Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What The French?! or Why I haven't been posting much

This is not about photography, but it explains why I've been doing fewer posts this year. When Apple announced the iAuthor program for developing iBooks for iPad (that's a lot of "i"s) and launched the textbook section of the iBookstore back in January, I decided to write a French grammar review textbook that would cover everything from your first course in High School through at least four semesters of college French—but with attitude you don't get from the typical textbook. 

I've written for textbooks before (when I was desperate for the money) and I've written a distance-learning French literature course that got a national award, but I pretty much hate the textbook industry. My oldest son starts his freshman year of college next week and most of his textbooks cost more than a gorgeous multi-volume Steidl set of photobooks, which makes absolutely no sense. 

So I teamed up with Andrew Livingston (a grad student in linguistics and author of the daily web comic CrustaceanSingles.com) and we have spent the past 8 months writing What The French?! It just went on sale on the iBookstore today (for only $9.99).

I'm kind of annoyed that Apple listed it under "language reference" (where it will be buried amid tons of books)  instead of "textbook" (where it would have been one of two French textbooks), but maybe our un-textbook-like approach contributed to that problem. Anyway, we're not trying to get schools to adopt us as their textbook; we want the students to adopt us as the perfect way to undermine the annoying $200 textbook that they are forced to use. You can buy the book on iTunes (for iPad only right now) or learn more at our site, whatthefrench.com.

So that's what I've been up to. If you have any friends who are taking (or want to brush up on) French, spread the word. I'm obviously biased, but I think it pretty great. I promise to have a photo-related post soon. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

My review of the new Smugmug

A screen shot of my new Smugmug homepage

I'm glad I was too lazy to switch to Zenfolio, because the new Smugmug has most of the features I was hoping for. I'm happy enough, in fact, that I'm shamelessly linking with a referral link just in case somebody out there decides to join (it gets you a discount and me some credit). But don't take the referral link as bias—I recently dumped all affiliates on my site. 

My number one complaint about the old Smugmug was the look. Well, the look and the sudden major price hike with no new features. But after nearly a year, they finally launched a huge overhaul. When I first learned about the price hike on Smugmug, I decided that the ideal way to offset costs would be to dump my web hosting for my regular photography site and customize Smugmug (which previously I had only used for proofing and orders). In other words, merge it all into one. So I went about trying to customize the site. I had planned to do a post about it, but I was never satisfied with the results and the post would have been nothing but a string of swear words. If you had a lot of expertise on code and/or were patient enough to comb through all of the various forum posts looking for weird workarounds, you could eventually get something that looked pretty good.

Now, you just have to choose a template and tweak it as much or as little as you want. You can change templates at any time. Or, if you're good at web design, you can go crazy and customize all you like. Here's a screenshot of a few of the templates:

See the one with the snowboarding dude? That's the first one I chose. I had swapped out the background photo, put in a logo, added my own menu, and set up galleries in less than an hour. It was amazingly easy. And as long as you don't click "unveil," other people don't get to see the mess you're making of your site.

Once I had it set up, I decided that I was tired of full screen templates (even though—or maybe because— I have used one for years). It looks good for wedding photography, but my priorities have changed. I just want something clean and functional that works really well on tablets and phones (i.e. a "responsive" site).  So I took the "Octavia" template, changed to square, fairly large thumbnails on the home page (each of which takes you to the corresponding gallery where you can buy prints). I adjusted the spacing, selected photos, etc. I added a link directly to the abc paris galleries, and just checked a box that let me include the hover-over menu you see in the screen shot below (normally, I hate those, so it's the only one I put on the site).

The "buy art prints" menu item goes to all of the other galleries (and I'm still working on populating them). Here's the fairly no-frills (by choice, you can go crazy on your own site if so inclined) page with the galleries (I plan on getting rid of the label "Galleries.")

One of the great things about the mostly intuitive new templates is that you can tweak an existing template and then save it as your own theme. You can build up different themes and easily switch whenever you please. The only confusing part about switching was that when I clicked "done," it would revert to the first theme I chose. It drove me crazy. Finally, I broke my vow to not bother the poor customer service people (and in case you didn't know, Smugmug pretty much has the best customer service ever. true.) and of course, they solved my problem.

In case it happens to you: there's "done" there's "publish now," "publish later," and then there's "unveil." I was clicking "done" and then "publish later" because I didn't want the site to go live. Turns out, you need to click "done" and then "publish now." It doesn't go live until you hit "unveil." Problem solved.

The old smugmug galleries drove me crazy because:
1. I just didn't like the look
2. They did not help sell prints at all. The "add to cart" button was really hard to find. It did nothing to entice customers.

Problem 1 is solved by giving you seven gallery style choices. You just choose which one you like from a pull-down menu:

There's plain old "journal" style (sort of a basic tumblr-esque scrolling of photos):

Or, maybe collage is more your thing:
(partial screenshot)
You can do horizontal or vertical collage styles, with or without captions.

Or maybe thumbnails (which you can adjust in various ways):

Problem 2—the "add to cart" button is only partially solved, in my opinion. This is one area where I think Smugmug could still use improvement. On the "journal" style (look at the pink umbrella shot above) you see "add to cart" underneath every photo. With the other styles, it's less visible. If you're trying to sell prints, you want to remind people that those pretty photos are not only nice to pin, they're also for sale. For that reason, I chose the rather plain Jane looking "journal" style.

There are still a lot of things I want to do to customize my site—including, finally, dumping my old host and porting my .com over to smugmug—but I'm impulsive, so I couldn't wait to "unveil" the new version.

There are also other big improvements (in managing content especially) that I won't go over in this post. For now, I just wanted to report on the positive experience I've had. I was pissed at Smugmug when they had their price hike. I wanted to switch out of spite, but the alternatives were just as expensive and didn't have the labs I like to use. Also, I have never been happier with customer service than with Smugmug. Now that they've done something big, I feel great about sticking with them.

And in case I didn't sound like enough of an infomercial already, here's my last shameless plug to sign up using my referral link

Anyone else out there have a similar experience? Or a negative one? Maybe you switched and are happy you did? Maybe you're having regrets? Let me know.