The Writing Blogger’s Dilemma

I had a vision of sorts this week, a minor epiphany in which I perceived our hyperconnected community as a vast cloud of flocking birds, wheeling and carving through the sky in near-unison, a collective entity in which each individual’s motion and vector is both a contributor to and a function of the whole. Amusingly, this understanding came while using Twitter.

As individual writer-bloggers, we influence and learn the most from our immediate friends and neighbors on social media and in the blogosphere. And through our collective writings and readings an emerging wisdom on various subjects of common interest seems to be cohering. I see both benefits and dangers in this.

The advantages are clear: information is quickly shared, giving us the tools to adapt to a rapidly-changing craft environment. This information includes everything from writing tips and techniques to new markets, emerging subgenres, publishing scams, and the latest marketing techniques. Being up-to-date or even ahead of the curve in any of these areas is a desirable thing.

The downside to this group dynamic is of course that the individual is subsumed. In writing, reinforcement of the same few ‘rules’ can and does lead to dogma and rigidity, the result of which is a flattening-out of individual style and technique and an increasingly formulaic quality to the resulting manuscripts. I’ve been seeing this for a while, and I believe it’s getting worse: you will be assimilated. The same of course applies to markets, creating boom-and-bust cycles (I predict Zombie Romance will not be red-hot in five years, and that even YA and MG will lose their pre-eminence).

Marketing and self-promotion are an area of primary interest to writer-bloggers, and one where we would do well to question and scrutinize the emerging wisdom. One of the reasons—the primary one for many people—that we blog and strive for a high profile in social media is that we’re told that by enhancing our visibility this will help us promote our work. This is the received wisdom, the flock’s collective judgment, so it must be right, mustn’t it?

Well, no. Ask yourself who reads your blogs and your tweets, who interacts with you on Facebook. Beyond friends and family, I’d bet money that it’s mostly other writers.

Now this does have a value. We writers all need the support of and interaction with other similarly afflicted individuals to keep up our spirits and retain our sometimes tenuous grip on sanity. But how many of these people are going to buy our books, or talk about them? I think there is some effect, but far, far less than we think. Are the four or six or more hours we spend each week blogging about technique and talking about our work on social media going to pay off in sales? Is the three-part, forty-five hundred-word series I recently did on Trad v Self Publishing (and thanks to all of you who wrote to me about it!) going to sell my next book?

Not according to the research. The smart money seems increasingly to point at reader word-of-mouth as the single factor of real significance in promoting a writer’s work and increasing their sales. Not blogs, not Facebook, not Twitter, not sponsored ads, not marketing campaigns, not book giveaways and signings, not even reviews: word of mouth, it seems, trumps all of these. And word of mouth will be directly proportionate, I believe, to the quality of our work.

I’m not for a moment suggesting we should all stop blogging right away or close our Facebook and Twitter accounts. For one thing, these all have a social purpose; for another, everything we write—with the possible exclusion of shopping lists—serves to improve our craft; blogging, I’d argue, serves a very valuable purpose in helping us learn to frame and set out our ideas and arguments.

Should we writers then try to steer our blog and social media focus towards items of interest to our readers, actual and potential, so that we can attract more of them and that way extend our marketing reach? Well, good luck on that one. We’re not Kim Kardashian or Keanu Reeves, and fiction readers don’t typically idolize authors to the extent of following their utterances on social media and reading their daily ruminations.

In conclusion, then, I’ll keep blogging and maintain my social media presence, but with the awareness that I do so not for self-promotion but to maintain social contacts, exchange ideas, and give something back to a community of writers which has often been generous towards me; and of course for the sheer fun and banter. But if I find myself with just one spare hour in my day… well, that hour is probably better spent working on the next book.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Writing Blogger’s Dilemma

  1. However much I agree that writers (self-published authors in particular) should focus more on attracting readers than chatting with other writers, blogs are rarely the ideal tool to attract readers. I believe it’s important to have material on our blogs that could be interesting to readers who come there after reading our books, but trying to focus the entire blog on that would be useless. Our fiction is for readers, our blogs are a way to keep the gears spinning and to engage with our peers — which is very valuable. 🙂

    Thanks for an interesting post, Dario.

    • Welcome, Vero, and thanks so much for commenting. While I have a good idea what will interest other writers, readers are far more of a questionmark, aren’t they? Especially if one’s not strictly tied to a particular category or genre. I really like your metaphor of spinning gears: in writing a blog post, I work out my ideas in a way and to a degree I might not normally, and so get insights into my own attitudes, beliefs, motivations. Blogging is great practice for organizing ideas and directing them to conclusions (not sure how effectively I do that. LOL) But blogging as a marketing tool? Nah.

      Readers might want to visit Vero’s own fine blog–it’s well worth your time!

  2. Dario, I’ve been meaning to reply to this blog which came to my email awhile back. I love the image of us bloggers being a flock of birds wheeling about in the sky.

    I write about what I’m thinking about, and sometimes that gets hits and readers. I sometimes wonder how to get more hits and readers, and I’ve developed a lot of theories about this question over the years.

