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Building Better Websites: Tips from a Through-and-Through Book Person

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As you’ve probably noticed, the recently transformed IBPA Website is sleek and clean and gives IBPA a new level of online sophistication—but there’s much more to it than aesthetics. Interestingly, the person responsible for giving the site 21st-century functionality got her start with books about 18th- and 19th-century art, furniture, and housewares, and she considers herself “a book person through and through.”

Davida Breier, the IBPA board member who took on the years-long revision of IBPA’s online presence, spent many hours of her childhood at antique markets with her mother, who traveled the Eastern seaboard, selling books about antiques and art. By the time Breier was in college she was helping select stock for the business. That led to a degree in fine arts, and to self-publishing ’zines (something she still does; see leekinginc.com).

Her first publishing paychecks came from a Baltimore nonprofit press where she says she did “a little of everything.” That may be an understatement. Besides reworking the company’s Website, she helped write one of its titles, Vegan and Vegetarian FAQ; made the BEA appearance to promote the book; and fielded media queries from the likes of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Breier says she “really learned the business of publishing” in the five years she spent at Biblio, a Maryland distributor for small presses, where she “worked with fantastic people, including three former IBPA board members.” Next stop on the career ladder: National Book Network, where she started in 2007, managed five imprints totaling more than 600 active titles, worked with more than 30 publishers, and most important for her Website challenge, ran NBN Fusion, a digital initiative that involved working with vendors (e.g., Amazon, Apple, Sony), social media, and e-books conversion services, all the while dealing with rapidly changing technology. Breier joined Johns Hopkins University Press in 2010 to manage its distribution division, Hopkins Fulfillment Services, a $30 million business that handles order processing, collection management, warehousing, and fulfillment for 13 university presses.

To Simplify and Clarify

For those of us who built our Websites piecemeal and then were overwhelmed by the prospect of revising them, Breier offers a comparison that makes the updating process easier to understand.

“The analogy we used all along was that the IBPA site was like a house,” she reiterates. “The old house had all kinds of additions that weren’t really up to code and rooms that no one used. So, as with most physical moves, some items moved to the new house, some were taken to the dump, and new items were bought or created.”

One goal: to reduce the number of pages and thus simplify navigation.

“A big change was making it clear right away what IBPA is,” Breier explains, “and we did that by putting the mission statement right on the home page. We changed the hierarchy so that pages that were accessed frequently—the ‘join now’ page and the marketing programs—are clearly linked on the home page.”

Another goal was to show that membership is diverse and that IBPA has something for everyone from the novice author-publisher to the established midsize publisher. “You can see how we segment the benefits at ibpa-online.org/benefits,” Breier notes. “The old benefits section had at least two pages per benefit, so about 100 pages. We reorganized the benefits by member type (six pages total) and created a handbook about all of them. I wanted new members to have all that information in one place.”

Text for the new site was written by Breier with Terry Nathan, Florrie Binford Kichler, and Lisa Krebs.

Mistakes Not to Make

Breier has lots of advice about evaluating and improving Websites. When I asked about the most common mistakes she sees, she responded quickly with a list:

  • no apparent point (what’s the site’s purpose?)
  • poor navigation (it’s difficult for visitors to find what they need)
  • hard-to-read fonts
  • horrible color choices

Identifying the purpose of a Website is like outlining what you want an ad or flyer to accomplish. As Breier says, “The basics of who, what, when, where, and why apply to Websites. If publishers are looking to sell books online, that needs to be front and center.”

Tell the viewer what the book is about; show what it looks like; explain why it should be purchased; and tell how and where to make the purchase, she adds. Creating interaction with the viewer is also important: “Include a call to action—whether signing up for a newsletter, joining a LinkedIn group, following on Twitter, or becoming a Facebook fan.”

Making the Website “discoverable” is something that novice Website makers often forget about, but that’s most crucial, Brier notes.

Other recommendations pertain to graphic design.

  • Make each page no wider than the width common browsers can accommodate, so that viewers don’t have to scroll from left to right to see all the content.
  • Avoid flashing images and type.
  • Use fonts common to most browsers. For IBPA we used Trebuchet and another sans serif typeface, Breier reports. “Much as in the real world, you want highly readable body copy fonts for pages with a lot of text. Verdana, Georgia, and Arial are all good choices,” she says.
  • Limit the number of fonts; you don’t want “font salad.”
  • Limit the amount of text set as a reverse (e.g., white type on a dark background): “Too much reversed-out text fatigues the eye.”
  • Use font sizes that are easy to read, especially with reverses.
  • Avoid color combinations that make reading difficult. Breier particularly dislikes red type on a blue background.

As more and more browsing is done on tablets and handhelds, other recommendations are also important.

“Websites need to be scaleable,” Breier points out. “They should be readable on a 23-inch monitor and on a 3-inch phone.” If a site is “designed with a static width or is cluttered with information, it isn’t going to reduce easily. Simple text and simple, small images will help.”

Emphasizing one of her greatest concerns about any Website, she warns against using links that are too small or hidden. “Make sure the mobile user can navigate easily,” she says.

And how can a publisher do that—and everything else that Breier recommends—with limited time, money, and tech savvy? Check out the many online tools, she suggests. One example: WordPress, which provides what she calls “seemingly endless” options and tutorials for using templates and plug-ins to customize a site (start at wordpress.com).

Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle.

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