Ditching the Press

I did a very strange thing recently. I drastically simplified my website. You might have noticed a few weeks back that my site was down for a few days. I needed to relocate to a new server, and I had an interesting decision to make: stick with Wordpress, which I've used as the hosting platform for MikeMadison.net for a decade, upgrade (in terms of potential functionality) and totally rebuild my website in Drupal, which I use for my day-job, or punt entirely and go with a managed solution like Square Space

Guess what? Square Space won.

Sure, you might be thinking, nice going Mr. Full-time Web Developer. Get lazy. Why do real work on your website when you can just pay someone else to do it for you? Wait. That's it exactly!

Five+ years ago, I was a free lance web developer and this website was one of several tools I used to garner business. "I'm good at the Internet, look at my web presence." It worked fairly well too. I supported myself (and my then-fiance, who was a student) on nothing by my income as a free-lancer. 

Now though, I do web development for an organization and I'm not soliciting business here. In fact, now that I've re-purposed the site to be about my writing, I've significantly simplified it's use. Oh, and I've done a terrible job of keeping Wordpress up to date. You know, security patches. Making sure my site doesn't get hacked, stolen, taken over, etc. Pretty important stuff. 

Enter this new decision. Drupal is, arguably, more powerful than Wordpress. I make my living leading a Drupal capability. But, Drupal takes a fair amount of energy and time to maintain, secure, and keep up to date. I do that every day, all day. The last thing I want to do is come home and do MORE of that. 

I heard about Square Space on a lot of the podcasts I listen to. I always wondered what it was, how it worked, and if it was worth it. This seemed like an opportune moment. It's different than using Wordpress, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes different is good.

A few of the things I like about Square Space:

  • It's really easy to use. Like foolishly simple, particularly the design part
  • I was able to import everything from Wordpress
  • I get to pretend I don't know d#@% about web development
  • I don't have to update ANYTHING but my content. 

A few things I don't like:

  • Things I think "should" be simple take a bit of prodding to figure out how to use
  • I have to rely entirely on their interface, API, etc. (Yes, you do with Wordpress and Drupal too, but they are a bit more extensible) 
  • I actually had to contact technical support because I can't figure something out. That's not really Square Space's fault, it's just embarrassing.

So yeah, the new and improved MikeMadison.net is, actually, new and "simplified" which means I can spend a lot more time on stuff that matters. Like writing. And reading. 

I would absolutely recommend looking into some sort of managed platform if you are in a position similar to me. A website is a luxury I CAN afford, but one that I don't want to suddenly have to pour my life into managing. Square Space is a really handy tool that helps me simplify that luxury. I'd recommend you check it out. 

It’s a Web Web World: Part 3

I spent some time in the last week giving advice to a friend on setting up her website in preparation for the release of her novel. This is part 3/3, focusing on some of my personal recommendations on a path forward. If you missed the other parts in this series:

Part 1 Part 2

A few other things I personally recommend that you try to include:

  • Support Mobile devices. This is critical. So many people find your site via social media and a lot of them will be on a tablet / phone. Google has also started penalizing sites that don’t support mobile versions. All websites natively allow a phone/tablet to view them, but not all respond to the size of the screen. This is a design thing and related to the template you pick for the look/feel.
  • Use Analytics. Google provides them for free, so do other services. Analytics will help you understand how much traffic you have coming to your website, and will give you more data than you’ll ever be able to read. Still, it will help understand things like…
    •  Do most people visit my site after I post a new blog entry, or do I have consistent traffic?
    • Are people using a particular feature on my site?
    • What types of devices are people using to browse my site?
  • If you blog, have an RSS feed so that people can subscribe (and make it obvious so they can). I never read blogs just to read blogs. I do subscribe to them via Feedly though and read articles that sound interesting
  • If you blog, setup integration with your social media so you can broadcast new posts. My blog automatically posts my new articles to both Facebook and Twitter.
  • If you have a store, make absolutely certain that all payments are collected via a secure connection (look for the HTTPS in the URL). Often this means that your redirects the user to the PayPal / Authorize.net site to handle the transaction. Without this, credit card numbers being input into your website will be unsecure! (This is a big one)
  • If you can’t afford a web designer to help you with the look/feel of your site (that’s ok), look into a premium template for your site. Depending on your technology (e.g. Wordpress, Drupal, Joomla, Tumblr) there are many many options for this and they are affordable. You may not have a super fancy site, but you don’t necessarily want it to look like a high schooler built it (even if you are a high schooler). A person’s impression of your website may have a direct impact on your business. Don’t be the Space Jam website. That isn’t helping anyone.
  • Make sure your technology supports exporting content. The web is a dynamic, ever changing place, and what you are doing today may not be what you are doing in the future. Your domain can move with you! Just make sure your content can easily move too.

