Anatomy of a Writer’s Website

Creativity Hacker RedesignLike many writers, I have a website. And just like most other writers’ sites, mine has evolved slowly over a long time, collecting cruft and fozzle all over the place, resulting in a muddied, un-lovely mess of shifting design, content, and intentions. Yesterday, I decided that I had finally had enough, and that it was time to bring some order to the chaos, and update the entire thing. In this article, I’ll walk you through the features of the new site and try to explain why I’ve done it this way. Follow if you dare.For some time now, I’ve been reading other peoples’ opinions about just what sorts of things a reader might be looking for when they come to an author’s site, and I’ve also been paying a lot more attention to what I myself have been looking for – and often, not finding – when I poke around the sites my colleagues maintain. So it was armed with this collected body of wisdom that I began my current redesign. What follows is by no means an expert recommendation for what your site should or should not have. Nor do I suggest that my own implementation is ideal, or even competent, in any way. Instead of saying, “Thou shalt do this,” I’m just saying, “This is what I did, and why. Thou shalt do whatever the hell thou wantst.”


Let’s start at the top: the banner. On previous sites, I’ve always aimed to have something visually pleasing, but I’ve never given a lot of thought to branding. Those of you who are familiar with my writing will probably recognize the thematic origin of my new banner. It’s taken from the cover image of Strange Places, but it is not a direct copy of the cover. As I have reflected on all my writing, I have noticed that I have a tendency toward wilful young characters. Defiant.  Intelligent. And absolutely nobody’s fools. And isn’t it curious that this was exactly the feeling I was going for when I designed that first cover? So I’ve been re-using that defiant silhouette for the last year or so – it’s on my business cards. It’s on my G+ and FB accounts. It’s everywhere. So having noticed that it has already started creeping into my brand identity, I’ve decided to embrace it, and deploy it here as well.

The name of my website is another issue. The Creativity Hacker doesn’t necessary scream “The owner is a fantasy author,” does it? Unfortunately, there are one or two other people in the cultural sphere who share that name, and they’ve already laid down beachheads in all the obvious online places, so I quickly abandoned any idea of naming the site after myself. But the name is fairly memorable – maybe even moreso than the name J Smith. And since it also speaks to my academic and computer science background, I’ve elected to keep it. But I also need for people to know they’ve reached the right place when they get here.

Another aspect I’ve been building into my visual brand is the way in which my name is shown on book covers. Like the silhouette, it began as part of the design for the Strange Places cover, but I have re-used it on all the other covers since then, as well as on my business cards, so using it again here was an obvious way to help people recognize me, even if they don’t know what I look like. The one thing I have relaxed, however, is my strict adherence to the font I used. I’ve decided that I need to allow myself the freedom to use different fonts for my name, to allow the element to fit stylistically within the graphic design it is being embedded into. But font aside, the brand policy is that my name appears with a large J, next to a block with ‘efferson’ in lower case, over a ‘SMITH’ in block caps. The Creativity Hacker banner is the first place I’ve employed that relaxed policy, using the Chunk Five font of the site title, rather than the lean Romanesque font that was employed on the book covers previously.

Beyond those elements, the banner has little more than a tag-line, describing what my site is all about, and the navigation menu. I’ll come back to the nav stuff a bit further down, but other than that, we’re done with the banner. I’m quite happy with the look, and I think it tells people all they need to know.

What Do Readers Want?

There are several things a reader might be looking for when they come to an author’s site, but I believe they can be summarized into two basic categories – they’re looking for more things to read, and for a chance to make a connection to the personality behind the words. These two needs are central to everything that goes into the rest of the site design.

Finding the Books: First and foremost, I think an author’s site needs to make it extremely easy for readers to find the things he’s written. My old site had a link in the nav bar to take you to such a list, but the visitor needed to explicitly want to find it. Not good enough. In this redesign, I’ve placed eye-catching covers in the most prominent place I could put them, and I’ve labelled it, “Books Available.” I’m hoping with this design to do two things: 1) I’m hoping that even readers who aren’t currently looking for other things to read will say, “Oh, look. I loved that book, but I didn’t realize he had other stuff out.” And 2), I’m hoping that people who come to my site for other reasons (such as academics, creativity researchers or artists from other fields) will see those covers and say, “Oh, look. I didn’t know he wrote books.” In either case, they can reach the detailed information pages about those titles just by clicking on the covers. It may only result in one or two additional sales in every thousand visitors I get, but when you’re still building your audience, every step you can take to increase audience capture is a good step.

