White Space is not your Enemy by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen
White Space is not your Enemyby Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen is a beginning design book. And I purchased it because I definitely need assistance with design. While I (at least I think I do) have something of an understanding of which color goes with which, it is sometimes difficult for me to make something look good. Seeking some inexpensive professional help, I turned to this book.
So apart from the obvious title, the book offers tips on color combinations, font selection, focal points and even how to prepare a document for a professional print job. And the chapter on design sins really resonated with me. I have seen poorly designed advertisements (both online and offline) and websites, and have never really been able to adequately articulate just why they were so hideous. So now I can.
The exercises in the back of each chapter seemed, I thought, somewhat superfluous. However, I did find myself beginning to look at designs with a more critical eye. For example, I noticed a print advertisement where the background photograph was of varied colors. Some were light, some, dark. The print, however, was pure white, and cut horizontally along the middle of the photograph. Hence this would have been fine, except the copy crashed straight into a white space, so some of the print was invisible. Which part? The company’s name. Epic design fail.
Another extremely helpful chapter: the one on the “works every time” layout. This layout is all over the Internet and all over print media, and for good reason. It is, essentially, a full width photograph or other graphic across the top third of the screen or page, with the remaining two-thirds divided into two vertical columns for text. A cutline (caption) goes directly underneath the visual (if appropriate; some visuals don’t need a cutline), with a more prominent headline directly below that.
Break up the columns into paragraphs and beware widows and orphans (one or two short words on a line). Place tags (these aren’t Internet meta tags), which are the logo, company name and small nugget of information such as the URL or physical address, in the lower right-hand corner. In addition, round it all out with generous margins all around. Voila! An instant beautiful (albeit somewhat common) layout!
If nothing else, that chapter has a greater value than the price of admission.
Creativity cannot, truly, be taught. But the peripherals around it can, such as how to gather ideas and nurture them, and how to place those ideas together in a coherent format. It’s like teaching pottery and smithing but not cookery: you get enough so that you can set the table, but not nourish anyone.
For that, you need to be an artist. And that, sadly, no book can ever teach you.
I suppose, in the back of my mind, when I was first starting to write (age four or five or thereabouts), I had an idea about becoming a published author. I also wanted to, at times, be a cowgirl, a veterinarian, an archaeologist and other things. Becoming, for real, published, makes up one weird world.
Let me tell you all about it.
No, I was not bitten by a radioactive spider.
For probably any aspiring author, the road is a long one. When I first started writing, it constituted what you’d now refer to as graphic fiction. I was a child and so I would draw little figures in addition to a few words. As I got older, the words began to dominate, and I have never written, as an adult, a graphic novel.
I wrote fan fiction for a while and then began to migrate over to wholly original fiction. Furthermore, I had wanted to write for NaNoWriMo back in 2012, but I did not have a decent idea that year. I also wanted to make what I wrote wholly original fiction. In 2013, I was fortunate enough to come up with a great idea and so Untrustworthy was born. I submitted it to a contest held by Riverdale Avenue Books and was lucky enough when they chose me as the winner in February of 2014. My thanks, of course, goes out to the wonderful people there, particularly Lori Perkins and Don Weise.
The Start of the Wild Ride of Publishing
I took a few months for things to really start clicking along. Lori was busy, other submissions came in, plus of course they had a business to run. I was in school at Quinnipiac and so, while I noticed the time passing, I was okay with it.
In November, Lori contacted me and we started to get down to the nitty gritty. This included editing the manuscript. It also included getting together a blurb about me and getting an established person in the business to review my book (a thousand thanks to Cecilia Tan!), and deciding on a cover. I felt that the aliens in my novel would be too difficult to draw, and making up a model like them would be costly (such things are at issue if you’re a first-time author, folks) and wouldn’t necessarily evoke my vision.
