For this Wildcard Tuesday I’ve invited webmaven extraordinaire Madeira “Maddee” James of Xuni.com to join us, and to explain a little of what she does, why, and what writers, especially those just beginning their careers, need to know about the importance of a stylish and informative web presence, and how to go about establishing one.
Maddee has created and manages the websites for an incredible list of clients, including some of the most prominent crime writers in the business—including several current Murderati (see below) and previous contributors Louise Ure, Ken Bruen, Cornelia Read, Brett Battles and Jonathan Hayes—not to mention Lee Child, Jan Burke, Barry Eisler, Jacqueline Winspear and a head-smacking host of others.
She’s also recently expanded into literary fiction, young adult, romance, and chick lit.
She’s a friend to authors everywhere, but especially us here at Murderati, so please welcome: Maddee James.
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David: What possessed you to get into the web design business?
Maddee: Well, first, first things first: Thanks so much for inviting me to Murderati. (Hi Gar! Hi Martyn/Tania! Hi J.T.! Hi Zoe! Hi Alex!)
Strangely enough, I was a geologist for many years — that’s what my degree is in – and that’s another whole story that has to do with my first roommate in college being a geology major, and her having the same name as I had at the time – and that’s another whole story about changing my name – sorry, what did you ask me?
The short answer is when I was a geologist, there came a time when earthquakes and mudslides gave California a break for a short while and we started running low on work. This was in the very early days of the internet when companies were just starting to have websites. So I suggested to my boss that I build a company website to fill my time… and I was hooked.
I am very happy to say, however, that my first attempt at web design can no longer be found on the internet.
David: Why did you decide to focus on writers — crime writers in particular? An evil plan? Happy accident? Buzzard luck?
Maddee: Another interesting story, actually. In 1998, in a strange twist of fate (yes that rhymed), I met a prolific crime writer at a dinner party, who had a question about geology, of all things. We started corresponding about whether it was possible to locate dead bodies underground using geophysical equipment, and that led to me offering to do a website for him, with all the huge amount of skill I had at the time. Not.
While it wasn’t a beautiful site, it was one of the very first author sites on the web, and as such, we got written up in PW about it. I put my quickly-thought-up company name at the bottom of his site… and started getting queries from other authors. And so it began.
While I started out doing sites primarily for crime writers, and they probably comprise the largest number of my clients, I pretty much do any kind of author site these days. I’ve been doing a lot of sites for YA authors recently, which I really enjoy. So it’s really fun that so many crime writers are getting into YA – merging my two design loves.
P.S. I’m going to start using the term “buzzard luck” – that is too cute!
David: Turning to your name, what in the world does xuni mean and how do you pronounce it?
Maddee: Doesn’t mean a thing, and it’s pronounced “zuni” like the Indian tribe. I’ve heard that it’s hard to get domain names with so few letters in them these days, but back then all I wanted was a name which was a four-letter word with either an x or a z in it…. and xuni happened to be available as a domain and sounded kind of cool. Incidentally, it’s apparently a pretty common name in China, so I get lots of offers to buy it… but I’ve been in business too long to give it up, even for a million dollars...
David: You have some excellent advice for authors relative to their websites on the FAQ page of the Xuni website. In particular, you note that though pre-published authors may want to build a website to show potential publishers they’re “serious,” it’s still the quality of the manuscript that sells a book. This is excellent advice, imho. How did you come to be so doggone smart about the book business, not just the website end of it?
Maddee: Thanks! I tried to make my FAQ page as clear and helpful as possible. I don’t know that I would call myself smart about the book business – for example I continue to be clueless about which imprint belongs to which publishing company (or does this change so much that most of us are clueless?), but I’ve been in this business a long time (14 years next month!) and of course time leads to experience. Plus I have a wide variety of clients, and I learn something from pretty much every one of them.
Speaking of pre-published authors, I had one query me just this week who wanted examples of other pre-published author sites. Which led me to realize I’ve done a LOT of them. I love to help authors new to the industry show their work in the most professional and creative light possible.
