In a classic mistake which puts the writer before the reader Taiye Selasi forgets to use the web to gain anything.


I have become used to discovering new gems in the Google+ news stream. Things may change when the network comes out of Beta and the world and his wife come flooding in, but for now, I am enjoying the ‘elitist’ nature of the medium (it’s a little like Google gave it some deep thought and came up with a network just for techies, journalists and writers) and what it gives me.

Author Taiye Selasi has made some pretty basic mistakes in her website design. 

This morning I was not disappointed with Lee McCoy posts sharing his eclectic taste with the rest of us through a posting on his blog featuring ‘exciting debut writer’ Taiye Selasi. Selasi’s fiction is a novella running to 33-pages on Granta, written in second person and titled The Sex Lives of African Girls.

I must admit that I do not often read short fiction these days. It lends itself too much to artifice and the medium always tries to be ‘clever’ precisely because it does not have the luxury of building up atmosphere and characters too much. So, I tend to find it too technical in the way it is approached (and I can see the workings of it) or insufficiently involving (it always has to start with a hook and end with a twist) to maintain my attention. I know plenty of people who like it though and writers working in short fiction really have to work hard precisely because the margin for error is so narrow so I do have a lot of respect for those who do it.

In usually tend to peruse short fiction just in case something clicks and I always make a point of noting the writers because they are usually the ones worth noting, the names likely to appear on the The Times best-seller list in the near future. So I skimmed over the excerpt of Selasi’s story and clicked on her picture to go to her website. And there I was disappointed.

I mean, here I am, a potential future reader, which means a fan. Someone who may want to hunt out her other writings - it says on the brief bio on the left hand side of her site that she writes books (and has indeed got her first one coming out by Penguin) and I was eager to find out a little bit about her. The site, unfortunately, consists of  three panes, the author’s name and a four line bio on the left with a half picture of what might be the author age six, and two unrelated pictures on the other two panes. That’s it.

There is no bio, no extensive bibliography, no thoughts, no ‘about me’ page, nothing which in short I could not have found out from Selasi’s business card, though judging by the way the site has been set out I am willing to bet she does not have one. The site may change (I hope it does) so I have included a shot of it above.

There are three links in the bio leading to external sites mentioning her two short stories and the Penguin book deal. There is an email contact form at the left hand side bottom line marked by an envelope (sic) just before the copyright line. Minimalist to the extreme and probably full of some derivative meaning for the writer the site fails on many counts.

First there is no search engine optimisation (SEO) of any kind on the page (I checked the source code). You could argue she does not need it, after all, I found it and a Google search for her name does bring it up since her name is in the URL, but anyone looking for her work (she is also a photographer apparently) is not really going to come across her unless he knows her name. Google search, incidentally does bring up Pixelmack who designed it (so they do use SEO) and reading the description of how they went about it verified my first impression about what the writer wanted.

Second there is no easy way to connect with her. If I were a potential stalker I would get really frustrated and start trawling the web for more information just to prove a point. I am, unfortunately, a potential reader and she has just turned me off by giving me nothing but a bland pic to stare at and no information to know who she is and remember her by.

Third there is no social media of any kind. No Twitter (!), no Facebook (?), no Google+ (!?), no RSS feed, no subscribe newsletter, nothing in fact that would help me keep tabs on her writing. If I now want to find out what Selasi does next I have to either spend valuable time and energy (I have scant resources of both already) to try and keep tabs on her or hope I get lucky enough and come across another Google+ posting. There is a chance I might do that but right now however I am just simply annoyed.

Fourth she has, by stint, of closing the door in my face (the central pane of the site is actually a closed door tied to a string – I thought it might cleverly open up into the site itself if I could find the hidden button but alas, that’s all it is), managed to turn me off and show me that she really could not care less if I wanted to find out anything more about her or her work.

Writers Need the Web

Writing is a profession that’s way too hard already without writers contributing to making it harder. Writers struggle against loneliness, the realisation of their own vision and a market that’s crowded with books and filled with potential readers who have little time to read. Handled correctly a website should be an opportunity to enter a private space where a ‘conversation’ takes place between the writer and the reader.

In that exchange both should feel enriched and energised and able to understand each other better. When this does not happen the writer does a disservice to the reader and the reader, quite rightly, might get pissed off and never look at anything the writer has to offer ever again. In both cases each party loses something. The writer, obviously a reader and a potential sale. Writers need readers to exist and they need sales to make a living and keep on writing. The reader loses the chance to find out the magic that a writer offers in their work. Whether it is fiction or the latest non-fiction book, there is always a flow of information, an exchange of ideas and a chance to create something new from the crucible where two minds meet.

The web is the perfect medium for a writer looking to connect with new readers (and keep old ones). I would have liked to have written ‘use it wisely’ but there is no wisdom necessary in using the web, just plain common sense and the need to create mutual respect between you (as the website publisher) and the online visitor.

Address that like you would on a face-to-face basis and you are onto a winner and…yeah, before I forget, On-Page Optimization is hugely important for everyone on the web.

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