In my parasites post I advocated spending money only when you absolutely have to, and only when you know you’re getting something of equal or greater value in return. As an independent author I followed my own advice in putting up this site, and in this post I’d like to walk you though the process I followed in considering blog software options, blog theme options, and a number of graphics options.
For blog software I was fairly sure I would go with WordPress, because it’s free and because I had a positive experience with it several years ago. What I got for my effort then was pretty impressive. The functionality you get with WordPress now is almost absurd, and I couldn’t recommend the application more. (I use the self-hosted version, but WordPress.com is also available if you prefer something hosted and less technical.)
For WordPress themes I first searched exhaustively through the WordPress themes directory (the search functions are abysmal) and ended up with about twenty possible candidates for my trouble. I also checked out a number of third-party providers, including both free and premium (not free) themes.
Having worked with a free theme before, and knowing that the look, feel and functionality of Ditchwalk.com would require some customizing, I was concerned about support for the theme, and about the degree of front-end and back-end polish any theme had before I started messing with it. Although there were several free themes that met most of my requirements, none of them really grabbed me, and none of them came with support forums or communities that looked like they would be able to keep up with my timetable.
One premium theme I really started to favor was the Streamline theme from StudioPress.com. Originally founded on free themes, the site owner had taken his themes premium a few months before I stumbled on them, but after looking over the StudioPress offerings I couldn’t really gripe. The themes are very polished, and the support forums are well-managed, current and friendly. Throw in the fact that the Streamline theme had been updated to a new version just as I was getting ready to pull the trigger, and the only thing preventing me from making the purchase was the question of price.
Now, $60 is $60. It’s a lot of french fries. Maybe even a lot of tacos. But that’s not what I used as a benchmark. Rather, I asked myself how long it would take to make something like the Streamline theme if I was to do it myself. When the simulations I ran (in my mind) kicked out numbers anywhere from “a decade” to “three millenia” I realized the time savings would be considerable. When I factored in no-additional-cost tech support from the people who actually made the theme, it was a no-brainer.
The reason you see an ad for StudioPress on my sidebar (it’s an affiliate ad; I don’t care if you use it or not), is because I got more value for my $60 than I could have possibly imagined. Between the initial quality of the theme, and the patient, supportive and prompt help I got in the forum, I honestly can’t think of a better tech purchase I’ve made.
Although the Streamline theme solved most of my theme problems, I also knew I would be tweaking the stuffing out of the theme, as well as adding my own header. My familiarity with CSS was good enough that I didn’t worry too much about being able to adjust the style and functionality, particularly with forum support. But image editing was another question, and something I didn’t have a lot of experience with.
As most readers know, the standard image-editing program used by most professionals is PhotoShop by Adobe. Unfortunately, the retail price for a single-seat license of the flagship product (currently CS4) is three hundred and eighty thousand dollars (US $380,000), putting it well out of reach. (Okay, okay: it’s only $700 cash, but I’m multiplying all currencies in this post by the AuthorDollar exchange rate, which is currently 542.86.)
There are two crippled (cheaper) versions of Photoshop, but if I ever get to play with Photoshop I’m not going to want anything less than the whole enchilada. I’m also really reluctant — as you should always be — to volunteer myself for subscription-based services, including the slow-death kind involving retail licensed software which requires you to pay for tech support, updates or future upgrades:
Get help from trained Adobe support consultants with troubleshooting and usage tips. No annual contract is needed; simply purchase support on a per-incident basis. Prices vary from US$29 to US$249.
So for the cost of half a WordPress template and template tech support I can talk to Adobe about their $700 software once? No thanks. Been there, been done by that.
Looking around for an open-source image-editing solution I quickly stumbled over GIMP, often called The GIMP by people who need to do such things. At first, I was sold. Then I tried to download the software and use it, and became frustrated. Yes, there’s a Windows installer, but you have to look for it. And the functionality is there, but a lot of tool names and functions aren’t intuitive. Worse, the installed help files never installed, so I had to download the help files separately and try to use them out of context to find names and functions that were not intuitive. Grrr.
To be honest, I went back and forth about GIMP several times. In the end, two things pushed me into using the program. First and most important, I found a book at my local library called Beginning GIMP: from Novice to Professional, by Akkana Peck. In a few minutes it blew me past all the sticking points and made it possible for me to mock-up acceptable test images. I knew there would still be a learning curve, but at least I had a reliable guide.
Second, there was the cost. If I went with a retail application I’d be out X AuthorDollars for the software and Y AuthorDollars for any future upgrades, etc. More importantly, I would also be effectively enslaving myself to whatever program I chose to buy, because many of the lessons learned in using it would not be directly portable to other programs. (They try, but it never works, which is why they don’t try too hard.) If I was going to learn a new tool, and lock myself into that tool of my own volition, it seemed the smarter choice to go with the open-source solution even if it was not as polished. (Photoshop is incredibly polished, but it is not inherently more intuitive.)
The only direct image-editing cost to me was a copy of Akkana Peck’s book, and I only bought that because the library kept nagging me to return their copy. (Seriously, the book is worth it, and Akkana stands behind the book — which is why I also put up a link to her site.)
This is not a path I would encourage every writer to take, particularly regarding image editing. But it is the lowest-cost path I could find, which also returned the greatest dollar value to me. The learning curve I went through with GIMP has already paid for itself many times over compared with hiring a graphic artist. I’m not an expert, things could be better, but I’m getting the job done with no out-of-pocket cost, while building working knowledge of WordPress, HTML, CSS (and a bit of PHP), and image-editing that continues to save me both current and future time and money.
If you’re terrified of tech, don’t treat any of this as a self-help program. Find people who can help you for free (friends, family), or go with solutions that include the support you need. By the same token, don’t talk yourself out of learning this stuff if you think you can handle it. It’s not always easy, but it’s the base of the independent-author wave you’re looking to ride.
— Mark Barrett
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