Finally, remember that a website is something you can spend 40 hours a week working on. My day job is a being a web developer, and it’s definitely a field that you always have new things to learn. Your main concern is being a writer. If you spend all your time blogging and tinkering on your website, then you aren’t building the platform that your website is supposed to be pushing. Find a solution that makes it as easy/quick as possible for you to maintain your web presence without infringing on your actual writing time.

Oh. And have fun with it. It’s supposed to be fun!

It’s a Web Web World: Part 2

I spent some time in the last week giving advice to a friend on setting up her website in preparation for the release of her novel. This is part 2/3, focusing on some of the specific features you should focus on when thinking about setting up your site! If you missed the other parts in this series:

Part 1

I always recommend stopping and thinking about what you’re trying to do with the site prior to doing a bunch of research. There are so so many options for web presences that you could spend days trying to track them all down. In general, here are a few things you’ll need to consider:

  • What sorts of things do I want to do with my website?
  • A blog? [Moderate]
  • Social Media (e.g. Twitter/Facebook) Integration?  [Easy]
  • Basic Contact Information / Bio / Publications List [Easy]
  • Link to existing store-front (e.g. Amazon Store) [Easy]
  • Event calendar / appearances [Moderate]
  • On-Site E-Commerce [Difficult]

There are of course countless other things you might do, but these are some of the common ones. If you are thinking you want to do something complicated (like e-commerce) that will help you limit your options from the next list. If you are just wanting a blog, again, that will help you decide.

Easy items above are essentially static content. Once you post them, they don’t change very often. Even basic HTML can be used for something like this.

Moderate items above (the blog, the calendar) are items that you are likely to change regularly (daily, weekly, etc.). Because of this, having a static HTML site is going to be incredibly painful for you, and having some sort of database driven solution will make your life infinitely simpler. However, this requires more technical resources as a result (not necessarily more expensive, just more complex).

Difficult items (the store) get even more complicated, because while you need the database driven complexity of the moderate items, you also have to have the payment processing and product support required for e-commerce. Note that payment processors like PayPal and Authorize.net are super easy to setup and use, but they will take a commission out of every sale (and this should be considered a cost of doing business). Expect on top of everything else that commission to be a few cents ($.30) or so a transaction, plus a percentage of the transaction.

In the web world, we recommend that you write simple statements about what you want to do with your site to help you keep track. These user stories / use cases are very helpful in determining the components you need for your software. Things like:

  • I want my readers to find me online
  • I want my readers to buy signed copies of my books
  • I want to publish my appearance schedule in an easy to find location
  • I want an easily updatable blog (to help me post regularly)

As you consider these levels of complexity and the uses for your site, the other things to consider are the actual subscriptions you’ll need to accomplish what you want to do.

  • Domain/URL: I strongly recommend owning your own domain. The actual URL doesn’t matter much, as long as it’s yours and you plan to keep it.
  • Where to get it? Many of the places you will host your website will provide a discounted domain if you get it from them. I would leave this step until later (despite it being incredibly important)
  • What is privacy? When registering a domain, you have an option to get a private registration. I strongly recommend this, as it ensures that people can’t look up your contact information by looking up your domain. (Yes, it does roughly double the price of the domain.)
  • Hosting: The host is the person who actually provides the computing resources for you to manage your website from. You have to have hosting of “some variety” (more on this in a moment) unless you own a web server that you are publishing to the Internet (and, let’s be honest, if you are still reading this post, you probably don’t!)
  • Should I auto-renew? YES. You do NOT want your domain to expire. Someone can buy it the instant it does. Don’t mess around with this. Put a reminder on your calendar and buy the domain for multiple years at a time if you can afford it.
  • Can I have my own email @mydomain? YES.
  • Managed Software Solutions: A managed solution is something like Square Space, Wordpress.com, Shopify, etc. Each of these services charges you a flat monthly rate (or, nothing, depending) and provides you with software and the basics to run that software on the web. In general these options are the simplest, fastest, and least labor-intensive ways to get a site up and running. I recommend Wordpress.com or Tumblr if you need a simple solution.
  • Managed Hosting: This option is similar to the first, but you are responsible for managing the software. So, they manage the database, the server, etc., but you do the rest. Often cheaper (even a few dollars a month), this option requires significantly more understanding of technology and time on your part.  Note too that this option is often a shared hosting resource (vs. dedicated below) and as a result, you may not get the most blazing fast, incredibly powerful website, ever. Services like Blue Host and Fat Cow are good places to begin your search (or they were 5 years ago).
  • Dedicated Hosting: This option is basically the “on your own” model. You might still be able to get some management from the company if you want to pay for it. Most beginners don’t need this level of service. There are pros in this arena, mainly related to the performance of the server, but the costs of renting one can be prohibitive, and again, if you don’t know what you’re doing, this is going to be a very confusing path indeed.

