Four must-have tech goodies for Book Bloggers #IndieMonth2017 #giveaway #BookBloggers
In #IndieMonth2017 Week 3, we talked about Book Blogging—why it may be right for you, and how to get started. To kick off Week 4 (Tech week!), we’ll look at a few MUST-HAVE resources to round out your site.
Themes and plugins set the tone for your site, and original graphics bring focus to the areas you want to highlight. The options for themes, plugins, and graphics programs & apps are endless, and searching through them can be a real headache. I’ll point out a few excellent resources to get you started. Note-taking is also a must (for me, anyway!) when putting together book reviews, and social media planners help you streamline your promotional efforts. More below!
Read on to learn how to give your site POP & WOW!
Suit up your site
This section will focus on WordPress-specific themes and plugins. If you don’t use WP self-hosted, skip on down to the Graphics Magic Made Easy section below.
There are TONS of WP themes out there, and you should choose with extreme care. If you are going to be doing anything custom at all, be sure your theme author provides tech support in a timely manner! You don’t realize just how important this is until you’re mid-tweak and suddenly your entire admin console is down, and you find out your license for support has expired or the normal turn-around for a ticket is 14 days. Seriously. Awful. One of the theme designers I’ve come to respect a lot is Ashley from Nosegraze.
Ashley started out as a book blogger and grew her reading hobby and passion for coding into a full-fledged personal business. Because she designs themes from a book blogger perspective, and her tech support is top notch, I recommend her WP themes for anyone just getting started who wants a clean, modern, feminine blog that emphasizes the books. Click here to view her catalogue of available themes (one of them is even free).
Ashley also offers courses in theme customization. I’ve taken two of them, and they are no-nonsense, easy-to-understand guided activities and insights into two areas area of tech that can get real confusing real fast: CSS (what makes your site look like the way it does) and PHP (what WP runs on). The intermediate-level course, Master Customizer, is what gave me the confidence to finally get this new GraveTells theme revamp up after three years of futzing around in the dark.
Additional WP theme resources
- Your WordPress dashboard has plenty of featured themes you can use at zero-to-little cost, and they are regularly updated. Find these themes in your admin console under Appearance->Themes. Some are free, some are not. Take a look and see if anything catches your eye. =)
- ThemeForest.net has a stellar selection of themes categorized by audience and type. ALL of my GraveTells and DaVinciKittie.com themes have come from ThemeForest. The things to beware with this site are the price of the theme (they can get expensive) and the duration of the tech support. If you don’t plan to start using your new theme right away, consider waiting to purchase. Most themes here come with a limited six-month support period, and you’ll have to buy an extension (sometimes for half the cost of the theme…or more!) if you have a question or problem after that.
I can (and have) spent HOURS UPON HOURS browsing through WP plugins. There are some nifty and flashy ones out there, and there are also some simple, yet necessary ones. I won’t go into every plugin you’ll ever need here (look for a future post on #BookBlogging101), but one in particular stands out for review bloggers:
Ultimate Book Blogger by Nosegraze
Like many things worth investing in, UBB is not free. But it is actively supported and updated. And Ashley even walks you through how to do some customizations on it if you want more than the default setup.
Why do I love UBB?
If you’re a book blogger just starting out, or someone who doesn’t need a complicated (or theme-embedded) review system (like my fancy 10-point review system with sub-ratings), this plug-in basically does all the back-end work for you and gives you lots of options for cataloguing and presenting your book review information. The plug-in also comes with additional widgets you can use to display your reviews in your sidebar. Check out this page for an example of what you can do with it right out of the box. You can find additional add-on plug-ins here.
I use a general template for each review, and I got really tired of having to type and link things in all the time. So I customized UBB to include the template text and allow me to quickly add in links. Here’s an example of how UBB can be customized to add in extra functionality (I tweaked the pink highlighted area):
Graphics magic made easy
I’m usually an Adobe Photoshop girl. I’d rate myself as a better-than-average user, right in that range where I tend to chase tutorials for hours to do something unnecessarily complicated. Photoshop is great for working from a pre-established vision, but it doesn’t really help you out with creativity. I’m good at making existing things better (yay, editing!), but starting from a blank slate shuts me right down. So coming up with all the lovely graphics you’ve seen on this event and over at DaVincikittie.com? PANIC!!
Until a friend—with a truly bewildered sort of honesty—asked, “Why not just use WordSwag?” And my obsession was born.
Here’s a nifty little video about what you can do with WordSwag (Note: The video’s end screen says it’s for iOS. You can use it on Android too!):
If you haven’t been following all the #IndieMonth2017 event articles, here are a few of the images I’ve created using WordSwag:
Now, this app isn’t free, but at $3.99 (Android)* it’s not gonna break the bank either. I’ve gotten more use out of WordSwag than Photoshop over the past month, and I pay WAY more for PS. (*The iOS version is $4.99…no idea why it costs more)
Worried about usage restrictions and image licensing?
