I've been designing webpages since 1995, so I've seen a lot of new ideas come and go. Web pages are somewhat akin to fashion. What makes a page look bright and modern one day will stigmatize it as old-fashioned a week or so later. No one finds a plain white page with small black type attractive, but add one too many colors or pictures and you have a page people will hate because it's too "busy." So where is the line between boring and gaudy, between childish and hopelessly complicated? Here are a few tips I've picked up along the way.
Your page must reflect the subject matter it contains. You can't sell cheese on a flower-strewn background, and it takes a very clever florist to work a skunk into an ad for roses. (Actually, I've seen that one, but the florist's name was "Pugh.") When I was running ORB, the "Online Source Book for Medieval History", my page designer came up with a lovely medieval scene for our headline banner. My new book, The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese, uses a cartoon mouse throughout the chapter headings, so the title of the book page was done in a cartoon font. There's great room for error, however. Littering the page with too many medieval objects or too many mice will eventually irritate your viewers. I recommend picking one element to show the theme, and then letting the page's information carry the theme from then on.
Flash introductions used to be popular, as did animated gifs, which had little characters running across the computer screen. They are no longer surprising. Now they just delay the appearance of the real information, and impatient readers will move on. The same is true of sound clips. I considered using a "cheer" on the web page for the online book launch I ran last year. Then a reviewer took me to task. She tried to visit the page at night while other family members were asleep. She was not amused to open the page and be greeted by a raucous crowd.
Other types of animations cause serious problems for viewers with physical limitations. Flashing lights, waving flags, or other sudden or rhythmic visuals may actually trigger seizures in those who are susceptible to such stimuli. Those who are color blind will miss parts of your page if the contrast between print and background is not great enough. Keystrokes that require two hands may be impossible for some. Information conveyed only by sight will be lost to those who are blind. Illustrations always need to be labeled with tags for those who use software such as "Jaws" to read what appears on the screen.
The quickest way to learn how to design your own webpage is by visiting the pages of others. See what appeals to you and what doesn't. Note that too much information is a turn-off. Pay attention to the ease with which you can navigate the site. Are the buttons or links clearly marked and in a logical spot, or did you have to hunt for them? Was the most important information available quickly, or did you get lost trying to find what you needed? Design your own page to make it easy to use.
For a book or author page, the most important elements should appear at the start -- a cover shot and a professional photo of the author (not a snapshot of you at your senior prom.) Make it a recent picture, too. There's always a chance you'll meet your reader some day, and you don't want to shock them. Contact information is also vital. Today's readers want to know the person behind the book. They want to be able to follow you on Twitter, to connect on Facebook or LinkedIn, to send you an e-mail. I don't recommend ever giving out your home address or phone number; I use a post office box for the address of my publishing company. But it's vital to let your readers feel that you are a real person, one with whom they can communicate.
What else do your potential customers want to find?
1. They want to know a bit about your book -- why you wrote it, who your characters are, where and when it takes place, what crisis or problem the main character faces. Tempt them by telling them just enough to spark interest; don't give away the ending.
2. They want to feel important. I try to include a few out-takes from my writing -- extra descriptions that only the web-page readers will see. I also use photographs. When I first put up the pages for Beyond All Price, I included actual photographs of the real military figures in the story, as well as some 1860s shots of the locations in which the story took place. While I'm still working on The Road to Frogmore, I've posted some "then and now" shots of Beaufort, SC, and St. Helena Island. Only faithful blog-readers get to see them.
3. If you plan to do book-signings or public speaking engagements or radio interviews, be sure to post your schedule. Even if your readers can't attend of these events, they'll feel connected to it.
4. Customers also take vicarious pleasure from any awards you receive, so be sure to brag a little when one comes your way. Post a picture of your medal or the fancy sticker on your book.
5. Has your book been reviewed favorably? Post a copy so that potential readers are tempted to buy the book.
6. Consider including a formal press release, just in case the visitor to your site is a newspaper editor, or the alumni director of your old school, or your local librarian.
7. Finally, make it easy for the web visitor to order your book. Set up a PayPal account and take orders right from your own website. Or provide good links to your book's sales page on Amazon or other retail source.
Your website should make every visitor feel welcome, and it should offer enough variety to invite a second visit. Think of it as your place of business, and let it reflect the very best of you.