Hence I instead suggested an image of broken glass. Adding to that effect were the concepts that (a) the moon, Wecabossia, would be nearly the same size as Caboss, so it would be rather large in the sky and readily observable during daylight hours, and (b) the Cabossians breathe methyl salicylate, or wintergreen oil. Those gave the cover designer (the incomparable Scott Carpenter) some design elements and ideas to work with. I truly love the cover and how the huge moon gives a sense of foreboding as the one broken window amidst a mass of perfection is a nagging hint that something’s not quite right.
Nuts and Bolts
A ton of strange things happen when you are published. For one, you need an Amazon Author page! But you can’t make one until your book is actually for sale on Amazon, in any format. Furthermore, Amazon’s many domains have different rules. You can make author pages on Amazon.com (the US), Amazon.co.uk (the UK), Amazon.fr (France), Amazon.de (Germany), and Amazon.co.jp (Japan). Amazon Author pages exist on Amazon.ca (Canada), but you can’t change them! For Amazon.it (Italy) and others, there are no Author pages. I hope Amazon makes this feature more uniform across the board.
As for what to put into your Author page, you need a good recent headshot of yourself (mine comes from four years ago; I could use a newer one) and links to things like your Twitter stream and your blog RSS, if any. For works available in countries with non-English native tongues, you might want to have a trusted friend help you with translations (or do them yourself, if you’re able to). Trusting Google Translate is not in your best interests. Get a native speaker.
Dealing with autographing books is interesting when someone hundreds of miles away asks you to do this. I’ll pass along this tip from New York Times bestselling author Dayton Ward: arrange it all through PayPal. For him, the best way to take care of this means to collect the cost of the book and two types of postage: one goes to his home or a post office box, and the other goes to the fan’s location.
I’ll add to this – if it’s a person you know, and you don’t mind giving out your address (or if you have a PO box I suppose your relationship with them would be moot anyway), have them have Amazon (or Barnes & Noble, wherever your book is available in dead tree format) ship the book directly to that location. Then all you need to collect is return postage. Conceivably, someone who doesn’t want to work with PayPal could even supply a money order and slip it in the mail to your PO box.
Reviews are gold and you need them. How do you get them? If your friends are buying your work, once they say they’ve finished, ask them to write you a review. Reviews can be short – a five-word sentence is better than nothing. There are also book bloggers. Do your research and find some that are (a) semi-available, (b) write decent, unbiased, honest, and constructive reviews, and (c) read your genre.
It’s all rather satisfying but also a tad freaky. Every now and then, I just want to run around screaming – I’m a published author!
The New Rules of Marketing & PR by David Meerman Scott
The New Rules of Marketing & PR by David Meerman Scott was a fascinating book that I had as required reading for Quinnipiac University’s Social Media Platforms course (ICM522).
First of all, the premise is, like a lot of other books about the Internet and social media marketing, that marketing has become less of a one-size-fits-all/push system. Instead, it has instead evolved into a far more balanced bilateral conversation.
And perhaps the most interesting part of the book consists of the rules themselves, which are in Chapter 2, on page 31 and are as follows –
As a (hopefully) former data person, I can relate to the idea of needing analytics. E. g., the measurements of how your website does. Why do you want to measure? Why, you need to see whether your message is actually going anywhere.
For e-commerce sites, the ultimate test is, naturally, whether you’re getting sales. But it’s hard to tell – particularly in a complex organization – whether the website drives sales or offline marketing efforts. And even measuring orders via these channels may not tell the entire story, as customers may see offline advertising and then come online to buy, or they may do the reverse and buy in-store after researching a product online. Or they could just be coming online to think about it and compare and mull it over and could convert to a paying customer days or weeks or months later. Or never.
What if You’re Not in e-Commerce?
And what about sites (such as my own) where nothing is offered for sale? My ultimate customer becomes, of course, someone to hire me, either permanently or temporarily. And this would mean as a consultant or a partner or a founder or a director or whatever, but that might be months away. What happens in the meantime? I might be able to dope some of that out with SEO and seeing where I am in search engine rankings, but just because people can find my site doesn’t mean they’re going to convert into hiring me or are even in a position to do so. My mother (hi, Mom!) can find my site and read it, but she won’t hire me any time soon. Unless I want to come and clean the gutters or something.