Don’t be! The in-app image search is powered by PixaBay, and their website assures us that what you see is free-use and royalty-free, even for commercial purposes. From Pixabay’s website:
Free images and videos you can use anywhere
All images and videos on Pixabay are released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.
Looking for something you can use on a desktop instead?
Designing on your phone can be tough, especially since WordSwag doesn’t do layers like the more sophisticated imaging programs out there. For bloggers looking to up their graphics game with a desktop or browser app, here are some suggestions:
- Canva (free, browser-based)
- Pixlr Editor (free, browser-based – requires Flash 10+)
- GIMP (free, installed – has a learning curve)
- Photoshop (monthly subscription, installed – pro-level tool with a ton of free community resources for learning)
I am a HUGE fan of cloud-based platforms and services. That might be because I’m a Google girl—Google does pretty much everything in their cloud—and I’ve learned my lesson one too many times about not backing things up. But even aside from the back-up safety, cloud-hosted apps allow you to quickly and easily move between devices and ecosystems (like Mac to Windows, smartphone to desktop browser).
Note-taking plays a huge role in my ability to put together coherent, relevant book reviews. My go-to note program is Evernote.
Evernote has an Android and iOS app, installable programs for both Windows and Mac, and a web-based interface you can access from any browser. I’ve been using it what feels like forever (at least several years now), and I haven’t found any other tool that gives me the flexibility and dependability that Evernote does.
Why do I love Evernote? Here are a few highlights:
- Easy-access app I can switch in and out of on my phone while reading a book. It makes reading a book for review and simultaneously writing review notes for that book a seamless process.
- The ability to sort notes into folders for organization and to give them labels for easy finding later. I may read and write notes about a review book today and not post that review for weeks or months. Labels and folders help me easily manage my notes backlog.
- Cloud-based platform. Meaning I can write review notes on my phone in the bathtub at night (I know I’m not the only one! 😉 ), then get up in the morning and find that same note on my computer. Editing between the two is smooth. AND, if I find myself without internet or device access, I can always log into my account on Evernote.com from a public computer. You don’t need to download anything at all to use this (although, realistically, the web experience is much clunkier than the mobile apps and desktop versions). It also saves obsessively (and gives you access to the revision history!) and handles conflicts between notes edited on different devices beautifully, so you’ll almost never lose any work!
- It’s FREE! I actually pay for an upgraded account, but that’s because I used it in my old day job so I could switch between my personal and work accounts without signing in and out. Projecting my screen at a business meeting and having a review note show up (where I talk about how sexy the firefighter hero is) would probably be bad. You don’t need the extra functionality of a paid account if you use it for basic things like review notes.
- It integrates with everything I need and use. I use a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 (the model before the one that explodes), and I freaking LOVE my phone. Never underestimate the convenience of an embedded stylus! The phone lets me literally write on the screen in a snap, and when I save that note, it downloads right into Evernote for me to manage later. So nice for on-the-go notes and self-reminders of things. Evernote also has a Chrome browser extension that lets me clip articles, emails, and images into a specific folder in my Evernote archive. Basically, Evernote organizes my life. =)
Now I do have a few beefs with Evernote (the company shows a clear bias toward the Apple ecosystem—which, as a Windows/Android user, I find very annoying—yet their Windows desktop version has better usability. Super frustrating since I use a Macbook as my main PC), but not enough to override the sheer convenience and easy access of the Evernote program. I also don’t use any of the peripherals or gadgets Evernote sells separately (see my complaint above about them being too Apple-focused).
I’d give you other suggestions for notes apps, but honestly this is the only one I’ve used since I switched from my leather-bound journal in 2011. So I don’t really even know what else is out there. And I don’t care. I like (and trust) Evernote that much.
Schedule your shout-outs
One of the most exhausting parts of book blogging—for me, anyway—is managing social media. In last week’s Book Blogging 101 post on The Basics, I went into some detail about why you need to be promoting yourself and your content on social media. Today, I’ll show you some online tools that can make your life a little easier and help you manage the chaos.
I’ve tried several social media planning platforms—both paid and free—and there are a few that stand out. The social media tool I currently use is Sprout Social. Sprout is not free (I pay $59 per month), and the cost may not be worth it for bloggers who are strictly casual (scroll down for free options).
That said, here’s why I like it:
- I can manage all the social platforms I use in one place. Sprout supports Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram*, and Google+ and it lets you log into more than one account on each (although each account does take up one of your slots). I can even retweet/share, like, and save mentions and other articles without having to visit the actual sites. Super handy for making sure you responded to all the people who mentioned you across multiple networks.
- The robust reporting dashboard helps me monitor my growth and success. And, let’s face it, if you’re paying for a social media management tool, growth across your channels is something you should be monitoring!
- The publishing dashboard is easy on the eyes and simple to use. I love the graphical grid calendar layout and how I can turn social channels on and off from the view.
- The “queue” system helps you evergreen your old content, although it’s not a hands-off tool like MeetEdgar (which I used before Sprout). Queuing is where you schedule things to post that don’t have a specific time or date on them. Instead, they line up in the queue and go out whenever your next available slot is.