Next, consider your budget. Are you looking to spend a couple hundred dollars a year? More? Less?

As I discussed with my friend, e-commerce can rapidly raise the cost of what you’re trying to do. If you just need a basic blog, Wordpress.com provides you with a blog and domain for about $20 a year. If you want to bring in your own domain from someplace else, it will run you about $40 a year . That’s all. That falls nicely into the Managed Software Solution I mentioned above and it’s pretty cheap.

On the other hand, if you want to have a store front on your site, going with something like Square Space ($20 a month if you pay up front) as a managed solution is one option, versus getting a managed hosting site, installing a content manager (e.g. Wordpress again) and then setting up e-commerce that ay. Again, in this option, you will be paying less than $20 a month, but you will be on the hook to make sure that you don’t have any security vulnerabilities, etc.

Make sure to check back in a few days, or subscribe, for part 3 which will talk about a few items I think are must haves for the site.

If you missed the other parts in this series:

Part 3

It’s a Web Web World: Part 1

I spent some time in the last week giving advice to a friend on setting up her website in preparation for the release of her novel. I thought I’d blog a bit about some of the things she and I discussed, since they are general topics that would be applicable to other people in a similar situation. This post is the first of a three part series that will cover a range of topics related to improving web presence and setting up an easily maintainable / manageable site.  

If you don’t have some sort of web presence, I would highly recommend that you explore one. Social Media is absolutely critical to being found on the internet these days, however what social media site you use today may be quite different than the one you are using in ten years. Having even a basic website that people can find you from provides continuity in your web presence, allowing you to shift and change your social media preferences as you see fit.

The first thing you have to remember is that managing a website takes time and money. There are a wide variety of options that will have an impact on how much time and how much money, but they are both required commodities in this endeavor. As a general rule of thumb, the more of your time you are willing to put into the work surrounding the site, the less money it is going to cost you and vice-versa.

For example, if you go with a totally “managed” solution (meaning someone else does all the work for you) or you hire a web designer/developer, you won’t have to do very much work at all, mostly just manage the content. However, in this option, you will be paying a professional or a company (or hopefully both) to do most of the heavy lifting for you. That could be anywhere from $20 a month to thousands of dollars a year (depending on who, what, where, etc.).

On the other extreme end of the spectrum, you could be responsible for managing your web server, the database, all of the security patches, etc. You could take care of everything, including the content. In this scenario, you could easily spend less than $100 a year to maintain the site. However, you would be on the hook for everything that goes wrong and would spend time away from your other job/writing/activities managing the site.

Most likely, you’ll wind up somewhere in the middle.

Make sure to check back in a few days, or subscribe, for part 2 which will talk about some of the components you should consider for your site!


Part 2

A History in Three Parts

It's been a few weeks since I posted, my apologies for that. I'm continuing my revision on the book, I still have a few dozen percentage points to lob off in this read through, but I'm encouraged by what I'm reading. Amazingly, the newest material I've written is cleaner than much of the old material. I credit some of this to writing in Scrivener and not on my iPad. I'm a much more accurate typist on a laptop than I ever was on the iPad. I also I think, have to credit some of it to where I am with my writing now. I have a much firmer grasp on my characters and my story than I did even six months ago, let alone a year or more ago. The difference is showing.

This post is all about the past, and three instances of it.

First of all, I recently listened to a story on NPR about a rejection that Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books, received. What was to be her first novel, was finally published decades after her death, and it's selling out like crazy. This book, unlike her others, wasn't written for children. It was a much more accurate memoir. I find it difficult to think of someone like Wilder as a novice writer, but it just goes to show, that not only does everyone start somewhere, even things that are rejected today might very well wind up a best seller. Eventually.

