Why Author Websites Suck (and Why Yours Doesn’t Have To)

on March 30, 2011 in Indie Publishing, Marketing & PR

Authors are notorious for having poorly-designed websites. That's not to say all authors have dated, crappy sites littering the Web. But more in this group do than most others I've come across. Sometimes author site designs are downright frightening, looking like someone formatted some text in Word and slapped it on the Web in the mid to late-90s, never to update it again.

The saddest case is when we have a currently active author who does update their site or blog, but it still doesn't pass muster in even the most basic Web design standards. I came across one from an author whose book I was reading a couple of weeks ago and it made me want to weep for her. I'm going to spare the sucky website owners today and not name names. But I do want to point out some common errors and problems with author websites.

How to Avoid Creating a Sucky Author Website

If you're serious about your author website or blog and you want it to represent you in the best light possible, avoid these Web design issues:

1. Never have sound automatically play when someone opens your website.

I don't care how cool you think it is. You've just invaded your visitors' system, taking control away from them -- not cool if they're somewhere where they don't want the world knowing what they're doing online. If you want sound, default it to off and include a button to un-mute it if the visitor wants to hear it. There is absolutely no good excuse to have auto-play music or speech on a website anymore. You're stuck in an old fad frame of mind.

2. Make sure your main navigation links actually go somewhere.

I'm not sure why I even have to say that. But this happens all the time. I'll click on a contact link and get a 404 (page not found) error. Or I'll click a link that's supposed to take me to someone's book details page and it just throws me back to the homepage.

I don't expect all authors to be tech-savvy. But I do expect them to at least click their own links once in a while to make sure their sites aren't broken. If they break after an update, you should be able to find those issues and fix them fairly quickly.

3. Please be easy on the eyes.

Authors are clearly targeting audiences of readers. So you would think they'd want their own site content to be readable. Yet many author sites are hard on the eyes because the authors don't bother to educate themselves about basic Web readability issues.

For example, you might like Times New Roman in a printed book manuscript. But on a screen sans-serif fonts are often easier to read, especially with the smaller main content text sizes people use or if you intend for your site to be mobile-friendly. If you have a text-heavy site, please have the courtesy to use them or at least make your serif fonts large enough that they don't come across as pixelated and eye-straining. If you really love your serif fonts, use them in headings and subheadings to add some visual interest.

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Also keep in mind that while you might think using light text on a dark background looks great, it's not conducive to easy reading. Please stop. And for goodness sake if you're using good old hyperlink blue on a black background, go sit in a corner for a while and then come back and start from scratch. Use dark elements when appropriate. But you can do that to get a dark overall feel while still keeping main text backgrounds lighter.

4. Forget about all-Flash websites.

Oh, pretty pretty please stop subjecting us to these. I remember when they were first becoming a popular option. At that time I worked largely with indie musicians who just couldn't resist playing with them for visual impact. However, most grew up and left Flash websites behind (like most of the online world) long ago. Why haven't authors gotten the hint yet?

First of all they're not great for you -- unless you have a corresponding HTML version of that site, don't count on ranking well in search engines (which should matter to you if you care about effective marketing). More importantly they're clunky and slow, or at least most are.

Visitors don't want to see a loading bar. They want some sense of familiarity. For example, I like to preview link destinations in my status bar before clicking anything even slightly suspect. But I can't do that in a Flash site. I like to right click and copy a link address so I can share it on my own blog if I'm going to promote someone. Can't do that easily either, at least not for on-site links because several pages of content can actually display under the main URL rather than separate pages. It makes me want to pull my hair out, and probably not go back to your site.

These are some of the most common problems I've come across on author websites. Are you guilty of any of them? When did you design that site? Is it time for an overhaul?

In our next post I want to share some examples of good author websites to inspire you to improve your own. And I'll close out this series with a post sharing resources that will help authors of any level of design and technical skill build a better website to promote their books.

Thanks for sharing!
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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. Through her company, 3 Beat Media, she operates All Indie Writers, NakedPR.com, BizAmmo.com, and numerous other blogs.

