Blue lights and sirens – unhacking WordPress

We’ve helped two clients deal with hacked WordPress sites this week. We won’t say who they were, but they both had fairly nasty infections which meant that when visitors accessed their sites, new browser tabs would open with spammy content. In one instance, the content in question included an audio element and a persistent pop-up that was tricky to close without completely closing the browser. These were not sites we built or hosted, so it was interesting to see what the issues were and I thought it would be good to share.

The sites had some risk factors in common:

  • The use of off-the-shelf WordPress themes which had not been updated
  • Out-of-date plugins
  • Weak admin passwords
  • No firewall installed
  • No additional ‘hardening’ measures in place

WordPress is great, and now generates strong passwords by default (it didn’t used to); but failing to keep things updated (especially the WordPress core and themes) is asking for trouble – and the longer updates are left, the greater the risk. That’s why we harden every WordPress website we build, and handle maintenance for most of our clients, to keep things up-to-date and minimise risk.

In the case of these two hacked sites we managed to get them both repaired and hardened in less than an hour each, so if you know what to look for, a hacked WordPress site doesn’t have to be a big deal.

This repair service is available to everyone via our dedicated WordPress rescue service WPRescue.

Image credit: Life belt

What makes a good literary agency website?

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We’ve recently completed several projects for literary agencies and we thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the anatomy of an effective agency website.

From experience, we think that most agents’ sites will need the following core elements:

  1. An introduction to the agency and its specialisms
  2. Information about the agents themselves, along with their supporting team
  3. A list of their clients, with a certain amount of information about their work (from book covers through to more detailed publication information)
  4. Clear and detailed information about how to submit, perhaps with a form to facilitate the process

Let’s look at those four things in a bit more detail.

1. Introducing the agency

The key thing here is to convey the personality and values of the agency, including its specialisms and passions, as well as its track record and key successes. It’s important for the team to think about what makes the agency special and really try and get that across with good, punchy copy. We will then work with the client to reflect the brand values and character of the agency through the site’s design.

2. Information about the agents

In a multi-agent setup, different agents are often focusing on building their own lists and representing different types of clients. So it’s important that each agent has their own profile, which clearly signals the kind of submissions they are looking for.

We built the MBA site so that each agent could quickly update their ‘Currently focused on’ information; this will probably change more often than their main profile. For example, Sophie Gorrell Barnes is currently focused on “Middle Grade Humour and Authentic Characters”.

Having a professionally shot set of headshots will be an excellent investment for this section. Agenting is a ‘people’ business and it will help people to know what you look like (on a practical level it may be very useful if contact through the site leads to a face-to-face meeting later). Felicity Bryan had a new set of photos taken as part of the redesign we undertook for them, and they really look smart. Of course, when the team changes it will be important to ensure that the same style is followed for new team members.

Both MBA and Felicity Bryan like to list each agents’ clients on that agents’ own page. We built these sites so that when a client is added, there is a field allowing their agent to be selected. This streamlines data entry and means that the agent pages update automatically to reflect the client database.

3. Client listings

For established agencies it’s the client list which represents the agency’s focus and work, so we think this should be as engaging and visual as possible. Although the use of client photos does make work for the agency, as clients will often need to be contacted to obtain up-to-date images, it’s far more impactful and engaging than a simple list of names.

Most sites choose to organise clients alphabetically, which is no surprise, but it’s also possible to filter them in other ways – for example, MBA allows the filtering of clients to show only Authors, Scriptwriters or Playwrights.

How much detail each agency wants to include about their clients can vary. For example, adding website and social media links takes effort to collate and maintain, but it’s very helpful for site users (and it’s great to have lots of outgoing links from a search engine perspective as well).

We tend to build sites so that books (or other works) are added independently and then associated with clients. This makes it possible to associate a book with multiple authors, and to do other clever things – for example, on the Susanna Lea Associates site, a different cover can be uploaded depending on whether the book is shown on the Paris, London or New York office page. This means that the Paris page shows the French edition, the New York page shows the US edition, and so on.

