Science fiction, fantasy, & horror - web design, graphic design, interactive media development by greententacles

Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror - Web Design, Graphic Design, Interactive Media Development by Greententacles 2019-04-20 GMT

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Nuketown After the Redesign

~ by Kenneth J. Newquist (February 2001) ~


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It began on a lark.

Nuketown's first edition in June of 1996 was an experiment in web design, an attempt to put my newfound web-design skills to the test. I threw one of my short stories on the page, and posted a note saying I'd run other peoples stories if they sent them in.

Imagine my surprise when someone actually sent in a story.

In the months and years that followed, Nuketown grew in haphazard spasms, usually driven by my own need to learn some new web technology. The site's seen a half-dozen redesigns over its life, but by its fourth year, it was clear that it was time for the zine to start growing with a purpose. The site needed a focus and it needed a professional look. In short, it needed a focused redesign.

And along came GreenTentacles.

Enter the Tentacle Nathan Lilly and I founded GreenTentacles on the premise that speculative fiction businesses should be treated as businesses, and we'd start with an overhaul and redesign of Nuketown.

When GreenTentacles began working on the site in March 2000, Nuketown had a staff of two: myself, and Nathan, who had recently begun to serve (and continues to serve) as art director. As we began the redesign we took a step back, whipped off our Nuketown hats, and started looking at the site from a GreenTentacles perspective.

On the plus side, Nuketown had:

a clean, fast loading design a good reputation in the zine community a 3-1/2 year publishing record (not an insignificant accomplishment for small zines) a dedicated, but greatly-overworked staff a loyal, established reader base

On the negative side:

the site's design may have done its job well, but it didn't have the same professional look as its big brothers, like scifi.com the staff was not large enough to perform the necessary work in a timely fashion the technology used to maintain functions like the mailing list was horribly out of date the site did not have a focused mission the site did not have a distinctive brand to reinforce its unfocused message the zine did not pay its authors

In order to move Nuketown into the so-called "semi-pro" ranks, the zine needed to deal with its negatives. But first, we needed to determine exactly what the positives were. For that, we decided to run the site's first-ever Readers Survey, which collected demographic information about the site's readers, while finding out exactly what those readers wanted.

At the same time we surveyed Nuketown's market, and found that it was up against an impressive array of competitors. On the high-end were professional web sites like SCIFI.COM and Mothership.com, both of which offered similar content on a more frequent basis, with a more professional look. On the low-end there were new zines that had just launched, and while they're sites tended to be very basic, and they did not have the advantage of Nuketown's history, they too offered similar content. And then there were the site's like Nuketown, the ones that had been around for a few years, had a decent following and, yet again, had similar content.

We decided that:

Nuketown needed to reinforce its fledgling brand focusing on more specialized areas of the speculative fiction market. Needed to expand its content and begin paying for it. Needed to expand its staff. Needed a more professional, high-end look to it.

The first three items required me, as Nuketown's editor, to reign in its often chaotic content, and to focus on specific areas. I decided to focus its fiction content on heroic science fiction, fantasy and horror tales with a pro-technology, pro-capitalism edge. This is a niche that few, if any, in the speculative fiction webzine market have pursued.

As for the non-fiction side, I combined the Readers Survey to enhance and expand our offerings. Our coverage of other webzines had gotten very high reviews in the survey, so I decided Nuketown would be more aggressive in covering the "little guy" -- small zines, publishers, and web sites that were normally missed by the larger publications. This too is an often over-looked niche on the Web, and combined with the new fiction focus, would serve to delineate Nuketown from the competition.

With the type of content decided upon, we debated expanding that content, eventually adding two new sections: the Underground, for role-playing games, and the Writer's Block, a section offering advice for new writers. Both areas reinforced Nuketown's core values, and would allow us to attract new readers. This was especially true of the Underground, which did not score exceedingly well in our survey, but was an area we knew would bring in a different-yet-complimentary type of reader.

Mindful of the GreenTentacles suggestions, I also put out a call for editorial help to my readers. The answer was a resounding yes, and by June of that year Nuketown's staff had increased to more than eight people. In addition, I began budgeting money to pay for Nuketown's fiction content.

With these ideas in mind, and with our GreenTentacles hats firmly in place, we began looking at how to reinforce Nuketown's brand based on its mission statement, and the objectives that we'd lined out.

