Cassy's Corner- A conversation with Madeira James, Top Website Designer
"Maddee James is the owner of xuni.com, which designs and builds cool author sites! She thinks she has the best job ever. Period." Well, that's what Maddee sent me. What she doesn't say is that she designs and manages the most amazing array of websites for writers. She has a canny ability to tune into what the author wants to portray. There is no cookie-cutter approach to her work. Please check out the fantastic websites of her long list of clients, all of whom are posted on her site www.xuni.com. Maddee is going to chime in this afternoon for questions and comments. She is tied up until 11:30 Mountain Time. But, don't let that stop you from joining us earlier than that.
Cassy: Maddee, you design some of the best websites I've ever seen. You specialize in sites for authors. How did you end up specializing with this group of people?
Maddee: Thank you so much. I love what I do and I think it shows! What could be better than working with color, design and code for people who write for a living? Art and words -- nothing better.
As to the history of it all... years ago while I was working as a geologist I met thriller writer Ridley Pearson at a dinner party. I was the only one at the table who had read his books and had looked at his website, so he and I spent a lot of time talking. I had recently taught myself web design with the old Adobe program GoLive and while I wasn't very knowledgeable (or very good!) yet, I brazenly offered to re-do Ridley's website. I put my name at the bottom of it... and the rest is history. I only had a few clients the first few years but more and more authors started coming to me, and now I have over 200 on my roster. Since I started with Ridley I did many mystery and thriller writers to begin with, but now I do sites for every type of author, and have recently become kind of big with YA writers. Love doing those sites! Lots of pink and flowers and stuff!
Cassy: One of the things I love most about your sites is the uniqueness of each one. You don't have a single look. How do you work with a writer to make the site reflect who he or she is? I love how the edgy gritty writers look so different from the sweet or cozy ones. You know how to pull this off.
Maddee: People tell me that even though all my sites look different (something I must admit I pride myself on) they all have a "xuni" feel. I love that. One of the things I love about my work is how it's always different and there are always new things to learn and improve upon. How do I make the sites match the authors so well? When someone hires me to do their site, I send them a very detailed questionnaire asking about specific needs and desires -- from navigation wording to color and images. Then the fun challenge is to pull together everything they want into something that I -- and they -- love.
Cassy: Could you tell us about the actual services you offer? I know designing the site is huge, but isn't that only a portion of what you provide for your clients?
Maddee: It's actually pretty simple -- I design, build and launch the site -- and then I maintain them by adding whatever the author wants over time. I used to do online promotion as well but I realized over time that it's really better to leave that work to the experts who really know what they're doing: author publicists (of which there are many great ones!). That way I can do what I do best -- design and maintenance of beautiful sites.
Cassy: What should a writer consider in putting together a website? How do you get your "message" across?
Maddee: So many things to think about, but the most important things are probably sharing what is most important (your words: bio, books, etc.), organizing it in a way that visitors can easily find what they need, and having a site design which expresses you and your writing. Having a professional-looking website says SO much about the seriousness of your writing -- while a poorly designed website can be pretty damaging. I always say it's better to not have one at all than to not have it look GOOD. That said, there are certainly authors who have the time and talent to do their own, which is great. And for those of you who can't, there are people like me.
I'd like to say a little more about this, actually. When I first started my business in 1998, there weren't too many of us who specialized in author website design. Now there are MANY. And you know what? I love that! I don't consider it competition at all -- in fact, I love that there are so many designers for you all to choose from. The joy of it is we all have our own style and so do you -- and you can choose the person/company which best fits YOU.
Cassy: When should someone think (and then do) a site? You have both published and unpublished writers. Do you have advice as to when a website should be launched?
Maddee: While the majority of my work is with published authors, I do occasionally take people on who are still looking to be published. I admit I'm pretty choosy -- the strength of the person's commitment to their craft is important to me, because I'm serious about my work and I like to work for people who have this same feeling about theirs. Whether you "should" have a site before you have a publishing contract is completely up to you. Some people feel it will show them to be serious so they may be more likely to get an agent and publishing contract. I would stand by the thought that how well you write is what gets you a contract -- but that a website (a beautiful one that is!) certainly can't hurt!
One thing I quite definitely suggest, however, is to buy your domain right away if it's available. Domains are very reasonably priced through companies like GoDaddy and it's best to own your name.com if at all possible.
