Surf’s Up For Writers
Given the competition in the writing profession, you’ve got to look for every possible advantage. One way to get a leg up, at least in promoting yourself is to own your own site on the World Wide Web. It certainly couldn’t hurt. After all, the online publishing business is booming. Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble are going hammer and tongs at each other for business. E-zines continue to spring up (some of which even pay!) and most major newspapers and magazines are now online. People are going to the Net for more and more of their information.
A personal web site can aid a writer in a number of ways. For example, it can be used to post clips and your resume. Your site can be accessed by researchers seeking information on the subject of your work. Perhaps the most valuable use of a web site for published authors is to market their wares. If indexed properly on one or more of the major search engines, people around the world can find your page and, hopefully, be stimulated to buy your book(s).
The World Wide Web is simply a service that allows documents to be distributed over the Internet in a standard way. It is not that difficult to set up a simple page of text with your name, qualifications and information about your work. America Online, for example, has a step by step process that allows its members to create pages without charge. Chances are, however, you’re going to want to do more than the limited AOL template allows, so you have two options: Pay a “webmaster” to create a site for you or buy software that allows you to do it yourself.
Before you do anything, start surfing the Web and looking at what other people have done. Look for color schemes, page formats and special features that you like.
When you have a good idea of what you want, you can hire someone to implement your vision. When perusing sites, you will usually find a credit at the bottom for the person or company who created it. You can approach them directly or check the Yellow Pages or various directories on the Web. Hundreds of companies have sprung up to create web sites. The cost usually depends on the time required to do the work and how elaborate you want your page to be. Simple sites can be developed for a few hundred dollars while complicated designs can run into the thousands.
If you choose to hire someone, get references and take a look at sites they’ve created for others. If you want to save money, check around and see if you can find a high school student who will help you. Plenty of whiz kids are out there who can do a good job for a fraction of the cost of a professional. Even if you hired someone do design your site, you are likely to want to maintain it yourself. Try to get the developer to include in the price some basic training that will allow you to make revisions.
Doing it Yourself
If you’ve surfed the web, you know how elaborate sites can be with sound, video, blinking lights, banners crawling across the screen, multiple frames, sound, virtual reality and other special effects. With a recent version of a word processor, however, you can create simple web pages with a minimum of efforts. For example, I created mine using WordPerfect 7. I wrote all the text the way I normally would and then simply clicked on the Internet Publisher button and chose “Format as Web Document” and then “Publish to HTML” (hypertext markup language).
Unless you want to learn the somewhat arcane HTML codes needed to format your page, you’re going to want authoring software, such as Corel’s Webmaster, Adobe’s PageMill or Microsoft’s Front Page. These programs do most or all of the coding and formatting for you after clicking on the relevant icons. For example, by highlighting text and clicking on an “I” icon you can italicize text. Otherwise, you have to do things like go into the document source and write <I> before the text you want italicize and </I> after it. Chances are you’ll want to learn some of the basic codes to create paragraphs (<P>), line breaks (<BR>) and rules (<HR>), and you’ll find they’re not too complicated. One trick is to look up other people’s web sites and then look at the codes they used for tables or special effects (in some browsers you can right-click your mouse and choose sources or go to view on the menu bar and do the same).
Creating A Home
The first step is to create a “home page.” It can be laid out in multiple frames (another word for columns) or in a single one. Since this is the first place visitors will go to see your work, it has to look good or it’s unlikely they’ll visit any other part of the site.
My home page (http://members.aol.com/bardbooks.index.htm) is simple. The title of the site and the page is the same as the title of my book, Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps. Within a few seconds, a picture of the book’s cover appears next to an abstract. The simplest way to jazz up your site is to put a picture of the cover of your book(s) on the site. You can ask your publisher to send you an electronic version. The big houses already send them to the online bookstores.
Alternatively, you can add the photo yourself by using a scanner, which can produce a copy on your computer’s hard disk. Today, you can buy a high-quality color scanner for less than $300. They usually include the software you need to transfer an image from the scanner to your computer. You can think of the scanner as a copy machine that duplicates the image on your computer instead of a piece of paper. Once inside your computer, any recent word processing program will allow you to manipulate the image and insert it into a document. Keep in mind, however, that graphics can be agonizingly slow to appear and users become impatient if you’ve got a lot of them they have to wait for.
Below the photo and abstract, I list the contents of my home page:
The synopsis appears on the home page and is only six paragraphs long. Most people don’t like to read a lot on the computer (though they can print it out and read it that way), so I kept it short.
The other three categories listed in the contents are hypertext links. A hypertext link is just a highlighted portion of text that allows the user to click on it and be immediately taken to a different page. If you click on the first one on my page (What Reviewers and Experts Say), you go immediately to another page with quotes from reviewers. Click on My Professional Information and my bio appears. The third link takes you to a list of topics that I lecture on.