- Be aware that the Sprout Q does not allow scheduling to infinity (make things auto-repeat). Their system encourages you to groom and curate your evergreen content rather than just vomit it out into the void on a perma-loop. While it’s less convenient than MeetEdgar’s infinity system, there is value in not pinging the same people with the same tweets every week or month or whatever until the end of time. Those people will eventually just ignore you. =)
- Tagging, or @mentioning, people is ESSENTIAL when you preschedule content. And Sprout is (surprisingly) one of the few social media management platforms who offers it as a base service. I don’t understand why this function is not a core service in EVERY SINGLE TOOL (for example: MeetEdgar, who charges $49 per month, talks about how important tagging is, yet their service doesn’t include it, not even as an add-on. I…don’t get it). In Sprout’s Publishing dashboard, I can write a tweet and type @[somebody’s user name] and link that account as a “mention” directly into the tweet. When the tweet goes live, that person gets a tag telling them I mentioned them. This is essential because if I didn’t tag that author/publisher/blogger that I’m praising, how will they ever know? It’s a lost networking opportunity.**
If you’re still with me—I know that was a TON of information!—then Sprout is either too complex or too expensive for you and you’re probably looking for alternatives. Here are some other social media management tools I’ve tried and generally liked:
- PostPlanner (Free! Great for boosting your Facebook engagement numbers): PostPlanner offers suggested quotes, images, and content you can share and put your own spin on. Very useful for bloggers who want to engage their FB followers but have no idea what to talk about.
- HootSuite (Free! Great for casual bloggers who want to schedule social media, *high five!* but don’t want to pay through the nose for it): Not the slickest interface, and the little user popups in their @mention system can be difficult to read sometimes, but it gets the job done and has some interesting monitoring options. I used HootSuite until I switched to paid tools.
- CoSchedule (Paid. Excellent for single-site WP bloggers): Didn’t work for me because I have two WP sites and need more sharing management flexibility. DOES allow @mention tagging. They do have an evergreening system, called ReQueue, but it costs you an extra $30 per month (which brings the lowest package to $60/mo). I recommend following CoSchedule’s blog posts. They send out a lot of great info and tips. This platform integrates beautifully with WordPress self-hosted.
- AgoraPulse (Paid. Ideal for teams of publicists or bloggers): Some of the features in AgoraPulse lend themselves more heavily to team and enterprise use, so it didn’t fit my specific needs, but I did like it overall and it was my tied-for-second-place option (with CoSchedule, after Sprout at #1) for paid services.
- Note: One thing that was a breaking point for me with AgoraPulse was that their login process depends on Facebook. You cannot log in without a Facebook account. It also means that if you are part of an organization or team that uses it, you have to link your personal Facebook account with your professional team. Then there’s another layer of complication if you want to use Agora personally as well as part of your pro team. HUGE turn off for me. I don’t share my FB info with my colleagues unless *I* choose to.
- MeetEdgar (Paid): I actually don’t recommend using MeetEdgar until they add @mentioning as a core functionality. But it’s worth listing the service here because they do excel at other things, like effortless evergreening and a nice user interface. But—yet another downside—MeetEdgar only works with Facebook, Twitter, & LinkedIn. No Insta*, no Google+.
*No platform will (currently) allow you to fully automate an Instagram post. The ones that support Instagram allow you to set up the post info (image, comment, date and time you want to post), and then sends you a reminder ping (text or email) you can follow to manually push the post to Instagram.
** No external tool will allow you to tag from a personal Facebook account (only a page account), nor can you tag a personal account from a page account. Meaning if GraveTells schedules a FB post that mentions an author on FB who only uses a personal account (no page), I can’t actually tag them with Sprout or Agora or any other social media scheduler. It also means that if I’m posting from my personal account on FB, I can’t tag ANYONE—that functionality is reserved for Page accounts. This is a limitation Facebook imposes on the third-party interface, so no service will be able to offer the extent of flexibility that FB itself does. This was super annoying to me until I found out why. Figured it was worth passing on. 🙂
Until I do a new write-up about my favorite blogging tools, here’s a list of a few more I’ve been trying out:
- Paperless Post: I’m currently checking out this online e-vite service. I’m loving the Flyers product (if you’re one of my VIP active subscribers, you just got an exclusive giveaway opportunity using one of these!), but without a physical location to invite people to, I’m not yet sure how ideal this one will be. Definitely check it out for yourself, and I’ll highlight this service in my next Blogger Tools update!
These are open to US & international readers! Leave a comment on today’s post, then fill out the prize widgets below to enter to win these fantastic prizes! Not sure what to chat about? Here are a few prompts to get you started…
- Do you have any must-use plugins? Favorite WP theme creators?
- What graphics tools do you use? Any fun recommendations?
- Got a fave note-taking program? Lemme hear about it! (Even if you’re not a blogger!)
- How do YOU social? Do you schedule your social media? Do you have a favorite tool?
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