Books and authors these days need websites. That's the conventional wisdom, and children's book publishers have certainly embraced it. So Rebecca and I set out to figure out what our website needed. We brought on board David Lanni, who had created a website for Rebecca in a previous catalog business.
The three of us, along with family members, explored websites that we thought were attractive, exciting, or inviting, like the websites for the Percy Jackson books or the Mysterious Benedict Society books. We brainstormed colors and features, and Dave began to sketch out some possibilities.
At this point, we decided to include a focus group of kids. Damian nominated schoolmates in grades 4-7 who he thought would like the book (we later added a couple of brilliant third graders). We gave them bound copies of the manuscript and arranged for them to meet in two groups, younger and older, one Saturday. We provided cookies and thanked them with gift certificates to Barnes and Noble. In order to free them to be frank, I did not attend the meetings. Rebecca led them with a psychologist friend, and Rebecca's daughter Meredith took notes.
The nicest thing was that the kids were all enthusiastic about the book. We asked about color schemes for the web, their favorite characters, what they like to see on a website, and whether they would participate in contests. The answers: they didn't like our colors; the young ones liked Emily best, while the older ones identified with Daphne or Ivan; they like games on a website (and cookie recipes); and they would never, never identify themselves by writing in to a site, which meant no contests. (This latter made me appreciate the internet safety training they're getting at school.)
Armed with our new knowledge, we went back to the drawing board. I looked for ways to get games on the website, but soon convinced myself that anything but the lamest games were going to be prohibitively expensive. I got estimates of $25,000 for a simple active game. On the other hand, there were foreign game programmers willing to make ridiculously cheap bids online, but I had no idea what they would actually create. Then Rebecca found Scott Hamlin of Games in a Flash, who had a menu of simple games that could be adapted to any business or website. Scott was affordable and accommodating, but terribly overcommitted. I worked with him to get a series of games that were perfectly adapted to Lexicon. I'm proudest of "Rival Flowers," where I thought of the more-than-two compartment stages and Scott developed them.
For the website, we drew on artwork from the book, but we also commissioned Joan Charles to create new artwork, whether it was coloring existing illustrations or drawing new ones. We added features as we could, and when the programming got too complex for David (who has a day job), we asked Nectar Creative Group to take over the website.
We also looked into search engine optimization, brainstorming a list of keywords (search words that we'd like to lead people to our website) and hiring a specialist to create "hidden" pages that used those words in a way that would attract search engine "spiders" that crawl the web for content. This piece remains a bit mysterious to me: I ought to be able to continue it myself, but my techie knowledge doesn't extend to working on hidden pages.
I learned a few things about creating a dynamic website. It takes a lot longer than you think it's going to. There are always complications. Any shortcuts you take in the programming will limit what you can change later. (And change is key: new content is what keeps those spiders coming, and noticing, and making your website show up on the first page of Google searches.) Websites need copy editing as much as other text does.
Still, creating the website, making it fun and engaging, has been a blast. There's always more I could add, so it's always there as an outlet for more ideas. Has it paid off? I've sold a couple of hundred books through the website, but it's also brought in interest from readers who have bought on Amazon, and it's been a great reference point when I'm trying to convince bookstores or schools that I have something to offer. It has helped create that all-important entity, a platform that shows I have an audience and know what I'm doing.