Next, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to attend a genealogy seminar hosted by a local chapter of Sons of Norway. I don't have any Norwegian blood in me... at least I don't think I do, but my wife does, and one of her co-workers put on the event. It was actually incredibly interesting, not only when thinking about working on my own family history (which is admittedly from other countries) and as a writer.

In Norway, there are many traditions that are quite different than modern American record keeping. For example, the date of birth was not actually the date of birth. It was the date of baptism. Many other records centered around the confirmation date in the local church. While both of these examples happen to be tied up in religion, I think they are both great examples of how a culture can be very different than the modern one that we are aware of.

Another example I found interesting was the naming structure. It's a Given Name, a Family Name, and then a Farm name. I actually, inadvertently started following a similar naming schema for my book, where people's last name is based not on their family lineage, but on the location of their birth.

You and I certainly won't be the first (or the last) authors to pull inspiration from old histories, so I'm not suggesting something novel here, but it might lead you down an interesting path. Besides, aside from writing, you might stumble across something cool about your own family.

Finally, I finally watched the first episode of the Outlander television show this evening. I don't typically read a bunch of historical fiction/fantasy, but it seemed like a really well done adaption. It's shot well, I'm super impressed by the acting, and honestly, more than anything it gives me hope. With Games of Thrones' success, this could well be another SFF television show that helps define the genre in a way we just don't usually get on TV. It also makes me hope that the upcoming Shannara television show (being produced by MTV of all places) is well done so that it survives more than a season.

OH, and I also discovered that my favorite production team is behind Outlander. Ronald D. Moore (of such awesomeness as the SciFi channel's Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek Deep Space Nine) created the show along with Ira Steven Behr. These gentlemen have done amazing work in the past, and they even brought in Bear McCreary to do the soundtrack for the show. I don't listen to a ton of symphonic stuff, or even soundtracks anymore, but I can just turn on Bear's music and listen for hours and hours and hours...

Useful Apps

A constant struggle I have (and many of my friends apparently share) is keeping track of all the crap I want to read on the Internet. It's somewhat of a losing battle, considering the number of people I follow on Twitter, the number of friends I have on Facebook, not to mention the usually bombardment of stuff that flies into my computer from all corners of the globe. Thankfully, there's an app for that!

I found a couple of Apps that I would strongly recommend you check out. They have significantly streamlined my Internet usage over the past several months.

Pocket Pocket is an App for iOS and Android (not Windows the last time I checked) that lets you save articles. Not super fancy. Doesn't sound that exciting. Seriously it will change how you browse the Internet.

I often have time to flip around on Social Media between things during the day, but I rarely have time to actually read full articles that sound interesting. Enter Pocket. I can save articles that sound interesting to Pocket and come back to them later on from any of my devices. Something I found on Twitter this morning on my phone is saved so I can easily find it on my tablet tonight.

You can also easily share from Pocket to social media, so if you find something that is worthy of a share, it's only a click away.

Feedly RSS readers are hardly anything new. I've struggled over the years to find good ones, and Feedly definitely fits the bill. I keep a fairly active, yet organized list of subscriptions. I follow a bunch of writers and writer news sources, and Feedly helps keep them organized for me (as well as up to date).

When an author posts an update, I instantly get that update thanks to the RSS subscription in Feedly. Like pocket, it's shared between all of my devices so I can tick off items as I go and my other devices are kept in sync.

Feedly also allows you to download articles  so you can read them offline, easily share items to Social media, and perhaps my favorite, easily save them to Pocket. So, as you find things you want to read, you can then add them to Pocket to read them later. Super cool.

Both of these Apps have really helped me keep up with thing I want to read. I always see stuff I want to read, and now I have a way to keep track of it. Oh, and did I mention they're both free Apps? Very worth checking out!

Shameless plug: if you do happen to set up Feedly, you can subscribe to my blog right here so you can stay up to date. Thanks for reading!

Award Winning

More good news for Distinction in the Darkness! I received word this evening that the story was selected as one of Bewildering Stories Mariner Award winners for 2014.

The Mariner Awards are named for one of the first successful interplanetary missions. Distinction in the Darkness is one of 40 titles listed — out of 304 for the year — that the Review Board has rated most highly in 2014. They have earned Bewildering Stories’ most signal honor.

I've been selected as one of 25 authors to receive this honor. I'm hugely thankful to the press for selecting me and my work. I can't imagine a better way to end 2014.