On Becoming a Dot.Com
Let me say at once I’m not some born-again cyber-evangelist,
here to persuade you that every author needs a website. I was only
recently inspired to venture on to the web. My sixth novel was due
for publication, and since the fifth had exploded into print with
all the éclat of damp, twopenny firework (hark the whingeing
mid-list author), I resolved to apply myself to some promotion this
time around. Thus, KateFenton.com, my grand strategy.
I am not, however, about to offer tips on DIY site construction.
It took me less than five minutes to decide I would pay an expert
to handle the nuts and bolts. Sure, a geek will assure you that
anyone can master the requisite skills, but I foresaw half my life
gurgling down a computer-shaped plughole before I ended up with
the cyber-equivalent of a helicopter built by an amateur plumber.
Nevertheless, even with Mike Jarman of Webart masterminding the
technicalities, the creation of the site took me a good two months
of sweated labour. That’s why I thought it might be worth
sharing my dilemmas and travails here.
I employed Webart, incidentally, because it was a local firm and
Mike, as well as being a book-reading member of the human race,
was a friend. From the outset, it was clear our roles in the creation
of the site were distinct. My function was to supply the content,
his to display it to best advantage. He talked about scripts, search
engines, images, colours. I paid scant attention because I was grappling
with far more fundamental questions: what precisely was the purpose
of this site? At whom was it aimed? What would they expect to find
Our parallel universes soon collided. Mike needed a design concept,
some guidance on the feel of the site. Should it be coolly
minimalist? Picturesquely rural? Flowerily romantic? Since I write
contemporary comedies of manners, threaded with a love story, which
are often set in the Yorkshire backwoods, any of these notions might
seem plausible. But they all sounded dead wrong to me. In order
to articulate why, however, I had to undertake some salutary and
quite uncharacteristic self-analysis. I was forced to stand back
and appraise my work with a stranger’s eye; to ask, in all
seriousness, what I was about as a novelist. This hurt.
What was more, once defined, that elusive essence had to be translated
into pictures, or at least a visual style.
You might retort that this is merely the process required for every
new dust jacket, and you’d doubtless be right. But publishers
come up with jacket roughs, and the most we authors generally contribute
is our blessing, or a few pertinent comments. Mike and I were starting
with a blank screen. Besides, considering the boggling variety of
pictures which have fronted my books – wishy-washy landscapes,
Hockney-bright acrylics, in-yer-face photo montages, droopily artistic
collages – it seemed clear to me there is no single right
correlation between words and imagery. I did some more hard thinking.
The prime function of the site however was defined – albeit
inadvertently – by Mike’s understandable emphasis, in
his early plans, on the selling of books via Amazon or my publisher’s
own mail-order operation. After all, most small commercial websites
are aimed at flogging a product or service. But I realized mine
wasn’t. It was aimed at selling me. Yes, we’d
have a link to Hodder’s madaboutbooks, but an author site
is principally a public relations exercise, not a shop. Progress.
Which brings me to site visitors. I worked out I should be aiming
at three distinct categories of browser: my fans (yeah, yeah, all
two of them); potential readers (the key group) and straightforward
information seekers – journalists, for example. Clearly, they’d
require rather different content. An established reader might want
entertaining background to novels and novelist; a new reader had
to be tempted into trying the books; a hack about to interview me
would be after dates, titles and quotes, and wouldn’t appreciate
wading through the gigabytes of jokes, family snaphots and piquant
life-fiction parallels included to amuse/seduce the other two categories.
Allied to that was the issue of tone. Should I be concocting
this multi-purpose text in the first person or the third –
a chatty letter, or a formal slab of arts page prose? Snooping round
other authors’ sites – and Tom Porter’s article
in last summer’s Author provided helpful pointers
– I found approaches vary widely, although the nature of the
medium nudges even the most austere writer towards informality.
The content then had to be intelligently apportioned in labelled
chunks – ‘pages’ in geek-speak. Clearly I needed
some sort of introductory letter (the home page) – with beaming
mugshot? Then there was to be a biography section. More photographs
– could anyone really want to see me as moon-faced toddler?
I settled on a separate page for each novel, topped with a smudged
detail from a jacket design (Mike’s pleasingly arty touch);
an adapted blurb with a couple of flashy review quotes; a link offering
a substantial ‘read-the-book’ excerpt, and what I suppose
you might call an extended essay which put the story in an autobiographical,
topographical and – I sincerely hoped – comical context.
Plainly there were going to be a lot of words on my site. This
caused me a few qualms because the web, by and large, is not a word-friendly
zone. The screen prefers graphics, zappy captions and grasshopper
links. It says everything that Mike, in reproducing my whacking
slabs of prose, frequently found himself running out of gif background
– the coloured wallpaper he painstakingly laid behind the
text. If I count in the book excerpts and articles included on the
Press and Journalism pages, I reckon the site contains a good 60,000
words, half of which I wrote specifically for the purpose. At least
this explains why it took so much work. Staunchly assuring myself
that people would expect a novelist’s site to be on the verbose
side, I wrote on.
More unsettling, however, was a creeping realisation that I’d
embarked on the most monstrous exercise in megalomania. This site
was just me, me and – blow me down – encore plus
moi. I found myself thinking of Mr Toad – remember his
grand party plans at the end of the book? Speech by TOAD; address
by TOAD (with reflections on English Law, The Waterways, Rights
of a Landowner); song by TOAD (composed by himself) and so forth.
Quite. As truth is the first casualty of war, modesty’s straight
for the recycle bin on a website.
Still, I’d come way too far to beat a blushing retreat. I
should say that Mike, before we began, had asked what I was planning
to spend. I’d said a thousand pounds, which he assured me
was more than adequate. Only now I was beginning to be excited by
the manifold possibilities of the new medium. Frankly, after all
these years of working in static old black print on a white page,
it was more than flesh and blood could have borne not to have just
a little dabble in colour, sound, animation… Next
thing you know, we were making a movie, right here in our own North
Health Warning: playing Cecil b. de Mille costs money. Without
my animated introductory sequence – ‘flash front’
is the indelicate-sounding technical term – we’d have
come in comfortably under budget. As it is, after a forty per cent
overrun, we have my name spelt in a moody, moonlit maze (complicated
plots); brightening to colourful daylight with twittering (post-modern,
ironical) bluebirds – and a saucy little statue of Cupid (brief
to designer: Michelangelo meets Benny Hill) who rounds off the sequence
with a knowing wink. Expressing the subversion of traditional romantic
clichés in English rural surroundings – geddit?
Well, maybe the symbolism’s obscure but, hell, it was fun.
And the site feels right for me. What’s more, I did come to
appreciate – profoundly appreciate – the expertise Mike
had been wafting past my distracted ears about typefaces, search
facilities, all the nuts and bolts. If you’re going to write
the equivalent of half a novel on your site, you damn well need
text that’s comfortable to read, and speedy navigation methods
to get around it. He also insisted throughout that a website isn’t
a static creation like a book, but something that must continually
change and adapt. To which end, he supplied a diary facility which
I can update without assistance when I feel inspired, along with
the essential contact page.
So has it been worth the time and money? Put it this way. A week
after the site was launched (I think ‘went live’ is
the term) I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph in praise of
Georgette Heyer. The next day, I got an e-mail – addressed
to me at KateFenton.com. ‘I loved your article’,
wrote my correspondent, ‘so I’ve looked you up on the
web, and now I can’t wait to read your novels.’ Hallelujah.
©Kate Fenton 2002