David: Your designs are visually stunning — clear, bold, interesting and personal—but you also have very keen intuition about your clients. You have an excellent sense of how an author’s site should not just look but feel. How do you do that? Do you come from a visual arts background? Do you read auras?
Maddee: Thank you! I really REALLY love what I do – and I think that shows in my work. I would say I am probably best known for two things: making an author site fit the author and their work… and a really good use of color. The way I usually manage to make the site reflect the author is by asking lots of questions upfront. Things like “what kind of “feel” do you want the site to have? I get answers like “elegant but eerie” and “romantic but scary” and interesting challenges like that. Making it happen is so much fun.
I’d also like to say at this point that though I was one of the first designers who worked specifically for authors, now, 14 years later, there are many author website designers out there. Google “author website design” and you’ll see what I mean. And the cool thing is that we all have pretty different styles, meaning authors have a lot of choices. I love that! You should definitely look at a ton of author sites to see what’s out there before you pick a designer. There’s more info about that on my FAQ page.
David: You believe in “branding” to the extent that you think writers should take some serious time to think about how they want to present themselves and their work to potential readers. This is another subtle, tricky issue — it deals with tone and personality and subject matter, almost like voice in prose.
Maddee: I do think branding is super important. And there are so many things that show that tone, personality and subject matter you mention – book covers, websites, bookmarks, social media pages, etc. I’m not a marketing person, so I stick to the design aspects of branding – websites, bookmarks, twitter backgrounds, etc. But I think talking through your image with someone experienced in author marketing before you do any design is really important.
A good example of this: I had an experienced author (I think he had written about 8 books) hire me to build a website. When I asked all my typical questions about “feel,” etc., he said he wanted the site to have a dark, serial killer type feel. Which I did. And he loved it. His agent and publisher, however, did NOT. They thought it branded him inappropriately as too much of a horror writer. And so we had to trash it. So figuring this out ahead of time is so, so important.
David: Has the proliferation of social network sites made having a website more important or less important?
Maddee: Well I’m a website designer, so of course my answer is going to be: Websites are more important than anything.
But really, I do believe a good website is important for one simple reason: there is permanence to it. I love social media, and think it’s really incredible for authors. But Facebook posts and tweets, once they spin off the bottom of your page, are GONE. Your website is the place where a reader can always go to find out whatever they want to know (what books you’ve written, what they’re about, where to buy them, etc.). Plus the website should have links to all your social media sites. I kind of think of your website as your “author hub.”
David: You do basic search engine optimization (SEO) with every site you build, and offer more specialized SEO for those clients who want it. Could you explain this a little, and let folks know why this is so doggone important and why you’re so unique for doing it for your clients?
Maddee: It’s pretty simple: having your site listed near the top of the search engines when various keywords are put in is invaluable. However, I’m of the opinion that authors have it easier than, say, companies trying to sell odd objects, or illustrators/photographers who want to stand out from the pack. Why? Because how many people really type “good crime writer” into Google? I tend to think that doesn’t happen as much as someone going to Amazon or Goodreads to search for that kind of info. So while I think SEO is important, I don’t know that it’s the end-all.
I could be totally wrong though. In which case, feel free to ignore me.
David: Which client is your favorite?
Maddee: Um ... You?
David: Which client do you want to stab in the eye?
Maddee: OMG. Definitely you.
Seriously: I have the most wonderful, talented clients ever. EVER. And I’ve loved working with you David – we’ve had a long haul!
I’ve had some clients for over a decade, and that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? And the joy of working for myself is that I can choose whom I want to work with. So I say “yes” to the author queries I really want and “I am just too busy right now” to the ones I don’t.
David: Any news you’d like to report on the perfect children front?
Maddee: Can I just say that I am madly in love with them, and not just ‘cause they have the grace to have put up with a mother who is umbilically (is that a word?) attached to her laptop 24/7. News: Savannah is in college – yes it’s true I am super OLD -- and Ry has two more years of high school and then I am… free. Except for the paying for college thing. And the continuing to give advice thing. And…
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So, Murderateros: Anything you’d like to ask the the Mighty Madeira, Webmaven Wunderkind?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I handed my bag of quarters over to Maddee, so thank her for this one (it's funny, and be sure to play it all the way through):