How do you or I know what’s happening?
It is, admittedly, still an imperfect science. But Mr. Kaushik breaks it down and describes the reports that you need to understand what’s happening with your site. He talks about what is essentially a Trinity strategy: experience, behavior and outcomes.
It’s not enough to just track sales (outcomes). It’s also about user experience and behavior. This is much like in the offline world, if you think about it. Going to a restaurant is an experience and many of them are packaged as such. But it is a far different experience going to a McDonald’s or a Chik-Fil-A versus a Bertucci’s. And that experience differs from going to Legal Seafood‘s which in turn is different from Blue Ginger (celebrity chef Ming Tsai‘s restaurant). You can intake the same amount of calories. You might even be able to get in the same quality and types of nutrition. And you might enjoy a Big Mac as much as you enjoy one of Chef Tsai’s specialties. Aside from price, what are the differences?
What Sort of User Experience?
When you go to a McDonald’s, a part of the price is wrapped up in the experience. For chain entities in particular, it’s about sameness and predictability. If you find yourself in rural Oshkosh and have never been there before, you see the golden arches and you realize what to expect. For Bertucci’s, even though it costs more and there’s table service, there’s a similar vibe. You go there because you can depend upon it to be a certain way. And Blue Ginger is also dependable in the sense that it’s very upscale so you know you are going to be treated a certain way and it will look a particular way and presumably the food will taste in a way that reflects that kind of investment, both by you and by Mr. Tsai and his team.
Enhanced User Experience
Mr. Kaushik shows how understanding analytics can help you to enhance user experience. And this, ultimately, drives user behavior. While conversions (sales) are the ultimate in user behaviors, he doesn’t forget about other valid behaviors.
Hence for the e-commerce site, product research is a valid and valuable behavior. So is printing a map to a brick and mortar store. Or comparing prices.
And for a non-e-commerce venture (again, I’ll use myself as an example), valid user (reader) behaviors are things like reading my writings and getting to know me. I put myself out there in order to be known, because that’s a piece of the hiring puzzle (why are there interviews — it’s not to know about skills, which should already be known. It’s to see if there’s a personality and a culture fit). Plus it enhances networking. Know me, think I’m worthwhile (at least, I hope you do) and you might think of a place where they might need me, or someone I should meet. And I do the same, in turn, for you. And cosmic karma gets us both into better places.
Back to the Book
But I digress. Let’s get back to the book.
The book has a lively, engaging style. It’s long but I sailed through it. And Mr. Kaushik (who is very gracious and seems to be very approachable, by the way) is clearly having fun and loves what he does. It’s a refreshing joy to read a book where the author is constantly delighted.
Read his book. Learn about analytics. Make the web a better place.
May your bounce rate be low, and your conversion rate high!
The book is less of a how-to and more of a why-to, if that makes sense. If you’re looking for code examples, look elsewhere. Instead, the book covers theory and explains how and why certain tasks need to be done.
Essentially, any social site, whether in the shape of forums or something else, faces the following user hurdles:
Pay attention – users need to have an idea that they want your software, product, services, etc.
Decision to sign up
Input personal information
Pay money (if applicable)
Decide for someone else (if applicable)
Give up the old way of doing things
Back Up a Second
Frankly, there’s even one item before #1, call it #0 if you will: the potential user must understand that he or she has a need. And, hand in hand with that, the potential user also needs to decide to fulfill that need online. Hence if a potential user, say, decides that they want support because they’ve just gotten a cancer diagnosis, but they further decide to only get their support via an in-person group and not an online board then, so far as you’re concerned, it’s game over. After all, not everyone “gets” the social aspect of the web.
Get Over Those Hurdles
Joshua Porter covers the handling of some of these basic hurdles, such as designing to favor signing up and hanging around. One main point he makes is: don’t make signing up too arduous a task. And its corollary: don’t ask for information you don’t need. Far too often, sites ask for what ends up being ludicrous levels of granularity of detail. After all, when was the last time that anyone, really, needed your middle name for you to apply for a job? Yet sites ask for this trivial piece of data. And, even if they don’t require it, that begs the question even further. Why is the field even there in the first place if the site so openly acknowledges that it’s just plain unnecessary?
