Awesome Things from RWA, Orlando (Part 1)

August 2, 2010

Best Accomplishment: Upon winning her third RITA for What Happens in London, Julia Quinn was inducted into the RWA Hall of Fame! She’s only the 12th writer to snag that honor. JQ at first announced that she was the 13th author to be so honored, then corrected it to 11th, but we have finally ascertained that she is indeed the 12th. Why the counting issues? Force-unto-herself Nora Roberts has been inducted three times. But Nora in the mix or not, this Waxblog post is accompanied by significant genuflection and abundant hugs. WTG, JQ! (Photo above: JQ with her awesome editor Lyssa Keusch right after the big moment.)

Best Snark: This year RWA was meant to be in Nashville, but due to flooding it was moved to Orlando, as in Disney World. And as if that Mouse and all his Princesses were not enough, Orlando claims Universal Studios, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Sea World, and more. From the conference hotel you could get to Epcot by pink-and-white striped water taxi and there were fireworks every night. Pretty much every person I talked either arrived a few days early, kids in tow, or admitted necessarily and abashedly (as I did): “My kids have no idea where I am.

Best Fan Behavior: This was Kindle- and Nook-related. And awesome. And not yet downloaded off of my camera. Stay tuned.

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Swag people remember you by

July 21, 2010

How heavy is your bookmark? What does your business card feel like? Do they leave a positive impression? Are you sure?

As an author, when you ask a reader to select your book to spend many precious hours with, you are commanding a high price point. Your book may be only $6, or a $10 ebook, or it might even sell for $16 or more, but hours of someone’s time is far more valuable. Obviously if your book fails to enchant the reader they may feel cheated. But what else might be jarring about the experience of reading your book? What else might leave the reader thinking: “Really?”

How about an ugly bookmark? One that clearly says, “I spent as little as possible on this.” That bookmark might actually be a liability, leaving your customer with the feeling that you didn’t think that they were worth anything more than your cheapest effort.

Analogy:

When I bought my house last year I spent a few stressful hours in a title company conference room signing a massive stack of paperwork. For the privilege of doing so, plus the title company’s legwork to ensure that the title to the house was clear (very important), the title company charged a significant 4-digit figure, their regular price point.

At the end of the session I was handed a vinyl envelope as a “gift” — swag, as it were. A takeaway. The envelope was emblazoned with the company’s logo and is the right size to house some paperwork. In it was a heavy, substantial feeling key chain — appropriate for a title company, yes? I instantly saw it as my spare key set chain. Back in the car with the vinyl on my lap I held the key chain in my hand, rolled its weight from one hand to the other as I nervously contemplated the huge purchase I had just made. I then reached into the vinyl envelope and pulled out a couple of unimpressive one-color notepads and an incredibly cheap pen — one of those pens, the ones you never choose.

I sat there holding the pen thinking, “Really?” I expect a cheap pen when I walk out of a Home Depot, or the cash-strapped library. But at the title company’s price point (especially for as little work as I felt that they did), the pen felt wrong. The effort of the key chain was overshadowed by the obvious cheapness of the pens — the company would have been better off leaving the pen out of the mix entirely. And as a brand player, I now associated “cheap” with the that company.

One supposes if I had pulled out the pens before the key chain perhaps the key chain would have made up for the pens, but do you really want to have to make up for anything?

Segue to:

When we recently printed some bookmarks for a client (they are so pretty!) the printer accidentally grabbed the wrong paper and printed the whole stack of them on something far thinner than I had specified. The bookmarks looked beautiful, the color was so vibrant, the cover beautifully displayed, but the piece felt cheap.

They were reprinted.

Go for nice design and substantial paper for your bookmarks and business cards. It matters.

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Typing vs. Typography

July 16, 2010

Sometimes spending an extra half hour to an hour to get minute details right is the difference between a design studio and a really good design studio with experienced visual designers.

Look at a bunch of websites… look closely at the space to the sides of the images. Does the content goes too close to a cover graphic? Look at the space between the letters in the main titling. It should read beautifully.

