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This is an email interview with MaAnna Stephenson who has written a series of Just The FAQs books for authors on some of the more technical aspects of platform building. I am passionate about helping authors with these areas too, so I thought you might like to hear MaAnna's perspective. She is also a spiritual creative person, combining this with technical expertise – a combination of skills I also like to recognise!
Tell us a bit about you and your background
My father’s family were professional musicians. I was playing instruments as soon as I could sit up in someone’s lap and became a multi-instrumentalist and composer by the time I was a teenager. I pursued a degree in music and acoustics because I enjoyed learning about the physics of sound and later became involved in electronic music and sound engineering. I switched majors to electronics engineering, which is still my current day-job. Although I enjoyed playing on stage, I enjoyed composing more, and soon began writing jingles and documentary music that gained international airplay. I also became interested in programming code for sound modules, which turned me into a geek and lead to creating websites for non-profit organizations and small businesses. All of this required creating documentation, which helped me hone technical writing skills.
Why did you decide to write the Just the FAQs series? What need did you see in the author community?
I changed day jobs to a field service engineer, which kept me on the road quite a bit. I discontinued my website design business for a while and began intensive research for over four years on the material that eventually became The Sage Age – Blending Science with Intuitive Wisdom, which was published in September 2008 and featured in Publishers Weekly a few weeks later. During the research time, Web 2.0 was being developed and when I began creating an online presence for the book, I discovered that blogs, feeds, and social media were all the rage. I had a lot of catching up to do in learning about Web 2.0 and how to use it. I was appalled at the lack of good documentation about these topics and I wasted a lot of time trying to piece together what I needed to know to build multiple online outlets. As is my practice, I simply created documentation as I learned. While doing this, my editor asked questions about optimizing her blog and became very excited when I showed her the documentation. She encouraged me to publish it because most authors don’t have a technical background and are on a tight budget. I wrote the series to help folks dramatically reduce the learning curve of developing an online presence and to feel confident about what they were doing.
One of your books is on RSS feeds, and many people might not understand them. Can you explain what an RSS feed is, and why authors should be using them to read and to broadcast?
RSS feeds are one of the most powerful tools you can use to broadcast your blog posts. Today, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. There are two parts to it. The first is the feed itself. Think of it as a broadcast signal, like a radio station. The second part is the subscription. Think of it as a radio receiver. You set up your blog post to be broadcast through a feed service, like FeedBurner. Folks subscribe to your feed which they can receive in a variety of formats on a variety of devices, such as computers and phones. The feed service does all of the conversion.
The two most popular ways to receive a feed is either by email or in a reader, which is also called an aggregator. Google has the most popular reader. It allows you to easily follow posts on multiple blogs without actually having to visit each blog to see if a new post has been made. In other words, all of your subscriptions can be read from one site, which is your reader. Think of it as a virtual newspaper that delivers information from multiple sources directly to you to read in one place.
All major blogs have RSS feeds available and feeds and readers are becoming so popular that they are quickly replacing standard opt-in email lists. The reason behind this is enhanced security to prevent spam. The viewer only has to give their email address to the reader to establish an account and add as many subscriptions as they like instead of giving their email address to all of the newsletter owners.
Another powerful aspect of RSS feeds is that many news sites are always hungry for new information. They can subscribe to your blog post feed and have it automatically publish on their site. There are many blog directories where you can advertise your posts to be picked up by these syndication services and gain a much wider audience by having your posts published on multiple sites.
You have a book on websites and a separate one on blogs – should authors separate these or should the main website now be a blog itself?
The blogs book specifically documents the process of creating, customizing, and optimizing a blog with Blogger. One of the reasons I chose to start with this book is because there are millions of static websites already on the Internet. It’s a very simply process to feed posts from Blogger into that site without a complete site redesign. And, Blogger still has the most sites on it, although WordPress is quickly gaining ground on them. So, I wrote the blogs book to help folks make the most of sites they already have established and do so on a budget. It also helps folks new to blogging get started without spending much while they learn.
[From Joanna Penn: FYI. I recommend WordPress as a blog platform and this blog is run on WordPress].
WordPress type sites are the future of Web 2.0. They combine a blog with static pages containing more information. There are two types of WordPress sites. WordPress.com is a hosting service that offers WordPress templates. They are very easy to set up and use. However, they have several restrictions that only allow a limited number of plug-ins, also called widgets, gadgets, and add-ons, that are provided by them. In other words, if you see a cool third-party widget, you may not be able to add it to a WordPress.com site. And, you cannot monetize the site. On the other hand, WordPress.org allows you to download the generic site template and you host it anywhere you like. You can fully customize it, add all the third-party widgets you want, and monetize the site with anything you like. However, doing so requires coding skills in a language called PHP and designing Cascading Style Sheets. For this reason, it’s likely that most folks will need to hire a professional designer to establish a WordPress.org type site. They will also have to pay for hosting.
Here’s the best part. If you start with a free Blogger site, you can later move all of its content to a WordPress.org site rather easily. In fact, there’s a widget that automatically imports the information for you. The same is true if you start on a WordPress.com site, except that you may not be able to carry the same template with you.