Eight Seconds to Impress
Porter makes the point all too forcefully: the decision to sign up for an online service is made in eight seconds. That’s an awfully short window of opportunity to convince a potential user that his or her time and attention should be paid to you and not your competition.
The book abounds with these kinds of helpful nuggets, and is also chockful of references to blogs and books to support the author’s recommendations. The generous sprinkling of citations was helpful as it was a clear signpost suggesting online readings. It can seem counterintuitive to learn about designing for the web by reading a completely offline book. Porter’s work bridges the gap back to the web and lets the reader in on where to find more information situated a lot closer to where the reader is going to be placing new social software or services.
Finally, Designing for the Social Web does not seem to draw an overall conclusion. Rather, the book instead seems to simply run out of gas in the end. It’s as if the author had run out of what to say. Hence a final upshot or even some words of encouragement would have, I feel, helped. But that’s a small issue with an otherwise interesting and eminently practical work.
John Blossom wrote a rather interesting work. And so for Quinnipiac University’s Social Media Platform’s class (ICM 522), this book was assigned as required reading.
Blossom sharply and compellingly puts forth his case – the Internet has become home to more and more content creators all the time.
And this constitutes a very good thing indeed.
As publishing becomes push-button fast and friendly, publishers stop being gatekeepers. Suddenly, anyone with an idea and a connection can potentially become a publisher.
One of his most interesting takeaways appears on page 136, where he lays out Content Nation Enterprise Rule #1:
“Social media isn’t about technology; it’s about adapting to more effective patterns of communications being adopted by competitors.”
Hence for Blossom, the key benefits are –
Effective social media tools enable people to choose who they want to allow within their circle of communication (although that makes for silos and walled gardens these days!)
Effective social media tools make it easier to collect and organize communications from internal and external sources
and Effective social media tools make it easier to collaborate internally and externally to build and update valuable knowledge more effectively.
And I have to say that I agree with this. So much of what we read about social media centers around the platforms. In addition, the technology seems to overrule everything else, including common sense. And while everyone loves something shiny and new, it matters very little if the content behind it, well, frankly, stinks. Hence Blossom essentially disagrees with Marshall McLuhan. Therefore, the medium isn’t the message any more.
Instead, the message is the message.
And I think that is pretty damned powerful in this day and age of constant content creation, promotion, distribution, and deconstruction. But you make the call, gentle reader. Feel free to contact me if you disagree, okay?
I am published, and one issue that comes up, time and again, concerns how people can go about supporting indie authors. In particular, friends and family far removed from the business of writing or social media or public relations or marketing or the like still want to help out.
And for the writers, who may feel strange suggesting or requesting such support, I hope this little guide can do just that. Instead of asking, perhaps they can simply point to this blog post.
However, authors might get better percentages of the take with a particular format. If that is the case, and you don’t mind which format you purchase, you can always ask your friend the writer. While we always want you to buy the book (and a sale beats out no sale), if we have our druthers and it really makes a difference, it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.
The #2 Way To Support Independent Authors
So once you’ve bought the book, a fantastic way to help out even more is to provide an honest review. Amazon, Smashwords, and many publisher sites provide a means of reviewing novels and other creative works. Be sure to review where you purchased the book.Why? Because then you can be listed with verified purchase next to your name. This adds considerably more credibility to your review (and some places require it now).
The Sum and Substance of Your Review
What should you say in your review? If you loved the book, say so. If it was a decent read but not your cup of tea, say that as well, as it’s honest, fair, and remains supportive. After all, not everyone loves the same thing. If you’re not in the demographic group the work is aimed at, then no problem. You gave it the old college try and that’s just fantastic. The longer the review then, generally, the better. Specific references to events in the book, without giving away spoilers, really help. E. g. something like: I loved the character of ___. She was believably vulnerable.