At the bottom of my home page is a “mailto,” highlighted text that allows users to click and send email to me instantly. You can even create order forms and, if you want to get really fancy, set up an encrypted form that allows people to make purchases with credit cards securely over the net. I simply added the 800 number for my publisher Westview Press. Some authors create links to other web sites; for example, to their publishers or Amazon.com, so people can order their books.
Be sure to proofread your pages and make sure all your hypertext links work. Nothing is more annoying than getting “not found” error messages when you’re surfing the web. You can always update, revise and edit pages by downloading them from the Web back to your computer.
You Need A Host
Once you have created your web pages, you still need to put them somewhere. To do this, you need to upload the files you’ve created to a “host” (essentially a computer that holds stores your work). Hundreds of companies exist for this purpose. For a set fee starting around $50 per month, they will give you a certain amount of space to store your data. The more material you want to put on your site, the more space required and the higher the price. Most web sites that don’t have tons of graphics or audio files are pretty small and qualify for the lowest rates. Many Internet providers offer their members a certain amount of space at no cost. AOL gives its members up to two megabytes of free space.
But how do people get those cool web site addresses, like www.superpoet.com or www.quill.com? The answer is that web addresses, also known as URL’s (Uniform Resource Locators—the http thing), are registered by a company called InterNic. For $100 (for two years and $50 year thereafter), they will register the name of your choice, provided it has not already been taken. If you wonder why some addresses are www.bowwow.com while others are www.meow.org, there are different types of sites, for example anything.com is usually commercial while something.org is nonprofit or educational. My nonprofit organization site, for example, is www.us-israel.org. It is helpful to pick a unique name for your site, so people searching the index do not find thousands of sites with, for example, “mystery” in the title. Like choosing a name for a company, it is usually better to have a descriptive name than one that is too obtuse or cute.
Once you’ve got your address and chosen a host, it’s a relatively simple matter to upload the files. Most authoring software includes the necessary programs to do this (or you can download it for free from the Web). Of course, for you to see your own site, you’ve got to have Internet access yourself. Again prices vary from roughly $11 to $20 per month for unlimited use. When you sign onto the Internet through one of these providers, you’ll need to look up the site through a browser, such as Netscape or Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Don’t buy one, new computers usually include them as do many software packages like WordPerfect. ISP’s also provide them and the most recent versions can usually be downloaded for free from the Internet.
Let’s Go Surfing
All right, you’ve created a web page that is as scintillating as your prose, your work is finished.
Well, not quite.
It doesn’t do you much good to have the snazziest site on the web if no one knows it’s there or where to find it. The point of the entire exercise is to promote yourself, and the Web lets you do it on a global scale with remarkably little effort.
You’ve got to draw people to your site. The way to do that is by getting your site listed in as many different places as possible. A number of web sites specifically include lists of authors’ home pages and instructions for adding your site. AOL’s Writer’s Club has free author’s web pages, as does BookWire (http://www.bookwire.com) and WritersNet (http://www.writers.net/). A few directories charge fees for their listings.
A better way to direct people to your site is to add it to a search engine. These are like super indexes of everything on the web. Hundreds of search engines exist, but some of the best-known include Yahoo, HotBot, Excite, Magellan, Infoseek and Lycos. You can add your site to these individually—they all have forms to fill out—or you can pay a service to add your URL to multiple search engines. A few web pages, like Add Me! (http://www.addme.com/advertis.htm) and Submit It! (http://www.submit-it.com/default.htm), allow you to add your site for free to many of the most popular search engines (warning: it’s not as automatic as the sites make it sound).
Now that more and more publications are accepting email queries, you can direct editors to your web site. Many email providers, including AOL, now let you copy your web site address into your correspondence as hypertext, so the recipient can click on the highlighted text to go directly to your site.
How do you know if anyone is actually looking at your site?
If you’re paying a company to host your site, they should provide statistics to give you an indication of the traffic. Free spaces like AOL don’t provide these statistics, so what you can do is add a counter to your site (AOL provides instructions). These are a kind of odometer that says “You are visitor xxxx to this site.” This number is usually referred to as the number of “hits.” Counters and statistics are imprecise because it is impossible to tell the actual number of people who look at any site. One person may look at your site 10 times. That generates 10 hits on your odometer. To give you an example, in about two months, my site generated more than 500 hits. I think that’s pretty good, even though 400 may have been me checking the odometer.
How much good does a web site do for your career? It depends. When I wrote my story on publishing trends (WD, January 1998), an editor told me one of his authors had generated a lot of attention for his book through his web site. I know I’ve gotten at least one lecture invitation and lots of inquires about my book.
If this all sounds like Greek to you, don’t worry; you will probably become familiar with the technology by necessity within a year. Better yet, if you have kids, they’ll explain it to you now.