4. Submissions

There are essentially two approaches here:

  • Form-based submissions have a number of advantages. The minimum information that is associated with a submission can be defined (by making some fields compulsory). This reduces the risk of incomplete or inappropriate submissions. In addition, the submission can be sent from the site via e-mail, while the information is also stored on the website as a backup, reducing the risk of losing e-mailed submissions. The other advantage is that the site can automatically generate a confirmation that the submission has been sent, and explain to the potential client what happens next. Felicity Bryan Associates use form-based submission.
  • On the other hand, free-form submissions may feel less daunting to some potential clients; if this route is adopted, the website is the place to spell out, in detail, the agency’s submission criteria for either electronic or physical submissions. Susanna Lea Associates use the free-form submissions approach.

In addition to these four core elements, the site needs the flexibility to accommodate the other content needs of agencies, which could include:

  • Rights lists
  • News (from the agency or its clients)
  • A blog
  • Social media feeds
  • Contact details
  • Recruitment

Bookswarm use the WordPress Content Management System (CMS) to develop website, and this makes it easy to manage this content, and to allow the site to evolve as the agency’s business develops.

Take a look at our work for literary agencies using the gallery below, and if you think we can help you apply these lessons to your own website, please get in touch.

Ten Years, Ten Things

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It’s been ten years since I started Bookswarm. In that time, we have designed and built a lot of websites. We have made a lot of mistakes. And we have learned a lot of lessons.

I sat down to reflect on all of our experiences, and to try and and identify some of the key lessons. So, behold, the result, which I have modestly chosen to call… Appleby’s Laws!

Law 1: It’s hard to create good content

The creation and uploading of content to a website is the one part of a project which is generally not our responsibility. That keeps project costs down for clients, and ensures that when we go live, clients have the skills they need to maintain their sites. However, lots of projects are still delayed or derailed by content. Late content. Insufficient content. Incorrectly formatted content.  Sometimes, simply bad content.

Whenever you think you need to start working on your content, it’s probably not soon enough! If you work on at least some of it BEFORE you brief your web designers, you will get a far better outcome to your project.

Law 2: Digital skills should not be taken for granted

There was a time when I naively expected that newer members of the workforce would arrive with a stronger set of digital skills, based on being digital natives and having been exposed to the wonders of the Internet their entire lives. I was wrong. Very wrong. While digital natives might be savvy with social media, and have highly developed thumb muscles, they are no more digitally skilled than previous generations. If anything, they take the technology for granted to a greater degree, and are less well equipped to roll up their sleeves when something goes wrong.

Skills like basic HTML, image editing and data management are still worth learning. An understanding of the fundamentals of how domain names work, what a digital certificate is and how to clear your browser cache is bound to come in handy at some point. And if you don’t know something, the mechanism to learn about that thing is right in front of your eyes (in other words, Just Google It!).

Law 3: Design is not a substitute for content

We can make a lovely-looking website, but if the content is sparse, badly written, badly edited or just doesn’t get updated often enough, the site is much less likely to achieve its objectives.

Having a realistic expectation of the amount of content that will be added once a project is launched will allow us to offer a much more effective design solution; if you tell us you will blog every week, and then don’t blog for six months, we will probably have designed the wrong interface for your needs, and your users will notice!

Law 4: Trying to create an online community will probably fail

Many times over the years we have been asked about adding forums to websites, or heard the dreaded phrase ‘online community’. Unless you have identified an interest group that is genuinely not being well served by existing online community platforms, the chances are the community you want to engage with will stay where they are, thank you very much.

If you do think you have identified a community that is not being well served online, make doubly sure that they really exist.

Law 5: “Build it and they will come” was never true

The notion that a website could organically establish itself and build an audience without marketing and publicity support was always tenuous, even in the early days of the Internet when the number of sites was exponentially lower and social media didn’t exist. Now, it’s naive in the extreme. Websites require support from a range of offline and online activities in order to establish themselves – PPC advertising, social media, online PR, and good old-fashioned things like putting the website address on printed materials. Websites will fail if unsupported, and your hard work (and ours) will have been wasted.

Law 6: People like free stuff

Competitions and other ways of giving out freebies are still an effective way to engage users and harvest user data (with appropriate consent, of course!). However, it will be a very superficial level of engagement, and many of the people who you attract will be serial competition enterers who have no interest in your brand or your product. If you haven’t explored this world, having a quick look around some of their online communities (where people share links to competitions and give each other the answers) is a real eye-opener. To some of these people, books are just another commodity they can win and then sell on eBay.

Law 7: The basics of e-commerce are easy, but the devil is in the detail

We can get a web-based shop up and running in no time. The basics are easy and the platforms for doing this are much simpler and more accessible than they used to be.