The reason that I wrote a separate book on websites is to help educate folks on developing a site that actually works to sell their product, not just look pretty. It will also help them avoid expensive pitfalls with site design. The information is based directly on my experience as a designer working with folks who came to me needing help with overhauling their first site. They didn’t have a clue what they were getting into with the first one and, once they had been working online for a while, discovered they needed a complete site redesign. The book has three printable worksheets to help you coordinate all of the layout and content you will need. The information in the book is good no matter what type of site you want including a WordPress design or a static design, or a static design where you import your Blogger posts.
Is article marketing still valid now? How many articles do you need to submit in order to see tangible results?
Article marketing still helps drive traffic to your site, but it is evolving. Search engines do not take kindly to posting the same article on multiple sites. To get around this, many writers simply change a few paragraphs, but leave the bulk of the information intact. They also rewrite the articles to freshen up the information and publish it anew, which gives them more mileage from the initial work. However, readers who follow anyone for a length of time soon catch on to this trick and realize they are simply being fed a re-tread of the same information.
Another change to article marketing is adding videos. Several new article directories are allowing videos to be embedded in the article, which usually contains minimal text. The soaring popularity of sites like YouTube has created an explosion of resources to create videos inexpensively, so more folks are jumping on that bandwagon. As they do, the viewers are finding videos preferable to reading an article. I have many articles on The Sage Age site and intend to make all of them into videos as well as a video series of my last lecture.
How technical do authors have to be these days? Should people be embracing the technology themselves, or outsourcing it?
Sites like Blogger and WordPress.com are making it easier for authors to develop and update their own sites with very little technical knowledge. If you want to add widgets, or if you want to post on other social media sites, you’ll likely benefit from knowing a little bit about HTML, which is the most basic programming language and a little geek-speak associated with site design, like meta tags, SEO, and anchor tags. I advise authors to seek professional design help of some type, whether it be a book or a geek, to help them initially establish their web presence. However, it is too costly for authors to outsource routine updates and minor changes. Spending a little bit of time learning about the technical aspects will greatly benefit the author in the long run. I’m teaching classes this summer on blogs and RSS feeds, based on the books, to guide folks step-by-step through the process with additional support. The class also teaches some advanced skills that are not covered in the books and will help folks learn to work with the code they will encounter using any type of blog. The point of the books and the class is to educate folks in plain language using easy-to-do steps that build up their knowledge so that they really know what they are doing and feel confident to take on the task of being a site owner. In the end, they have a site that meets their needs and that they can manage themselves.
You are also a woodcarver and spiritual person. How do you synthesise creativity with practicality in your work?
Several years ago I took up woodcarving as a hobby at about the same time I tried my hand at writing a short story. I had never considered writing before, I just became inspired by a scene and that turned into a whole story. I discovered that I wrote stories the same way I wrote music, which are both additive art. Interestingly enough, I was surprised that carving, which is a subtractive art, taught me how to be an efficient writer. I remove everything that is not the art.
About a year later, in 2003, I had a soul memory that was spiritually transformative and part of a path that I had been on for over ten years. Soon, a full novella poured out of me in three weeks. It has not been published because I intend to develop it into a script. Later that year, I was initiated as a shamanka (feminine for shaman), and began the research for The Sage Age. Shortly after it was published, a column writer for Fox Chapel Publishing contacted me about my carvings. I had them displayed on a website so friends and family across the country could see them. I had never really done any advertising for them and they were selling as fast as I could create them just from word of mouth. That’s the same way I had run my web design business. I had all the work I could take just from word of mouth. The carvings have now been featured in both Woodcarving Illustrated and in Scrollsaw Woodcarving & Crafts. I’ve also been asked to do a full-featured spread in both magazines next year followed by a book on the technique.
I was in the music business for several years and had my fair share of successes and rejections. Playing on stage also helped me separate my personal and professional life and to regard what I created as a product that some folks will like and others won’t. I just do what I do and then give it feet and let it make its own way in the world. Some projects work better than others. What holds my attention is creativity. I’ve always got at least four different projects going. The vibe from one tends to feed the others and helps me look at them from different angles. And, no, I don’t have ADD. In fact, most of my work requires rather intense focus over long periods. Being an author, I’ve found that I can combine all of my skills to create things that help folks in some way. It’s a delightful way to be and do. With the marketing, I’ve decided not to use guerrilla marketing techniques, including squeeze pages and constant hype of material that is more fluff than substance. I just don’t vibe with that. It’s one of the reasons that I titled this series Just the FAQs. I want to help folks get to where they want to go with the least amount of time and money, and make it a happy experience.
Before The Sage Age was published, I truly dreaded the idea of marketing it. I’m delighted with the changes Web 2.0 has created and now an author doesn’t have to sell folks on a product. It’s about sharing your passion with others, and that’s contagious. Web 2.0 has created a two-way conversation that static sites lacked. I’m thrilled to have met so many great folks along this journey. I’ve also found marketing to be another highly creative outlet and I’m still learning and having fun with it.
How can people find out more about you and your books?
At the moment, you’ll find my blog posts incorporated into my static sites and I’ll likely be making a WordPress type site of them in the future. You can find detailed information about Just the FAQs books and classes at the main site http://www.JustTheFAQsblog.blogspot.ca. And you can sign up for the blog RSS feeds at http://JustTheFAQsBlog.blogspot.com Follow me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JustTheFAQs
You can also follow me on FaceBook, where I post about all of these endeavours at http://www.facebook.com/maannastephenson