What if you hated the book? Should you lie? Absolutely not – and, I might add, don’t lie even if the author has specifically asked for positive reviews only (an unethical request, by the way). If the book stinks (I’ve read books that have made me want to burn people’s computers, they were so horrible, so I know exactly where you’re coming from), then you have the following options:
Don’t post the review at all, and say nothing to the author.
Don’t post the review at all, but mention it to the author. However be prepared for, potentially, some negative push-back, in particular if that person specifically requested just positive reviews. You can sweeten the pot by offering some other assistance (see below for other things you can do to help).
Post a short review. Reviews don’t have to be novel-length! You can always write something like Interesting freshman effort from indie author ____ (the writer’s name goes in the blank). There ya go. Short, semi-sweet, and you’re off the hook. Unless the book utterly bored you, the term ‘interesting’ works. If the book was absolutely the most boring thing you have ever read, then you can go with valiant or unique (so long as the work isn’t plagiarized) instead of interesting. Yes, you have just damned with faint praise. But sometimes faint praise is the only kind you can give out.
Really going negative
Post a negative review. However, be prepared for your friendship to, potentially, end. Is that the worst thing, ever? I’m not saying to be mean. Don’t be mean and don’t take potshots at a person’s character or personality. This is about the book and not about your relationship with the person (although it can sometimes turn into that. But keep the review about the creative workonly). But if the friendship means more to you, then seriously consider options #1 or #2 instead.
Furthermore, many sites have star systems. Adding stars (even a single star) is helpful as this signals to readers that there is at least some interest in the piece.
The #3 Way to Support an Independent Author
Post and/or share the links to either the creative work or the author’s website, blog, Facebook Author page, or Amazon Author page, onto social media. This method is free and anyone can do it. This means tweets, Facebook shares, Pinterest repinnings, Tumblr rebloggings, clicking ‘like’ on Instagram, voting up a book trailer on YouTube or adding it to a playlist, mentioning the book in your status on LinkedIn, or sharing the details with your circles on Google+, and more. Every time you provide these sorts of social signals to social media sites, the content is delivered to more people. Without spending a dime, and barely lifting a finger, you can provide a great deal of help.
The #4 Way to Support Independent Authors
Be sure to follow your friends’ Amazon Author pages, and their blogs. Hit ‘like’ on their Facebook Author pages and follow them on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. There are agents who give more weight to indies who have larger social media followings. You can hate the book but still follow the author.
You can also work some magic in person. Show up to any signings or discussions, even if you just drink coffee and don’t participate. Ask for the book at your local library or bookstore. Read the paper version in public (train stations are really great for that sort of thing). You can also talk to your friends, or email them about the work. Consider your audience, and don’t just spam your friends, but if your writer pal has written, say, a Christian-themed love story, then how about sending the link to your friend who has a son studying to be a pastor?
If your friend is local, try contacting your local paper and asking if they’d do a profile on the writer. They can always say no, but sometimes reporters are hunting around for short feel-good locally-specific blurbs. It never hurts to ask.
The #5 Way to Support an Independent Author
Here’s where it gets to be a time investment. Help them. A lot of serious authors ask questions about all manner of things, in order to perform proper research. Can you help with that? Do you have personal experience, or are you good at Googling? You can also act as a beta reader. Beta readers read either the entire draft or a portion of it or sometimes just the first chapter or even character bios. Here’s where you can be a lot freer with criticism, as this is all private. Is the mystery too easy to solve? The character names are confusing? The protagonist isn’t described clearly? The scenario is improbable? Then tell the writer. This isn’t correcting their grammar or their spelling (although it sometimes can be). This is giving them valuable feedback which will help them become better.
As always, be kind. This is your friend’s baby, after all. But if you can’t tell the difference between Susan and Suzanne in the story, then other readers probably wouldn’t be able to, either. Better that that is fixed before the book is released, than afterwords.
Final Thoughts on How to Support Independent Authors
The life of a writer can be a rather topsy-turvy one. You’re high on good reviews, and then you get one bad one and it depresses you. You write like the wind for weeks, and then you edit it and it feels like it’s garbage. You get writer’s block, or life gets in the way.