In the site I have up on my screen (and no, I won’t link — I am not into bashing, but this is pretty ubiquitous around the web — I have recreated an example here) the I and the Z of “Elizabeth” are smushed too close together. I am willing to bet that this was not a conscious decision on the part of the designer, it’s just that her name was merely typed out (and yes, colorized with a drop shadow applied). This is not design. This is typing out a name and sifting through various options to make it pretty.

In the top example here, we simply typed out ELIZABETH and OLIVIA in a super fancy font, Aquiline. This is an exaggerated example as this font’s autokerning is way off, but it illustrates the issue well. The top version is merely typed out. The bottom version allocated a bit of designer time to eyeball the space between the letters and make adjustments. And also to drop the baseline of the initial cap on Elizabeth. Doesn’t the O in OLIVIA want to come down, too? These details are all in the name of seamless design.

On the complete other side of the spectrum, with Garamond (the Roman example), a near perfect font out of the box, simply typed out is still not smooth and even (though pretty close!). We adjusted the space between the Z and the A to tighten it, and the O and the L — due to the shape of the letters those spacings need attention. And then, to illustrate where we would take it a step further, we left the gap between the A and the B alone so you can see how that feels bigger now with the Z and the A tightened — we would tighten that, too.

The point is that a good designer will notice and kern text. You might not see the gaps if you are DIY. Or if you are hiring on the cheap, the cheap designer might not have the experience to see it, or she might not have the time in her budget for additional typographical attention, even though it just doesn’t take much extra time. It’s just something to think about, because it’s a little jarring. Even if the rest of the site is okay, it’s important to note that good design is never jarring. Because while the little detail might not be noticed, per se, the feeling of not moving smoothly over the site is, and this feeling is cumulative. Those minor, seemingly jarring experiences add up. You might not be able as a viewer to put your finger on it while you are viewing a site, but it just feels unprofessional.

And that is definitely not the feeling you want to project.

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Substance With Style vs. Form Over Function

July 8, 2010

We’ve all seen this author website: You plug in the URL, excuse the loading time (usually just a second or two), and up comes a high-concept, Flash-built homepage. Maybe the author’s name is animated or the navigation dances when rolled over. Or perhaps a little less cartoonish, the homepage is high design, featuring just a cover, author name, and navigation—big, bold graphics with very little, if any, text—in short, an entry page. No examples accompany here; we’re not looking to bash the competition, just discuss a philosophy.

gratuitous-flashIf you are visiting this site for the first time, you might be impressed, even seduced, by the animation, or how it fills the browser window like a big, beautiful postcard.  But over subsequent visits, seeking information about the next book or an author event can become annoying in a “flash.”

As attractive as these Flash-based, high-concept websites might seem at first, we regularly counsel our clients against them. Consider that you’re trying to establish an enduring relationship with your readers, and your homepage needs to function as both a first introduction and an on-going and compelling welcome.

Here’s the problem: If your visitors become bored with the homepage that doesn’t change, or if they become irritated with a gateway/splash page that needs to be skipped over every time, what will bring them back? If confronted with a home page devoid of news and book info, what propels visitors onward?

bells-whistlesAnother factor to consider is that Flash is not good for search engine optimization, nor is it supported by sexy and fun mobile devices like the iPad. Limiting searchability and accessibility in favor of flourishes here will not support your ROI.

Bottom line, your website is a communication tool, not solely a high-concept art piece. Certainly, your web presence should convey a pleasing aesthetic, but rather than sacrifice your business goals in favor of stylish bells and whistles, we strive to build sites that offer substance with style and function beautifully formed.

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Mini Blueberry Cheesecakes with a Hint of Lemon

June 23, 2010

Long time, no cupcake! It’s been nearly a year since I shared the recipe for “I ♥ Strawberries” cupcakes. My excuse: I was hard at work earning my Masters in Creative Writing. After graduating in May, I could not wait to get back to baking.

mini-blueberry-cheesecake

The finished product!