In addition to find the books I’ve already written, I also want to make it easy for my growing audience to find out about new books as soon as they become available. So I’ve placed a sign-up box right under the book covers. People who are looking at the covers may notice that link when they’re already in a frame of mind to be interested in book availability, so I’m hoping that placement will increase the registration rate on the mailing list.

Connecting to the Person: As I said, the second thing readers might be looking for is to make a connection – to get some insight into the person behind the books. I think a lot of my personality shows through in my writing voice – whether it’s in the books or even in these blog postings – but the one thing my previous site design lacked was photographs. Humans are visual animals, and I realized that there just wasn’t much to allow readers to make that visual connection with me and my world. So the big photo in the middle-left of the new site design is central to providing this connection. It’s a rotating slider of images, showing me at conferences, workshops, book launches etc. Eventually, I hope to also have images there of fans, fan art, and all sorts of other images taken from the life and world of a working writer, but since I don’t have permission to use the images I do have, I’m limiting the current photoblog images to the ones that are primarily of me.

The other way to connect with me, of course, is by tapping into my various social media streams, so right under the mailing list box, I’ve added another button that allows them to access those streams.

And for the fans who happen to live in the same general area that I do, the calendar of appearances gives them a  quick and easy way to stalk me in public.

It’s About the Content, Dummy

With those bits of business out of the way, it’s time to turn to the actual content of the site. Each author will have to come up with their own opinions on this matter, but I don’t think my readers come to my site to read more about the worlds I’ve built. As I said above, I think they’re here to find out something about me, and the various things I spend my time thinking about, so that’s the kind of content I’m going to provide.

One thing I did find, though, about my previous site, was that each story took up too much space on the page, so if a visitor didn’t happen to like the most recent posting, they weren’t likely to stay around looking for others. In addition, the streams of postings were mixed together, so it was hard for a visitor to zero in on the kind of things they might be looking for. In the redesign, I’ve broken things down into two primary categories – content postings and announcements – and I’ve split them up into to more compact stream columns. Now instead of being able to read one story in a huge font and then having to guess at what other topics there might be to explore, I’ve given them the bulk of the most recent content in a glance-friendly form. There are now fifteen or so articles in the space that used to be occupied by just one or two.


Remember up above where I said I’d talk about the nav bar later. Now we talk about the nav bar. I have a sort of love-hate thing going on with nav bars. When a visitor can’t find what they’re looking for, it’s essential that you offer them a more organized interface where they can poke around looking for it. But I really believe that the nav bar should be a last resort. Having analysed the major things a potential visitor might be looking for, I’ve tried to put all of that up front, on the main page, and in a visual format that makes it easy to find. Hopefully, that majority of my visitors will never feel they have to use the nav bar.

But there are some kinds of things that a minority of visitors will be looking for. Reporters and reviewers are going to want biographies, and cover art, and maybe an essay about why you write. That kind of stuff is usually called your Media Kit, and it needs to be on your site, but it doesn’t have to be obtrusive, so long as it’s findable. Putting that kind of thing on your nav bar is an excellent solution, as I’ve done here.

Another group of people who visit my site occasionally might be considering me as a speaker or as a workshop leader or classroom guest. For those, I have a Teaching Kit. It includes a list of the talks, workshops and courses I have already designed, and it also will contain some materials for teachers and book clubs who want take a more guided tour into the world of my books. (Although I’ve had these materials for a long time, they’re not quite polished enough to put them on the site yet. They’ll be added soon.)

I’ve also put a discussion forum there, where my readers can ask me questions as well as get a chance to find and interact with each other. I suspect that much of that activity is being done in social media these days though, so I may take that down in the near future, but I want to think about it more deeply first.

So that’s about it. Perhaps none of this is rocket science, or maybe there were one or two ideas you found useful. My web site, like most of my writing journey, is a continually evolving experiment, and I’m going to continue tweaking and refining it for as long as I’m in this game. If you have any thoughts about how I can make it better, or if you have questions about something I haven’t covered, please send ’em my way. The more we talk about and share the results of our own experiments in this constantly shifting, brave new world of writing, the better off we all will be.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.