Cassy: Do you work with other types of PR or branding, separate from website design?
Maddee: As I said above, I leave most PR to the experts. I do a certain amount of branding, however. I regularly do website-matching newsletters, business cards, and ads, among other things, for my authors.
Cassy: How are the sites maintained? By this I mean, do your clients do their own editing, are blogs and newsletters linked, how does new information get added? Lots of questions bundled into one.
Maddee: Every website designer does this differently but in my business, I maintain all the sites that I build. One reason for that is that I'm super picky -- I like my sites to be as perfect as possible -- so if clients got in there and messed about it would drive me nuts. The clients who choose to work with me like to concentrate on writing and are happy to leave the edits to me. But for those authors who want to do their own edits, there are lots of designers they can work with who will build their site in Wordpress or some other content management system. Totally up to the authors how they want to go about it. (I do, however, build blogs which match the author sites, which the client then adds to whenever they want.)
Cassy: Do you have any opinion about how much time needs to be devoted to the website updates and newsletters to keep an author "out there?"
Maddee: It's certainly good to update a site relatively frequently to keep things fresh. This is not only true to keep visitors coming back, but it's also good for search engines -- you will rise higher in the rankings if you update your site pretty often. As far as newsletters go, I am a big proponent of them -- it's a great (and simple) way for authors to keep in touch with their readers. I design newsletters in the style of the author's site, so it's a great branding tool as well.
Cassy: What is the role of social networking and how does that tie to a website? I'm talking about Twitter, Facebook and so on. How important do you think this is to the recognition of a writer?
Maddee: As we all know, social networking is the big thing right now. Authors all feel like they have to blog, tweet, and commune with fans on Facebook, Shelfari, Red Room, oh the list goes on and on... I would say if you want to get into all that (and yes it's fun and can certainly help gain new readers), just make sure you put your real writing first. And your families. :) If you're giving up TV time to tweet, more power to you. But if you should be writing and you're blogging or friending instead, get some discipline. These things are major timesinks! JMO. :)
By the way, if you're pondering blogging, use the writers on this blog as an example and think about starting a group blog. They are so much more fun, and you attract more readers for all the obvious reasons. Some other great examples besides this one we're on would be http://www.jungleredwriters.com and http://pensfatales.com. (Okay, so I designed these, but they really are worth a look!)
Most important in blogging and tweeting: have something to say. PLEASE! :)
Cassy: For those of us who are just learning the ropes, what advice would you offer? I suspect you have many stories of those you love to work with and those you don't. NO names, please. Just what are the rules of the road we should take to heart?
Maddee: I think the best advice I would give an author who does not yet have a website is first to look at lots of author sites to see what appeals to you, and then contact the designers whom you like best. Btw I definitely suggest working with someone who works with authors regularly -- we know so much more about what you need that say someone who designs business websites. They may design lovely sites, but if they don't know what an author needs, or how an author site should be set up, it's not going to get you anywhere. I've been occasionally tempted to take on a photographer (for example) as a client but I realize they really are best served by companies who specialize in photography sites. I love having my little niche and am happy to stick with it! I can't tell you how many authors have come to me with a current website which needs to be completely redone -- it was designed by a cousin who didn't know what they were doing, or a faceless conglomerate who didn't pay attention to their needs. That said, here is my quick little list of what to look for in a designer...
a. go with a professional author website designer (as I said above, look at author sites you like and find out who designed them).
b. make sure their style fits what you have in mind.
c. have them commit to a timeframe as to when the site will be LIVE (oh the horror stories about designers who never get sites done...).
d. find out how long they "normally" take to do edits (my normal timeframe for edits, for example, is 24 to 48 hours and right away if needed)
e. get the price upfront.
f. email some of their other clients to see how they like working with them.
g. make sure you feel a connection to them -- it should be a long-term relationship and you want someone you can trust and relate to.
I'm sure there are more things but that's all I can think of right now. Most important: it should be a fun process and the final site should be exactly what you had in mind. There is nothing I like better than to show a client a design and have them tell me I "got them." I adore that. I live for praise. :)
I'm happy to answer questions in the comment section, or of course you can email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org. And do check out my website -- http://www.xuni.com -- you'll see examples of my designs and lists of all my fabulous clients and lots of good information in the FAQ section. And then check out other designers to compare and contrast our styles -- there are many wonderful designers out there. And most importantly, have fun with the whole process!