Though these Mini Blueberry Cheesecakes are cupcake-sized, they aren’t technically cupcakes, nor are they really “tarts” as Paula Deen so deemed them. Yes, I admit: I have adapted a Paula Deen recipe. I’m typically not a fan of Paula’s culinary offerings—she puts mayonnaise on corn on the cob (but I put mayo in my chocolate cupcakes, so I guess I’m not one to talk!). Nonetheless, I am hooked on these airy, flaky, fruity cakes that have become wildly popular at my parties and are incredibly easy to make.

The recipe calls for blueberry pie filling, but you can always use cherry or another fruit filling. When summer berries are in season, I dice or macerate fresh berries, stir in a pinch of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice, then dollop the impromptu jam mixture in the natural hollows of the cheesecakes. Whipped cream highly recommended!

~ Tarrin

Mini Blueberry Cheesecakes with a Hint of Lemon
(makes 12 cupcakes, though I have stretched the batter to make as many as 16 in the past)

ingredients

So few ingredients for such a delectable result.

Ingredients
2 eight-ounce packages cream cheese, softened at room temperature (Philadelphia is the best!)
1 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 eggs, at room temperature
12 vanilla wafers (I always use Nilla wafers)
1 can blueberry pie filling

Zest of 1 lemon (well-washed to remove waxy supermarket coating!) and the juice of half the lemon

Preheat your oven to 350º and line muffin tin(s) with liners. Place a vanilla wafer, flat side down, in the bottom of each muffin cup.

Vanilla wafer “crusts”!

Vanilla wafer “crusts”!

Beat cream cheese on medium-high speed with a handheld or standing electric mixer until fluffy, about one minute. Add the sugar and vanilla, then add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Fold in the lemon juice and zest with a spatula.

Spoon cream cheese mixture over wafers so that each cup is about two-thirds full.

Bake 26-30 minutes on the center rack until the tops of the cakes are beginning to turn golden brown and the batter appears set. If a toothpick comes out cleanly from a cupcake’s center, they’re ready.

Allow tarts to cool completely. Place a dollop of blueberry filling in the hollow of the cheesecake (they’ll sink in the middle as they cool).

Tip: To prevent the tops of the cheesecakes from cracking, pour an inch of warm water into a roasting pan and place on the lower oven rack under the cheesecakes as they bake. The pan of water will keep the moisture in the oven high and the heat more gentle. Be sure to place the pan in the oven when you begin preheating, and note that the water bath may slow cooking time by a few minutes. It will make for prettier cheesecakes, though!

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Tuesday Tech: Keep it clean and pristine

June 15, 2010

I recently got an SOS email from a client who was swimming in spam. She calculated that she wasted at least ten minutes a day, if not more, weeding through the junk, some of it seriously offensive, just to find the legitimate mail.

“I’m really considering changing my email address, but how can I keep the new one away from spammers?”

I have had my main email address at Wax for almost eight years, and have never had spam sent directly to it, so I consider myself somewhat of an expert on how to keep the spammers away without having to spend extra money on server-based spam-blockers. It takes some forethought, but keeping your email address clean and pristine can be done.

Here’s the advice I give brand-new domain owners: pick your top ideal email address (usually one or two), and then never, ever use those publicly anywhere but on your own site. Your name is Jane and your domain is example.com? Never, ever use jane@example.com for anything but valid and personal emailing. For our clients who want their email addresses posted on their contact pages, we hide the mailto link in some javascript so bots can’t find the address in the code. Don’t use jane@example.com to make any online purchases, sign up for any newsletters, or post contact info on any bulletin boards, etc. You can set up secondary, throw-away email addresses on your domain for online purchasing, and you can always direct people to your contact page, if you have one, to get in touch with you.