When deciding on what look would best reinforce Nuketown's brand, we kicked around several ideas:

Cyber-punk: Definitely sci-fi, but too dark for Nuketown's subject matter Chrome and steel: Futuristic, but overdone on other sites Retro: We seriously considered going with a retro 1940s/1950s scifi look -- the era does reflect many of Nuketown's core beliefs -- but we wanted something more modern

Ultimately, we hit upon the idea of using the nuclear motif -- not one with bombs and missiles, but one with actual atoms -- specifically a lithium atom. The atom could represent all of Nuketown's values, from its pro-technology stance to its focus on the very small.

And it looked cool too.

By the time GreenTentacles was finished, Nuketown formally re-launched in September 2000, these features had been added:

A $10-per-story fiction rate The "Underground" section for role-playing games The "Writers Block" section for new writers Chat software A seven-member editorial staff An automated newsletter A new, far more professional look and feel

Radiation-induced growth Since its redesign, Nuketown has seen a tremendous surge in traffic. In the spring of 2000 Nuketown was averaging about 250 to 300 visits a day and about 8,000 visits a month As of December 2000, the site is averaging 500 to 600 visits a day, and 16,000 a month. In addition, the newsletter mailing list grew from 250 to 300 subscribers.

Most of the growth can be directly attributed to the GreenTentacles redesign and recommendations. This is not to say that the webzine would not have continued to grow if the redesign hadn't happened -- Nuketown's seen steady growth since the day it began -- but it would not have seen the stellar growth.

Payment for short fiction, the expansion of Nuketown's editorial staff, and the narrowing our focus to heroic fiction, greatly increased the number and quality of fiction submissions to the webzine. These increases in turn have helped fuel Nuketown's growth as authors became vocal advocates for the site.

As a direct result of Nuketown's focus on "the little guy", we've seen in increase in the number of review copies sent into our zine, and we've had several readers -- and reviewers -- compliment us on our diverse content.

The Hoaxes section, a hold over from the old version of the site, has continued to be a consistent hit, and Nuketown's editor has been quoted in newspapers in America and Canada, and it is linked to extensively on other hoax sites. This, coupled with readers' tendency to forward the zine's address around the net as a debunking resource, has insured the section's ongoing growth. The News section - with it's Zine Scene feature that recaps webzine news from around the web - is still extremely popular, and undoubtedly helped fuel the mailing lists growth.

But the growth from April 2000 to December 2000 is almost a doubling of traffic, and we feel that's a direct result of Nuketown's redesign. Since the redesign we've received a lot of positive feedback from readers (as well as a few complaints which were quickly addressed). When we've talked with readers during Nuketown's now-regular chats, they've consistently commented on how professional the site looks, and how easy it is to navigate.

Matrix, the bimonthly newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association, had this to say about the redesigned site:

"Nuketown is pretty splendidly presented with a clear, attractive and user-friendly interface. I get the impression that fiction offerings are taken pretty seriously -- especially as the first listing on the index page is The Library..."

-- Glenda Pringle, in her Pulpitations column

Another review in the Strange Horizons webzine complimented Nuketown's "feel" and had this to say:

"If you want to keep tabs on what's happening in webzine world, Nuketown is another good place to go. I like Nuketown particularly because it preserves the feel of a print 'zine very nicely in electronic format. Updated monthly, it includes an eclectic mix of stories, editorials, reviews of fiction, films, comics, and role-playing games, and a valuable and interesting news section, which provides regular updates on the contents of many other webzines, as well as brief science pieces and libertarian political news. It's an excellent brief compendium of the webzine scene, and its archives stretching back to 1996, are a fabulous resource."

-- Christopher Cobb, "Speculative Surfing: A visit to Science-Fiction and Fantasy Webzines" http://www.strangehorizons.com

Nuketown may have been launched on a lark, but over the last few years it has grown into something far more permanent. Since GreenTentacles has begun working with Nuketown, Nuketown has grown in number of visitors, number of submissions, and number of staff members. Nuketown has grown from a one-person show to a staff of eight. With the increase of staff and the sharing of the editorial tasks for the increased submissions the site has taken on a new life. In the future, Nuketown will continue to grow and expand, just like your favorite, mutated, radioactive spider...


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