Writers of the Future winner and successful science fiction short story author (Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, etc.) Brad Torgersen recently brought up a useful question in a writers’ group: what use is a blog to a writer of fiction? Even if you manage to attract a lot of readers, are they people who are likely to be interested in your stories or novels? Is the payoff worth the effort? My response from my experience with the two blogs (ReidWrite and The Willpower Engine) that I merged together into LucReid.com some time back turned out to be fairly long and potentially of interest to some readers, so here, with a little cleanup, is that response.
An experiment in blog as marketing
Several years back I began two blogs, one for writers and the other on the psychology of habits. I started the writing blog because I often found I had things to say about writing that I was drawing from my experiences and from discussions with a large number of other new and successful writers. The psychology of habits blog was designed to build up a reputation and readership for me on the subject: in publishing-speak, to establish my platform. I was writing a book on the subject of psychological finds about self-motivation and had concluded that I wouldn’t be able to sell it without a good platform, which is really the case for most nonfiction books these days. If you don’t have credentials or a lot of people who associate you with the topic–and preferably both–then you’re probably out of luck.
For quite some time I worked on the psychology of habits blog, posting first three times a week on a regular schedule, then every weekday. I worked up a brand, promoted it around the Web, commented on other people’s sites, and in general did everything I read I was supposed to in order to build my readership. Over the course of a year, my blog grew (slowly) to the level of readership I thought was minimal for helping me sell the book I’d been working on, so after that year was up, I started contacting agents about the book.
Nobody was interested.
The main reason I couldn’t sell the book seemed to be that I had no credentials–no advanced degree in psychology, especially–and that a blog with a thousand reads a week (this was about 18 months ago) wasn’t substantial enough for anyone in publishing to really care.
So despite a load of work, the blog-as-marketing approach ultimately failed for me. Still, I continued the blog. The topic has never failed to keep me interested.
Is your blog a pleasure or an obligation?
Posting regularly felt like a huge obligation and time drain, even when I cut back down to three posts a week. It was only when I decided to combine my two blogs, to rebrand the site to just use my name, and to post only when I had something I really wanted to share that things changed and it stopped feeling oppressive.
I now blog when I have something to say, although I do prod myself if it’s been a week and I haven’t posted anything. The blog does a lot of good in helping me structure research and integration of new ideas, and from the occasional communications I get it’s sometimes meaningfully helpful in other people’s lives. However, though it’s continued to grow in readership, it has never become a base for community: it’s more of an information outlet. It’s a good place to find out how to get motivated quickly, how to figure out if someone’s romantically interested in you, or how to stop feeling hungry, but I talk very little about my personal life or even about my adventures in writing, and try to stick to facts or extrapolate from facts, tending to qualify my statements (like this one), so I’m neither very personally engaging nor very inflammatory. It shows up in my comment counts: more often than not, I don’t get any, and yet a goodly number of people are reading what I’m putting out. I’m informative, but I’m not building community here.
By contrast, I’ve been extremely successful building a community of talented, improvement-oriented writers at Codexwriters.com, but rather than trying to do that based on the impact of my personality, I’ve done it by pulling together groups of writers who are dedicated to their craft and want to share ideas with and learn from other writers who are similarly dedicated. All you have to do to throw a good party is to get great people to come.
Who should have a blog?
My belief about blogs is that they should generally be expressions of things that the blogger really wants to share. Sure, there may be a cost-benefit calculation to determine whether or not to spend time on a particular post or on having a blog at all, but I’m not enthusiastic or optimistic about blogs that are put up primarily as marketing vehicles. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that ethically; it’s just it’s a lot of work to plow into something that’s unlikely to pay off proportionately.
I agree too with those who say that the golden age of blog-starting is over. With the literally millions of blogs out there, there’s too much noise to really stand out in the vast majority of cases. Like writing fiction in the first place, there’s not much point in doing it unless it’s something you love doing for its own sake.
On Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the social computing world
For the record, I don’t think that social computing is an effective marketing strategy either. I see people rushing to socially compute with people who are already successful: they’ll seek out Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of authors they already like, while lesser-known writers who are scrambling for attention may get a lot of personal contacts, but won’t be building their readership. I admit, though, that I’m working from personal experience and impressions of other people’s experiences, not from any carefully-gathered body of information. It’s possible that using social networking as an author can be a great marketing strategy for some people: I’ve just never seen (or heard of) it working.
As for blogs, I think the bottom line is that they are more writing that will take time away from writing fiction, and so they are worth doing only if they’re something you really want to do or would be doing in some form anyway. It’s enthusiasm for the ideas I write about and interest in spreading those ideas that keeps me writing on this blog. What keeps you writing yours?