When I purchased my own personal domain years ago, I was so fed up with the amount of spam I was getting on the AOL address I had been using, that I decided to run an experiment. I set up a different email address for each type of online transaction I was doing. I set up amazon@, ebay@, paypal@, utilities@, phone@, banking@, orders@, etc. I wanted to see which email address started getting the most spam so I could figure out which company was not being careful with my information. Not surprisingly, many of those addresses are now collecting massive amounts of spam, but my main email addresses, the ones I use for personal and work use, continue to be spam-free. What I did by setting up all those addresses is pretty extreme, to be sure, but setting up at the very least ONE online transaction/activity email address is a wise move. If it starts collecting too much spam, you dump it and set up a new address. Sure, you will then have to change your contact info at Amazon, your bank, your favorite bulletin board, and that online shop with the cute shoes, but that’s far easier than having to inform your entire personal address book of an email change.

I always tell clients with brand-new sites that they are in the perfect position to start with good and safe email habits. “Make sure you practice safe-emailing,” I say, as I explain how their email system works. It always illicits a chuckle, but I’m quick to point out just how serious I am. “You don’t want to get to the point where you are swimming in spam but too attached to your email address to start anew,” I say. That’s when you have to start shelling out money for server-based spam-blockers.

And wouldn’t you rather spend that money on those cute shoes at that one online shop you love so much…?

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And Then There Was Salsa

June 4, 2010

To experience 37 of the coolest seconds on the web, check out this video “And Then There Was Salsa” by Frito Lay Dips. You must click over to their site, we couldn’t reproduce it within our blog.

Hats off and much genuflecting to the creators. This makes me want to dance, get chips, and speak Spanish.

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An Intimate Booksigning

May 18, 2010

The benefits of booksigings are a lot like those of meet-and-greets when running for office. All other things equal, a handshake and exchanged word is sometimes the weight that will decide between you and another author for that reader’s time.

A couple weeks ago I went to a booksigning at a A Great Good Place For Books in the Oakland Hills. It was cozy and intimate and, as I realized upon entering the store, it was the first such booksigning I had been to in quite a while. The last few had been either big multi-author signings tied to a conference, or a gaggle of people crammed into an alcove of a busy Barnes&Noble. And while these types of signings are valid, informative, and helpful to an author’s career, there is something very grassroots about hosting an intimate event.

When author Christi Phillips stood up and began speaking in the bookstore, the energy of the entire bookstore was focused upon her. Small booksignings like this go great distances to allow the author to make individual connections. This can be hard to accomplish at huge signings where the line is kept moving.

Christi began with a reading from her new book, The Devlin Diary, moved on to  Q&A, and closed with signing copies of either of her books for the few dozen locals who turned out. She had some simple but pretty trays of snacks, and a little basket of cookies by the signing area. And while I do not remember the actual text from the reading, I do remember thinking “Now, that’s something I would like to read,” and I how comfortable and charmed I felt at the signing, how kind and approachable the author was. In short, she intrigued me.

She did not have autographed by the author stickers, but not every signing can be perfect (and I feel she and the store will get them in hand!)

There are many people for whom this type of effort is not balanced by enough return. If you do it by sheer numbers, with the possibility of selling a couple dozen books at the royalty rate most authors enjoy, then the entire profit is spent on the refreshments and you have spent resources promoting it and then of course you are out the evening and whatever travel time. And while this cost-and-return approach has its merits, this is not why an author does these types of events. The intimacy of a small booksigning allows the author to meet readers. And the readers who attend booksignings are predisposed to talk about books. These are fans you want. The brand relationship between reader and author is significant. Courting them is worth the effort.

If you can seal the relationship with your voice and a shared experience within your fictitious world you have created (and a cookie helps), then there is a very good chance you have drawn that reader into your world and intrigued him or her enough to explore more. Maybe they will read one of your books (and hopefully it’s a signed, stickered keepsake, complete with leave-behind bookmark reminding them of the lovely evening you, famous author, hosted for them). Maybe they will leave a comment on your blog or enter a reader drawing on your site, or interact with you further in some other way your website offers.

Fan bases are built one reader at a time. Go out and meet them.

