then one morning while organizing my files… letters from reader in This folder, reviews in That one, something jumped off the pages: Almost every one of the thousands of letters from my readers said, “Loree, (this or that) element of your story changed my life!” Likewise, most of the  hundreds of reviews I’d accumulated consistently stated, “Loree Lough stories touch readers hearts.”

Changing lives. Touching hearts.

Whoa. Could it really be that simple?

In a word, yes.

And I’ve been using the phrase as My Brand ever since. It’s on my web site. My social networking “walls.” Every video book trailer produced to help hawk my books.

“Touching hearts, changing lives.”

It tells editors and readers that whether the Loree Lough novel they’re reading has a contemporary or historical setting, a comical or serious plot, a storyline interwoven with suspense and intrigue, a romance or a gritty cop story, their hearts are gonna be touched and the message in the story will somehow change their lives. Hopefully for the better.

My dilemma now? What ‘font’ to use when I have it tattooed on my….

Okay. So I have two dilemmas. But thankfully, I’ve got My Brand and I’m stickin’ to it, ‘cause it’ll be just as valid in ten years as it is now.