However, issues around shipping, payments, accounting, tax and fulfilment can throw a spanner in the works, and really do need thinking about early on in the project. We can help you with a lot of things but we can’t tell you how much to charge for shipping to Outer Mongolia.

Law 8: Social media is not for everyone

Social media is an inescapable part of the modern digital landscape – but too many clients persist in using social media platforms that don’t suit them. For example, I myself am rubbish at the Twitter #honestyisthebestpolicy.

No social media is better than the wrong social media.

Law 9: Everything is measurable, nothing is measurable

Everything about digital can be measured. Website traffic. E-mail opens and clicks. Retweets. Favourites. Shares. Views. It is possible to gain a good understanding of what is working and what is not working. Website owners have an almost unprecedented opportunity to analyse the reach and impact of what they are doing. Look at what types of content are most popular. Look at the best times of day to send e-mail updates. Become a data nerd.

However… these metrics can’t tell you everything about the impact of your website. They can’t tell you about the influence on potential readers when they’re browsing in a bookshop, or the warm fuzzy feelings your blog posts might give them. Don’t become too much of a data nerd!

Law 10: The end is the beginning

I have lost count of how many times I have said this to clients. The launch of a website may be the end of the website project, but it’s only the beginning of that website’s life. A website needs to evolve and develop; content which is failing to perform should be removed or changed, and strands that people respond well to should be reinforced. Make sure updates are a regular occurrence, work with your web agency to add new features and fine-tune existing features – and don’t let your website gather dust.

Disagree with Appleby’s Laws? Tell him in the comments… or sign up to our mailing list for more insights and updates.

One week until London Book Fair!

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For those in the publishing world it’s that time of year again – all the fun of London Book Fair awaits at Olympia (and the sore feet and sore throat that the hardened book fair visitor knows only too well!).

Bookswarm will once again be on the IPAC stand – 4B30 – we still have some availability on the Tuesday and the Wednesday if you would like to say hello. Alternatively, we will be attending Byte The Book’s Reciprocity Circle of Publishing Goodness event, so you can catch us there:

Tuesday, April 10, 2018
17:00 – 18:00, in the Buzz Theatre

Justine Solomons founded the Byte the Book club on the premise of helping members and attendees of their events make valuable connections in the publishing world. Join her and the Byte the Book team as they set up a reciprocity circle live at London Book Fair and you’ll have the opportunity to get help and help others at the fair. This will be a vital and enjoyable session for writers, publishers, agents, digital folk and all those looking to improve their network in the publishing industry. The facilitated session will be followed by more lubricated networking (drinks) in the Buzz Theatre.

Whether we see you or not, if you’re there, have a good fair!

Breakfast Byte The Book – How Can I Make My Publishing Business GDPR Compliant?

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Continuing our current obsession with all things GDPR, Simon will be sharing some know-how at a Byte The Book breakfast event in May. Here are all the details…

This is the first in a series of informal breakfasts run by Byte the Book at The Groucho Club for all those connected to or interested in the publishing industry.

You’ll have the opportunity to hear from industry experts about a specific topic and gain practical advice for your business. There will also be time to network with the speakers and the audience before and after the talk.

The subject of this first breakfast in the series is GDPR.

GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulation and comes into force on 25th May 2018.

It will have significant impact on any businesses that hold personal data which means:

  • Enhanced personal privacy – more rights for your customer or visitor.
  • Organisations will have to have more defined processes in place for dealing with data.
  • You must be more transparent as to why and how you use personal data.
  • All staff need to be up to speed on the new regulations.
  • Financial penalties can be imposed for breaches.

We’ll be joined by Alex Hardy (Lawyer at Harbottle and Lewis) who will talk through the legal ramifications for your business and Simon Appleby (Director of Bookswarm) who will explain what steps you or your technical team need to make in order to be compliant.

A light breakfast is included in the ticket price.

Tickets are £25 for Groucho and Byte the Book members and £35 for everyone else. All tickets can be booked via Eventbrite. Prices do not include booking fees or VAT.

Book now

Check out our partners

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[insert obligatory handshake picture here]

At Bookswarm we’re big believers in partnership and karma – so we thought it was time we had somewhere on our website that listed the wonderful friends and partners we have worked with over the years. They all do things that we don’t do, and they do them very well indeed!

View our partners

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