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WordCampSF 2010: State of the Word and SEO News

May 6, 2010

Earlier this month, Misono and I attended WordCampSF 2010 at the Mission Bay Conference Center on May 1st. It was incredibly informative, with lots of information for upcoming features for WordPress 3.0! (Very exciting for us WP nerds. 😉

First, What the Heck is WordCamp?
It’s an annual conference organized by our techie community in SF (though there are WordCamps all over the world), focusing on all things related to WordPress. There are great speakers, ranging from the original developers of WordPress to Google employees to eccentric social media advisers.

wordcamp-2010-matt-mullenweg2

Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of WordPress (Thanks to Eva Blue for this photo!)

The State of the Word with Matt Mullenweg
Matt Mullenweg is the founding developer of WordPress, and I absolutely LOVE hearing him speak! His presentation was so creative, drawing similarities between WordPress’ open source environment to jazz, where everyone works together to create one beautiful piece, and even plugin developers are the jazz “soloists.” He uses four adjectives to compare WordPress to jazz:

  • Improvised
  • Independent
  • Inclusive
  • Inspired

His presentation was very inspiring and helped me understand how WordPress IS a collaborative community with its open-source nature, with folks helping each other out. There’s a reason why WordPress’ documentation and forums are so incredibly helpful!

The juicy news: What are a few new features in WordPress 3.0?

  • WordPress Mu and WordPress will be merging! I believe there were a few features that weren’t available to WP Mu before, so this is pretty exciting! Many folks that use WP Mu are able to have separate blogs using one WP install—a lot of schools are beginning to do this with different blogs for each of their departments.
  • Droplist subnav menus can be created/managed thru the WP Dashboard!
  • There will be a new feature where you can upload an image as your “featured image” for your posts. This would be the main visual image used for your post.
  • A new default theme! Kubrick has been WP’s default theme for many years now, and we’ll miss it, but it was great to see the new default theme, Twenty Ten. You can check it out here too! Definitely more modern, more visual with its large graphic header, and much more customizable to fit a vast audience with different site needs.
  • "Twenty Ten" — the new default theme for WordPress 3.0

    "Twenty Ten" — the new default theme for WordPress 3.0

Want to read up on more features that will be coming with 3.0? Check out BloggingPro’s recap with additional highlights.

WordPress, Audience, Engagement, and SEO with Vanessa Fox
Vanessa previously created Google’s Webmaster Central, which provides both tools and community to help website owners improve their sites to gain more customers from search. She gave us an update on current SEO trends and what we should (and shouldn’t) care about for our site searchability.

Things you should keep in mind when managing your site’s SEO:

  • Search engines are now the primary method of navigating the web
  • Consider the difference between “search” and “browse”:
    • Search — entails you have a goal and task to achieve
    • Browse — implies that you don’t have a set goal, but freely scrolling through. The new method of browsing now is via social networking. Example: checking your Facebook feeds and Twitter lists in the morning
  • Titles: Be sure to title your pages/posts! This is the text that will appear in the search results. Ideally, make sure your title appears first before your site name. The reason why this works: when we scroll through search results page in a search engine, we scroll down the left side of the page to look for our key words. If those key words don’t appear on the left-most side of the search results, we usually skip and glaze right past results we think aren’t relevant.
  • Google will be phasing out tags and keywords—these will not be the main determinant for your SEO in the future. My thoughts: This makes sense. Tagging and adding in keywords has become too arbitrary, where anyone can add any words to their posts, even when the tag doesn’t relate to the content of the post. e.g. spammers
  • I’ve heard the same thing repeated at several tech conferences recently regarding SEO:
    • Write compelling content — it’s ALL in the content. This is the most important factor in getting people to come to your site.
    • Understand Your Audience — this means understanding the language of your visitors. For instance, if your site is about climate change, be sure to include related words like “global warming”. These are related words that people from your audience may use to search. You want to make sure you have these bases covered so they can find your post!
    • Community — link to resources and sites of fellow bloggers in your field while you blog and post. Everyone loves a linkback! It’s a great way to connect.

The Blog Doctor sums up Vanessa’s points in a handy list of 12 Quick, Easy Tips to Optimize Blogs / Websites for SEO if you’d like more info about Vanessa’s presentation.

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