Sometimes the best thing you can do, as a friend, is to just listen, and be there.
Figure out which content you’ve got and archive whatever isn’t working for you, e. g. fulfilling some sort of purpose. Good purposes include building trust and expertise, answering customer questions and facilitating sales. Not such good purposes are things like get some content out there because we’re naked without it!
Archive that Stuff!
For whatever currently published content that does not fulfill a good purpose, either archive it or get rid of it entirely. It does not help you, and it may very well harm your company.
Get someone in charge of content. Not surprisingly, a Content Strategist comes to mind but definitely get someone to steer the ship.
Listen to the customers and the company regarding content. The company may be setting out content that’s confusing to the users. The users may be asking for something that can’t quite work. It may or may not be in the company’s best interests to fix either problem, but at least you’ll know what the issue is and,
Start asking why content exists out there in the first place.
This process begins with a content audit, e. g. know what you’ve got out there. Then talk to the users. And, once these processes are completed, one can start to think of a strategy.
Yes, it’s really that much time before actually creating any content. Why? Because doing the ramp-up now will save a lot of headaches later. Think it’s a bear to audit and check every single piece of content on your site now? How are you going to feel about it next year?
I bet you’d be thrilled to only have as much content to deal with as you have right now, at this very moment. So start swinging that lasso now. It’s time to audit.
I have to say, while I can see where Ms. Halvorson is coming from. Furthermore, there was also a large chunk of the book devoted to, essentially, justifying the Content Strategist’s existence. And perhaps this is necessary with a new discipline — I don’t know. But it does make for an edge of defiance, e. g. this discipline is good enough!
The Before Time, Where There was Weeping and Wailing, and Gnashing of Teeth
One aspect of my career transition consists of writing a lot more.
And I found that I had truly missed it.
Sure, I had typed tons and tons of stuff before. But a lot of it covered such thrilling topics as documenting queries, or making lists of terms used by public service officers. It very rarely encompassed topics with wit, or style. And I certainly did not have permission to make up any of it.
I had known about NaNoWriMo for a while, but hadn’t thought I had anything to offer.
In 2013, I woke up with an idea during the last week of October. I created a wiki and an outline for it, and signed up.
And I wrote. And wrote.
Then about halfway through the month, I had finished. By the end of the month, the story was edited.
Now the Real Fun Begins
Because, yes, it was published.
It was and is the right thing to do, and the right path.
In addition, it feels fun. And it feels exciting. It feels like it’s a fit.
Furthermore, it does not feel like something where I’m stretching to fit into someone else’s idea, or parallel someone else’s vision. And I certainly don’t feel like I was going through the motions. In addition, it does not feel like ho-hum, same old-same old.
It feels right. And it feels honest. So it feels free. It feels good.
User-centered design is the act of putting together websites in a way that users will understand them quickly. The last thing a website owner should want is for users to be scratching their heads over how things work. Or, worse, leaving because a site is so frustrating.
Communicating Design by Dan M. Brown takes this idea and brings it back to site development. That is, the reader is given the tools for presenting designs and their various documentations while a site is still in its nascent format.
The book spends a lot of time talking about design documentation. While this is all well and good and appropriate, the book also spends a lot of time talking about how to present these various documents at meetings. I have conducted numerous meetings in my career, and so this felt superfluous. But it’s not just that I have the experience; it’s also that the basics of presenting a document at a meeting were iterated and reiterated. After a while, I hope that a designer would understand how to be diplomatic and good at explaining designs and documents and descriptions. Repeating this information grew tiresome in short order. While it is possible that the intention was for the chapters to be used as standalones, the basics of presenting in a meeting were already there. Why not just tell the reader to check back in Chapters One and Two?
He thoroughly explained many documents, though, and about one-quarter of the way through the book, I realized that the process of design resembles that of iterative software development. Stop, start, tweak, start again, etc.
The document types presented were as follows:
Wireframes (this was rather helpful to me)
My rating would have gone higher if I had not already been there, done that, with so much of what was covered in this book. It’s a good, thorough resource for beginners.