    It’s very hard to write something on demand that will automatically attract readers. One of my essays has gotten about 50,000 hits, and it’s a total accident. It’s about which science fiction books are famous among non science fiction readers. My other popular posts have all been reviews of tech products. This is due to the nature of the web and Google. If you write about a topic that people are searching on you’ll get hits, but it doesn’t mean they will read the page.

    If you write general essays, it will get hits only from word of mouth, which usually means your friends on Facebook. I have discovered that WordPress gives some blogs brief exposure on their home page, Lately, whenever I do a new post, I’ll get a few strangers liking it – if it has a catchy title and image. Last night’s post has gotten 51 hits. I don’t know how many people read it though.

    On very rare occasions I’ve written something that gets spread around and linked, like on SF Signal or io9. And that piece will get several hundred hits.

    In other words, most of my non-friend readers are accidental.

    Now here’s what I dream about. I’d like to write essays that are so beautiful that people will pass them on because of their quality, and people will keep passing them on until the hits snowball into big numbers. I’m using hits as a measure of writing success. It’s not how it really works, but it’s the only validation we have, other than selling an essay or story.

    Because this hasn’t happened makes me think I’m not writing well enough to make it happen. That makes me want to try harder. I could blame the system for my failure, but I don’t think that’s true. I believe I’m an okay blog writer, but not good enough to stand out. And that’s the crux of this matter. How do we write something that stands out?

    If last night’s essay had been better written maybe it would have gotten more than 51 hits by now. But how good a writer do I have to be to get 1,000 hits? Or 10,000? Or 100,000?

    And is it really the quality of writing, or the topic? If you write about a tech topic, person, concept before other people write about it, and just as the key phrases hits the population, you can get a lot of hits just using the right key words. But I’m not interested in that.

    Then we come to the subject of our essays. Is there anything we can say that hasn’t been said before. Probably 50,000 bloggers wrote about the Obama/Romney debates. How do you stand out? Unless you can write the wittiest, most insightful piece on the Internet, why even bother?

    Now that brings me back to why I really write. I write to express my thoughts. It’s for me. It’s therapeutic. Blogging is like piano practice for writing. I’m just trying to put thoughts together in a clear way that makes sense.

    My blog has average 200-400 hits a day for years. That’s how interesting I am. It amazes me that some people can get 50,000 hits a day. I often wonder what I could write about to average 800 hits a day.

    By the way, if you write on a very specialized topic, you can get more hits. My Classics of Science Fiction site gets 200-1200 hits a day. But that’s because it’s a one trick pony that people search Google every day to read about.

    • Jim, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You make some fine points, and 200-400 hits a day isn’t insignificant by a long chalk, certainly no ‘failure’.

      Your blog is always interesting, thoughtful, full of humanity and often spiced with a noble twist of melancholy. Your writing is polished and direct. I don’t think it’s much to do with good writing (though I strive for that), but, as you say, to with the topic, the trending zeitgeist of the web, and the level of signal boost. Since I joined Twitter a few weeks ago I find that my posts, though they may not get more hits on the day of posting, have more ‘legs’ as they get occasionally picked up and retweeted. And 200-400 would be a great day for me LOL, but then I’ve only been blogging since March; I average 70-80, and 120 is a great day.

      People have so much to read on the web. Every day I wake up and check FB and my Twitter feed and it’s like finding a 2-foot stack of magazines on the doorstep. I’m honoured that anyone makes the time to read my words wehn tehre’s so much else out there.

      I agree blogging is great writing exercise. Organizing information is mental gymnastics. You do it beautifully, man. That’s why I linked to you on my blogroll. Check it out, people: AUXILIARY MEMORY .

  3. Those are my thoughts exactly. And it is something I’ve noticed with many writers–a tendency to focus on topics that are of interest to other writers, but not of any particular interest to their readers. I think it’s created a fantastic online community, but I’ve never been convinced of its effectiveness as a marketing tool.

    • Orion, yes. I was wondering as I wrote that post… although we all freely share our craft tips, if one of us writing bloggers were to suddenly discover some amazingly powerful way of marketing our work, would we share that on a blog? LOL. I’m not convinced I would. Still, we can be generous about our craft. It’s a dialogue, a campfire we gather around to keep that hungry insecurity that stalks us all at bay.

      Thinking more on it, there’s probably some small promotional spin-off in blogging in that anyone going the trad pub route will doubtless be googled by prospective agents and editors (bear that in mind, people, and think about what you’re committing the the web LOL); and a well-frequented and informative, even authoritative blog, going back a while will likely go some way to enhancing one’s image. As we Italians say, “tutto fa brodo” (it all makes [goes into the] broth).

      • If I came up with a brilliant new marketing technique, I’d absolutely share it. After testing it thoroughly on my own work, of course. To make sure it really, really worked. That would be the responsible thing to do, right? 😉

      • LOL! Oh, absolutely! I’d never let anyone risk harm something I hadn’t exhaustively tested and researched on my own work first. Five years ought to do it, IMO?

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