Jenn has over 15 years experience writing for others, over 11 years experience in blogging, and 9 years experience in indie e-book publishing. She is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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  1. Suzan H. March 30, 2011 Reply

    OMG! Thank you for saying what I’ve always been thinking.

    Especially the sound. It’s not that I’m sneaking website peeks at work and trying not to get caught. But with both me and the DH working at home and the Genius Kid being homeschooled, we all use earphones/buds as a curtesy to the other two.

    I clicked on an author website yesterday and nearly blew out my eardrums because the sound default setting was at maximum.

    • Jennifer Mattern March 31, 2011 Reply

      Same here. I work at home so it’s not like I have to worry about an employer hearing it. But I often have other noise on (through my computer) in the background — news, music, something from Netflix. The background noise actually forces me to focus more on certain parts of my work. And sometimes these authors not only pick obnoxious starting sounds and music but they have totally screwed up volume levels. So I’ll be listening to the news at a reasonable level and then all of a sudden there’s this startlingly loud noise competing with it — loud enough to wake up the friggin’ neighborhood. Not cool.

      • Emily Hill April 19, 2011 Reply

        Oh! so busted on the ‘scrambling for the mute button’ at work. I’m laughing at this one. Good Call, Jennifer! Love your site ;D

        • Jennifer Mattern April 20, 2011 Reply

          Glad you enjoy the site. 🙂

          For me my “real job” is freelance business writing and Web publishing / blogging, so I work at home. Fortunately I don’t have to worry about that mute button in an office environment. But it’s still probably my biggest pet peeve. It’s just jarring. I’ll quietly be looking at some sites or blogs (and I usually have at least a half dozen, often more, open at once). And BOOM! I’m hit with some loud obnoxious noise that sends me scrambling to figure out which idiotic site owner decided to include auto-start audio and ruin my little bit of peace. And then there are the days where I have news streaming or some other audio playing while I work, and the site noise completely interferes, leaving me with a weird jumble to sort out. It’s just annoying, and that’s soooooo not a way to get me to stay on your site, nonetheless buy the book you’re trying to sell. I suppose sometimes I forget that not everyone remembered to leave the mid-90s behind when it comes to Web design. 🙁

  2. Najela March 31, 2011 Reply

    I can’t wait for the next in the series. I’ve seen some horrendous author websites lately and it’s so surprising to me. Great post.

    • Jennifer Mattern March 31, 2011 Reply

      The next will go up tomorrow (Friday), followed by tools and tips for improving your own site on Monday — that’s the plan at least. 🙂

      And it’s surprising to me too. After all, many authors have a good creative head on their shoulders. So it disturbs me that they don’t know an atrocious design when they see it. I’m not even talking about designs that are simply liked or disliked as a matter of taste, but truly awful designs that are dated, intrusive, and almost impossible to navigate. It’s scary.

  3. Christina Garner April 1, 2011 Reply

    Thank you for the info! I’ll be designing my site soon and I’ll make sure to avoid these pitfalls. Couldn’t agree more about the sound–I find it so obtrusive! God help you if you’re web-surfing late at night while someone else is sleeping…

    • Jennifer Mattern April 1, 2011 Reply

      Definitely another good reason to avoid auto-starting sound there. Don’t want to wake a sleeping baby or spouse. So it goes beyond the browsing at work issue.

  4. Natalia Sylvester April 2, 2011 Reply

    Light text on a dark screen kills my eyes every single time. I work on a computer all day, and I even went through a phase when my contacts prescription was changing so much that I was zoomed in at 150% for regular browsing. At least with small text (though it’s still not advisable) you can adjust the screen, but with the sharp contrast of white on black, there’s just no fixing that.

  5. Dread Pirate Robert September 22, 2011 Reply

    Ha! I was just writing a report on this very subject, and just wrote that Deborah Harkness has a great website, other than the crappy music-playing image-heavy landing pages. Your points are correct, keep it up!

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